Above: MMA Legend Randy Couture gets up close and personal with his Round 5 Series 1 Figurine.
Round 5 is an exciting young company based out of Ontario, Canada. Founded by brothers Barron and Damon Lau, the company has quickly established themselves as one of the top brands of MMA collectibles in the world by forging relationships with MMA stars and giving fans exactly what they want in the form of high quality collectible figurines. Round 5 has negotiated exclusive contracts with many of the top stars in Mixed Martial Arts, including Randy Couture, Matt Hughes, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Tito Ortiz, Fedor Emelianenko, Matt Serra and Gina Carano, just to name a few. The company remains committed to developing intricately detailed figures and giving the fighters and fans, who have made MMA one of the fastest growing sports in the world, what they deserve. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Damon Lau, President of Round 5, to discuss the company’s history, what exactly goes into making the figures and what they have in store for us in the months to come.
For those not yet familiar with Round 5, what can you tell us about the company and how it all begin?
The funny thing about it is that it started off just really by interest and a hobby about two years ago. My background is actually in advertising and marketing. I own a mid-sized agency here in Toronto, Canada which is co-owned by my brother Barron (Lau) and we have done for a lot of different clients. For example, we have done stuff for Calvin Klein, Yahoo and all sorts of stuff. One of my big interests for the past eight or nine years has been mixed martial arts. I am not a big NFL fan, I watch a little bit of hockey but my die hard passion for the past eight or nine years has been MMA. Because of that, we started getting a few clients through the advertising agency and through those relationships I actually got the chance to work with Randy Couture. The story is pretty funny, Randy and I met through work where we were associates and ended up becoming really good friends. Around the spring of 2007, Randy was coming to Toronto and asked if I wanted to meet for dinner. I said “Absolutely, I would love to meet for dinner”. At that time, UFC and MMA as a whole had really started blowing up and was beginning to get really, really big. Randy was the UFC champion at that time, so at dinner we were talking about some business ideas that we thought would be great for the sport, considering how mainstream it had gone. Randy said to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if someone created plastic cauliflower ears to wear at the fights!” I thought that it was pretty funny and in response to that I said “Wouldn’t it be neat if someone decided to create figurines or action figures of MMA stars.” We both sorta paused for a second and said “Hey, that’s not a bad idea!” Randy said to me that if I ever decided to do that to let him know and that he would love to get involved. That is how I got involved with the business, literally on a whim. I thought it was a great idea. I thought that the concept was good and fresh, especially in a sport like MMA where it is so dominated with merchandise that basically leans toward t-shirts and fight clothing. We brought in a breath of fresh air to the industry and created a category within the industry that has been very, very successful.
You mentioned Randy Couture, how did you go about bringing in Matt Hughes, Tito Ortiz and “Rampage” Jackson to round out the original series of figures?
It’s pretty interesting. As big as the sport is, the actual group of industry people is very, very small. A lot of the people are connected and have a lot of strong relationships. Since I had the relationship with Randy and a couple of other key people working within the MMA industry, we started approaching the athletes about the licensing either through management, through a friend or referral and it really worked out well.
For those who might not be very familiar with MMA, how did you come up with the name ‘Round 5’?
Round 5 directly relates to championship rounds being 5 rounds. In an MMA fight there are always 5 rounds and that is how we focused on the name. We thought that it was catchy and relevant to the sport. So that is where it came from.
Can you give us a little insight on how the contracts work with the fighters?
Ninety five percent of our contracts are exclusive agreements with the fighters on multi-year terms. What we did was create a program for what we felt that would benefit the fighters extremely well and that would benefit the fans as well. One of the key points is that we pay very, very high royalties on our program because we want to make sure that the fighters benefit from it and more importantly, that they would be more interested in becoming involved with the process of creating the product. We allow our fighters to have approval rights on the product which is a rarity in the toy industry, just due to a lot of the back and forth that can happen between a toy company and its respective license holder. Since we have given the fighters high royalty rates and approval rights, it gets them really involved with the process of creating the product. The fighters then want to make sure that the product sells, looks good and represents them really, really well. They are involved in every step along the way in the product development from the pose of the figurine, to the sculpting and molding, even down to what logos are on the shorts. I think for the fans it creates a lot more of an authentic product. As a fan, it is great to know you bought a Quentin “Rampage” Jackson figurine and know that he played a major role in development and that the product got a thumbs up from Rampage himself.
You company has really had a really quick rise. What has been the personal highlight for you?
A personal highlight for me has been getting involved with the product development and seeing it come alive while working with a lot of the athletes and hearing the stories about their careers. What you will notice about our figures is that each one is based around some kind of iconic moment or iconic pose. Those poses mean something to that specific person. Getting involved in that process and trying to make a vision come alive with the actual person, I think is the highlight of this project and this company.
