Ken Pavia sets the record straight
This is number fifty-seven in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature MMA power broker, Ken Pavia. Sometimes referred to as “The Pav,” Pavia created an alter-ego to help him find success as an agent in the wild world of MMA. Though he has also created some controversy along the way, Pavia has had an undeniable part in MMA’s growth, both here in the U.S. and abroad. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: Back in 1993, when you were just 27 years old, the UFC was born. What was your awareness of the promotion, and the larger sport of NHB/MMA, during those early years?
Ken Pavia: In 1993, I was a struggling young sports agent, two years out of law school, taking his lumps with a boutique baseball and hockey agency. Prior to UFC 1, I had no awareness that the sport of NHB existed. As a hobby, I collected and traded hockey fight tapes. I didn’t know who Rickson Gracie was, but I could tell you who won every Bob Probert and Stu Grimson fight. A friend told me about this PPV where people were going to fight in a cage. I am proud to say I bought UFC 1 (and I have the VHS tape somewhere). Well the bug bit me, and since then, I have seen every UFC, Strikeforce, and Bellator (except some of the first season), live or recorded.
JB: My understanding is that before you were ever formally involved in MMA, you were a successful athlete that eventually transitioned into representing professional athletes. How did having that background prepare you for the world of MMA?
KP: You use that word “successful” very liberally. I played goalie on the UCLA club hockey team, and in my senior year, we were the PAC 10 champions for the first time since like 1934. During law school, I played when I could, but after that I was on a travel team that played in western regional tournaments. The Washington Capitals sent me an invitation to their AHL affiliate’s camp. I framed the invite, but didn’t go. I guess hockey prepared me because I experienced what performance anxiety could be like, and as a goalie, I felt varying degrees of the pressure that fighters face. I don’t purport to know or understand what fighters go through, because I have never fought, but I have learned over the years, through experience, how to help them get through it. The real way being a semi-pro athlete helped prepare me was when I was asked to be a practice goalie for the Mighty Ducks, and, as a result, I ended up representing their leading scorer and that jumped-started the agency.
JB: Who were the key figures in your initial success with representing MMA fighters and creating MMAagents?
KP: Well I was sitting in my office in early 2005, when recently dethroned UFC HW champ Ricco Rodriguez walked in, grabbed me by the throat and leg, and lifted me, pinning me on the ceiling. He said he wasn’t going to put me down until I agreed to represent him. He was sent by a mutual friend and the joke would have been funnier if I hadn’t recognized him as he walked in the door. Ricco was my first client and like a baby brother to me. Soon thereafter, I signed Razor Rob, before his WEC run, and he moved into my house for four years, creating stories not appropriate for a family audience. Of course, Razor was a package deal with his best friend ,Tiki, who took the stories to another level. These were my first three clients and all remain my closest friends. Attorney Nate Brodnax joined MMAagents and was the Yin to my Yang. We had very complimentary skills. I would be remiss if I didn’t credit Joe Silva, who I learned a lot from. We shared many common beliefs about MMA and life. I really enjoyed our regularly spirited debates. Finally, maybe the biggest key to my success, and also the cause of most of my professional problems, was an alter-ego I created as an agent, mostly to gain online attention, called “The Pav.” He was a carefully contrived puppet who Ken Pavia controlled, and maybe abused.
JB: You represented so many great fighters. Who are just a few that stand out and some of your favorite recollections about them?
KP: Phil Baroni was a guy who I became very close with. He was a client, and we spoke just about every day. I was in his wedding, and we shared a myriad of emotions that mirrored his life and career. We celebrated, we cried, but most of the time, we laughed. The Pav was created as a combination of the NYBA and The Huntington Beach Bad Boy.
The next person I talked to the most was probably, “The Crow,” David Loiseau. I also rode the rollercoaster with him, from titles in smaller organization, to a robbery against Jason Day (when David was questioning his career in the locker-room before the fight), to joining in his continuous quest to improve.
Cyrille Diabate and I really click as people, and I really enjoyed flying to Paris for his wedding and seeing his posse’s multicultural “dance-off.”
There are also specific moments that stand out. When I got Josh Hendricks into the UFC, and into Randy Couture’s Brock Lesnar camp, he was so happy he literally couldn’t talk. He sent me a bottle of Dom that I still have to this day.
