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Posted: Wednesday July 30, 2008 2:51PM; Updated: Friday August 1, 2008 5:46PM
Nicki Jhabvala Nicki Jhabvala >
INSIDE MMA

Q&A with 'Mask' from TapouT

Story Highlights
  • Charles 'Mask' Lewis is the founder of the MMA apparel company TapouT
  • On July 30 at 10 p.m. ET on VERSUS, Season 2 of their reality show begins
  • Lewis says his blurring of reality with comics make TapouT unique
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TapouT
From left, "Skyskrape," "Mask" and "Punkass" have blurred the lines of comics and reality in their MMA brand TapouT.
Courtesy of TapouT

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.

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.

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