The epiphany was delivered through a flying knee kick and a dog’s shock collar.
The knee belongs to Joel Thomas — when he was 19, he launched it into the head of his mixed-martial arts opponent. His teammates, amid the pumped-up machismo of the pre-fight locker room, had together offered him $50 to knockout his opponent with a flying knee kick.
Fifty bucks? That was enough for Thomas to leap off the ground and slam his knee against his opponent’s face, making the crowd roar.
The shock collar came up six years later on his 25th birthday. Someone offered to give him $5 to try it on. No way, he said. But then he went around the party and gathered $37, enough for him to slip the collar over his head and let five seconds of electricity course painfully through his body.
The lesson — beyond “don’t wear a shock collar intended for a dog” — was clear: At the right price, people are willing to do absolutely insane things.
That’s what brought Thomas here, to the Liberty Lake beach outside the two-story home of Gravity Jack CEO Luke Richey, where “Rock You Like a Hurricane” blares from the speakers, tanned, midriff-baring Hooters girls pass out beer, and “Ski,” a national radio host rocking sunglasses and a goatee, announces, “And now we have the man, founder of FighterBonus, jumping in the cage. He’ll show you how it’s done.”
Thomas is now 27, old enough to have been an amateur fighter, undefeated professional MMA fighter, get injured and start his own MMA gym in Spokane. But he’s young enough to still be able to throw a punch or two. Gloves on, mouthguard in, shirt off, he steps into the ring — a floating cage that had to be hauled, inch by inch, onto the beach by dozens of volunteers due to a permitting snafu — and the fight begins. A blur of blows to his opponent’s head, a flurry to the gut, a tangle of limbs… they’re against the cage, they’re on the ground, and in less than two minutes it’s all over. Thomas wins.
Afterward, he stands before the sizable crowd and lays out the grand idea powering his startup company: Think of it as a Kickstarter for kicks, a way to use crowdfunding to — blow by blow — literally change the way fighters fight.
The sport of MMA already inspires countless animated GIFs and viral YouTube videos compiling the best hits and most outrageous knockouts. When MMA fighter Anthony Pettis ran up the side of the cage to deliver a spinning mid-air kick to his opponent’s head, it became a moment die-hard fans watch over and over.
But Thomas doesn’t just want to make some money off of those moments — he wants to give fans the power to make them happen. Partnering with Gravity Jack, one of the region’s ambitious tech companies, Thomas plans to let fans place bounties on fighters they despise, encouraging competitors to defeat them using a specified move. Any fighter who takes down Ronda Rousey with an arm bar, for example, might get paid $5,000. But the really exciting piece is the jackpots: Fans would pool their money to reward fighters who end fights with really showy, flashy moves — the crowd-pleasers. Knock someone out with the sort of off-the-cage kick Pettis used, or with Thomas’ flying knee kick, or a karate chop, a spinning backfist or gooseneck submission hold, and win an entire pot of money. If no fighter performs the move, it doesn’t cost the donor anything. “It’s literally like saying, ‘If you mow my lawn, I’ll give you $20,’” Thomas says. “If you don’t mow my lawn, you don’t get $20.”
Does that sound like it could mess with fight strategy? Thomas is counting on it.
“It makes it more exciting, it takes out the boringness. That’s what we’ve seen,” Thomas says. “People have gotten so safe that it’s boring... That’s not why anybody watches sports. They don’t want to see just safety.”
He describes his frustration with a fight he paid to see; all the featured fighter did for most of the round was play it safe. It was wise technique, but made for boring viewing.
His jackpots could change that. “It could be at, like, $3 million,” Thomas says. “You make $6,000 if you win in the UFC, your first fight. If you know you’re going to make $3 million to do a cage kick? Dude, I’m going to be jumping off the cage like a freakin’ spider monkey, and I might get knocked out trying, but it’s going to be worth it.”
He’s a long way from that sort of impact. He needs to line up some big partnerships with organizations like the UFC, and hopes nobody swipes his idea in the meantime.
He’s already dreamed up scenarios. Imagine MMA announcer Joe Rogan excitedly shouting out how much money the fighter just earned. Imagine a coach changing a fighter’s strategy in between rounds after seeing a sudden influx of money for a certain move. Imagine the idea spreading to other sports — an actual football team coached by fans. “People would throw in money, and then whatever had the most money, that’s what play they would run,” Thomas brainstorms. “It would be crazy to see a team like that win.”
After all, money has always influenced sports. Maybe now the influence can be a little more direct.