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MMA Manager Steve Lara discusses top prospects Montague, Bender, MMA business, and much more

Whether you’re a fighter looking to make a climb up the mixed martial arts ladder or a fan trying to understand the business and the behind-the-scenes aspects of the sport, a good manager like Steve Lara from World Sports Management can help a lot.

A longtime partner of Millenia MMA — a top California-based team that includes UFC bantamweight Charlie Valencia, former WEC title challenger Manny Tapia, Tachi Palace Fights flyweight champion Darrell Montague, featherweight prospect Brandon Bender, Bellator featherweight tourney participant Georgi Karakhanyan, and many more — Lara made the transition to MMA management a few years ago.

With his business experience, he’s helped the growth of Millenia and his stable of fighters. In this Q&A interview, Lara talked about how he ended up starting World Sports Management, the development of fighters like Montague — who recently defeated Ulysses Gomez at Tachi Palace Fights 8 — and the business of MMA.

ProMMAnow.com: Hi Steve, thanks for speaking with us. First off, talk about how you got into the MMA business and your role with Millennia MMA.

Steve Lara: I’ve been a business owner most of my life … the last 12 years. I started training with [Millennia MMA instructors] Romie [Aram] and Betiss [Mansouri] back in the day, in I want to say ’93 or ’94.

I was a high school wrestler, started wrestling in 1989. I was a very good wrestler but obviously lacked the discipline part of it. But I was always a great athlete, so I was blessed in that aspect. I became a partner with Millennia years ago when Romie, Betiss and myself were all buddies training as kids. Eventually we started fully cross-training. Now we’re one of the most complete mixed martial arts gyms.

I took a mom-and-pop mortgage company I owned and turned it into a multi-million dollar company, had eight offices. They’d seen what I did with the mortgage industry and they asked me to do with the same thing with Millennia. So I incorporated it, trademarked the name, the logo, and I put it together like an actual company.

Within less than a years time, Millennia just skyrocketed; went from 70, 80 students, now close to a thousand students (in both locations)

Also, I used to be a large sponsor for John Alessio with United by Lending. And in sponsoring John Alessio, this was quite a few years ago, probably back in 2005, I started learning a lot about the management side of things. In turn, I started helping out Romie and some of the guys with management. Before you knew it, they said I should start a management company, so I started World Sports Management and got licensed in the state.

I’m not your typical manager. I’m not the guy that’s going out looking for the Manny Pacquiaos or the [Oscar] de la Hoyas, or for the MMA world the Georges St. Pierres, the BJ Penns; I’m the guy that takes the young kids from my gym and I basically work with them and build them into superstars.

My belief is anyone can be a star with the right dedication and the right training. Obviously there are some guys that are just naturals and some that are just not. But I’ve been sticking with this group of guys and now we’ve got Darrell Montague, who’s now won a title, we’ve got Brandon Bender, who’s looking to accomplish some things and he’s fighting for Bellator, Aaron Wetherspoon … I’ve got some really good guys.

We work hard to find guys the right fights to help them progress. Like if someone’s weak in wrestling but it’s time to test their wrestling, try to find the right matchup. I try to get as close as I can with all the local and big promoters, trying to get affiliated as much as I can with all the local sponsors, and all of the obvious sponsors like Full Tilt.

Unlike a lot of managers, I basically have to create my own way, because where guys in other management companies were with a particular company before that and left and took their contacts, with me, I’ve started from the ground up … doing as much research as I can.

ProMMAnow.com: Starting out working with guys early in their career and watching them develop, how different of a relationship is it? Are you more invested personally?

Steve Lara: Oh yeah; huge relationships, man. These guys are not only people that I manage, but they’re also people that I would consider like brothers or family members. It’s more than just the business interest. It’s the personal interest.

I definitely put in not just 100 percent, but 150 percent on anything that has to do with these kids. But on the flip side, when you lose, it hurts the heart a little bit. Those are the rough times, but with losses come wins. But of all the fights I’ve booked, we’re close to a 90 percent winning ratio.

I train with them, I roll with them, I watch them in the gym all day, so I really know what they’re made of.

ProMMAnow.com: Finding the right opponents for guys isn’t easy, I’m sure. You have to find the right balance between testing your guys and not throwing them to the wolves too early. What’s the learning curve with that? Is it trial and error?

Steve Lara: With fighters, I didn’t want to do the trial and error thing. Record is everything in this sport. That’s what it takes for the big boys in this sport to look at you. I would gather up all the information around me … even at times I felt I was wrong, I would go with the majority decision of the team.

Now, I’m much further ahead of it. Being that I’ve been involved in training so long, I’m able to really break down guys and have a good understanding of the holes in their game. I look at habits. Mistakes can always be corrected, but habits are things that won’t go away.

ProMMAnow.com: Now let’s talk about one of your guys, Darrell. He got a big win over Ulysses Gomez to earn the Tachi Palace flyweight title. What did you think of his performance?

Steve Lara: I thought Darrell did exactly what we planned on him doing and what we trained for. We knew Ulysses was a scrappy kid and good on the ground. Our intentions were to beat him in the stand up and allow him, and if it did hit the ground, to end up in a dominant position, use his wrestling.

