The Incredible Behind-the-Scenes True Story of the Infamous Shine Fights Tournament - Part 1

Fightland Blog

By Santino DeFranco

The Shine Fights eight-man, one night, grand prix tournament was a beautiful train wreck. Competitors flew through the ropes mid-fight; an absurd number of fighters dropped out of the tournament along the way; every person involved, including myself, was worried about actually getting paid; and, Jason Chambers, the Shine Fights president, and I had to physically carry one of the finalists to the ring to ensure the show ended before the allotted pay-per-view slot concluded. It was a florescent red meteor shower headed right for earth, a sight you couldn’t turn away from if you tried. And if you asked me if I’d do it again knowing the outcome and the headaches I’d have to deal with, I would answer: Yes. Absolutely, yes!

I’d known Chambers for years when he called asking if I’d like to be the matchmaker for his promotion. He told me we’d have some uphill battles to endure, as Shine was coming off a very public debacle related to a fight between boxing bad-boy Ricardo Mayorga and UFC veteran Din Thomas. The debacle was that the fight had never occurred. The public story was that Mayorga’s promoter, Don King, had filed a last-minute injunction to prevent Mayorga from fighting. Though it's true that King had filed an injunction, rumor had it that Shine Fights owner Devin Price had also never paid the surety bond with the commission, guaranteeing the fighters’ purses—which is why the rest of the fights on the card didn’t happen. Which means that in addition to the entire event not taking place, many of the fighters who were set to compete on the undercard never got paid for the event, though many were told they would be despite the cancellation.

Price, the owner, had spoken with Chambers regarding the non-payment-of-the-fighters situation, and Chambers had spoken with me. We were both okay with the story we’d been told and decided to go forward in our respective roles for Shine Fights—it’s just too bad we hadn't  been told the entire truth. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I first came on as matchmaker, Devin had told me I’d be receiving a salary and would be paid on a monthly basis. It was a pittance, but I was hoping Chambers and I could grow the event into something spectacular and the money would flow in after that. Plus, it was a dream of mine to play puppet master with fighters and orchestrate all the fights I could ever want to see as a fan. So I was just happy to be matchmaking; the pay was the icing.

Chambers and I talked on the phone every day, like giddy schoolgirls discussing their crushes. We talked a lot, and we talked about every possible fight that could happen with the free agents available at the time.

“What about Edson Barboza versus Rich Crunkilton first round?”

“Oh, Jesus! That would be amazing!”

“Marcus Aurelio vs. Fickett! Two grappling masters!”

“I love it!”

We had every free agent on our radar. It didn’t matter if he had five fights or 55. If he was a lightweight, we knew about him. We knew about everyone: Russian, Japanese, up-and-comer, over-the-hill. It didn’t matter. Chambers and I spent hours, not only watching fights and reviewing records of the fighters we were interested in, but watching fights and reviewing the records of the opponents of the fighters we were interested in. We wanted to see how strong each fighter’s opposition was before we signed him.

Not only were we stalking every lightweight in the world, but we actually had the purse strings to attract them. Our compensation package for the tournament was a bit unique. Each participant would get paid by what round he was eliminated in; nothing else mattered. If a person exited the tournament in the first round he would walk with $5000. If a person left the tournament in the second round he would get $15,000. The second place fighter would make $25,000, and the winner would make $50,000. If a person won his first fight but got injured, he and his losing opponent would walk with $5000. Neither would get a win bonus, and one of the alternate-bout fighters who had fought on the preliminary card to gain access as a tournament fighter would take the injured fighter’s place. That alternate fighter would then be guaranteed a minimum of $15,000. Got it? Okay. I’ll continue.

The problem was, we had the money but we couldn’t get fighters. Fighters didn’t want to deal with an unknown promotion and they definitely didn’t want to sign a contract with one, and managers didn’t want to do business with a company that had not paid the fighters from their previous show. Chambers and I understood these concerns, and as former fighters ourselves we did everything in our power to assuage them.

