(Tapout: From left, Punkass, SkySkrape, and Mask. Photo courtesy of Tracy Lee.)
The "Tapout" brand is synonymous with mixed martial arts. Venture to any MMA event and you'll see the Tapout logo emblazoned on any number of fighter shorts inside the cage and T-shirts in the stands. Go to a WEC or a UFC show or other smaller shows and you just might see the costumed crew sitting somewhere near the cage.
And, for good reason -- the Tapout crew, consisting of Mask, Punkass, and SkySkrape (no, that's not a misspelling), has been on the scene since the early days of the UFC. Their clothing and gear could very well be considered the granddaddy of MMA apparel. Since its humble beginnings, the company has blossomed. Along with a successful clothing line, the crew now has a TV show on Versus, a magazine, and other projects in the works.
I had the opportunity to interview all three members of the crew on February 13 by phone. The three were in a Las Vegas hotel room at the time, having just returned from a day at the MAGIC convention, a fashion clothing expose. If you've watched the Tapout TV show, you know the guys don't take themselves too seriously and have fun with their work. You can also tell that the three are good friends. And, this was quite evident during the interview. Mask and SkySkrape cracked jokes while Punkass was allegedly texting during the interview. There were enjoyable interruptions during which the three tried to hatch a plan to cover up for all the f-bombs they'd been dropping. (Thankfully, I wield the power of "[expletive deleted]"). And, there were humorous stories including the crew's propensity for getting lost despite the advice of the female voice in their GPS navigation.
But the crew did find time to be serious and to talk a little about where their company has been and where it's going. What follows are some of the highlights of a conversation that spanned about 40 fun-filled minutes.
I read that Mask started Tapout in '93 selling shirts out of the trunk of his car.
How did Punkass and SkySkrape come on board?
Mask: Punkass ... I needed protection when I was out there in my car so Punkass always carried loaded guns (laughing). [I needed] Punkass to hang out with me and SkySkrape was just a fast runner so while Punkass would be shooting I'd throw the stuff to SkySkrape because he could get it out of there, away from the cops.
SkySkrape: I'm like a [expletive deleted] gazelle bro ... really fast.
Mask: He just jumps over bridges ... just with one leap.
OK, anyway. Now, I'm going to give you a B story to that (laughing).
Punkass has been my best friend [for] 17 years. After about a year, year-and-a-half, he kept hitting me up, saw what I was doing and digging it and wanted to get involved. And, at the time, man, I was way worse [of a] control freak than I've learned to be. And, I just wanted to do everything solo. I wanted to be by myself, do it myself, my own vision.
But with him being so close to me and being such a good friend and honestly knowing him that good, I knew, "Man, I need help, I'm running out of money." There's still always the things that we've adopted so good now which is I always was a team player although I was trying to be a solo artist. ...
Later -- a couple of years later down the line -- as we started doing shows, by then everything I had [was] repossessed bro. By the time I brought Punkass on, [I was] actually living out of the car and on couch to couch. Punkass was basically working three jobs and supporting me and supporting the [expletive deleted] company.
So, I would end up going to these shows, the kid in the neighborhood – crazy ass in the neighborhood – happened to be my boy SkySkrape and he said, "Hey man, I dig all those UFC fights. I'll help you. I'll help you get down." So, he started helping me and so it would be Punkass was working and taking care of the shipping -- because we were online -- and he was working supporting me and supporting Tapout financially and SkySkrape was carrying everything I told him to carry to the show. I'm just kidding. SkySkrape was helping me sell at the shows and helping me go search out fighters.
SkySkrape: I really tried to steal something from Mask and I said, "Hey man, I'll work for you, but just don't beat me up."
How did each of you become interested in MMA?
Mask: I saw the first UFC in '93 on pay-per-view. I was doing something and a buddy of mine taped it and knew I was into martial arts and fighting and said, "You gotta come see this [expletive deleted] ... basically there's no rules ..." I went and saw that, thought it was crazy that a little skinny kid, little Brazilian kid, was beating all ... the fighting styles that I loved and he was doing it with some jiu-jitsu. I was like, "This [expletive deleted] is cheating." 'Cause he was taking people down on the ground and choking them.
