The man won't deny it. And why should he? Charles Lewis, a.k.a. "Mask," is a lifelong lover of comics and cartoons. Did the KISS-like face paint, shredded cut-off shirts, animated laugh and just-as-odd buddies, Dan "Punkass" Caldwell and real-name-unknown "Skyskrape," not give it away?
But Lewis is also one of today's top entrepreneurs and the brains behind the mixed-martial-arts apparel company TapouT. Since starting the company out of the back of an rusty Mustang in 1997 with little more than a few pennies in his pocket, Lewis has guided TapouT to $22.5 million in sales -- nearly doubling their 2006 numbers. In 2008, the company is aiming for $100 million, while the following year, they plan to earn $225 million.
Lewis used his comic book knowledge to design cost-efficient, yet highly intriguing, ad campaigns and a logo that is recognized by everyone in MMA and many outside the sport. From the cage canvases and advertisement banners in arenas, to the back of fighters' shorts and everyday T-shirts of fans, TapouT is simply everywhere.
And the trio is like a walking billboard. At nearly every MMA event (sans the ones they're banned from) they sit ringside, supporting their fighters and brand.
Now add to the mix a reality show.
On July 30, the Crew kicks off Season 2 of their 10-episode reality series TapouT on VERSUS, which will air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET. The show follows the Crew as they recruit new fighters and continue to build their MMA empire. The first season of the show drew more than 40 million viewers.
Lewis has since traded in his beat-up Mustang for a tricked-out tour bus, and gets recognized for, not only his "eccentric" laugh, as he describes it, but also for his ambition in creating a megabrand out of and up-and-coming sport.
A stroke of good luck? The product of hard work? The work of a smart businessman? Sure. But if anything, the work of Mask and the TapouT team certainly makes you think twice about comics.
SI: Tell me about the beginnings of TapouT and what we can expect in Season 2 of the series.
Mask: So, a year-and-a-half ago, when I knew they were negotiating, and Lorenzo [Fertitta of Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship] and I had created somewhat of a relationship, he was telling me MTV2 didn't want anything to do with our reality show. Spike TV felt they had everything with The Ultimate Fighter. [Lorenzo] told me, 'I pitched it to everybody three times and I really don't think we can do it.' And I wouldn't give up on him. I'd text him more than a 100 times a day -- honestly, every day, probably even more than that. I never cared if he called up and got mad at me because the madder he got, the less chance he could forget about me.
The first thing he said when he finally got a deal was, 'Now listen to me, Mask. There's this new channel out there and we're going to put the WEC out there and it's VERSUS. They're up-and-coming and they have something to prove and I think they'll be hot. They're behind you and I sold the show. It's kind of an underdog but --' and I just butted in with, 'Well, the thing about underdogs is they have something to prove. I want to be on that channel.'
The good thing about it was, I felt, if somebody had come along and was an underdog, that's three now: TapouT was an underdog -- I never went to design school or anything, just read way too many comic books and have a certain belief system and won't give up on stuff; the UFC, the sport, was underground -- it's still not legal in every state, making it an underdog sport with something to prove; and now here comes the VERSUS channel. The one thing Craig [Piligian of Pilgrim Films and Television] told me was 'They're going after ESPN. They've got big hopes and aspirations.'
I'm like, join the club.
I don't look at in MMA for my competition, I look at the Nikes and the Adidas and the Reeboks needing to worry about TapouT. Basketball, football and boxing need to worry about mixed martial arts. ESPN, MTV2 and HBO need to worry about VERSUS. These are the underdogs. We've got nothing to lose. I liked that cartoon back in the day with the little dog with the 'U' on his chest. "Have no fear, Underdog is here." I think about that a lot.
I don't really watch reality shows, not because I love them or hate them, but because I don't watch a lot of TV. The only TV I watch, besides Cold Case Files, are music channels. Or I go to movie theaters. That whole reality thing, I really wasn't sure what to think. I knew it was big. I had seen American Chopper because it was with Pilgrim Films, and I had seen Dog the Bounty Hunter. But all I knew was that. And I watch The Ultimate Fighter because my designs are all over it. I'm the production designer with the house, and I watch the fighters I helped be put on there, I want to see how they did. I wanted to mirror something that TapouT's always done: blurring the lines of reality with characters and cartoons.
The difference between Season 1 is, then, I had three days, I was nervous, I didn't know what to do, what to expect or how it was going to work. And I could see how nervous I was on film. I didn't know how I'd be perceived. I was getting kind of depressed on the road because I was worried I was being something different on camera than who I really am.
After Season 1, I was at a UFC event and I saw Kevin James from the The King of Queens. It was surreal. He screams 'Mask, 'Skrape! I love you guys.' And I'm like, this is Kevin James. How does he know me? He's Kevin James and he's shouting Mask?' But he was like 'I love your show. You guys are so funny.' I couldn't say anything. Just looked at him a little teary eyed. I stopped him and said, 'Kevin, man, I appreciate that. That's the greatest compliment we've ever gotten, but, come on. You don't have to say we're funny.' And he said, 'Listen, what you guys are doing with your timing, I don't miss an episode. I TiVo it, it's great.' I was just stunned walking away.
Me and Skrape probably talk about that at least once a week. Kevin James thinks we're funny.
SI: Who are your influences?
Mask: With Mask, I take a vampire, Jimi Hendrix, a little bit of cowboy and a little bit of military, and I blend those three influences into Mask and it comes out into something hasn't been done before. By blending those three looks together, you get a different mentality and personality, that's something that's never been created before. There are influences, but the application is different, making it completely new.
SI: What else do you have planned?
Mask: Well, we showed our bottled water [TapouT H2O] on the first season and the orders became so great that the people we were doing the water with weren't able to keep up with it. So, now that we're signed to CAA [Creative Artists Agency, a marketing company], we're working a new water deal with somebody who can not only get our water out there, but keep it at a higher level. Also with CAA -- it's not done yet -- but there's a video game company that's really huge and is interested in what we're doing and in taking our blend of characters [I created more characters other than Mask, Punkass and Skyskrape] and putting them into an MMA game based on, again, reality and some fake stuff. You might even see some stuff with a TV series with us in it that may be a five-to-10 hit mini-series.
There are so many things, that I feel like I'm Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road and I'm trying to get to Oz, but I haven't even found the scarecrow or the tin man or the lion yet. I'm just focused on each next step and continuing on that rather than going, 'Oh look, I'm in a pretty little forest.' Who cares? We're trying to get to Oz here.
SI: You mentioned Nike and what they've done over the years in terms of marketing. But they've crossed over into multiple sports. Is that something you would consider doing with TapouT?
Mask: Nah. Right now I'm very happy, as money comes in to us, to put it back in to the fighters. I think other sports pay their race car drivers or their football players enough. I think the sport is still so small -- as big as it's getting -- it's still so small that if I can put our money back in it, the better. I want to build the sport , and make the fighters' lives easier.
We are getting ready to make a shoe deal, though. CAA is helping us with that. Cross-training and running shoes. And I want to do all the gear. Everlast does everything for boxing. TapouT wants to do everything that fighter's train with, from bags, speed bags, fight gloves and wraps. TapouT wants to do all that for MMA.
Inevitably, will there be TapouT denim or TapouT jeans down the line? If I get to the level where I can work with people who can do it to the quality of regular every day wear at the level I appreciate, then I'll do that to. But you have to remember, I had an idea for the logo, I didn't go to school to be a designer. But I know the jeans I wear now and I know the level that it has to be at.