Now that we have Conor McGregor, it’s easy to forget how reluctant many fighters were – and still are – to embrace the importance of branding.
Conor’s fearless combination of Irish steak and sizzle skyrocketed him not only to the top of the UFC, he quickly transcended combat sports with his formidable skills, charismatic personality, and business smarts.
It’s something that former USA National Combat Sambo coach Oleg “Alec” Savitsky appreciates.
Born in the Republic of Georgia, Savtisky will be 46 years old in 2018. He became a U.S. citizen in 1997 and is a three-time world championship medal winner, with a nine-year career in Combat Sambo and MMA (2000-2009). Known to friends as “Alec,” Savitsky successfully made the transition to the business side in various roles including a TV commentator, talent scout, and promoter for M-1 Global in the USA.
Savitsky was recently named Director of Combat Sports at management consulting firm IPZ International Players + Zito Partners (IPZ). He spoke to The Crossfire’s Kenai Andrews about his career and his new position.
Note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
IPZ DIRECTOR OF COMBAT SPORTS OLEG ‘ALEC’ SAVITSKY
MMA Crossfire: Can you describe your role as Director of Combat Sports?
Oleg Savitsky: I’m the guy who brings the talent or former talent. Actually they are always talented, just retired. Basically guiding them through their retirements or if they are still active fighters, I’m helping them to find those people who help them to be smart. In financial terms, to be smart in the sense of getting great representation out there in the media, or making right decisions when it comes to everything. Fighting sponsors, investments, and everything else. I’ve been in that position myself for a long time, so I always see those guys in MMA, combat sports that do extremely great and then for some reason their name is not properly packaged and they don’t the recognition they deserve. Basically at a very young age, and then suddenly they have nothing. They have to enter what I call ‘the real world’ at age 35 let’s say, and they have nothing going on for them and it’s very scary. For me, it’s the perfect opportunity right now to have partners like the Zito partners (IPZ) that are willing and able to help those guys. That’s why I’m so excited to assume this new role.
MMA Crossfire: If someone told you at the beginning of your career that you would be a Director of Combat Sports, what would you have told them?
Oleg Savitsky: (Laughs). Hmm, interesting question. I don’t know. At that time, to be honest with you, when I was doing combat sports, there was nothing like this. The combat sports at that time, wasn’t even on the map. The UFC just appeared. They were not even under the Fertitta brothers or Dana White at that time. There was Bob Meyrowitz. No one knew it would pick up and become something. Thanks to Zuffa and the Fertitta brothers, the UFC became a big entity and MMA became a popular sport around the world. At that time, I would have said, ‘What are you talking about?’ because the sport didn’t really exist. Again, I’m talking a good 20 years ago.
Oleg Savitsky: The only combat sports at that time were judo, wrestling and sambo. And not even combat sambo. Because I started doing Combat Sambo … officially Combat Sambo appeared … because before it was illegal. It was only taught to special forces because the punching, striking, kicking, it was not legal in sports sambo. But we always trained, back when I was in the (former) Soviet Union, we were trained how to strike if you were planning to go to special forces. So they would give us boxing, karate skills. And then suddenly in 2000 because they recognized that the sport was taking off and because of UFC, because of mixed martial arts, they were like you know what? It’s time to show what Sambo can do. And that’s the time when I started going to world championships in Combat Sambo. That’s the time you saw Fedor for the first time in combat sports. He went over to Japan and competed in PRIDE over there. That’s how we all know each other.
MMA Crossfire: As you look back, do you find that athletes are more aware of the importance of self-promotion?
Oleg Savitsky: Well, absolutely. The greatest example you will see is (Conor) McGregor. That’s probably the best example of a guy who knew. But before McGregor, I would say an American guy who is still competing – and is one of my favourite guys when it comes to selling himself – is Chael Sonnen. He’s eloquent, smart, very quick. But again even Chael Sonnen recognizes that what he was doing is the same thing that Muhammad Ali was doing. So I would say in combat sports – if we’re including boxing as a part of MMA – then I would say at least to my knowledge it was Muhammad Ali. All the trash talking and knowing how to brand himself, but not on the same level that McGregor does today. It didn’t exist then. Ali would set up fights. But McGregor today, he’s everything, a true brand.
And it’s very important that you’re not just a fighter. That even when you’re done, there’s a brand that can survive on its own and continue to bring money, continue to spread the sport. That’s very important. That’s why a lot of fighters today they’re more interested in superfights. Look at (Georges) St-Pierre, same thing. So to me, McGregor would be the face of this new emerged fighter, that not only fights, but is a true brand. Hopefully, it becomes like Michael Jordan and basketball, we would have somebody like Conor McGregor who has the product lines and not from Reebok. McGregor boxing gloves, McGregor MMA gloves, McGregor shoes, McGregor suits. As a brand, I think McGregor’s the first one.
MMA Crossfire: He took a page from Floyd Mayweather …
Oleg Savitsky: Absolutely. You know it’s a funny thing. I have so much respect, understanding today as I get a little bit older and wiser. Not judging Mayweather on his style of fighting because I don’t like defensive, counterpunching, boring fights. From that point of view, I would say Mayweather is not my favourite boxer. I think the best boxer that ever lived was (Vasyl) Lomachenko if you ask me, but he’s a good example. Take the genius of Mayweather. He’s a brilliant guy who packaged himself. He knows exactly what people want to see because of his style. And he has incredible boxing power – look at his first fight. He changed it, why? Because everyone now buys the pay-per-view just to see someone beating his ass. He knows it and he caters to that perfectly. He knows what fights to take.
Oleg Savitsky: At the same time, think about this. A guy who is phenomenal by any expert view like Vasyl Lomachenko has incredible skills. The guy’s unbelievable. But he doesn’t know what to say properly. He doesn’t know how to sell himself and people around him don’t really know – that’s my opinion maybe I’m wrong – how to package him properly. The guy is not even making $1 million per fight and he’s the best fighter that ever lived if you ask me. From my understanding of boxing skills, he’s just phenomenal, but cannot sell anything. There is no brand or persona. But Mayweather in my book is genius and that’s why he makes so much money. He knows what to say, when to say it, how to say it and people don’t give him the credit he deserves.
There are Olympic Games, and there is the business of making money. Unfortunately, MMA business today is not business of Olympics where you have to prove you are the best. If you are making money for an organization, they are going to keep you, they are going pay you more. Of course, you also have to show skills. That’s how I see it.
MMA Crossfire: Thanks for your time Alec. Was there anything you wanted to let the readers know before we go?
Oleg Savitsky: My thing is this, Kenai. I just want guys and girls to know that they have to think about their future because I’ve seen it many, many times. When we’re 20, we think we have our whole lives ahead of us. Then you’re 30 and you notice the years are going by fast. And then when you’re 40, you start to realize those last 20 years went by so fast, I didn’t have a chance to react. They have to realize when they are in this sport, they have to connect with the right people. They have to develop their brand from the get-go and make the right decisions with everything. And if they need that help, that’s why I’m here. I’ve been in that situation myself. This is why I want to do this besides teaching and training people. There are people like us, like IPZ that can help them today.