Well, I went straight from there and went over to where Punkass was working the next day [and] told him about it. Within three weeks of seeing the first Ultimate Fighting champion in UFC, Punkass and I had found where Royce Gracie was teaching at the Gracie schools about an hour away from where we were living at the time and we were up there doing privates [lessons]. It was instantaneous.
Punkass: We basically started training right after the first UFC. We were going down there two, three times a week driving an hour there, hour back to go do this training and still trying to -- I had a job at the time and so did [Mask]. So, we were both working our jobs, trying to train, and we just fell in love with the sport. Actually, Mask was one of Royce's training partners for UFC 5 when he was training for his next fight. So, we were down there a lot for that because he was having to get some extra time to work out with Royce because he was about Royce's size -- he was closer to Royce's size for the training.
We met a lot of people and we networked a lot with the right people and it later helped with what we were doing in Tapout, in the business.
In your own words how would you describe your own job titles?
SkySkrape: Mine is simple bro. All I do is clean toilets and mop floors. That's all I do. My job title is janitor.
Mask: And, Punkass yells at him all the time, makes sure [to tell him] he misses a spot here, misses a spot there.
SkySkrape: [Punkass] doesn't yell it though. He texts it to me. He doesn't say anything. He texts it to me.
Punkass: Well, I would say we do have our own things that we do. That's kind of why this relationship works so well for us, because when you have a company you don't want three people doing the same thing. I think we each do our own thing; we complement each other. There's some overlap there. We'll help each other out. When we were doing this business with only three of us and no financing pretty much when we started out -- we were financing our own capital -- we had to kind of wear a lot of hats, where we were doing a bunch of different type of things. Mask was maybe designing clothes but he was also dealing with fighters and I was dealing with fighters and handling the shipping and lots of the financing and the business. And, 'Skrape was handling fighters and helping out with the shipping and some of the business.
We had some overlap, but for the most part we complemented each other because we were doing our own things: Mask was 100 percent handling the design and the focus of what Tapout was going to be and my control was going to be in the business aspect and I think 'Skrape was really good at taking up where we had some slack. He was coming in handling any of the things that we were leaving out or not able to handle at the time.
SkySkrape: They didn't like to clean, bro ...
What's your favorite thing now about being involved with Tapout?
Mask: Yeah I love being able to have an extension, of being involved in something that creatively is its own monster. I like to think of musical terms – if you've seen the show you see that I like to think a lot about Jimi Hendrix and people that weren't as scared to go out there and take chances creatively. I feel hopefully that we are doing that with the clothing company. Obviously myself and 'Skrape are a lot more flamboyant where Punkass is real hardcore. I hope I've infused that into the clothing and the mixed martial arts world and blend fashion with fighting.
But, my favorite, man, is in doing the show I hope somebody somewhere, some kid in a Midwestern town, Oklahoma, or down South, or West Coast, or North – somewhere gets motivated to take a chance and believe in whatever it is that they want to do in life, like we've believed for the last ten years what we wanted to do and the impact we wanted to make.
I'd like to say on top of that, we believed in a sport that nobody believed in and [have] become an extension of it and now we're going and finding the fighters that maybe haven't been found and believing in them and helping them get to the top shows and being a backbone to the sport.
We don't [have] to be front men, we don't [have] to be quarterback or number one fullback, or wide receiver. If we can just be water boys to the UFC, the WEC, to the fight world -- hey, everybody needs that water boy. You come in off a hard play, you're looking for that water. And, if we can just be an extension of touching someone's life and maybe they laugh at me and 'Skrape acting silly or dig the way Punkass handles himself or maybe got encouraged by ... seeing us take chances ... that's my favorite part.
Punkass: You know people say, "Living the dream" and that's kind of what we're doing. It's the American dream. We believed in something, we believed we could do it, we put our money where our mouth is. We didn't have much money to put up. We put our time, our money, and our beliefs and put it all on the line and made it. We're kind of an American success story. And then, we get paid to now go out and travel and help people and do this television show and watch fights. I couldn't think of a better job to have. So, that's what turns me on every day and makes me get up every day.
SkySkrape: People say, "When you love what you do, it's not work." We bust our ass, we work hard, but to us it's really not work. We love doing it. We have fun. We're all best friends. So, that's how we can get on Punkass and joke with him and ... play hard with him ... he doesn't get mad because he knows we're joking with him. ... And, then helping the sport. We all love this sport and we like acting stupid and just bringing a laugh to it. The sport is such a tough-guy sport but we like to have fun and make it a little more exciting. ...
