A Death in the Family

By Loretta Hunt and Esther Lin Oct 29, 2008
Turi Altavilla had already lived once through the death of an MMA promotion from the inside. He never expected to experience it again.

Regardless, Altavilla entered the offices of Pro Elite Inc. in Los Angeles on Oct. 20 knowing that it would be his last day there. Employees had been told that a lifesaving deal for the company’s purchase by the CBS-owned Showtime Network had fallen through in the last two weeks, and that if a last-ditch turnaround hadn’t been accomplished over the weekend, Pro Elite’s plug would be pulled.

Altavilla hadn’t received the phone call of salvation he prayed would come over the last 48 hours. Instead, an announcement was made that morning that 22 months was all the company would get to make its mark in the sport, and desks were to be cleared out and offices vacated.

Prior to Altavilla joining the Pro Elite family in June 2007, he’d worked in the U.S. office for revered Japanese juggernaut Pride Fighting Championships. And as Altavilla has learned the hard way, a company can cease to exist in a variety of ways.

“Pride was a titan with the UFC, two titans going at it, each of us thinking that we did shows with different flavors, different ways to present the fights, different philosophies and styles. That one hurt,” says Altavilla. “I’m not saying this one, Pro Elite, didn’t, but it’s a different kind of hurt. Pride died over the course of 12 months –- it was a slow death. With Pro Elite, the feeling was completely different. We blew it. We had a lot of money. We had a rare opportunity to make some noise, and we blew it. I don’t know how anyone could say anything differently.”

When a company goes under and is over $55 million in the hole, it’s obvious that a lot more things went wrong than right.

Altavilla, who’d worked the trenches for the low budget but highly lucrative King of the Cage promotion for three years prior to his four years with Pride, saw a lot of wrongs the moment he walked into Pro Elite’s extravagant offices.

Though Altavilla’s previous positions in other companies dealt with the promotion and running of live events, Altavilla was the only true English-speaking employee in the Pride office and learned the art of the business deal fast.

Its “fight team” bloated to 12 members, Pro Elite hired Altavilla as a Vice President for Home Entertainment and put him to work handling DVD and merchandise production and sales, and later Internet deals after that division of the company was stripped.

“During my Pro Elite tour-of-duty, a lot of people were calling me the ‘earner,’ because I was focusing on just making the company money,” says Altavilla.

There were others roaming the halls whose job descriptions weren’t as defined, Altavilla observed.

“It seemed there were friends of a lot of higher-ups there, and that doesn’t seem like the proper way to establish a company,” he says. When layoffs came in January 2008, Altavilla still wondered what some of the exiting employee’s job descriptions had been.

As a vice president, Altavilla attended virtually all in-house meetings, many of them determining the day-to-day decisions that would translate into the 17 events the promotion pulled off in 20 months.

Earlier on, Gary Shaw, a boxing transplant who was given the leadership role of live events president, seemed open to democratic voice, but the process proved too slow and unproductive. Altavilla remembers a day where eight employees sat around a boardroom table trying to decide who James Thompson should fight in his EliteXC debut.

“There were times when I think maybe Gary understood that we were all very good at what we did previously, and he was trying to involve us, but a lot of us were turned off by that,” says Altavilla. “It just seemed pointless to have that many people in a room trying to discuss what they thought would be the proper match.”

When the elder Shaw announced later that lesser experienced employees Richard Chou, J.T. Steele, and Shaw’s son, Jared, would handle the matchmaking, the elder employees -- some of them with double-digit years in the business -- were disheartened. Altavilla believes Choi and Steele rose to the occasion, but the younger Shaw became territorial and difficult.

“Jared would try and make it very clear that both he and the matchmaking team were calling the shots with the matchmaking,” says Altavilla. “There wasn’t even any pretending that they would try and throw us a bone. There were times when others had different ideas for matches that were clearly better ideas, and he’d make it clear that that wasn’t going to happen.”

When Shaw did open the floor for collaboration, Altavilla says he often clashed with the rest of the group.

“It was more a hindrance in what we wanted to do,” says Altavilla. “I’m not saying the rest of us were always on the same page, but we all could present very logical arguments. Whatever the decision was in the end, we would all follow it. I think Jared often wanted to do things just his way, and he was very stubborn about it. To him, it was the right way. We had very specific thoughts on matchmaking and who might be a star.”

While Gary Shaw had years of promoting behind him and a relationship with Showtime that earned him a margin of respect, his son has no such resume to speak of, says Altavilla.

“At the end of it all, you’re talking about guys with years and years of experience that have seen and done this on many levels, and then you’re talking about Jared, who was basically a fan,” says Altavilla. “It often seemed to me like he was a fan who won some reality show and got to be a part of an MMA company.”

In the boardroom, the debate raged on for one pivotal fighter in particular –- Internet superstar Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson.

“We often disagreed on who to match up against Kimbo,” says Altavilla. “It was constant heated discussions, because Kimbo’s career was still being built up. It was a unique situation to have someone with that star power having minimal MMA experience and to find fair matches that he could really win or lose. Jared felt very strongly about certain opponents for Kimbo, and it was what it was.”

