HTFU founder Mark Gingrich found himself in a difficult spot this past Tuesday.
Gingrich, who launched his lifestyle apparel brand in 2009, recently told Sherdog.com that he received a multitude of verbal and physical threats after news broke on Tuesday that he had put a stop payment on a sponsorship check issued to Rick Hawn for his appearance at Bellator 85.
Hawn, who challenged Michael Chandler for Bellator’s lightweight strap in the Jan. 17 main event on Spike TV, announced the development via Twitter on Monday night, though he did not specifically name HTFU in his post. Nevertheless, Gingrich says that his office and website were bombarded the following day by phone calls and emails.
“I’ve been threatened. My girlfriend has been threatened. People who work for the company have been threatened. [Some were] death threats. I lost an employee because of this. I have never seen anything like this in my entire life,” Gingrich recently told Sherdog.com “I would have happily paid $10,000 for that not to have happened -- for my girlfriend and for my employees to not have had to go through that. At the end of the day, I’m pretty disgusted at how [those individuals in the] MMA community conducted themselves.”
According to Gingrich, Hawn representative Mike Russell called him five days prior to Bellator 85 and expressed that Hawn was having difficulty picking up interest in a sponsorship for his headlining bout at the UCI Bren Center in Irvine, Calif. Gingrich, a 38-year-old former triathlete, said he considered sponsoring the 36-year-old Hawn in part because of their similar ages and Hawn’s desire to win a world title as an older competitor.
“[Russell] said Rick knew the brand and had bought a pair of shorts for his girlfriend, and it was Rick’s idea to maybe shop outside the MMA community and not [with] the Dethrone [Royalty] or the Headrush -- somebody a little different,” said Gingrich. “I told him that I wasn’t really interested in a big sponsorship. He said he’d be willing to work anything out.”
After negotiating, the parties came to terms. According to Gingrich, he offered Hawn a $1,500 payday and $2,000 worth of product to become a sponsored HTFU athlete, ideally beyond just the single appearance at Bellator 85. In exchange, Gingrich said Hawn and his cornermen agreed to wear HTFU hats and shirts during the event, and the brand would receive its first television exposure via the Spike TV broadcast. No written contract was drawn up, Gingrich said, because of the short-notice nature of the agreement and his willingness to take Hawn and his camp at their word.
“I said, ‘Does that sound OK?’ Everybody said yes. I went straight to my press and designed a shirt for Rick. I stopped my press and printed the shirt and then talked to Rick a few times about sizing,” said the Dallas-based Gingrich. “I sent Rick every [type of] hat I had and [nearly] every [type of] shirt I’ve ever made. I was trying to hook him up with anything I could find, and I’ve never done that for anybody. I was finally at a stage in my life with the company that I could really take care of somebody. I stopped everything I was doing and flew to California with my girlfriend to be there and support Rick. I was there for the weigh-in and talked to all the corners and gave them all shirts and hats.”
The next day, Gingrich and his girlfriend attended the event. Twice during the Spike broadcast, the crew cut to Hawn warming up backstage. The fighter was wearing a Bellator hoodie and no HTFU gear, a fact that Gingrich said caught him by surprise.
“It was our arrangement that Rick would be wearing product at all times, for any post-fight or pre-fight interview, [whether he was] on TV or off TV,” said Gingrich. “I was extremely disappointed before he came out. I told my girlfriend, ‘That’s not cool. I hope they come out in the gear. I hope I didn’t get duped.’”
When Hawn did make his walk to the cage for the main event, he was wearing both the HTFU shirt and hat. However, the same could not be said for his cornermen.
“When the lights went down, I ran over and saw Rick walk out, and then I saw his corners. One of his corners was wearing all red and wasn’t wearing the shirt, and none of the corners had the hat on,” said Gingrich. “I was pretty disappointed at that point and just went back to my seat. I cheered Rick on and tried to put it behind me.”
After Hawn submitted to a second-round rear-naked choke, Gingrich said he left the arena and typed an email to Russell the following day, the penultimate graph of which was posted by Hawn Monday night on Twitter. Gingrich recently forwarded that email to Sherdog.com, now reprinted in its entirety:
“Mike, can you tell me why one of his corners wasn't wearing a shirt and why none of his corners were wearing the hat?
“This was part of the agreement which Rick and his camp did not fulfill. With regards to everything I have done: I sent Rick a couple thousand dollars worth of clothes (FedEx overnight cost $200). I bought [a] ticket out to support his fight [and paid for] hotels, rental cars. I made a shirt which cost me almost $1000 to make. I had to shut down a printer to do it and take away resources to fulfill the order.
“I arrived in Irvine on Wednesday to his camp. [I] shook Rick's hand, and that was about it for a relationship. Rick and his camp advised me to meet up with him later after the weigh-in. I waited for a couple hours with my girlfriend, rearranged plans and never saw Rick come down to say hello. I had to find him eating in another room with his friends. In fact, his girlfriend was more accommodating and sincere than Rick.
