Few people have made a deeper impact on the sport of mixed martial arts over a longer period of time than Dan Caldwell, Tim Katz, and the late Charles Lewis.
Better known, respectively, as "Punkass," "Skyscrape," and "Mask," three friends from Orange County started a business selling t-shirts out of the back of their car back when no marketers wanted to touch the outlaw sport, then grew the brand, TapouT, into a $100-million industry.
"They were such good times doing what we were doing that when we look at that, it always puts a smile on my face," Caldwell said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.
Unfortunately, Lewis was killed in a car crash in 2009, after which he was posthumously named to the UFC Hall of Fame.
A forthcoming movie, "Mask," has been released (you can watch it here), and Caldwell is pleased it reflects well on the vision of both his friend and his company, going from a startup to a global apparel brand.
"I don't want his voice to be forgotten," Caldwell said. "So anyone can go back and watch this video and see, it started out, the movie's supposed to be about us three ... the movie was supposed to be 'Underdog,' about us and the early years of TapouT, then when Charles passed away, we switched it, turned the focus on to him. ... I'm glad we brought a video guy with us, from 1999 we had a videographer with us all the time. We had some really early footage that was great to add to the documentary."
The industry has changed quite a bit since his company's heyday. TapouT apparel used to be seen on fighters everywhere from the UFC to Elite XC to the WEC to Affliction. But nowadays, there are fewer options for fighters, and the industry's big dog, the UFC, only allows fighters to wear Reebok into the cage.
Caldwell believes that, knowing what he knows about Lewis, his close friend wouldn't have been happy with how things panned out in the Reebok UFC deal.
"I think there's always disappointment there," Caldwell said. "There were promises made and discussions we had had, we felt like there would be some part, even if it wasn't at that level in the UFC for us. It wasn't the money, that's a whole ‘nother discussion. I think he'd be disappointed."
TapouT was sold to a conglomerate last year in a deal which has begun pivoting the company away from MMA to closer ties with the WWE.
For his part, Caldwell says he's not sure whether the company would have been sold if Lewis was still alive. But after the loss of Lewis, things just weren't the same.
"There were a lot of things going on," Caldwell said. "With the crash of the market, just everything happening at once, Charles passing away, a big part, I don't think it would have been sold. I'm not sure that would have been the best thing for the brand at that point. The brand not being sold, the only reason the brand was sold, I was tired, I didn't want to do it without Charles anymore. We started the brand together, that was the exciting part. Friends starting a company, and not having it anymore, the dynamic duo wasn't there. I didn't, I felt in someways I was Robin. I don't want to do this without Batman."
Still, though, there was no denying the TapouT guys went on a memorable ride as the sport took off. They were a ubiquitous presence in the front row of UFC events for several years. Caldwell retains a minority ownership stake in Tapout, and while he's not involved in the day-to-day events anymore, he plans on getting out to UFC 194.
"I pick and choose them a little more carefully," Caldwell said. "I've got kids, I want to spend more time with them. I spent 15 years running around, I think since UFC 23. ... It's been crazy, flying all over the world. It was a crazy roller coaster ride and I wanted to settle down. I still go to the big ones. I'll be there in Vegas next month."
In the meantime, Caldwell belies the film, produced by Bobby Razak, does justice to what the trio accomplished.
"We've been in this sport since it was illegal," Caldwell said. "I've been arrested for being at an MMA event. That shows you where we were. We were running, picked up our coats and shows and running. I remember using secret passwords to get into events. ... This movie isn't a downer, it's a really positive movie in a lot of ways. I want people to be inspired by it."