Shaw never attempted to keep his affinity for Slice hidden, although it showed a bias in his position. In fact, the 26-year-old executive often seemed a part of Ferguson’s multi-man posse, because he rarely left the fighter’s side at media days and other public events. Still, Altavilla denies that the company showed favoritism in selecting Slice’s opponents.

“I don’t think the company tried to protect Kimbo,” he says. “We tried to put together marketable matches. I think everyone was mindful of that fact that Kimbo’s career was so young, but look at the guys he fought and combine their records. He fought some very experienced people with a lot of wins. I really think he deserves credit for that. Most guys start out facing other guys that are 0-1 or 2-0, guys at the same level.”

To the younger Shaw’s credit, he wanted to pair Slice with Brett Rogers after the two fighters nearly came to blows at a post-fight press conference in May. Much of the media balked when an already announced fight between the two was shelved, as Rogers was deemed a difficult opponent for Slice.

Altavilla says that, at the time, the promotion wanted a “bout mainstream fans would go bonkers for” to head the third CBS telecast, and Rogers just wasn’t a known commodity yet.

Disdain for the youthful Shaw spilled out into the public realm, as well, says Altavilla. While the Pro Elite team tended to all the last-minute on-site stresses that come with hosting live events, Shaw seemed to disappear.

“I don’t what his background was exactly in boxing, but I don’t feel like he knew MMA at all,” says Altavilla. “I don’t know what he thinks promoting a show involves. Does it just involve showing up and speaking at a press conference? Because if it does, then maybe I’ve been doing it the wrong way. When someone can just show up and not contribute and steal the limelight, morale is going to go down.”

Though the box office receipts were dismal, Altavilla considers the July 26 EliteXC event in Stockton, Calif., the company’s most optimistic moment. Gary Shaw was on his way out of the organization and did not attend, says Altavilla, and Jared Shaw wasn’t around to roll up his sleeves with the rest of the staff, as they got the cage to the venue on time and tended to fighters and sponsors.

“He was never a part of that,” says Altavilla. “Because of the attention he’d bring on himself, the media and outside people would seem to think he was running the show, and he absolutely was not, and I think that should be made clear.”

Altavilla corroborates that to get rid of Gary Shaw, Pro Elite had top keep his son, Jared, onboard. Seemingly untouchable under the protection of his father in the past, many in the company believed Jared Shaw would be the next to go once the dust cleared.

“I think a lot of us were guilty of keeping our mouths shut, because we thought it was a matter of time before Jared was going to get the boot,” says Altavilla. “We thought it would be any week. Obviously, that never happened.”

In his final months with Pro Elite, Altavilla says Jared Shaw made numerous calls to the media unbeknownst to the rest of the staff. One of those calls pertained to a deadline set for 160-pound champion Karl James Noons, who had entered a contractual dispute with the promotion.

“None of us would have gone out and mentioned all of these things that were a part of KJ’s contract,” says Altavilla. “None of us wanted to take this personally. He took it too far. He seemed to burn a bridge with KJ, and I just don’t see the need for that. You have to think big picture. In a couple of years, we could have been working with KJ again. We were already trying to work with him again.”

Altavilla says Shaw’s final media-grabbing overtures against UFC President Dana White were unmerited, but the promotion was heading into deeper waters with its fateful Oct. 4 show.

In a moment of panic backstage, Altavilla watched CBS, Showtime and EliteXC representatives huddle to make a decision regarding an injured Ken Shamrock’s replacement. Altavilla says he and Terry Trebilcock, who sold his successful King of the Cage promotion to Pro Elite the year before, looked at each other and backed away, sensing there were too many chefs in the kitchen.

Once the decision was made to promote undercard fighter Seth Petruzelli to the main event against Slice, Altavilla said negotiations were held behind closed doors. Altavilla does not know which Pro Elite representatives were present for the now infamous talks.

“I didn’t see any wrongdoing during my time with Pro Elite,” says Altavilla. “I wasn’t in that room. I’m glad I wasn’t in that room. I don’t think my colleagues were capable of doing that.”

Others had their doubts, including CBS, which reportedly pulled away from the promotion as speculation of “a fix” gained steam from Petruzelli’s post-fight comments.

The comments were a final link in a chain of events that led to Pro Elite’s demise and the loss of Altavilla’s and others’ jobs.

Altavilla, 34, is what the industry would call a “lifer.” He doesn’t plan on leaving the volatile fight game, though he’s come to accept that disappointment is a very real part it. Living through two failed promotions hasn’t quelled his passion for the sport or cut his connection to its fighters and all the nameless workers that go unnoticed behind the scenes. Altavilla will try again with another group down the road because for him MMA is not just a job but something that he lives and feels.

“The demise of Pride was extremely painful. It bothered me for months,” says Altavilla. “It really stung, because anyone that went to Pride events realized how incredible they were. With this, it just felt like we blew it. With Pro Elite, it was a different kind of disappointment, but disappointment nonetheless.”
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