May 06, 2009

There are 3,000 colors to a fighter, and it's Round 5 president and co-founder Damon Lau's job to choose the right ones.

He and his staff are tasked with finding the right color for Andrei Arlovski's eyes, eyebrows, hair, fingernails, and skin, not to mention shades for his inner and outer nipple. It's an obsessive amount of detail.

But the reward is clear when they get a fighter right, and the fighter shows it to his family.

"I don't think they got into this sport saying, wouldn't it be cool if someone made an action figure of me?" Lau said.

Lau got into the collectibles business almost by accident, after UFC legend Randy Couture suggested they make cauliflower ears for fans. That led to the idea of fighter figurines for the grown-up kid. And the rest is history.

Stars like Couture, Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson were the first to go under Christmas trees in 2007.

With the company now in its third series of collectibles, Lau said the process of making the product continues to evolve.

The company is trading the larger than life looks found in comic books for a more realistic depiction of a fighter.

And because many of their new models were heavyweights, the figurines got taller. Lau and his staff now make them to relative scale. A 6-foot-3 fighter will be made 6.3 inches tall.

Instead of cartoonish, exaggerated features, artists will work from countless shots taken with the fighter at photo sessions.

"We bring them in to do studio shots, and keep pushing them to get a facial shot that matches what we're trying to replicate," Lau continued. "So we ask Arlovski to do the screaming thing with his fangs -- we keep shooting that over and over and over again."

From there, a sculpture of the fighter is created.

"We literally morph an exact 360-degree sculpting of a person's head, and try to sculpt it exactly to the facial features of the person," said Lau.

There are anywhere from 25 to 45 revisions on the first sculpting.

When revisions are finished, an engineering prototype is made. That's where 3,000 colors come in: every single facet of the fighter's appearance is scrutinized. The sculpture is hand painted, and a mold is created. But the job isn't done there.

"Because we give our fighters so much creative rights and control and input, we have to run everything between them as well," said Lau.

That can hold up the manufacturing line, despite the company's short production schedule of six months, compared to most toy releases of nine to 12 months.

"When a fighter is training for a fight and you're trying to get them to improve their nipple color, it's a difficult process," said Lau.

So far, the figurines have been a hit. Lau says Round 5 is in 3,500 stores across America and expects to be in nearly 10,000 by next year. The collectibles are already in the U.K. and Japan, and France and Brazil are next on the list.

The company recently announced a slew of new fighters, including stars GinaCarano, Fedor Emelianenko, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Cung Le and DanHenderson, among others. The fourth series of collectibles will be available in time for UFC 100 in July.

Fighters get a sizably larger share of royalties than the average toy deal, Lau adds.

"The whole business has exploded more than I could even believe or control."

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