Mike Bickings is a promoter on a mission. A mission to make his upstart regional MMA promotion- Art of War (AOW) one of , if not the best, regional promotion around. To that aim Bickings is off to a good start, doing six events in the first year at the helm of AOW. Art of War1 was held on April 28, 2017 and AOW6 is already set for March 10th, putting AOW on par event number wise with much longer running regional promotions. AOW5 invades 2300 arena on Friday February 16th. FightingStanceMedia brings you this interview with Bickings two weeks before the next AOW event and gives him the opportunity to explain what led him to launch his own promotion, what the process has been like so far and what he credits as making his venture a success.
What fight business experience did you you have prior to starting AOW?
I have a background in music and multimedia. I started out promoting events. Even though it was regional MMA, I wanted to make things Hollywood. Shows used to promote with one main poster with 15 guys stuffed on it. I started doing individual posters for every fight on the card. The first ammy fighter on the card can sell 100 tickets, so it was important to get everyone some spotlight. I also did countdown videos and green screen interviews with guys to promote the fights. Again, it’s regional MMA, not the UFC, but who cares? Let’s make it as entertaining as possible and have fun. I knew I had the edge on other shows with my promotional skills, so I decided to do my own thing. I no longer have to run ideas past a “boss” and the sky is the limit with creativity. My philosophy is to make our fighters look like gods, therefore making the show look that much better. The hard work comes full circle.
What was your reason for starting AOW?
I started AOW because I was working my ass off for other people. I was matchmaking and doing all of the promo. I was literally doing everything to make a show run. I’d put an entire card together, do every poster, videos, etc and be stressing the whole time, just to have the promoter show up and complain about random things and talk about quitting all the time. I’m the ultimate team player. Once I’m with you, I’m in 100 percent. But if I’m not appreciated, I have to go. The final straw was when a promoter called me about me getting to the venue to help hang banners. He couldn’t take the initiative to hang a sponsorship banner with a bungee cord. Then I was underpaid two shows in a row. So I decided it was time to do my own thing or walk away. I couldn’t be the only one in the boat rowing.
How did you come up with the name “ART of WAR”? What message did you want it to convey?
Art of War is a famous book written by Sun Tzu. It explains the philosophies of war strategy. The theories focus around attacking your opponent’s weaknesses. Cage fighting is identical. You focus on what you do well and your opponent does weak. Attacking a larger army from the middle to create chaos and improve your army’s chances of winning can be equated to timing a knee on a wrestler looking to shoot, or setting up an overhand hook when someone throws a kick out of habit. So the two connect. Plus this is war. I have competitors so what can I do to stand out and defeat my competition? More hype behind our shows? Build new stars? Super fights? We focus on all of those things to deliver a superior product.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being a promoter?
The pressure is the worst part of promoting. You can feel great about a show 8 weeks out. Then a fight falls off, then another one. Then a guy gets hurt and he may be out as well. A great card can quickly turn to mush over the time leading up to the show. That’s the scariest part. Then you have guys who take fights, never get their meds and bulls**t the whole time. Or guys who call the week of the fight and ask if their opponent will go up 7 pounds. You’re the middle man so you get bitched at for relaying the message. Keeping a card together is an art form.
What is the most rewarding part of promoting AOW?
The crowd. When you fill a building and the crowd goes home happy, it’s all worth it. We make money and our customers feel they got their monies worth. My first year we filled it up in both Lancaster and Philly. The crowd fills in after the first fight or two. But then you have nights like AOW2 (Martinez VS Jones) where the place is packed before the first fight. AOW3 in Lancaster was the same. You know it’s going to be a good night. We did it again in Philly at AOW4 and we look to do it every time from here on out. Filling up buildings and the fights delivering makes it all worth it.
You are on a very fast pace for your first year. How have you been able to manage such a busy show schedule in your first year in business?
