Damon Lau, owner and CEO of Canadian MMA toy company Round 5, sat down with Bleacher Report’s JP Smith for a one-on-one Q&A session about his new Bruce Lee film titled, The Bruce Lee Story: As Told by You, and what the future holds for MMA and Round 5.
(Also, check out the video for a behind the scenes look at Round 5.)
Bleacher Report: Hi Damon, Thank you for your taking my call. I know you’re a very busy man these days with the success of Round 5 and I appreciate your time today.
You are obviously a big MMA fan. How did the idea for the company come about and what convinced you that it would be a success?
Damon Lau: “Everyone who calls themselves a hardcore MMA fan, they’re like ‘I’ve been watching the UFC since the first one!’
“I think everyone in the early '90s probably watched one of the first UFCs because it was like, that hot-spectacle thing on PPV and everyone had the need to see it.
“So, I did see that, but I can tell you honestly that I didn’t religiously get into MMA until probably the late '90s. The weird thing is that I probably started watching because of Carlos Newton, oddly enough. He’s from Toronto, I knew that he was obviously on the rise in the UFC and I was watching a lot of his fights.
“I’m a fan of a lot of sports; I watch football and stuff like that. But, I look at MMA almost like hockey. The easiest example is I look at MMA how most Canadians look at hockey.
“Since early 2000, I ran a boutique creative ad agency here in Toronto. I’ve worked with a lot of small companies and a lot of large companies, as well. I did a lot of work for Yahoo, Nike, Calvin Klein; all Canadian-based specifically. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of different people.
“One of the projects I always wanted to work on, any of the things I wanted to work on were always things that I found of interest to myself.
“I was fortunate enough to work on a project with Randy Couture, when he was retired. At the time when he was retired, he was actually the ambassador for a new pay-only television station that was based in Canada, specifically Toronto, called the Fight Network.
“So, Randy and I got to work on a couple of projects together because we were doing agency work for the Fight Network.
“Around 2007, we were having dinner and Randy and I were talking about how the sport had really hit its peak and hit its stride. But, the funny thing was that there was not much product for fans in general.
“So, Randy was joking around and he’s like, ‘you know what I always thought would be funny…I think it would be funny if people made plastic cauliflower ears for fans to wear at the fights,’ and I thought it was hilarious.
“Just on a whim I said, 'wouldn’t it be cool if someone made collectible figures.'
“We both sort of sat back and were like, 'that’s not a bad idea, actually.'
“I started the business based off that conversation. I just thought it would be a great concept to do and studying a lot of different markets, because I have a marketing background, the UFC as a category, as a product and a market; MMA really hadn’t seen merchandising opportunities at the time, even though the sport had grown up so much.
“I believed that the success was really going to be that there was a lack of merchandise and a lack of opportunity for the fans to show that they were fans.
“The real key reason that I thought that we would be successful outside of a void in the market, I was a real fan. Being a fan myself and being such a diehard, I wanted to make a product that I would have wanted myself. And that’s really been the premise for the whole company.”
B/R: Round 5 has created over 40 collectible figures to date and they are all amazing. Explain the decision-making process when choosing which fighters you will feature.
Damon Lau: “There’s so many variables for the decision-making process. But, when we’re just selecting the characters, the joke around the office is that we have to pretend we’re [UFC Matchmaker] Joe Silva.
“The production process from the day we decide that we want to make this guy, to the time that it gets prototyped, it gets engineered, it gets approved by the UFC, manufactured, etc., until it reaches someone’s hand is around 9-12 months.
“So, when we’re trying to make a decision, we’re pretty much guessing who we believe is going to be relevant 9-12 months from now.
“It would be my dream to sit down with Joe Silva every single time to decide who’s going to be in the next series [Round 5] in fall of 2012, but we don’t have that opportunity.
“So, for us as fans, because we have such a high understanding of the sport, we’re literally guessing on who we believe is going to be relative at that time, who’s going to be champion…
“Outside of that, it does not even always have to do with who we believe is going to win.
“What we’ve come to realize is that people are obviously fans of champions, but they’re [also] fans of people.
“You take a look at someone right now like Dan Hardy.
“Dan Hardy, who fought against Georges [St-Pierre], lost; obviously had a huge fan base after that and then, he’s lost what, his last three fights?
“We picked him 9-12 months ago and some people may say that’s a pretty risky pick; at the same token he’s one of our best-sellers in the current series right now specifically because of the fact that, people love that guy.
“So, for us, when we’re deciding, we try to think about not only who’s going to win, but who we believe is going to be relevant to the fans.”
B/R: The acquisition of Strikeforce by Zuffa LLC has remained a hot topic in the media since they announced it to the public in March, earlier this year. Of course, there is talk about the eventual merger of Strikeforce with the UFC.
- With GSP vs. Diaz slated for UFC 137, this welterweight matchup will mark the official introduction of Strikeforce fighters into the UFC.
