Tom Atencio's biggest lesson running Affliction: Don't poke the bear (UFC)

Ten years ago, Tom Atencio was there when Affliction Entertainment jumped headlong into the MMA major leagues with “Banned,” a show as glitzy and gaudy as the T-shirts that funded its existence.

It’s not a day that holds any special significance for the former clothing executive, who now works as a graphic designer.

“I had no idea,” Atencio told MMAjunkie when informed of the show’s 10-year anniversary Thursday. “Honestly, I’ve never been a person to look back unless it’s about history I can learn about. As far as my own life, I’ve always tried to move forward.”

Atencio’s life bears little resemblance to the days when he was a figurehead of a wildly successful apparel company that decided to compete with the UFC. He left Affliction in 2011 and no longer works in the MMA industry.

“The perception of it is that I’m completely independent and stupidly rich,” he said. “Not true.”

Today, Atencio works three days a week for a group of Crunch gyms in Southern California. After a stint running his own T-shirt printing company and another “sitting at home doing nothing for a while,” he volunteered his services to Jeff Clark, a former MMA manager and owner of Arena MMA in San Diego.

It’s a steady job that gives Atencio the flexibility to raise his young son. It’s not as glamorous as his previous job, but it doesn’t carry the same notes of heartache.

“I couldn’t care less about the brand,” Atencio said. “I couldn’t care less about what happened in the past, because to me, the future is more important.”

Atencio’s break from Affliction wasn’t clean. The circumstances of how he left the company isn’t something he wants to dwell on. He doesn’t blame anyone for the way things turned out, because it taught him a lot of lessons about business and life.

The biggest, Atencio said, is “not to poke a bear.”

“When I say ‘a bear,’ (I mean) the Fertittas,” Atencio said of former UFC co-owners Lorenzo and Frank. “I don’t think somebody could have been more grossly underestimated. I guess I didn’t just realize the caliber of people that we were going up against. It’s really that simple.”

Josh Barnett, Donald Trump and Fedor Emelianenko at a 2009 Affliction press conference. (Getty Images)

In 2009, Affliction Entertainment quickly imploded after the cancellation of its third event, “Trilogy,” and the company returned to its previous role as a UFC-approved clothing sponsor.

The attention Affliction garnered as a new market player came at a steep price. The company burned through millions of dollars on a pair of pay-per-view events and failed to break the industry-leader’s grip on the MMA marketplace.

“I’ve never claimed to be the smartest guy in the world, but I’ve worked hard and I’ve done things,” Atencio said. “I tried to be good at what I did, but it’s just a whole different animal. When you’re dealing with somebody at that level, especially in business, it’s a whole different animal. It’s going from a $1 million business to a $150 million business, and it’s a whole different caliber. It’s like going from pony league to professionals.

“I don’t think I was in over my head. Just like anything else in life, there’s a lot of stuff you would have done different. When I look back, I would have tried to do what (current Bellator President) Scott Coker did, which is to fly under the radar, and not, like I said, poke the bear.”

Even the sponsorship business that brought Affliction MMA industry was built on shaky ground, Atencio said.

“Our contracts weren’t completely dialed in, and it was one of those things where I was able to get guys like Georges (St-Pierre) in the beginning, and our contracts weren’t ironclad, and it was a thing where we were learning,” he said. “Quite frankly, there were a lot of whores out there. They would get what they could, and they would wear other companies at the same time.

“Not to speak ill of Georges, but he was one of the guys that really didn’t like Affliction. He really didn’t. He had higher aspirations. He wanted the UnderArmour and the Nike, and he wanted the bigger money, although we were paying him, at the time, huge money. Huge money.”

Eventually, Affliction pivoted from MMA into other markets as its once-ubiquitous MMA shirts faded in popularity.

But in spite of the way things ended, Atencio looks back with pride when he thinks about many of his accomplishments as the company’s vice president. He was a matchmaker for a major MMA event, doing business with legends like Fedor Emelianenko and Vitor Belfort. He caught a piece of the wave that turned MMA from fringe sport into hot commodity. He even managed to find time to get in the cage himself, something his well capitalized competitors never did.

“Honestly, it was one of best parts of my life,” Atencio said. “It was a complete dream come true. It was something I never in a million years would have imagined I would have been, and not only where I was, but doing what I was doing.

“I hope my son can one day back and go, ‘Yeah, that was my dad.’ To me, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was. Not that I’m saying I’m a has-been, but I did what I did, and I’m not in the market any more. I wish I were. I love the fight industry, but I’m not. So you can look at it either way. But at the end of the day, at least I did something.”

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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie

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