TORONTO — Rick Marrs and his 11-year-old son, Kyle, stand side by side in the cage, backs against the fence, unsure of what will happen next. A man bounces over to them, wearing a lime green T-shirt and black leggings. His long black hair is tied up in a bun.
"Hi guys!" he says. "I'm Elias!"
Safe to say from the expressions on Rick's and Kyle's faces: Whatever nerves they had about getting free MMA training from a UFC star after Rick won this session in a recent contest, they're gone in an instant. Elias Theodorou has them immediately at ease.
The next instant, he has his new charges sashaying back and forth alongside him, practicing jabs and one-twos, saying things like "Bounce forward!" and "Be on your tiptoes!" and "Hands up!"
"You don't want to hurt the moneymaker, right?" he asks.
It's a jokey throwaway in most cases, but for Theodorou, it's more of a mission statement.
Theodorou is 14-2 as a pro fighter, including 6-2 in the UFC. He's successful but not what you'd call a "contender." He doesn't quite crack the top 15 of the UFC's official rankings for his weight class.
But what he lacks in big-time wins, he makes up for in other ways. Most notably, he's handsome. Very handsome. He long ago crowned his hair the best in MMA, and he didn't spark a lot of debate. Plenty of people lobbed insults his way. He turned them upside down, owning his metro-ness and spinning it into gold.
In fact, that's why he's in this Ontario gym on a Saturday morning. He's the North American brand ambassador for Pert shampoo, and the company essentially made Theodorou the grand prize of a contest.
"The contrast of a male fighter talking about his hair in an aesthetics capacity differentiated me from the stereotypical shaved head and tattoos," Theodorou explains. "It is obviously a concern that one broken nose could damage not only my face but my plans. But at the same time, I have 95 stitches in my face.
"The best thing about winning a fight is not looking like you got in a fight."
A UFC fighter with a face too pretty to punch? Seems like the narrative is too perfect to be true, right?
Parts of it are. Theodorou, 29, works as a pro fighter, a sport that's not exactly conducive to facial symmetry. He is also literally a hair model, a line of work that values physical appearance—you know, just a little bit. He also does a lot of on-camera work, where similar tenets apply.
There's more to it, though. UFC fighters earn far less money than their counterparts in other pro sports—despite often risking more, physically—and sponsorship opportunities are severely limited, so personal brand-building and creativity are important skill sets for fighters who want a bigger return on their athletic investment.
"Build yourself into a star, and you won't be talking about money fights," said none other than UFC President Dana White in January. "It's getting to a point where Conor McGregor has exploded. ... And even if you're not fighting Conor McGregor, you want to be on Conor McGregor's card. Become a star. Don't worry about Conor McGregor or fighting on Conor McGregor's card. Become a star yourself."
That would seem to indicate that individual fighters, and not the promotion, are viewed to be in control, for better or worse, of their own promotional destinies. If that is indeed the case, Theodorou is a leading voice of a new MMA mentality.
It's not just Pert. Theodorou also has deals with Samsung and Under Armour. He has signed on with the Mattel toy company to help market Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and—yes, this is really a thing—Man Bun Ken.
The hair isn't so silly anymore, is it?
"My portfolio is not your typical endorsement portfolio for a fighter to be involved in," Theodorou says.
He recently made waves by becoming a "Ring Boy," a lighthearted answer to the ubiquitous, scantily clad ring girls who accompany more or less any fight card. He trademarked that term, by the way. So don't even try it, Alan Jouban. (Theodorou makes his major league Ring Boy debut March 24 for the all-female Invicta FC promotion.) Theodorou leveraged the Ring Boy attention to promote the launch of his new YouTube channel, The Mane Event—also a trademarked term. A TV show and a movie—an MMA and video-game-themed comedy called Last Hit—are both in development, as are plenty of other business ventures.
"He's very charismatic," says Pamela Kennedy, a public relations consultant who works with Theodorou. "He has a marketing background. He hustles. He has a very can-do attitude. He understands how to get good messaging out there, and he approaches it from the eyes of a brand."
Conversations with Theodorou, who has a degree in advertising from Humber College in Toronto, are like a master class in the topic. He peppers them with shop talk, happily holding forth on content partnerships and brand refreshings and product placement. He's a born self-promoter.
