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Former Bellator matchmaker Sam Caplan: 'We were good for the sport'

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Former Bellator matchmaker Sam Caplan talks to BloodyElbow about various subjects, detailing his entry into MMA, his opinions on current topics, and where he's at now.

When Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney parted ways with the company, various other members of his team ended up on the outside of the organization as well. It was all part of the normal process to make way for the new set of employees and personnel that would run the organization. Key among those departures was matchmaker Sam Caplan.

He was very gracious with his time to give BloodyElbow.com an exclusive interview, in which he touched on various topics, including his time running FiveOuncesOfPain.com, how he got his big break, his time working for what became the #2 organization in MMA, and what came after.

Victor Rodriguez: So, how did you start in MMA? Did you start managing first, or did you start training first?

Sam Caplan: I started training first, I was into martial arts at first. I started doing a form of Kung Fu in 2001, and on the side I was bouncing at night at a local concert venue here in Philadelphia and a lot of the guys that I was working with, they started out in traditional martial arts but they were kind of mocking the fact that I was doing Kung Fu. A lot of them were doing more contemporary forms of martial arts, you know - MMA, Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, etc. So after kind of being hassled by them for a while, I decided to make the switch and started training at a place called Daddis Fight Camp, and I was kind of crazy at first, I thought I could make a go of it as a fighter, and I learned pretty quick that I just did not have the skills to function at that level, but I loved being involved in sport, I had a passion for it. And I was kind of encouraged "hey, it's great that you want to be involved with it - but you are a sports writer, why don't you try to find other ways to be involved outside of the cage as opposed to being involved inside of it?"

VR: You managed to have a few smokers, were they amateur bouts?

SC: Yeah, I had like four smokers in the span of my first year of training. It really wasn't advisable, I really fudged my training experience because I wanted to get in there as soon as possible. I really had no clue what I was doing, but I was so new to it, I didn't know what I didn't know. But I did another one in 2012 just for the fun of it, and it actually went pretty well. At that point - I'm in my mid 30s now, it didn't make sense to go back at the time and kind of pursue anything.

VR: OK, so you started as a writer and then you moved into management?

SC: First thing I did after training - and I was still training for a while - but I started to write. I started my own website called fiveouncesofpain.com, and through my other sports writing I had my contacts at CBSSports.com, so I started writing for them a couple of months after starting fiveouncesofpain.com. And just from there, everything kind of grew organically. I started to build up a really strong network of contacts, and people liked me well enough that I started getting offered other opportunities while I was doing fiveouncesofpain.com and CBSSports.com I had a chance to write for FIGHT! Magazine, I got to know Mauro Ranallo pretty well. He got me in as one of his research writers at Showtime, so I was working with him and some of the other announcers, helping them prep for their shows. Then eventually I was given a role helping them during the shows as well. I was allowed to help out with some of the scripts, so it kind of manifested and grew. It was a lot of work and I had a family to support at the time, so I made the transition to start to get involved with managing and matchmaking because it was going to be more lucrative. When you're a writer in MMA, it's a lot of work, and not always the best pay, so I felt there would be some more lucrative opportunities and some ways to be even more influential in the shaping of the sport.

VR: You're mostly known not just for fiveouncesofpain.com, but for being the matchmaker at Bellator. How did you get from being a writer and manager?

SC: Yeah, through writing, I had also met Jerry Millen. Jerry was working with M-1, he was basically their U.S. president/vice-president. I had been working for both Showtime and ProElite and when EliteXC went belly-up, both of those gigs went south and I called Jerry up, I asked "is there anything I can do for you, that I can do for M-1? you know, what's going on?" And he said "Hang tight, there might be something. Let me see what I can do. I'll see if I can fit you in." About a couple of days later he calls me and I was allowed to join M-1 basically as their U.S. PR rep. I was able to travel to all the events, got to meet Fedor and not only be behind the scenes for the M-1 shows, but also for the Affliction shows that Fedor fought on. While I was working for M-1, I met a guy by the name of Joe Kelly, he was the founding owner of Titan FC. We became friends and I told Joe, "Hey, I have aspirations. I have goals, I have things I want to do in this sport". He was the only guy that didn't kind of laugh at me when I told him I wanted to matchmake. Joe kind of incorporated me into a lot of the operational aspects of some of the shows. We had both wrapped up with M-1 around the same time, we kind of put our focus into Titan and he gave me the opportunity to become a minority owner in the promotion but we both felt that the business model for just being a regional promotion didn't make sense. We were pretty friendly with Monte Cox and I felt that his business model of managing fighters and also promoting them through his shows, that was a very financially sustainable business model.

