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Tom Atencio opens up about Affliction MMA, Donald Trump, and UFC ‘spies’

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For a hot minute in 2009, Tom Atencio ran the biggest threat to the UFC’s MMA hegemony. He recently opened up to James Lynch on what that was like.

Affliction Banned

Affliction MMA was a flash in the pan fight promotion that managed to pull off two events back in 2008-2009, but what a bright flash in the pan it was. Primarily a clothing company that had taken over a large portion of MMA fashion and fighter sponsorships, Affliction found itself banned from the UFC after an ad campaign featuring Fedor Emelianenko and Randy Couture facing off led the UFC to believe an attempted talent coup was in the works.

Whether it was or not is still a matter of debate, but once ousted from the UFC Affliction did indeed start its own promotion and go to war with the UFC ... a war the UFC managed to win but not before Affliction managed to hold the first non-UFC MMA event to sell six figure pay-per-view numbers.

James Lynch caught up with Affliction MMA head Tom Atencio to catch up on his new gig doing commentary for North Star Combat and ask about some of that wild history.

“I’m not going to dwell on the past and I’m not going to look back, because if I do it’s probably going to bum me out,” Atencio said when asked about his memories of Affliction MMA. “I mean, look at where Dana White is and look where I am. You know that’s just the harsh realities of it, and and I can look back and I can go God if I had done this right or I’d done this right, or maybe I didn’t screw off so much, maybe I didn’t if I didn’t drink so much or whatever it is. But at the end of the day it’s the past and I’m not going to dwell on it and so I’m looking forward to this new chapter in my life.”

“We really were one of the only companies to go head to head with them and I think that um ... that was a good and a bad thing,” he said. “I think we probably shouldn’t have taken on so much, especially when you’re dealing with people like the Fertittas, and I think really that’s that’s what it was is a very eye-opening experience. If I look back and see who I was dealing with, I don’t think I was ready for it. I don’t think that I realized - I know I didn’t realize - the caliber of business that I was really in.”

The UFC has a history of being pretty ruthless when battling other companies trying to build anything bigger than a regional promotion, and the gloves were really off with Affliction. The UFC counter-programmed their first event and generally made life as difficult for Atencio and his partners at every turn. When a headline fight for Affliction’s third event fell apart last second between Fedor Emelianenko and Josh Barnett, Affliction was forced to cancel the event outright lest they open the door to lawsuits.

“I think it’s it’s like any other business and when you’re into something that was new and you don’t know all the nuts and bolts, you don’t know everything about the industry, I think you make small mistakes,” Atencio explained. “And if I remember correctly, it was because we didn’t put ‘card subject to change’ on the posters. Yeah, small little details, and that’s something that I’ll never forget, so I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. And because we didn’t have that on the posters and the flyers and everything else, it led the company to potential lawsuits from people that did not know that this card was changed.”

Affliction M-1 Global “Trilogy” Official Announcement - Press Conference Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

It certainly wasn’t for lack of a decent replacement fighter to face Fedor.

“We were talking to Vitor Belfort, that was actually something that was discussed,” Atencio said. “Oh yeah we were talking, he was stepping up, and there were a lot of other people too.”

Affliction MMA’s events were ridiculously stacked even by 2009 standards, before the watered down cards we see these days with weekly UFC shows. Their first event featured Fedor Emelianenko, Tim Sylvia, Andrei Arlovski, Ben Rothwell, Josh Barnett, Pedro Rizzo, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, and Matt Lindland on the main card, while the prelims featured Vitor Belfort, Lil Nog, and Gary Goodridge. Affliction was known for splashing fighters with cash, cutting mid to high six figure checks for fighters across the organization. Many felt that was the big reason the promotion fell apart in the end, but according to Atencio the promotion was making the money back via shirt sales.

“I don’t think people understood it was a big giant commercial for Affliction,” he said. “It really was, and that’s what it was. I mean once we started having the events, we started selling more shirts. It was like it was like running television ads, you know, in in the MMA industry and it really did help boost sales for the clothing line. People didn’t understand that we were making money, we were able to not only make money in the fight industry, a little bit of it back, but it was really coming back to us in the in the sales of garments.”

As for the UFC’s initial decision to ban Affliction over that fateful Fedor vs. Randy promotional poster? Tom says it was just a big misunderstanding.

“The reality, it was kind of like a stunt,” he said. “It really was just something that they were both wearing Affliction shorts, it was just something to help promote Affliction in the fight industry. And then what happened was it got back to the UFC and they thought that we were going to start a fight organization so they banned us.”

As if that wasn’t enough evidence that the UFC was pretty cut-throat when it came to competition, Atencio also shared a theory he had about a mole in his company.

“Now I don’t have complete proof, and this is going to sound conspiracy theory, and it’s going to sound really bad,” Atencio said. “This is the first time I’ve ever told anybody this. It’s my understanding that my assistant was working for Dana White or was working for the UFC while working for me. Because after I look back in 2020, with hindsight being 20/20, after I look back, this person that was working for me was always telling me things, ‘Dana has spies they’re always checking on you blah blah blah.’”

“I always worried about who I’m talking to but then after the fight organization stopped, this person has their own event now. And they never had the money to to start their own organization. And it’s an organization that is a feeder organization for the UFC ... so you know, you kind of put the pieces together and it’s pretty insane.”

Atencio didn’t name names, but Invicta FC president Shannon Knapp did work for him back in the Affliction MMA days, and she does now operate a feeder organization for the UFC. There’s no evidence provided or even really any specific accusations from Atencio of wrongdoing on his unnamed assistant’s part. But it’s certainly an interesting little detail in the all out war between Affliction MMA and the UFC.

Another interesting detail from Affliction MMA’s history: the participation of Donald Trump as a promotional partner for the company. The Donald was advertised as a business partner in Affliction MMA, but in reality Affliction MMA was paying Trump to be a face and draw more attention to the promotion.

“He wasn’t a shareholder in the fight in side of it, he was more of a face like myself and someone that brought legitimacy to the masses,” Atencio confirmed. “It was us kind of using him and saying that he was a shareholder and blah blah blah, he just brought a lot of stuff that we wouldn’t have been able to get without him being involved and so that was his role and and it worked ... it worked for both of us.”

Affliction MMA was really ahead of the curve when it came to understanding just how much attention Trump brought to projects with his name attached. It didn’t save them in the end, but given the stiff competition and no quarter stance the UFC had taken towards the oddball clothing company turned fight promotion, that’s not exactly surprising.