Rising to the forefront of the world of collectible MMA figurines, Round 5 MMA President Damon Lau and his brother Barron have taken a dream and made it into a reality. Damon speaks with MMARising.com about major plans for the future.
As co-founders of Round 5 MMA, Damon Lau and his brother Barron have seen their Markham, Ontario, Canada-based company grow into the leader in collectible MMA figurines in less than two years. Round 5 works closely with fighters to develop accurate and eye-catching figurines in their likeness, and has quickly earned a reputation as one of the top companies in the world of mixed martial arts. Working with many of the sport's top stars and champions, the Lau brothers have taken an idea developed over dinner and turned it into a tremendous success.
In this interview, Damon discusses the company's rise to prominence, the fighters he has most enjoyed working with and Round 5's major plans for the coming year.
MMARising.com: Hi, Damon. Thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule for this interview. Could you please provide us with a bit of background information on Round 5 and tell us what first sparked your interest in creating collectible mixed martial arts figurines?
Damon Lau: My brother Barron and I own a marketing company in Ontario [*pressure], and in 2007, we were doing a project with Randy Couture. We were at dinner, throwing around some ideas for MMA-themed products that people would be interested in. We started out with oversized "cauliflower ears" and then started talking about figurines, and the light bulb kind of went on. Randy said we should get in touch with him if plans moved forward, and he turned out to be the first athlete we worked with. A year later, we had Series 1 in stores.
MMARising.com: You and your brother, Barron, have followed the sport for many years. When did you first consider starting up a company within the MMA industry?
Damon: Barron and I had an interest in figurines for a long time. We remembered the series that a Japanese company named Hao did years ago. We wanted to model ours after those, in terms of quality, but to give a North American style to them.
MMARising.com: You have made a conscious effort to follow some of the ideas used by Hao (as opposed to creating cheaper, "kid-oriented" designs), which was responsible for a line of figurines for the former Pride Fighting Championships promotion. Do you feel that this decision has provided you with more opportunities within your target adult demographic?
Damon: I don't know that "opportunity" is the right word. I'd say that we have created a product that is focused towards that target demographic, and what we created is something that's really unique in the end. I think, commonly in the toy industry, especially where people are so used to copying all the time, it's unique to create a product for an industry that doesn't have a real parallel, other than maybe WWE, and even then, that target is primarily children. With the style we created, I think that it provided a unique type of product that caught the attention of the adult demographic, for sure.
MMARising.com: Round 5 is the fastest-growing collectible figurine company in MMA, which is due largely to your dealings with many of the sport's top fighters. Can you tell us a bit about the overall process, from first contacting fighters and personalities to working towards the finished product?
Damon: We work directly with the athletes and their management teams, rather than specific fight organizations, which is beneficial to the process. Basically, once we determine that we want to work with a particular fighter, we'll reach out to them and begin the process. We discuss ideas for the poses and other features, and as we move forward, each athlete has significant input into what his or her figurine will look like. For a fighter like Sean Sherk, the process took about a year from start to finish, since he was so involved in every phase; even utilizing the space on his figurine's shorts for his sponsors.
MMARising.com: Your lines of figurines – currently at Series 3 – are some of the most detailed and engaging collectibles on the market. How important is it for fighters to look at their completed figurines and see unique elements of themselves in the product?
Damon: It's 100% important. One of the cool parts about the product is that the fighters get involved in the sculpting and product development, so when the consumer is buying the product, they get the assurance first-hand that the athlete was involved. If it's good enough for him or her, then it's authentic for the customer. Authenticity of the specific person is key.
MMARising.com: To date, you have worked with many of the best-known and most successful mixed martial artists, including Randy Couture, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva and Sean Sherk, among others. Which fighter or MMA personality have you most enjoyed working with thus far?
Damon: For me, personally, Randy and Wanderlei were favourites of mine, so getting to know them and working with them has been special. They have been great to work with. Randy is great because he provides top-level insight into the sport that you don't really get with many people. He has a definite maturity in the way that he speaks and in his general business know-how, as well as in marketing and everything revolving around the sport. When you speak with Randy, working with him is different than working with everybody else.
In regards to Wanderlei, it's sort of personal for me. Getting to work with him, it's been really cool to see him get excited about the product. From a fan and businessman's point of view, it's exciting to work with someone that you were a fan of for so many years and have it turn out so well. He'll be doing some media and fan events in Toronto in July, and we're really looking forward to that.
MMARising.com: Recently, it was announced that #1-ranked heavyweight and WAMMA Unified Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko and female MMA star Gina Carano have both signed on for a future series of figurines. How pleased are you with the company's current growth?
Damon: We're pleased with the growth, not only because we have signed so many top celebrities and athletes in the sport, but because we have been able to create more of a product that fans would want in the end, regardless of athlete affiliations. Fedor and Gina have their own appeal, and may be recognized by a more mainstream audience.
MMARising.com: Which fighters or MMA personalities would you most like to work with in the future?