What are the steps involved with creating a figure and how long does the process normally take?
It really varies but artistically speaking, it takes about six to twelve months to develop something. When I tell people that, they think it is crazy, but the process gets really in-depth. We usual start by setting up a photo shoot, so that we have reference images to use. After the photo shoot, we move to clay sculpting. Clay sculpting usual goes into hundreds of revisions between the internal product development team and obviously, the approval from the athlete. After clay sculpting, we usually go into creating a painted sample. The painted samples are a hardened clay with paint on them. We begin selecting the paint and working with sponsors to get the appropriate rights to reproduce their logos. After that, we go into molding and that goes into product and plastics engineering. After plastics engineering, it goes into Pantone paint samples. We have to have dozens of paint colors that have to be manually selected for everything between the eye color to the color on the shorts. Then there is still the product packing, marketing, mass production, shipping logistics and distribution! It is a very large and intensive process to create the product that ends up in the customers hands but it is very rewarding for sure!
How have the MMA fans been reacting to the figures? What type of feedback have you been getting?
Honestly, the best part of this is the feedback that we get from the fans. The product that we create is really geared toward the collector and people who are true fans of the sport. The same person that watched the Pay-Per-View, who wants to watch the countdown on TV, or wants a figure that they can leave on their desk at work or put in their collector’s case at home, they have been the most responsive. We get about one hundred to two hundred emails a day from fans that give us ideas and feedback. We even receive “snail mail” that have drawings from fans where they have drawn the fighter that they want to see and have drawn them in the pose that they want them in. It has been nothing short of fantastic! When I originally started this company with my brother, we wanted to create a product that we thought was cool ourselves. It is just great to see that the fans feel the same way and believe in the vision as well.
What do you have in store for fans with in your next series?
Our next series is probably going to be available at the beginning of August. That includes Gina Carano, Cung Le, Dan Henderson, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua and Matt Serra. We still have more series planned but we haven’t announced the characters yet. We have over forty different licenses that we hold right now, so we have plenty of characters that we can create and provide to the fans.
As a fan of MMA, who is the fighter that you find to the most intriguing in the sport right now?
Obviously, what is really a hot topic right now is Brock Lesnar. I think he is one of the most interesting characters out there, for many different reasons. Who would have thought Brock Lesnar would have become a heavyweight champion? I think that coming over to the sport from WWE and all the attention that comes with it, only training MMA for a few years and having only one or two professional fights before winning the championship is a very odd situation. He is a physical specimen in himself, but I think the question is “Will his physical attributes carry him far enough in the sport?” where he can become a champion that everyone respects as an undisputed champion. He lost his first fight coming into UFC and everyone completely wrote him off. Everyone thought that although he is big and he is huge, when it comes to fighting against a true mixed martial artist, he is going to lose. After that he came back and beat Heath Herring in a pretty dominate fight using mainly wrestling. Then he came back and beat Randy Couture. I think a lot of people thought physically he could dominate Randy Couture but skill set-wise, I think a lot of MMA purists really expected Randy to win.
A) Can his physical attributes carry him forward outside of his experience and lack of training to continue as Champion and B) Should he have even have a chance to become Champion in the first place? Did he earn his spot to fight for the Heavyweight title because he had only won one fight in the UFC and it was not against a top contender and then got a chance to fight Randy Couture. A lot of people have respect for the MMA fighters because of their backgrounds, how long they have trained and how fierce they are about the sport but then you have his huge wrestling guy come in and knock out one of the legends — you have to wonder if he will continue to move forward in the sport. I think he is so interesting for these reasons: He is a Champion, should he have become a Champion? Does he deserve to be, and will he continue to be?
So, I think he is definitely one of the hottest stories. Will there be bad or good? I think there is bad and good in both of it.
For those who want to get their hands on Round 5’s products, where can they find them?
Fans can go to our website, www.round5mma.com, and order them online direct from our website or they are available at tons of different retailers. In the United States, they are available at Toys ‘R Us, FYE, all of your local MMA and collector’s stores. In Canada, they are available in Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R Us. We have distributors in Japan and the UK, so they are pretty much available everywhere and there are plenty of opportunities to get the products.
Thanks a lot for your time, Damon!
Thank you! I appreciate it.
More on Round 5…
Round 5 has offered up a sneak peak of their Series 4 figurines, which is scheduled for late July/early August release! The series includes Gina Carano, Cung Le, Dan Henderson, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua and Matt Serra. Check out the “comparison figures” here >
Other retailers can be found at www.round5mma.com/wheretobuy.php.
Round 5 is also preparing for its large presence at the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas in July 2009.
Photos Courtesy of Round5MMA.com