- Do you plan to capitalize on a Strikeforce series for Round 5 or possibly a Strikeforce vs. UFC series of figures?
Damon Lau: “We will absolutely capitalize on it.
“The big thing with us, what we did realize and what we’ve always believed, is that Strikeforce is a good brand and has great fighters.
“The difference with the UFC acquiring Strikeforce is that now Strikeforce will get the attention that it really deserved. It’s not that Strikeforce was ever a bad organization, but I think that with the UFC’s ability to not only market, but drive PR behind the brand, I think now Strikeforce becomes a model opportunity for us to be able to create a product to support it.”
B/R: You’ve recently explored a new facet of Round 5 by dipping your toes into the film industry with an awesome new film. Tell us about your latest project and if we can expect to see more Round 5 video productions in the future.
Damon Lau: “The thing is that when we acquired the Bruce Lee license, the reason that we acquired the Bruce Lee license is well, because Bruce Lee’s AWESOME! [laughs].
“Outside of that, though, I think there are a lot of people who understand who Bruce Lee is but may not understand his significance.
“When you take a lot of iconic people, a lot of people, they joke around. They’re like ‘Chuck Norris is awesome and Steven Seagal is awesome,’ they talk about all of these different guys.
“Really, Bruce Lee is someone that we look at as a different category of iconic figure. It’s not only in martial arts, a lot of it is in martial arts, but also just as iconic in culture.
"What he did in his short life and career, he broke so many barriers for people; cultural barriers, martial arts barriers and [gave] philosophies that really had never been introduced before.
“For someone who’s been passed away for over 35 years to [still] have such an impact on people, that’s the reason we created the [film], is really to sort of make people [aware] who may not have been aware of Bruce Lee and his significance.”
B/R: Speaking of significance, in what ways has Bruce Lee most influenced the sport of Mixed Martial Arts?
Damon Lau: “If you listen to some of the people who you consider heroes now or people who are significant right now talk about how they’ve been impacted, it will make you sit down and realize ‘wow, this guy has really gone above and beyond doing something that is so meaningful to every person.'
“The sport of MMA, what you see [now] really was started by this guy, Bruce Lee. The concept and without him ever having existed, this stuff would have never really happened.
“And not only has it created a sport that we all love, but it’s also created careers and families and helped people’s lives.
“So, I think the reason that we really did the [film] was not only to allow us to share with other people what Bruce Lee did, but also to allow the people that maybe considered people’s heroes and are at the forefront of the media right now, in the UFC and MMA to share how he’s impacted them.
“And we’re definitely going to continue to do video productions, but the only time we will choose to do the video production is really when we feel that we want to share something that we believe is significant with other people.”
B/R: The new Bruce Lee figures are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In short, they’re awesome. Do you have any plans to take your figure production outside of the realm of MMA?
Damon Lau: “Absolutely.
“Really, for us the Bruce Lee line, it does have a connection with MMA, but even outside of MMA it does also have a connection with general pop culture.
“So, what we we’ve been actually doing with the Bruce Lee line; you’re just seeing really, some of the initial stuff.
“If you fast forward a year from now what you’re going to see out on the market, I wish I could show you, the drafts and the concepts and we’re actually working with different artists from across the world to do interpretations of Bruce Lee, so it’s almost like this whole artist-mashup thing.”
B/R: You and the crew at Round 5 seem to always have a new trick up your sleeve. Can you give us any hints or clues as to what your next big thing might be?
Damon Lau: “We’re getting a lot of really, really well-known artists on the Bruce Lee line.
“The reason I’m so excited about it is that, if you take a look at someone like Bruce Lee and be able to work with artists to do their interpretations of him, it’s really beautiful to see how people can look at Bruce Lee in so many ways and shapes and forms.
“We’re not announcing the artists we're working with until probably the next month or so, but the artists are the leaders in the industry.
“Really, when you take a look at someone like Bruce Lee, it transcends like, every genre of pop-culture in North America and globally, as well.
“It’s funny; I actually have this chart that has an analysis on Google Trends of Bruce Lee vs. Tony Hawk and Bruce Lee trends more and Bruce has been passed away for 35 years.
“It’s kind of amazing.”
B/R: I think what you’re doing is absolutely crucial for the Mixed Martial Arts movement and society and the world as a whole. Someone has to pass on these things especially to the new and younger generations, because they could just be discovering them for the first time through these things, through the collectibles and through the films you’re putting out.
So, I just want to thank you for all that you’re doing and for taking the time to talk with us today.
Damon Lau: “I appreciate your time too, as well.”
Damon is an extremely passionate person about life and about MMA.
If you haven’t seen the Round 5 MMA collectible figure lines yet, check them out by clicking here!
Episode 8 airs on Tuesday, July 12, 2011.
You can follow Damon and Round 5 on Twitter here: www.twitter.com/round5.
You can follow me on Twitter here: www.twitter.com/jpsmithmma