The Mane Event™ @EliasTheodorou
"Last Hit" is coming soon! I'm super-excited to share that the social media accounts for my film, "Last Hit" (@lasthitthemovie, https://t.co/ch3JKsVIF8), are up & running! Be sure to give them a follow and stay tuned for all upcoming news. #lasthit #themaneevent™ 👊🕹 https://t.co/Srwpt0maIr
"MMA isn't really paying a lot right now, but it creates opportunities elsewhere," Theodorou says. "If MMA isn't paying, I have to find something that is. At first, I kept my job as a bartender. MMA gave me the ability to fuse it all together and not having to grow up and get a real job. MMA is a real sport with real discipline and real athleticism, but I don't think of it as a real job.
"It's the reality of having other income outside of fighting. Say I get $2,000 for a fight, but then I do three days on, let's say, a TV show, and I get $7,000. There were little things like that that I was able to do."
Little things like entertaining Rick and Kyle for an afternoon. After the in-ring session, Theodorou relaxes with them in a salon in a Toronto suburb, sipping espresso spiked with sambuca (Kyle abstains). A stylist comes by and wraps a hot towel around Theodorou's face as he reclines into a sink for shampooing. Rather than seem awkward, Theodorou leans in, encouraging onlookers to take a few snaps to capture a silly moment. Just make sure the word "Pert" is visible on the T-shirt!
That's the quality that endears him to fans and sponsors. He's genuinely, unfailingly nice. He will pick you up at the airport and carry your bags to the hotel. It's not artifice. He is supremely confident but never arrogant. He's candid without quite being a trash-talker. He's interested in other people, listening as much as he talks. In real life, he is much like his well-known Twitter feed—upbeat, positive, responsive and almost pathologically outgoing. If there's a problem, he kills it with kindness.
For some people, though, it can all start to feel a little cloying, especially coming in the package that it does.
"Twitter has a lot of negative content, but my feed is probably 80 percent positivity," Theodorou says. "I wouldn't say anything [on Twitter] I wouldn't say in front of you—whereas unfortunately nowadays people are just horrible to each other. I just try to be the opposite of that. ... [But] people don't like the pretty man who seems to kind of have everything kind of going for him."
After the salon, Theodorou and the contest winners make their final stop of the day—lunch at an upscale steakhouse. There's a lot of laughter. He playfully prods Kyle to try a piece of the calamari appetizer (he doesn't go for it). Theodorou asks them more questions than they ask him. He laces the conversation with factoids about science and history. He's a consummate host.
"He's fun to hang out with," says Kyle. "He kind of likes the same things I do. Fighting is fun. He's fun to play around with."
On a larger scale, that may be the secret ingredient in Theodorou's recipe. Whether it's a quiet lunch or a room full of corporate executives, he has never met a stranger.
As he himself puts it: "I have a genetic shame deficiency."
"He has no embarrassment level, at all," says longtime girlfriend Michaela "Max" Altamuro. "He'll just walk into a room and walk up to a bunch of people he doesn't know that look super important, and I'm in the corner cringing. He just walks up to them and goes, 'Hey guys, I'm Elias!' And immediately they'll just take to him, and within five minutes he's worked out some kind of business deal with them.
"I'm embarrassed by him and impressed by him at the same time."
Altamuro actually has a central role in the Theodorou narrative: She's the one who told him to grow his hair out.
"He had Justin Bieber hair when we met," she recalls.
Lounging on a couch in the apartment they share in downtown Toronto, Altamuro tells the touching story of their first meeting: She winged a piece of candy at his head.
"He kept looking over at me but wouldn't come over, and it was annoying the crap out of me," she says. "So I was like, 'S--t or get off the pot!' Come over or stop looking at me. So I threw a candy at him. And he came over to me and said, 'Did you just throw this at me?' And I said, 'Yeah. You looked hungry.'"
It was certainly kinder than most of the slings and arrows Theodorou faces. And it's more complex than mere jealousy over his looks.
In some cases, it's based on his fighting style, which features prominently awkward bursts of striking activity. The style works well at keeping opponents off balance, as does his constant stream of feints and stance-switching, and his athleticism is obvious—but it doesn't exactly brim with world-class technical mastery. He also spends a lot of time in the clinch, though he doesn't necessarily use that time to mount substantial offense.