I got choked up when I watched huge underdog, Justin McCully, in his UFC debut, come from behind and beat Antoni Hardonk. Justin had been getting the crap beaten out of him by Tito and Ricco as their primary training partner for years. And at that moment, I was with both of them, in Justin’s corner.
The person that walks on to the stage with a fighter for weigh-ins is usually their coach or someone that was involved in their preparation. When Professor X arrived in the US, for his UFC fight, with his team, he came to me and asked me to make the walk with him. Despite booking and cornering literally hundreds of UFC fights, this was the only time I was asked, and I was honored to be there for him.
I can’t forget the time James Thompson introduced himself, and said, “Hi, my name is James Thompson, and I used to fight in Pride. Can we speak about you representing me?” He is hard not to recognize and he “had me at Hello.” We really had some fun travels around the world and some really big fights and paydays, from Kimbo in the most watched fight in US history, to Overeem on New Year’s Eve in Japan, to beating the Polish God, Pudzianowski, and his epic battle for me in India, against Bobby Lashley. I have seen James really grow as a person and a fighter since I met him. Of all my clients, he is the one that I can say really grew up.
I take great pride in discovering fighters that go on to have significant success. Phil Baroni introduced me to Martin Kampmann, who was on vacation in the US and on his way to becoming an engineer in his home country. I got a call for a late replacement in the WFA, against a tough Edwin Aguilar, and negotiated a one-fight deal. Martin knocked him out and was in the UFC in a week. He probably hates me for changing his career path.
Also, Josh Thompson called me and said, “Drop what you are doing and take on this 3-0 fighter named Anthony Johnson.” I told him, “Representing 3-0 guys is not my business model,” and he said, “You need to meet him now.” I signed him, and a few weeks later got him a short notice fight where he KO’d Chad Reiner, in the UFC, in thirteen seconds. Anthony and I were very close and went through a lot together. Situations and people came between us, and I miss that guy.
JB: During your time representing fighters, you were very successful. What do you think of the MMA agents that are having the most success currently?
KP: Well this may get me into trouble, but part of the reason I got out of the business was that very little of the measure of your success is based on your ability to negotiate a fight contract. The measure of your success is your ability to land and maintain clients, and then continually reinventing yourself to stay ahead of the curve. Relationships with fight organizations factors as well. Your ability to get sponsors only prevents you from losing clients, and no matter what you get, only like 5% were ever happy. I would have said none were happy, but Chris Lytle immediately came to mind as an exception.
A lot goes on behind the scenes to create the public perception of success. Despite changing my personal business model, I do continue to have contact with many agents, and this is what I’m basing my opinions on. Also, despite my former controversial persona, I do have many other agents I still consider friends, like Bob Cook, Ed Soares, Joe Fortis, and Dave Thomas. I even went to law school with Dan Lambert.
JB: Where do things currently stand between you, Zuffa, and Bellator?
KP: As far as Zuffa is concerned, it is public knowledge that we were in litigation. The lawsuit has been settled. The settlement agreement is confidential, and I am not permitted to discuss it.
As far as Bellator is concerned, Bjorn is one of my best friends, and I talk to him three times a day. I have known a few of their employees for as long as I have been in the sport, and a few of them worked for me. I think Bellator is doing some really great things and I really enjoy their shows.
JB: How would you characterize your experience as CEO of the Super Fight League?
KP: It was an incredible experience. The owners, Raj Kundra and Sanjay Dutt, were great to me, and I enjoyed spending time with them. We entered a market where the fans couldn’t spell MMA, sold out the first show, and by the third, we had 14,000 people in a 12,000 seat venue. I started there January 1st, and by March 11th, we had our first event. And we are not talking about a small show. There were performers, a red carpet for Bollywood stars, fireworks, and dancers. We had to build the entire set, including seats, in half an open, empty stadium. There were TV deals, media deals, YouTube deals, sponsor deals, the requisite Indian-friendly documents to create, and a fighter roster to build. Man, the work we did. We even created an entire national commission with the help of Dan Issacs. Josh Davidson, who has been with me for four years, and George Chung came over and worked with an Indian team of about fifty. We pulled it off with minimal hitches.