How did you come up with your Tapout names and personas?
Punkass: I think it was just an extension of our personalities. In a weird way, if you really know us, if you've hung out with us day to day, everything that we do or how we look is just an extension of each of our personalities.
Mask: And, understand the fact that SkySkrape is 6-9 so that's a pretty obvious one.
What was the pivotal moment for your company, when you knew you guys had something big and that you were on the road to success?
Mask: Back in November '97, if you get what I'm saying. I knew when it started, bro. You ask Walt Disney, when did he believe in Disney Land; ask the Wright brothers when did they believe they were going to fly; ask Jimi Hendrix even though he never took lessons when did he think he could play guitar? Bro, it's always 100 percent known. There's nothing else to be said. And, I can tell you its going to be so much bigger. TapouT's going to touch, change lives, be a part of the sport, and live long after we've come and gone.
A big issue right now is how much fighters get paid. Can you roughly break down how you pay fighters?
Mask: We can't say exactly what we pay the fighters. If you have a B-level fighter, an A-level fighter, or C-level, or Triple-A that's going to be all different. But, you have guys like Chuck Liddell who drives a Ferrari or a Porsche, [who has] two and three homes, so he's not making $1.59 and eating a Taco Bell. They're making good money. The UFC's paying big, big money. We can at least say that they're paying at least half a million for their top fighters because they've already said that.
Based on companies like us, based on where we're at, it depends on the level fighter and the level of exposure and what the contract says. It's all different amounts.
Punkass: I would say that comparatively – I've looked at some of the other sports that are out there – and especially like the extreme sports I would say our industry is paying better than a lot of the extreme sports, unless you're talking about the very, very top guys. But, for the most part, our sport is paying comparatively better than the extreme sports market. I don't think we've quite touched some of the guys that are playing some of the professional sports but we're definitely close. We're right there. I mean specifically baseball or basketball.
Do your sponsorship deals reach six figures, seven figures? Can you give a number like that?
Mask: Aaaah. Nice try. That was good. I like that. That's like when I tell a girl, "Wait, what's that over there?" and unbutton her belt buckle.
SkySkrape: Let's just say everybody can go get a big-sized drink now. ... You know when you used to go to a fast food place and you'd order, "Can I get a water?" and they'd give you a water cup and you'd put Coke in it? Well, now they can actually go order Coke and pay for a Coke.
The MMA apparel market is becoming crowded with new companies forming all the time. What's your attitude about this growth and who do you think is your biggest competitor?
Mask: Biggest competitor? Nike. Reebok. I don't really pay attention to who else is out there doing whatever they're doing because somebody has to be numbers three, four, and five and nobody's going to be number two because we're doing it so well we're taking up the one and two spot. I don't care who else comes in and does whatever they're going to do because I'm just focused. My boy here Punkass is focused, SkySkrape is focused. We want to do something new, we want to do something different and if twenty other people want to play guitar, that's cool. We're just going to play ours our own way.
Affliction is a pretty big name (in MMA clothing). What do you think of them?
Mask: I don't think of them.
Punkass: Affliction's nothing, bro. They're their own market. That's fine. Let them do what they're going [to do]. They're not us. They don't do what we do. They can't do what we do. They're not going to make gear or clothing like we make clothing. They can't expand into some of the markets we can go in. It's just apples and oranges pretty much. I think they basically capitalized on the fact that they can sponsor in the UFC -- maybe they knew some people or something -- but from what I hear they've gone a different direction and they're not sponsoring fighters in the UFC anymore. It doesn't really matter anyways.
Some of the rumors related to why you don't see their sponsorship logo [at UFC events] is that they might be getting into promoting events or starting their own league. Has there been any thought on your guys' part in terms of starting your own league since you know so many fighters and you're so deep in the industry?
Mask: Never ever. We support the UFC and the WEC and any other mixed martial arts [league] that wants to do their promotion. We're just here to be an extension and help the sport grow. We're not a fight league. We're not doing that. We do clothing. We find fighters. We help people achieve their dreams. That's Tapout.