“I will not comment on Rick and his fight. That is not my place. But what I will tell you is this: I took a huge chance with him. TV exposure was great…but it only holds weight if he wins or puts on a good show. Neither happened. At the end of the day…not one sole (sic) will run to the HTFU store and buy product because they saw Rick walk out in my shirt and loose (sic) the fight. I've made it my career and business to know what nets a return on investment for the brand…and this is the No. 1 reason why I DO NOT hand out money or product to fighters.
“With regards to the check I sent Rick: At this point, a stop payment has been placed on [the] check which cannot be cashed or deposited now.”
When asked why he chose the words that Hawn ultimately reposted on Twitter, Gingrich admitted that he “probably did a poor job of communicating” his point, which was that he believed Hawn did not live up to his end of the bargain in regard to what product would be worn, who would wear it and when it would be worn. Gingrich also said that had Hawn won, he would have still sent an email to Russell expressing his dissatisfaction with what he felt was an unfulfilled obligation on the part of the fighter.
“The only reason I addressed the fight or TV at all is because I was expecting them to respond with something about the exposure we received with Rick wearing the shirt and hat on Spike TV. It was a poor choice on my part to point out that TV exposure alone is not enough if the fighter performs poorly,” said Gingrich. “At the end of the day, I didn’t yank the check because he lost the fight or had a bad fight or anything related to his character. I yanked the check because it was the only thing I could do at that point, because they breached the contract. I couldn’t get my money back on the shirt I created. I couldn’t get my ticket back. I couldn’t get anything back that I put into Rick except the check.”
In response to his email, Gingrich said he received a notice of potential legal action from another of Hawn’s representatives, Robert Stein. Gingrich said he then texted Russell, but Russell did not want to talk, instead insisting that Gingrich render his payment to Hawn immediately.
“I didn’t have a say, and there was no [explanation]. There was no [mention] that his head coach (Firas Zahabi) has a Headrush sponsorship that [they] didn’t tell [me] about, and [Zahabi’s] obligations are to that company,” said Gingrich. “Those were things that weren’t talked about in the beginning, but Rick and Mike made me feel like the corners were fine with all this.
Gingrich said that had Russell offered an explanation for why all the corners were not wearing all of the gear, he would have reversed the stop payment and parted ways with the Hawn camp.
“HTFU does over $1 million a year. I would have happily given Rick $1,500. It’s not a big deal. The principle was the deal.” said Gingrich. “I feel that as a business owner, I have an obligation to the company to hold people accountable for what they do. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it, and when people say they’re going to do something, I hold them them to it. This isn’t some elaborate hoax that I conjured up in my head. I felt kind of betrayed a little bit.”
Gingrich said that in addition to receiving the stream of threats, he also spoke to several members of the media on Tuesday. Most expressed their condolences about the threats, Gingrich said, but stated they were unsure about running a story detailing the matter.
“You know something? These assh---s on these forums and these jackasses who threatened me and left me these messages, they don’t know the full story, and they don’t care. And the reporters don’t care either. All they care about is the fighter, and I understand that. The fighter is the underdog in the situation, and I’m some big company trying to take advantage of the middle man,” said Gingrich. “What no one understands is that I’ve built HTFU from the ground up, from nothing. For three years, I’ve struggled and lost things. This isn’t a corporate entity. It’s not Hayabusa where you have corporate structure and marketing dollars already set aside. I [run] on a case-by-case basis and maintain personal relationships with everybody involved.”
One journalist, Gingrich said, even advised him to pay the money in the interest of putting the situation behind him.
“At the end of [Tuesday], I just reissued the check. Honestly, I was just so sick and tired of the phone calls. There is only so much that someone can take,” said Gingrich. “I’m not a mean guy, and I’m not a guy who purposely tries to hurt people, especially athletes, because I spent seven years of my life trying to become a professional athlete with no income.”
After informing Russell that he had reissued the check, Gingrich said that Russell told him that Hawn would not accept it unless Gingrich publicly apologized for “the uneducated and scathing comments made about [Hawn’s] performance and for [the] attempt at exploiting [Hawn’s] name and character.”
“I never did anything publicly to Rick,” said Gingrich, who refused to apologize. “I never exploited him or his character, nor did I make any public comments about Rick and his fight. I sent Mike a personal email asking what the guys were doing not wearing all the clothes and [telling him] that Rick’s fight was not going to net a big return on investment for me.
“[Tuesday] was the hardest day because of all the threats, and I kept my mouth shut. Not one time did I go out and say anything negative to Rick or make a public statement. I could have done it a thousand times and been mean about the situation,” Gingrich continued. “I have been castrated, hung and murdered by the MMA community, and I haven’t said one word. Honestly, what good was it going to do?”
Though Gingrich took the aforementioned journalist’s advice in mailing the check, the HTFU founder said that it has done little to ease his mind.
“I don’t think it really mattered anymore after all the damage was done on the Internet, but now I have to deal with the consequences,” said Gingrich. “I pretty much lost everything in this situation. I lost the relationship [with Hawn]. I lost any kind of [public relations] moving forward, and I lost any sort of backing in the MMA world.”
Editor’s Note: Sherdog.com contacted Rick Hawn representative Mike Russell prior to this story’s publication with an offer for a follow-up piece that would provide Russell’s and/or Hawn’s account of the events, an offer which Russell accepted.