Our success has been based off of our demographics. We are blessed to have two awesome territories. Philly is my home and I’ve built relationships with the top gyms and fighters in Philly. I earned their trust by keeping my word. Without these relationships, you have nothing. I’ve seen the shape some of these promotions are in from burning bridges with schools. No fighters, no show. So I’m in the business of being honest and doing my best for my guys. Lancaster is my second home, though. I LOVE Lancaster. I have a great relationship with Gracie 717, Ephrata Martial Arts, HKA, etc. They are all great people. Lancaster as a city is a ball. I can hit the outlets for clothes and sneakers, go to 551 West for some of the best grub in the country, bring the kids to Dutch Wonderland, put on a s
how at the Lanco Fieldhouse, and still grab a shoofly pie before jumping back on the turnpike. Plus we get a great deal of casual fans out there who have no connections to the fighters, but still come to see MMA. Very classy and knowledgeable fans.
AOW 5 marks the third venue in 5 events – 2nd time in 2300 Arena (you already used Lanco Field house and Harrah’s Casino). Is it part of your plan to move event locations around?
We hold our shows at the places that make the most sense. Lanco Fieldhouse provides a ton of space and fans seem to really enjoy it. So we’re very comfortable there. The 2300 is my favorite spot for Philly shows. The lighting over the cage makes for great video. The elaborate entrances with smoke machines, flashing lights, big LCD screens and all that good stuff makes you feel like you’re at a WWE show. Our fighters love the Hollywood feeling they get coming out. So we’re happy where we’re at for now.
As a promoter what qualities do you want to see in a fighter?
Everyone has a gimmick. You may be the quiet, all-American kid who never talks smack. You could be the brawler who the crowd loves to see throw hands. You can be the sh*t-talker who pisses people off. Whoever you are, I try to help amplify it. I want to see guys make a name for themselves. That helps them make more money and hopefully make it to the next level (UFC, Bellator). So I like guys with skills and personality. But in most cases, we’re satisfied with guys who get their medicals in on time, lol.
Many new fight promoters never make it past 2-3 shows before folding. What do you credit for your success so far?
We aren’t reinventing the wheel. The product is still a cage with guys fighting inside. But we’re giving our shows a much better build-up. All of Philly couldn’t wait until Will and Sharif fought. Pyfer and Atiyeh had a major buzz. Guys like Zak Kelly, Blaine Shutt and Mike Serrano have great fan bases. For $55 a ticket, people want more than a bell, a fight, a winner. People want to be excited about what they’re about to see. Sharif calls out a Bellator and Philly legend, OH SH**, Adam Atiyeh says he’ll eat McDonald’s, not train and knock out a young lion, OH SH**. The build-up makes it worth it. That’s where other promotions drop the ball. You MUST sell your product. Promoters need to PROMOTE. Art of War gets fans excited.
What has been the craziest story so far as a promoter?
At weigh-ins at Chickie & Pete’s restaurant for AOW2, Sharif Jones came in a few pounds heavy. His opponent Will Martinez left, but Jesus Martinez (Will’s brother) stayed to be sure Sharif cut the weight. Sharif left and came back a few times and finally made the cut. But it took about three hours. He was sitting in a hot car with the heat on in a sauna suit. That was a harsh reminder that fighter-life is real. For Sharif anyway. I was nervously stuffing crab fries in my fat face praying that this fight I promoted for so long wouldn’t be cancelled. I got lucky that night.
Who do you credit for the growing success of AOW?
I work my balls off. But my support system is fantastic. First my wife. I have four children and my wife, Debb, holds down dinner, homework, showers, etc. Without that room to work, I couldn’t go that extra mile to make these shows so exciting. My wife has been behind this AOW stuff since day one. Probably because she listened to me vent the most when I was taken advantage of by people I worked for. Secondly, my good friend David Feldman. He’s been promoting forever and it’s fantastic to learn from him. This is a self-made guy who has great advice on any situation. His son Dave Jr. and I are very lucky to be his main students. But to have a guy who’s promoted everything from cheesesteak festivals to MMA to midget wrestling just a phone call away is a valuable resource.
AOW 5 and AOW 6 are 22 days apart from each other. Do you see this as a test for your promotion’s ability to manage two events so close to each other?
Our schedule is the price of trying to be a major player on the regional scene. If you do 2 shows a year, nobody cares. If you stay active you have more opportunities for fighters, thereby strengthening your relationships and you deliver better shows. So the more active we are, the better the product.
Follow Mike Bickings and AOW on social media.