Finally, after months of negotiations with fighters around the world, we scraped and clawed our way to a lineup that Chambers and I thought worthy of an eight-man, one-night affair. We had Marcus Aurelio, Edson Barbosa, Drew Fickett, Guilliome DeLorenzi, Pat Audinwood, Rich Crunkilton, Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett, and James Warfield. All killers. Well, that was the original list of fighters, the ones we booked and arranged to fly to L.A. to film the commercial for the tournament, but not all of them ended up stepping into the ring, or even onto a plane. Audinwood didn’t get on his flight to film the commercial and decided last minute he wasn’t interested in the tournament. DeLorenzi broke his leg in training—can’t fault him for that. Barbosa didn’t want to lock himself into a contract and bailed after shooting the commercial. Aurelio did the same. He faked an injury and then fought Shinya Aoki within two weeks of our event. So that meant we were back to the drawing board.

Our final list of fighters was actually this: Drew Fickett, Kyle Baker, Rich Crunkilton, Shannon Gugerty, Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett, James Warfield, Dennis Bermudez, and Carlo Prater. Not a bad list of fighters by any stretch, but not what we originally hoped for.

Now for the real drama.

In addition to being matchmaker, I was also charged with finding a commission that would allow us to hold an eight-man tournament. Tournaments hadn’t been in fashion for over a decade, and not a single state commission had allowed them since sanctioning MMA as a sport. Who was going to allow us to hold a fight where someone could potentially fight nine five-minute rounds in a single evening? I called every commission in the country. Every single one. Louisiana and Virginia were the only ones open to the idea. After consulting with Chambers, we decided on Virginia. The event would be held at the Patriot Center in Fairfax.

Then came the next speed bump.

I’m not sure if it was a disgruntled fighter or manager or if Joe Miller, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), was just mad that we were going to be holding a tournament-style fight without his knowledge, but someone got a bug up his ass about us. The short version is that Miller contacted the Virginia athletic commissioner, Dave Holland, and got the plug pulled on the whole thing. That’s right, Holland shut us down the week of the fight! Seven days before our show was to happen in Fairfax, Holland told us that he was getting pressure from the ABC and wasn’t going to allow the event to take place. Oh, he would still allow the show to happen, just not in a tournament format.  

We’d already paid for the event center, we’d paid for the plane tickets (well over $10,000), we’d paid for local advertising, we’d booked local fighters for the undercard, we’d hired workers for the event, and done everything else one would expect for a huge pay-per-view event. We were fucked.

Now, even if we could find a state willing to allow the tournament format, how could we logistically put something together in a week?

Then I remembered a good friend of mine, Doc Tripp, who ran an MMA show in Oklahoma at one of the Indian Casinos. If he was willing and able to put the show on, we could hold the tournament there and even bypass the state athletic commission—in Joe Miller’s backyard, no less! Because Miller was not just the ABC president; he was also the Oklahoma athletic commissioner.

I made the call.

“Let me talk with the casino and see if they’d allow us to hold the show there,” Doc said. “We have a contract with them and we do a lot of shows there a year, so I don’t think it should be a problem as long as they don’t have another show there next weekend.”

When he called me back later that day and told me it was a go, I almost pissed my pants. Then I called Chambers.

“Jason, we’re good to go in Oklahoma. Want to change my flight from Fairfax to Oklahoma City?”

“No. Just fly into Fairfax and we’ll all go to Oklahoma together,” he said. So I obliged the man and flew from Phoenix to Fairfax, then a few hours later we flew into Oklahoma City. Upon our arrival, we took a car north an hour and a half, to Ponca City, a tiny town just south of the Kansas border.

We called our travel agent and purchased new flights for everyone involved, nearly 50 tickets. Then we set up shop in a tiny hotel in a tiny city in Middle America. 

Look for Part 2 here.

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