They are the invisible ones, laboring behind the scenes to bring fighter together with promoter and paycheck. They are seemingly tireless, and ceaseless in their efforts when the sport and its denizens are global and know no time-zone restrictions. They are… the managers, and without them, well, a lot less people would be fighting and getting paid for it, that’s for sure.
Shu Hirata is one such manager, and along with Brian Butler and Bryan Hamper, is part of the managerial company known as Suckerpunch Entertainment. Want a fighter from Japan to be one half of your main event? Got aspirations of competing in the Octagon some day? Or do you just really want a free pair of Nikes and the ability to brag about how the “Big Swoosh” is sponsoring you? Hirata – who, prior to joining Suckerpunch last year, managed fighters on his own and worked as an MMA journalist before that – is your man.
The company as a whole boasts around 80 clients, and their roster features the likes of female fighter Felice Herrig, former UFC champ Jens Pulver, TUF winner Amir Sadollah and UFC heavyweight Pat Barry. Hirata, meanwhile, works personally with Roxanne Modafferi, Polish up-and-comer Maciej Jewtuszko, and top-ten bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki, among others. When all is said and done, that’s a lot of fighters to find fights for, negotiate contracts for, find sponsors for, arrange training opportunities for, and ultimately, just keep happy.
“There is no such thing as a typical day,” Hirata says with a laugh when asked about his schedule. But he goes on to describe what is often the usual routine. There is a 4:00 AM wakeup, which, thanks to worldwide time differences, is when he must get on the phone with Europe and Asia and handle things in those territories. Issues in North American are tackled later in the day. Hirata tries to keep his afternoons free for meetings, and a major facet of his job is travel – he sometimes has to be at shows with his Japanese fighters, taking care of their needs and even translating.
When asked about the toughest part of his job, Hirata talks about the difficulties that arise in getting fights for those fighters who have been released by the big promotions and have restrictions on where they want to fight. When asked about the best, most rewarding part, there’s no hesitation: it’s when his clients are satisfied. Case in point, Mizugaki, who at WEC 45 lost to the very tough Scott Jorgensen. At the post-fight press conference, Hirata was reassuring his fighter. But Mizugaki didn’t mind the loss so much. He was just happy to be there, fighting in the WEC – an organization that Hirata had helped him get into.
If finding fights for fighters is one crucial part of the managerial equation, securing sponsorships is most certainly another, and on that topic Hirata initially laments that in the current climate, sponsorships are getting cold. “But actually, that’s not accurate,” he says after giving it further thought. What is happening, he says, is as sponsors are realizing the true value of advertising with fighters, sponsorship monies are decreasing. What that means is that what was once over-paying (example: fighters on unaired preliminary bouts getting decent chunks of change) is now going to level out into what will be “normal” pay.
Still, to combat the plummeting sponsorship “temperature”, Hirata and Suckerpunch are broadening the scope of potential buyers, i.e., going after advertisers outside of the realm of MMA clothing companies and other traditional advertisers. How soon until a fighter steps into the cage with the Apple™ logo on his trunks? That may be a ways off, but like any managerial team worth their salt, Hirata and company are making the phone calls and treading boldly down that path.
What does the future hold for Hirata? “I’d really like to concentrate on discovering new fighters and signing those fighters and getting them fights,” he says. “My goal is of course to have a UFC champion as a client. But on top of that, my goal is to have a Japanese UFC champion. Right now the Japanese MMA market is cold – it’s almost close to dead, right? So, I think the only way to revive that market is to have a hero from MMA.” He draws a comparison to major league baseball, and how if there were no successful Japanese athletes in it, no one in Japan would watch. “I think the same formula kind of applies to MMA. If there were a Japanese UFC champion, the people would start watching MMA again. Because of that, not only the UFC but other Japanese MMA shows would get a spotlight again. That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Until then, Hirata is always on the prowl for fresh, promising talent (actually, he has a network of scouts whose opinions he trusts). And sure, he wants those with the requisite skills – wrestling, boxing, etc. But a key component is that special drive to win. “A fighter’s head must be in the game,” he says. Once those pieces are in place, Hirata, and the folks at Suckerpunch, promise to do the rest.