Critics contend that he doesn't have the power or submission prowess to finish fights—that all-important metric of entertainment value. Of Theodorou's eight UFC contests, all but two have gone the distance.
It's something Theodorou is keenly aware of, and something he pledges to address in future contests. He didn't start training in earnest until college and doesn't have any special pedigree in any one martial art. Although being an MMA "native" can pay dividends, it also means he has a steeper learning curve compared to opponents who started at a much earlier age.
"One of his strengths is he has no foundation in the traditional martial arts, so coming into the scene so fast, that lack of foundation has been a strength," says Chad Pearson, Theodorou's coach at Xtreme Couture Toronto. "He's just now getting to the point where he's tying his techniques together.
"He has a very awkward style that's challenging for even the best guys in the world to deal with."
Throughout the course of a weekend, Theodorou's only flash of irritation comes at the mention of the word "snowflake." It was one of the terms bandied about on social media after Theodorou's November defeat of Dan Kelly, which started with Theodorou uncharacteristically refusing a glove touch, unfolded in fairly lackluster fashion and ended with Theodorou putting Kelly on blast for some pre-fight brinksmanship.
"I put up 129 strikes," Theodorou says of the bout. "The point-fighting issue could come up, but it takes two to tango. I think Dan gave me a path, and in some ways you're only as good as your dance partner. I found a path of least resistance against someone who was just coming at me."
Theodorou takes pains to emphasize his desire to earn more stoppage wins but at the same time asserts, with that trademark unabashedness, that his fans in the boardroom take precedence over those in the chat room. If that means winning ugly over risking a loss for the sake of excitement, so be it.
"As someone that is building much beyond being a fighter, [a win] allows me to go into the next round of meetings that I have for projects that in many ways will be equal to or larger than being a fighter someday," he says. "As much as sometimes people kind of might get angry at the idea…you have to show up and you have to win."
A New Model
People around Theodorou repeatedly praise him for his hustle, for thinking outside the proverbial box to secure sponsorships that go beyond the typical realm of apparel, nutrition products and fight gear. And it's something he largely has done on his own. The model looks help, but without hard work and shoe-leather dedication to the effort, it probably wouldn't have happened.
Barring a major shakeup, fighter pay is not expected to rise anytime soon. Top UFC stars are certainly wealthy, but the rank and file like Theodorou have little chance of ever seeing the riches that other pro athletes enjoy as a matter of course.
"Not everyone's going to be a champion," Theodorou says. "There's so much risk and so much that's not set as far as how much money you can make. But I want to be one of the top earners even if I'm never a champ."
Theodorou says he makes more now from his business deals than he does from fighting, although he readily acknowledges that the latter is what makes the former possible. He also says that being a self-starter on such projects is not as hard as it may seem. Effective social media is the first plank in the platform. That's how the Pert deal came about.
"Elias was brought in through social media," Kennedy says. "He hit the target market, a young 25-to-30-year-old man who cares about his grooming but doesn't want to spend too much time on it. He is very engaging and interacts with his followers. He comes across as authentic and he can laugh at himself in a good way."
In addition, partnerships with local and regional businesses that he was somehow connected to or interested in—companies with which Theodorou still works—helped him gain experience and build a resume.
"Be you," Theodorou advises. "Competition and success in sports are all about creating a narrative. People pick their sides and root for them to succeed or to fail."
In the gym, his coach, Pearson, says Theodorou turned a corner after a loss to Thiago Santos in 2015. As Theodorou puts it, the defeat was a wakeup call that led to more "adulting."
"It was being on time for appointments and the simple attribute of respecting other people's schedules," Pearson says. "He started to put those around him before himself. … In between reps he used to look around. He would talk to other people. Now there is an understanding of focus, and a focus entirely on the technique itself. It was always something I was hoping he would grasp."
At 29, he is not a youngster in the sport, but according to Theodorou, there's plenty yet to come, on all fronts.
A self-described "aggressive progressive," he thinks often about running for office someday. In the meantime, he'll have to content himself with being a pro fighter, spokesmodel, brand ambassador and digital content creator.
"My goal is to be one of the favorite sons of Toronto, and to build myself up on that," Theodorou says. "Mixed martial arts creates a platform for attention, and I'm using those forms of attention.
"I'm going to squeeze this lemon for all it's worth."