A lot of regional promotions, you look at their business models and they're just not financially sustainable and they go belly-up. So Joe and I said "Hey, let's start a management company andhave a vested interest in the guys that we're promoting in our promotion". My name was getting out there and sure enough, Bellator had made a change with their matchmaker. (Former matchmaker) Matt Stanzel had departed the company, I got a call from Bjorn Rebney and he wanted me to come interview. In December of 2009 I went out to Chicago to interview with him and Tim Danaher.

VR: You had a lot of ups and downs during your time in Bellator, with modest beginnings an organization like that reached a lot of success. A lot of people think of Bellator, and maybe this is recency bias, but a lot of people tend to focus on a lot of the negatives that took place during the Bjorn Rebney regime - but to focus on the positive, what were some of the more positive things for you? What were some of the most rewarding experiences that you had while you were working there?

SC: I think that if I could put my finger on one thing - because there were so many different things that I think we did that were positive for the industry, that I felt were good for the sport - but the biggest thing was it was another platform that gave people and personnel and fighters opportunities to work in this industry, get exposure and get compensated to do something they enjoy. For me, it was my dream to be a matchmaker for a major national promotion. Happened way sooner than I had ever anticipated, but it happened thanks to Bjorn and his vision that was an opportunity that was afforded to me. There were a lot of fighters that we signed that I felt never would have made it to the next level of their career had we not come along, because a lot of fighters at the regional level, even if they're performing well, the opportunities aren't necessarily there, and they get frustrated, and they have family concerns and pressures to kind of withdraw from the sport and put more time into things that can pay the bills.

There's been a lot of great fighters that you've never heard from because they retired too soon. And Bellator gave a lot of those guys that normally would have gotten frustrated and walked away an opportunity to compete on a regular basis. I mean, you look at (Michael) Mike Chandler, he wasn't fighting that often when he was with Strikeforce. I think he fought maybe two times in twelve months? I was at both of his fights in person, I saw both of them. And then when he came to Bellator, that was the big selling point. He told us "I need to be more active. I'm young, when I wrestled I used to compete every weekend multiple times. I wanna fight, I wanna get my record built up."

We were in a position doing weekly shows to give a guy like that 4-5 fights early into his career and build him up. I just felt that Bellator was a good launching ground and employed a lot of people in various capacities.

VR: Well, I do want to ask, what is your - not necessarily a regret - what are the things that you wish you could have accomplished in Bellator, any heights that you may not have reached? Any objectives that you perhaps may not have gotten to that maybe given a bit more time you would have gotten around to?

SC: I wish that I had been permitted to communicate more with the media. Especially in an off-the-record capacity. I think there was an ownership there of our news and information that senior management clung heavily onto and they didn't utilize those resources and I think that's why Bellator got a lot of negative press. I don't think that we worked the media in an off-the-record capacity the right way, and you know, that's something I picked up on just being an Eagles fan right here in Philadelphia with Chip Kelly. Chip Kelly was apparently not a nice guy to a lot of people behind the scenes. Wasn't accessible, didn't put himself out there, wasn't willing to talk to reporters and let them do their jobs properly and when you don't play ball with the media, the media's not gonna play ball with you.

Having come from the media side, I felt like I could have definitely helped us out in our public perception with the way the media was presenting us at times had I been able to communicate with the media. I wasn't allowed to do that, so we were just completely hands off. I didn't talk to anyone. I would get a lot of texts from reporters, really pointed questions and I wouldn't even answer them off the record because I didn't want to lie to anyone but if I told the truth and that made it out there and it was reported, a finger was going to be pointed at me in the following days. But had we been able to kinda communicate with the media off the record, given some more stories and been a bit more helpful in helping people do their jobs a little better, I think we would have created a lot more good will, and the public perception would have been a little bit better. I think we didn't represent ourselves well behind the scenes at times, and we made some enemies. Some very key, influential enemies.

VR: Well, now I have to ask you something perhaps not as positive; it has to do with the current state of MMA. What are the elements you see today that you're most disappointed in?

SC: I think that there's too much negative news. I remember getting involved - because I started watching it in '93 - but there was a lot of negative aspects, the fights would be declared illegal, they'd go away, a TV contract would be here, they'd go on PPV, then the PPV goes away... But then in 2004 with the advent of The Ultimate Fighter, it was just a positive growth, just a bunch of positive momentum and a lot of things were happening. Guys like BJ Penn were coming back to the UFC, Ken Shamrock came out of retirement, new stars were being created, we were seeing some big fights on cable TV. And it was an explosive period of growth. I feel like now - I can't really think... what's the last big positive development that we heard about in the last 12 months that got you excited about MMA, that made you feel great to be a part of it? These days it's all about lawsuits and PED testing and sponsors being taken away from fighters and fighters not being able to sustain a living. A lot of guys retiring early due to concussions, or not being able to support themselves financially through fighting. So it's just - I would say it's a dark period for MMA. I don't think the sport is growing at this moment. I'm not saying things can't change in a hurry, I feel that outside of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, if they weren't headlining pay-per-views, that the sport would be in a little bit of trouble.

