Charles “Mask” Lewis, who co-founded the mixed martial arts apparel company TapouT was killed today in an apparent street racing accident. Details are still incoming, but the gist is his Ferrari left the road and struck a telephone pole. He was killed, and his passenger was ejected from the vehicle and survived.
I want any of you in glass houses to put your stones down. This post isn’t really about street racing, the accident, or Mask’s actions, but what TapouT meant to the MMA sport.
Back when the UFC first started, it was a few-holds barred melee between two men of any size and skill level. There were no weight classes. No true governing rules. Shit, they didn’t even have to wear gloves. Participants were usually random martial arts tough guys, street brawlers, or a Gracie trying to promote their brand of jujitsu in the United States. The events were sometimes interesting to watch, but they were basically nothing more than two dudes wailing on each other in a tiny casino. The sport (if I can call it that) lacked money, and because it lacked money it lacked the infrastructure necessary to legitimize it.
The majority of the UFC’s shift towards legitimacy as a modern sport is due to Zuffa, who bought the UFC in 2001. However, a very important part of enabling men to fight for a living is due to sponsorships, and this is where TapouT was instrumental. Formed in 1997 by Lewis and friend Dan Caldwell, the company sold fighting and workout gear. They also sponsored fighters. Before the sponsorship money, fighters were typically holding down a full-time job (or full-time jobs), and trying to train on the side. Fighters were able to fully concentrate on their training once sponsorship money put food on the table, and in turn the quality of the matches improved … which, in turn, increased the fan base, which led to more TapouT sales, which led to more sponsorships, and so on. TapouT had $30,000 in sales in 1999; they grossed about $100 million in 2008.
As someone who engages in risky riding behavior myself, the prospect of dying on the road is very real. Regardless if you think Charles Lewis was at fault for his own demise, you have to respect the man who helped nurture mixed martial arts into a recognized sport. Without TapouT and other sponsors, we might still be watching two overweight, sweaty guys trying to bare knuckle bitchslap each other inside a smoky, two-bit arena.
Rest in peace, Mask.
Image from Combat Lifestyle.