Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Sun Expanded Coverage
Beyond the Sun
The smiles on the faces of Tapout icons Dan Caldwell and Timothy "Skyskrape" Katz revealed what words couldn’t last weekend during the grand opening of the company’s first training center in Las Vegas.
Less than a decade removed from selling T-shirts out of the back of a car, the mixed martial arts apparel company has grown into a multimillion-dollar giant that now includes fitness centers at its ever-expanding empire.
But somewhere in the background a cloud hung over the celebratory mood as one of the crew’s main partners wasn’t around to witness the monumental moment.
“It’s a struggle honestly, it’s a struggle every day to get up and do this. Really, what is Tapout without Charles Lewis?” Katz said about his friend and founder of the company, Charles “Mask” Lewis Jr., who died in an automobile accident in March.
“He set the groundwork and the foundation for where it could go. I think a lot of the reason I can cope through it is because I love the sport, I love the fighters, and I love Tapout for what we’ve created it to be.
“Mask said it best: It’s more than just putting on a T-shirt. To us it’s a lifestyle.”
The company’s latest edition to its unique mission is the state-of-the-art 13,000-square-foot fitness center at 4040 W. Hacienda Ave., featuring all the amenities of a normal gym — of course with an MMA twist.
A 32-foot Octagon — two feet larger than the official cage the UFC uses — sits center stage, while rows of heavy bags, free weights and specialized fighting equipment fill the cavernous space spread over three open areas.
While not 100 percent complete, the building will soon serve as the showroom for Tapout’s equipment line and headquarters for future franchised gyms.
“The gym has always been a big part of what we wanted to do because we felt like Tapout and training went hand in hand with the sport of mixed martial arts,” Caldwell said Friday.
“I’ve always wanted to do a gym; it was just on what level were we going to do it at? When I walked in here today, this was better than I could have planned it, better than I could have expected.”
The 34-year-old native of San Bernardino said his biggest critic of the idea, Lewis, would have been equally excited to see the team’s latest vision play out perfectly.
“I remember when I first started talking to him about the gyms and I was like, 'Why aren’t you as excited about the gyms as I am,'” Caldwell said. “I thought this was the perfect concept for Tapout. And he goes, ‘Man I just don’t want to do it, unless we do it right.’
“I remember showing him sketches these guys (co-partner 7Base Consulting) brought to us early on and he was like, ‘Wow! This is right. This is exactly what I was talking about.’ From then on, he was always asking me how the gyms were coming along. We always wanted our stuff to be the best, and that’s what this is. The best of the best.”
It was such foresight on the part of the 45-year-old Lewis, known for his streaking face paint, top hat, and “believe” mantra, that turned the fledgling business venture into the premiere MMA clothing line in the world. The company, based out of Grand Terrance, Calif., not only decks out some of the biggest fighters in the biz like Chuck Liddell, but is also the official sponsor of the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter” reality television show. It's now venturing into other arenas such as shoes, nutritional supplements and fighting equipment.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t think it would be this big,” Caldwell said of Tapout, which did $100 million in sales in 2008 and projects more than $225 million despite a down economy this year.
“I didn’t see the intricate small things that were going to happen in between. But we said it over and over again that we were going to be this big $100 million company that does gyms, clothing, shoes and be in clothing stores all over the world. We always said all of that stuff, but to actually have it play out. It’s almost surreal.”
It might seem far-fetched to believe that the trio knew all along they were destined for greatness (especially considering Tapout grossed less than $30,000 in sales its first year in 1997), but those who have spent a little time with the over-the-top dressed crew say they are surprised by their intelligence rather than intimidating attitude.
“I’ve hung out with those guys a lot and I thought they would be a little crazier than they were,” said UFC light heavyweight fighter Stephan Bonnar. “They’re really animated, but they are also really down to earth. Really focused, not just party animals. I thought at first just the whole image thing was a little intimidating when I first met them on 'The Ultimate Fighter.'
“But once I hung out with them, I saw that they are really intelligent guys on a mission.”
That mission, Caldwell says, is to show the world the benefits of mixed martial arts, hopefully through Tapout gyms — which plan to be rolled across America before operating abroad.
“You go to every city in America and there’s a Karate or Kung Fu gym there. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be a mixed martial arts gym,” he said. “It’s a way to teach self-respect, defense, self-confidence and, plus, it’s a great sport. Whether you’re a kid or adult, it’s open to everybody. I think honestly it’s the best way to keep in shape in the world, and that’s the message we hope to send.”
Well that, and of course, the legacy of his good friend “Mask.”
“I would just encourage anybody who believes that something is going to work in their life. If they have a product, or an idea, or whatever it is. If you’re just so overwhelmed by it where you can’t understand why anybody else would think it wouldn’t work, then chase that dream like no other — until the wheels fall off,” Caldwell said.
“That’s how we were. I couldn’t believe anybody else wouldn’t like the sport. I knew if they like our sport, they would love our clothes. And that was our concept. We couldn’t conceive not winning this game.”
Andy Samuelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-948-7837.