VR: And you did have seminars for people that wanted to be involved as agents or managers for fighters and I've been seeing that there's been some positive feedback on that and without giving too much away, are there any points you can give out as far as topics that you touch on? What do you stress when you talk to these people?

SC: Man, that seminar that I did a few years back, that was an all-day seminar. The big thing was, level of professionalism. The true definition of being a professional, which in my mind is - you know, anyone can act professional and act cool when everyone's being nice to them and just being on the level with them. The true mark of a professional is to be able to maintain professional conduct in the face of unprofessionalism. I told the managers that were there that day: "you're gonna face a lot of unprofessionalism in this industry. you're gonna see some crazy stuff." I told them, in MMA dysfunctionality is functionality. What is functional in other walks of life, so you're gonna see a lot of crazy things, and if you stoop to the level of people that are trying to bring you down, then you're not going to be much better than they are. But if you turn the other cheek, take the high road, you're gonna be really be respected and be able to achieve things that a lot of people in this industry can't.

People that can maintain their composure in this industry and not give in to some of the immaturity that's out there, I think they're definitely going to separate themselves from the pack because everyone's going for the same goal in this industry. So many people want to make a full time living in MMA but there's only so many spots available. You've gotta do things to distinguish yourself from everyone else.

VR: That's kind of funny, because you're looking at a sport that was born out of counterculture. It's kind of to be expected. So, it's a good thing. That's probably more important than most people realize. Now, you also offer a lot of advice to younger up and coming fighters - guys that want to make it to major organizations, particularly the UFC. One of the things you're very big on is "stay in shape, stay close to your fight weight year-round" because the likeliest way that you're going to get into the UFC is if you're a late replacement. It seems to be something that they're doing these days. Recently Valentina Shevchenko made her way into the UFC. It was curious, because as one of our writers - Zane Simon - noted, the UFC had not signed a female bantamweight in over a year. The last time they'd done so was Marion Reneau, who I believe was also a late replacement. So, what other advice do you give younger fighters when they come to you for any sort of guidance?

SC: You know now I basically tell them "protect your moneymaker", and that's your body. Guys that go in there and they spar 3-4 days out of the week... they're gonna burn themselves out. They're gonna get concussions, their bodies are gonna break down. You've gotta protect yourself for the long haul, only spar one time per week. Doing a proper diet. Training smart, you know? Training hard is not as big and important as some people think, it's more important to train smart. There's a lot of fighters that don't train smart these days. There are guys that don't train enough and then you get guys that train too much.

Be careful with your money. You're gonna have to pay taxes and deductions, so make sure you don't have another million deductions coming out of your paycheck, because not only can you find yourself fighting for free - you could actually end up losing money on your fights. I saw a lot of guys at Bellator come in and they'd have these massive deductions because they'd buy flights for them and their family and extra hotel rooms and at first we did it. We'd see guys walk away with basically nothing out of their checks and I just told our CFO and senior management "we're not doing this anymore". Because, we think we're helping the fighters, but in reality when they see their check at the end of the day, the accounting as time goes on, and they don't realize what the cost of all their decisions are until the fight is over they're walking away mad at us. So we decided we're not doing anymore of these deductions and people that wanted extra people to come out - extra cornermen, etc - that they would have to pay for that out of their own pocket because we wanted them to know just exactly how much they were getting from us and have to deal with the consequences of cost on their own dime.

VR: Finally, you have what I find to be one of my absolute favorite combat sports podcasts, the one that you do with Jason Floyd, MMA Insiders. You also have your own website where you do consumer reviews, CaplanConsumer.com. Tell us a little more about that.

SC: You know, right now in addition to doing the podcast I have some clients for CombatSportsMedia.net, it's a consulting firm I have. My main focus right now is outside of MMA. I do sales training for multiple companies right now and one of the companies that I was working for I came into contact with a lot of consumer products. I was able to bring them home and try them out and help the company find specific strategies on how to get their salespeople to sell those items. In my research, I decided to repurpose a lot of those notes and put out reviews on CaplanConsumer.com. I haven't done a review in a long time because I've been been busy with other things and to take the product home and actually do the review takes time and then to write the article... but it's out there. There's actually multiple products I've reviewed that actually may be of benefit to fighters. I did a review on an air fryer, a lot of guys, that's the big thing when they go into training camp. If they're heavy into fried foods, they grew up eating fried foods it's tough for them to give that up and an air fryer is a much healthier version. So that's something I put out there, a lot of fighters responded to that. Hopefully in the next couple of months I'll have some time to do some more reviews, but it's been crazy lately, so I don't know.