Damon: We are always evaluating possibilities that would be the most popular for fans. We're most excited to work with athletes that fans want to see as a figurine.
MMARising.com: It is clear that you are rapidly becoming a major player in the North American MMA figurine industry, but do you have plans to work with promotions in Japan, such as DREAM or World Victory Road, or is that not a viable option at this time?
Damon: We had already made plans to work with athletes who fight for any promotion, but not just with any particular organization, and that is our current plan.
MMARising.com: One aspect of the process that is important to Round 5 is that you allow fighters to have complete creative control over the product, including sponsorships on shorts and attire. Does this level of interaction put you a step ahead of the competition?
Damon: I don't think it puts us a step ahead, necessarily. Rather, it speaks to the authenticity of the product. Fighters are excited that they can work with their specific sponsors, reflecting that same vested interest. If a fighter has a sponsor and can portray it in figurine format, it makes it more authentic and also benefits the athlete.
MMARising.com: While the figurines can be purchased online for $16.99 each through Round5MMA.com, consumers and collectors can also purchase your products at retail stores like Toys 'R' Us. Which retailers would you like to develop partnerships with in the second half of 2009?
Damon: We want to work with retailers who will help to give the best accessibility of Round 5 products to the fans, as well as a retailer who represents the brand well. For example, across Canada, we are in Wal-Mart and Toys 'R' Us, and in many Toys 'R' Us stores in the U.S. We even got "thank-you" e-mails from our customers for being in Wal-Mart, since that made it easier for them to find the figurines.
MMARising.com: Are most of your sales currently handled through the website, or has the retail side of the business provided significant growth for the company?
Damon: The majority of the Round 5 figurines are sold through our dealers - our retailers and wholesalers. The online retail site is a small portion. It provides a reliable source for those who can't find it otherwise or want to instantly order it when they see it. It's a small part of the growth compared to the retail end.
MMARising.com: Looking ahead to 2010 and beyond, what would you most like to accomplish in the coming years, and how long do you believe that it will take until Round 5 is the undisputed leader in MMA figurines?
Damon: What we want to do is grow the category overall. We took something of a novelty interest in the sport of MMA – collectible figurines – and made it into a serious interest. As the sport has gained more fans, and as the years go on with us launching more products and creating more variations and styles, the growth of the category speaks volumes to the growth of MMA. If we can keep making new products, and continue to get customers involved in collection and product development, that will help the sport grow. If you look at the past five to seven years, you see different styles of t-shirts, but it's rare to see other kinds of MMA merchandise.
As for taking a leadership role in the category, I believe that that happens when the consumers decide. If fans call us the leader, that's fantastic and we're privileged. It will happen when we have earned it.
MMARising.com: Your company has found considerable success in working with many past and present UFC champions. Would you consider releasing a line of "prospects" or "contenders" who are likely to be the future stars of the UFC?
Damon: Absolutely. We are already looking at that, and it is in product development for 2010.
MMARising.com: Along those lines, which fighters do you feel that fans should keep their eyes on in the next year (in the UFC or elsewhere)?
Damon: I think one would be Robbie Lawler. The reason is that, outside of the fact that he's a champion from EliteXC, his storyline from the beginning of his career has been followed by North American fans; you saw him have this quick rise, sudden fall and slow rise again. A constant evolution of his technique and style brought his game to a new level. He is also one of the few that has found success outside of the UFC on a high level, but doesn't have a bad relationship with the UFC. He brings lots of excitement. He has a style that lots of people like. The combination of both presents an opportunity for him wherever he plans to fight in the future.
Chris Horodecki is another that I'd like to see more of in the future. I think that it's so rare that you have someone at his age  who not only has experience overall but has such a solid string of opportunities, and has been slowly made into potentially becoming the next breed of star. They didn't throw Chris into the fire right away, but he did have battles where he had to earn his keep. He has great coaching, fantastic talent and experience; maybe not in the biggest shows, but in being the face of the IFL, for example, he's been in those pressure situations before.
MMARising.com: Series 3 of Round 5's line of figurines was just recently released. What should fans and collectors look forward to from Round 5 in the coming months?
Damon: Series 4 is next, and we've expanded to six athletes: Gina Carano, Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson, Cung Le, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Matt Serra. Those are scheduled to be launched in late July or early August, but we'll be at the UFC 100 Fan Expo, with some of our athletes there to sign autographs, and there will be a chance for fans to see Series 4 figurines before they are available to the public.
MMARising.com: Do you have any further thoughts or comments regarding the company or its future?
Damon: I think we've covered it pretty well. Just look for us at the UFC 100 Fan Expo and at www.Round5MMA.com.
MMARising.com: Thank you again for your time for this interview, and we wish you the best in all upcoming endeavours.
Damon: Thanks, we appreciate it.
MMARising.com would like to sincerely thank Damon for his time, and wishes Round 5 MMA the best as it continues to grow and add new fighters to its roster. For more information on the company or to view Round 5's collectible figurines, visit Round5MMA.com.