The one story that comes to mind is the perception of MMA that Indian fans initially had. WWE had been very popular there, but the popularity waned because it was so fake. The media kept asking in interviews if this MMA was fake as well. They generally smirked, as if knowing a secret, when we insisted it was real. Well the first bout of the SFL was American, Joey Guel, versus Professor X. Early, X threw an elbow and sliced Joey with a huge gash that immediately began leaking like Joe “Daddy” Stevenson against BJ Penn. Eventually, Herb Dean had to stop the fight because of all the blood, but the fans were then convinced that this was not professional wrestling.
JB: Despite not having fought, you are a fairly well known personality in the sport who has made frequent appearances on television and other media over the years. To what extent is the way you represent yourself in those formats an accurate reflection of who you are and do you like being recognized?
KP: There is probably a public version and a professional version of Ken Pavia that vary greatly. Do not get me wrong. I can still be a raging jerk. Ask pretty much every girl I have ever dated. But Ken Pavia literally works eight days a week, twenty-five hours a day. It is physically impossible to outwork me and that is probably not the persona that I portray publicly.
Do I like getting recognized? I guess it depends on who recognizes me. Sure there is an ego, but for me, being recognized is really not what strokes it. The Pav probably enjoys when MMA fans know who he is, but the reality is that Ken Pavia knows that doesn’t advance a project or put money in the till. He has learned to prioritize his pleasures. By the way, as you can tell, I rather enjoy talking about myself in the third person.
I vividly remember being on a bus in Japan, on one of those two hour rides back to the hotel, after an event. A Brazilian agent, named Eduardo Alonso, who represented Shogun and Ninja Rua, came over and sat next to me, never having met or spoken to me before. He told me that I had become an influential agent and that he recognized the persona that I had used to get there. He said that now that I had achieved a certain level of success, I should tone down the personality and be less controversial. He told me to be more behind the scenes, because when people thought of MMA agents, they thought of me. He respectfully told me that it reflected poorly on them. That conversation stuck with me.
JB: It has been reported that there have been a lot of developments in your personal life during this past year. How have you managed your personal and professional responsibilities and who has been especially supportive of you?
KP: With my resignation from the SFL, personal issued were cited. Well the birth of my son gives me great joy. Luca (I named him after Luca Brasi) has refocused me and changed my priorities at the ripe old age of 46. You know you have changed when you get projectile vomited on or peed on and it doesn’t bother you very much. The other issue was my mother, who continues to battle cancer and has both good and bad days.
Both situations can distract my focus and thoughts, especially over the last six months, but a preparation for a big comeback is underway. This time, it is being led by Ken Pavia, with The Pav in his pocket instead of vice versa. As far as my supports, I guess that would have to be guys like Josh, Bjorn, and Alexei. And I have a great family.
JB: What are you doing now, and what plans or goals can you share regarding the future? And how do you hope that your contribution to the sport of MMA, thus far, will be remembered?
KP: Well, before and after my work in India, I have been doing a considerable amount of international consulting. Many years ago, at an event in Finland, my client was viciously KO’d by Alexander Shlemenko, and afterward, his manager came to me to start a business relationship. Alexei Zhernakov, who is extremely influential in Russian MMA, is a close friend and ally, and he has been instrumental in bringing me to Russia and Eastern Europe to consult with many of the promotions there. In fact, I was even brought to meet with President Putin on two occasions. Additionally, for fun, I regularly host training camps in Huntington Beach, where Alexei brings fighters like Shlemenko, Koreshkov, Sarnavskiy, Volkov, Stepanian, and Khasbulaev, to stay at my three bedroom home. We actually had twelve people here for three months!
How will my contributions to date be remembered? Well, I think my personality is such that you really like me or really hate me. So people will remember me differently. If I were to die today, those that know me would say I was a tireless worker who fought with passion and prejudice for every client, and often with no regard for future consequences. While others played, I worked. This is exemplified by the fact I am doing this interview at 2:30 AM on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. I think they will say, as it relates to the sport, that I was creative, persistent ad nauseum, a positive influence on many people’s lives, and that I made a few mistakes. Hopefully they will say I made dreams come true.
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