Punkass: We sponsor what is the biggest show and the most popular show out there right now -– the WEC and UFC. We're big sponsors of those shows. We have a commitment with the UFC to be the official clothing of the UFC and also the WEC. And, we're sponsoring the upcoming season of [The] Ultimate Fighter so that's where we want to place our sponsorship money. We're not trying to do our own shows. We're not trying to recreate the wheel. There's already successful companies out there doing it. Just let them do it. We're going to concentrate on our own goals.
Outside of your magazine and your TV show and your clothing line, what can we [expect to] see from Tapout in the months or years to come?
Mask: We signed with Creative Artist Agency, which is huge, and the deal's going through right now. I'm going to be designing and doing a Tapout comic book with SkySkrape, Punkass, and Mask in it and some other things so that will probably be pretty bitchin'. I know we've got energy drinks coming at us. We just want to be an extension of the sport and the name Tapout is always going to mean fighting but Punkass is really excited about the comic book deal we have coming because that's like a little bit of fantasy and a little bit of dreaming right there. We can blur reality with unreality -- it's always kind of cool.
Punkass: In the future, we're going to expand into a lot of categories like Mask was talking about, between the comic books and energy drinks and our gear line expanding. Expanding categories is a big thing for us because Tapout can attach our name to a lot of products that we feel like represent our customer and it's going to sell those products. We want the brand to live on and I think the way to do that is to become more than just a T-shirt company. And, that's by attaching ourselves to products that can live on forever. And, keep us core or real careful to protect the brand and to only attach ourselves to products that we feel can relate to our customer.
About your show on Versus, what sort of creative input do you have with the show?
Mask: It's all dictated by what we do. They haven't said, "Do this" yet ... Everything you see us do, when the cameras stop rolling we continue doing. Nothing's different. All the direction that Pilgrim Films gets to have is tell us what's our call time, so we know be down there twelve noon because none of us get up earlier than that anyway and then, they just start filming bro. That's it. We find the fighters, we pick the [fight] shows, we irritate Punkass, Punkass drives and gets us there on time -- and he can drive good while he's texting as you'll see next season.
How have you been able to maintain the mom-and-pop feel [with your company] while also becoming so successful?
Mask: This is something I noticed back in Boston. This is coming from my heart. We got through filming one day and just think of this for a second. We had a long day. They were filming basically in five days what we normally get two weeks to do. Long, hard days man. It's freezing cold. It's three hours difference. We're from California -- we're on the East Coast [in] Boston. It's snowing. Punkass is driving in the snow and rain. Everything is really intense and we're really trying to do very well for the company and for Zuffa having faith in us and for ourselves.
At the end of one long, hard day I became aware -- because Punkass and SkySkrape are my best friends -- I became aware that at the end of our hard day when we were completely done, we were like, "OK, now what are we going to do?" Now, let me tell you this again! We had just been together all day, man, and filming, acting stupid, on each other's nerves! And, at the end of the day, we were like, "Hey, where do you guys want to go eat?" We still wanted to hang out.
So, bro, it's just my boys with some cameras following us. We're just going to do what we do until the damn thing gets done because we're doing it. ...
A cool thing on your site is that your motto is "Bad for the sport." I'm assuming that's tongue-in-cheek. Explain why you came up with that as your motto.
Punkass: We see on the forums sometimes – we don't really pay attention too much but ... "Hey man, check on the forums, they're talking [expletive deleted] about Tapout on the forums because you guys are wearing makeup and [expletive deleted] and running around with Afros" and they think we're just playing games .
Our whole attitude is those [expletive deleted] don't know us. They're working at McDonald's and typing [expletive deleted] – you know, keyboard warriors – talking [expletive deleted] on the [expletive deleted] Internet. They're calling us bad for the sport and we just embraced it. You want to call us bad for the sport then [expletive deleted] call us bad for the sport. We don't give a [expletive deleted].
Let our actions speak louder than words. We're out there putting our money back into the fighters. We're out there supporting the shows. We're out there supporting the fighters. I'd give my shirt off my back for any of our fighters. We've put up our fighters and given them money we didn't even have. I bounced checks just so we could pay fighters because we said we were going to pay a fighter. We just put our money where our mouth is.
They can talk [expletive deleted] if they want. That's on them. We're comfortable. I can wake up every day knowing we're doing everything we can to help people and help this sport grow. So, it's basically just us embracing their [expletive deleted].
"Here for you to hate" is one of our other mottoes that Mask came up with during that -- [expletive deleted] them for not knowing about [TapoutTapout] ...