Bankers Enter ‘Dungeon of Pain’ to Cut Stress in Ultimate Fight
(Bloomberg) -- A black eye or row of stitches may grace John Cholish’s face when he meets with wealth-management clients at Merrill Lynch & Co.
Those injuries occur after Cholish, 26, leaves his midtown Manhattan office and heads for the gym. He spends a couple of hours most evenings at the Renzo Gracie Academy on West 30th Street, kicking, throwing punches and tackling opponents, as they train to compete in mixed martial arts.
“We get a lot of finance guys,” said Max McGarr, the gym’s program director and a professional fighter. “It’s a good release from their job. If you lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s good to come here and get it out.”
Mixed martial arts is a contact sport combining aspects of wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, grappling, ground fighting, muay thai and other techniques, Cholish said.
“It’s a great stress reliever,” said Richard Byrne, chief executive officer of Deutsche Bank Securities, who practices jiu-jitsu and sparring at Renzo with Cholish and other professional fighters. “Talk about a great way to get aggression out, and it’s an unbelievable workout.”
Ultimate Fighting Championship has been the primary driver of the sport’s popularity, promoting and staging fights around the world during the past eight years, said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a consulting firm in Chicago. Gate receipts at the UFC 100 in Las Vegas in July were $5.1 million, according to information handouts provided by the company. Tickets sold for $100 to $1,000, and competitors were paid $5,000 to $400,000.
Cholish and his roommate, Erik Owings, also a professional fighter, converted the top level of their duplex apartment on the Upper East Side into a gym, where Byrne sometimes brings Wall Street colleagues to work out.
“It’s the dungeon of pain,” said Brian Peganoff, an assistant vice president in corporate cash management at Deutsche Bank. Peganoff, 27, learned tae kwon do as a child and started boxing as a workout while attending Pennsylvania State University in University Park. He began jiu-jitsu about two years ago.
“People on Wall Street are pretty competitive and I think that carries over,” Peganoff said. “That’s the ultimate competition, putting two people in a cage and seeing who is the better guy.”
Byrne, 48, didn’t know a lot about UFC when Frank Fertitta and Lorenzo Fertitta bought it in 2001. They’re chief executive officer and vice chairman, respectively, of Las Vegas-based Station Casinos Inc., which is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. First at Merrill Lynch and later at Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank, Byrne worked with the brothers on financing deals and they set him up for lessons in muay thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Fighting and Financing
“I got hooked,” said Byrne, who is based in New York. Deutsche Bank arranged a $350 million financing in 2007 and a $100 million loan last year for Zuffa LLC, the parent company of UFC that the Fertittas formed in 2001.
In a UFC competition, two fighters square off by weight class. A regular bout has three rounds of five minutes, while a championship fight goes five rounds. There are eight ways to win, including a knockout or judges’ decision. The rules vary for fights sponsored by other groups.
Fighters are allowed to use moves from any martial arts discipline inside UFC’s eight-sided rings. Moves disallowed by the Nevada Athletic Commission include butting heads, gouging eyes and groin attacks. Fighters wear a mouthpiece and gloves, but no helmet or shin guards.
Paying ‘Top Dollar’
“They have been generating gates that have broken records around the country,” Sportscorp’s Ganis said. “People are interested. When it is in town, they pay top dollar, they watch it on TV, they follow the lives of the contenders.”
Closely held Zuffa doesn’t disclose its earnings.
Cholish wrestled on the nationally ranked team of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He began training five days a week shortly after he graduated and moved to New York City.
“I got more involved in jiu-jitsu and fell in love with it,” Cholish said. “Before I knew it, I was fighting professionally.”
He has a 2-1 record after winning Dec. 12 in Quebec City with a technical knockout in the second round. At least four clients were in the audience for his first victory, in December 2008 at the Battle of the Nation’s Capital in Washington. Mixed- martial-arts competitors typically fight only a few times a year, and his next bout is Feb. 19 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Kevin Burns, who trains the commercial business sales force at Wells Fargo & Co. in Des Moines, Iowa, started fighting professionally in 2006. He has an 8-4 record after losing Dec. 12 at the UFC 107 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Correlating to Finance
“I think the people in finance that are interested in the MMA understand the strategy and the preparation,” said Burns, 29, who’s scheduled to fight again March 13 in Des Moines. “They can correlate it to all of the moving parts in finance.”
Some fighters have diversified to mainstream entertainment. Chuck Liddell competed on ABC television’s “Dancing with the Stars.” Reigning welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre appeared in PepsiCo Inc. print advertisements for Gatorade. “The Ultimate Fighter,” a mixed-martial-arts reality show starting its 11th season on the Spike TV cable network March 31, offers the winner a contract with UFC.
Ramon Bauza, 44, head of foreign exchange debt capital market sales at Deutsche Bank in New York, was a wrestler at Boston College and trains with Byrne and Cholish. The finance industry is an aggressive culture that leads toward physically challenging sports, Bauza said.
“It’s a recession,” said McGarr, the program director at Renzo. “Some days, fighting is the only thing holding them together.”