Triller co-founder Ryan Kavanaugh knows a thing or two about disrupting the status quo.
Before he got involved in combat sports, the now 46-year-old promoter was previously hailed as one of the most prolific and unconventional producers in Hollywood through his company, Relativity Media. He was once quoted as saying that he didn’t care about making films that were going to win awards while adding “I’m not in this for the art … I want to make money.”
These days, Kavanaugh is once again upsetting the apple cart through Triller Fight Club, which has been promoting high profile cards headlined by names like Mike Tyson, Jake Paul and now Evander Holyfield and Vitor Belfort.
His unapologetic approach to Triller Fight Club shows have included live musical acts performing in the middle of the event, rapper Snoop Dogg blazing away on a blunt during a fight and inviting comedians like Pete Davidson to serve as a roving reporter during events.
The way Kavanaugh sees it, he’s just introducing concepts that combat sports — particularly the boxing industry — should have embraced years ago.
“Boxing, MMA, it’s for entertainment,” Kavanaugh said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “The point is no matter which way you want to skin it, the reason people watch is because it’s entertaining. The reason people pay is because it’s entertaining. As boxing is shrinking and losing its audience and became predominantly male over 50 audience, the times aren’t keeping up.
“We are literally trying to shake it up. We’re shaking sh*t up. The concept is we want every fight we do, we want to bring to a new level. That doesn’t necessarily mean better, although we learn from each one, but it’s an event. It’s not a fight. So we want to bring something for everyone.”
While he’s primarily been focused on boxing, Kavanaugh has also found himself at odds with UFC president Dana White several times in recent months, especially after he attempted to secure former two-division champion Georges St-Pierre as an opponent for Oscar De La Hoya.
St-Pierre, who retired from UFC competition in 2019, has made it clear that he doesn’t intend on competing in mixed martial arts again but he would be interested in crossing over into boxing with a chance to do something fun like clash with a legend such as De La Hoya.
Unfortunately even after retirement, St-Pierre remains under UFC contract and the promotion would not give him permission to pursue a fight outside the organization, even if it wasn’t a mixed martial arts contest. That didn’t sit too well with Kavanaugh, who blasted the UFC for its business practices while denying an athlete a chance to make a lot of money and live out a dream to compete in boxing.
“Indentured servitude is not allowed in the United States,” Kavanaugh stated. “Yet Georges St-Pierre, who is officially retired from the UFC and has made it very clear he will never fight in MMA again, isn’t allowed to get into a boxing ring and make probably [one] of the highest paydays that he would get to fight someone he considers to be on his bucket list because Dana White says he can’t. That’s just wrong.”
Despite the fact that St-Pierre is still under contract with the UFC, Kavanaugh says he would still relish the chance to work with the Canadian superstar but he’s just not sure his former promoters will ever allow it unless he challenges them in court.
“I have so much respect for Georges as a fighter and as a person,” Kavanaugh said. “I think he’s a great fighter. I think as a person, he’s just humble and what I’ve gotten to know of him, really easy to work with. Frankly, if he wanted to he could challenge his contract and I’m fairly certain he could win but it’s not something my decision to make. I believe if he wanted to fight with us and he was willing to take on the UFC and let them know he was going to attempt to have his contract deemed non-constitutional, which I believe it would be, but until then there’s nothing we can do.
“Because we get legal letters from Dana saying we’re interfering with his contracts. When I tweeted that Jon [Jones] was having his little dispute that he wanted out of the UFC, I tweeted out I said, ‘maybe you can do something with Fight Club and maybe we can work something out with the UFC.’ I didn’t say around them, I said we’ll work something out with them, maybe it’s good for all of us. I got a legal letter that we were interfering with their fighters. Unless someone makes that decision, there’s not much we can do because we’re not them. We would to do something with Georges and love to do something long term with him.”
Beyond his desire to work with St-Pierre in Triller Fight Club, Kavanaugh has also frequently slammed the overall pay structure in the UFC where athletes are paid a much smaller percentage of the revenue earned than their counterparts in boxing, football, basketball or other major sports.
Of course, leagues like the NFL and NBA have collective bargaining agreements with player unions, which guarantees the athletes a certain percentage of the revenue earned.
In most cases athletes are taking home around 50 percent of the revenue but based on financial records the UFC has released as part of an ongoing antitrust lawsuit, fighters competing in the octagon take home 20 percent or less of the revenue.
Back in June, Kavanaugh also took personal note of UFC fighter Sarah Alpar starting a GoFundMe page so she could afford a proper training camp to get ready for an upcoming bout. Triller ended up donating $25,000, which along with a $5,000 donation from YouTuber turned boxer Jake Paul helped Alpar reach her goal in a matter of hours.
“I think it’s really sad,” Kavanaugh said. “Because not coming from this sport but being entrenched it in now, these are people who work harder and put their brains and their bodies through more than any profession I’ve ever seen. They push themselves to the brink of death, literally. They put their brains through the most intense, excruciating torture and they’ve also got a limited fighting life. It’s not like a doctor or a lawyer, you want to work, you work until you’re 80 or 90 or till the day you die. In this world, because of the toll it takes on your body, there’s a timing in that.
“The fact that the UFC model exploits the fighters and lines their own pockets, which is fine, we’re all into commerce, go make a lot of money — but pay your fighters. They’re the ones that you’re building the business on. To me, I find it almost disgusting that you can go build a $5 billion brand but you can’t pay your fighter enough to be in camp and you’re paying her less than you pay your ring girls. It’s non-sensical for what you’re asking them to do.”
Meanwhile, retired UFC athlete Ben Askren touted his lone bout with Triller Fight Club as the single largest paycheck he’s ever received for a fight and Kavanaugh hopes to keep that trend going for future fighters competing for the promotion as well.
“A lot of people accuse us of overpaying,” Kavanaugh said. “The way I look at it is, if we’re making money and they’re making money, then we’re not overpaying them. It’s that simple. If we can make a profit enough to make sense for the business and grow, yet pay them and make it fair for them, that’s the way businesses should be run. It bites you in the ass otherwise.
“I’m surprised that the UFC hasn’t had more of an issue to date. I know they’ve talked about attempts at unionization but beyond that they haven’t actually had challenges to their contract being unconstitutional.”
Boxing remains Triller’s primary focus in the combat sports space for now but Kavanaugh promises he has plans to eventually branch out into MMA as well, which will then put him in direct competition with White and the UFC.
“We are very interested in working with any MMA fighter, especially legends, who still want to fight but aren’t fighting under contract or ready for a second wind, so to speak,” Kavanaugh said. “We find a lot of times in fighters, whether it’s boxers or MMA, they burn out a bit and they think they’re done. Then they get a second wind.
“When it comes to MMA, it’s the same, we have a plan to launch our own, call it MMA spinoff if you will, that will combine boxing and MMA in our cards and take some elements of both. So part of this of marrying them is to create a hybrid that marries the two a little bit.”
Truth be told, Kavanaugh swears he isn’t trying to end up at odds with White or any other promoter in combat sports but he’s also not going to apologize for the way Triller is doing business.
“Look, I do think we’re trying to do something different,” Kavanaugh said. “We’re trying to do something that broadens [the audience]. I get that it scares people in the business. I don’t think that it should. We’re friendly with everyone. We want to work with everyone. We want to help elevate boxers and it should be seen as a positive.
“Some people get it and call us everyday and work with us and others do everything they can to sabotage it. Par for the course. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”