Ray Sefo's employees beat the crap out of each other. That's all in a day's work for competitors in the World Series of Fighting, but what's remarkable about Sefo, who serves as the org’s president, is that he convinces professional violent men to work together peacefully. His business runs smoothly – and how. Since Sefo founded the WSoF in 2012, the series has signed deals in eighty countries and an agreement with NBC to broadcast fights on both NBC Sports and NBC proper (including this weekend’s bantamweight championship in Edmonton). Sefo is arguably a more successful executive than he was a fighter and the man was once the second-ranked kick boxer on Earth. He insists that his career in the ring prepared him for a life outside it.
"I'm 43 and I've been in martial arts my whole life," says Sefo. "I live it and breath it and that discipline informs how I behave."
He's putting it mildly. Before we address how he's succeeded, it's worth noting that Sefo was almost bred for his career. The men on both sides of his family - his mother is German and his father is Samoan - are boxers and he was given his first pair of gloves when he was five. His first sparring partners were his brother, a future kickboxing world beater, and his cousin. The family fought (not in the way your family fought) and encouraged him when he decided, at the age of twelve, to pursue martial arts. He'd seen his first movie and he wanted to know Kung Fu. Later, he decided to learn Muay Thai. The he met the Gracie family, creators of modern Jujitsu, and decided to take on another discipline. Then he met Randy Couture and decided he needed to know how to wrestle. Sefo's approach to fighting would be described as academic if that was a suitable adjective for a mindset designed to help a big man kick ass.
Which brings us back to Sefo's post-fighting career. He's thoughtful about what he does, but he's not afraid of conflict. Rather than shying away from the confrontations that are inevitable in a field as defined by ego as MMA, he tries to focus his fighters on the fights themselves. His management philosophy is simple: He provides opportunity in return for hard work.
"Any fighter we sign - not just guys that are experienced, guys that are climbing - they come to me and say they want to be a World Champion," says Sefo. "I get that and I've been there so I let them know we have a platform where they can pursue that."
The fact that Sefo isn't lying - the first WSoF aired on NBC Sports, a coup for a startup league - helps, but ultimately the boss man leans on his credibility as a fighter. He needs his fighters to realize that the climb to the top is long and that jockeying for an advantage makes no sense. He wants his guys to see a fair fight as an opportunity to knock out an opponent and make an impression.
What he doesn't want is for fights to become personal.
"I don't tolerate disrespect," says Sefo. "I will pull guys aside and tell them that being a winner or a champion doesn't make them better than anyone else. You can't tolerate arrogance when people are working that hard."
The most important piece of advice Sefo can offer managers and loyal employees is that whatever the fight is - the decision, the meeting, the promotion, the new gig - it's done when it's done. That's the mentality that allowed him to step into the ring against one of his employees ("I've had 101 fights so it was another day at the office"), lose, and show up to work the next day. Unlike boxers, MMA fighters don't go their entire careers without losing. MMA is about getting back up and moving on. For Sefo, the World Series of Fighting is about teaching men to not just fight, but fight again.
"The game is the game," he says. "Leave it in the cage."
Photos by Nicky Loh / Reuters / Landov