Darrell outclassed him on the feet more than we anticipated, which is great, which means that he’s continuing to grow. The thing is Darrell is more of a counterstriker, and Ulysses never really exchanged with him or never really came at him like we wanted so Darrell could land those counter shots and finish the fight. He was more chasing him and using angles to try and cut Ulysses off.

But overall it was a great performance. He did a couple of crazy things like the flying knee at the end of the first round and dropping his hands and taunting him a bit, but that came from having to chase him most of the fight. The first round he cut Ulysses, the second round he dropped him, and it seemed like Ulysses didn’t want to exchange after that.

ProMMAnow.com: Since Darrell is still a young fighter, it’s pretty impressive that he managed to adapt to what Ulysses was doing so well, because he seemed comfortable and confident the entire fight.

Steve Lara: Darrell adapted very well. The transitioning was all there. Usually Ulysses is always the aggressor. But things don’t always go as planned, especially once you get cracked. You sometimes take those big shots and your gameplan goes out the window.

ProMMAnow.com: Since you have a strong business background … heck, you’ve been in the mortgage business, I don’t have to tell you what the recession’s been like. But there’s been talk of how it might’ve impacted MMA in some ways. Even though the sport has taken off, has there been any noticeable impact on sponsorships or what promoters can offer?

Steve Lara: I’ve seen it effect more on sponsorships than anything. But I’ve also seen a big turn on the promoter side, on the smaller promotions. Some of the smaller promotions, they are really pushing the whole ticket sale thing. So your guy has to sell a minimum amount of tickets just to be on the show. If not, I’ve seen them cutting the pay dramatically.

On the big side of things, the Strikeforce’s, the UFCs, is I’ve noticed them just staying internal. They’re not going after a bunch of new guys. They’re keeping who’s marketable now and just continuing to reuse those guys over and over again. They’re using the guys that already have the name, that already have the fan base, and they’re not bringing in a whole bunch of new talent. So guys I feel are ready for this type of organization, like I think Brandon would be ready, I would love to see a 125 division, I think Darrell would be ready, those are guys that just are going to have to wait their turn and wait until things start to pick up.

ProMMAnow.com: That’s an interesting point you brought up. We heard rumors about the WEC doing a 125 class, but that never happened. The WEC merged with the UFC and it isn’t clear when the UFC might do it. Plus, with the timing of the WEC merger, maybe just made sense financially for them to consolidate.

Steve Lara: If the UFC wants to be more of an international company, which obviously they are, but if they want to be that big international company, they’re going to have to start that division, especially when you look at the lighter weight talent in Japan, Korea, the Latin market, Mexico, and the Philippines.

TPF champ Darrell Montague (top left), Bellator featherweight Georgi Karakhanyan (top right), Brandon Bender (bottom left), Aaron Wetherspoon (bottom right)

ProMMAnow.com: Until the UFC gets on board, Tachi Palace has certainly put together a great 125 class to get these guys more exposure.

Steve Lara: Tachi’s done a phenomenal job, hands down. I’ve done help bringing Darrell, [Mamoru] Yamaguchi, and they’ve done a great job and in my eyes. They’re the elite 125-pound organization in the world. I don’t think that Shooto or DREAM, some of those other [promotions] in Japan, have as solid a group of 125 pounders.

It can be something that makes the UFC’s mouth water and want to do that division.

ProMMAnow.com: With Darrell beating Ulysses for the title and on that same night Ian McCall beating Jussier da Silva, the fighter most viewed as the best 125er in the world, how do you see Darrell and Ian matching up, assuming that fight happens?

Steve Lara: Great matchup. They’ve actually sparred each other quite a few times, about a year and a half, two years ago. I know Colin [Oyama] very well, Colin’s an awesome coach. So, we know what we got to do to be ready for him. We’re just going to have to pick Ian apart and find those habits.

It’s going to be by far Darrell’s hardest fight of his career. But with the right preparation, Ian’s beatable. It’s going to be an awesome fight.

We’re talking about maybe doing it on May 5th. I don’t know if Darrell’s going to be ready that soon or if Ian’s going to be ready that soon. We’re going to sit down and talk to Darrell and see how he’s doing. But definitely that fight is going down and we’re looking forward to it.

ProMMAnow.com: I’ve interviewed Darrell and Brandon Bender, talk about some of the other promising guys you’re working with.

Steve Lara: I definitely see Aaron Wetherspoon (7-3) making a big name for himself. Aaron was originally an 85 pounder. He was kind of a muscle head before, wasn’t too technical but hit like a ton of bricks. He lost to Ray Lizama, who is my guy at 85, and he lost to Anthony Lapsley, who we all know is a beast at 70.

Aaron has now finally got down to his normal body weight, which is about 165, 167 pounds. He is now making the cut to 155. He has just completely been working on technique the last couple of years. His boxing has gotten phenomenal. His Muay Thai looks ridiculous, and his Jiu Jitsu and wrestling have come together so well. So I definitely see some great stuff happening for him now that he’s at the right weight.

I have another kid, Saad Awad, who’s had some bad matchups, taken fights on short notice. Saad’s biggest problem was fuel in the tank. We are correcting that with strength and conditioning training, a lot of cardio stuff, and training more for specifically for the sport.

I’ve also got some other up and coming guys like Alex Espindola … I’m sorry for all those guys I’m forgetting off the top of my head.

Manny Tapia, he’s fighting on March 12 at Respect in the Cage.

Tommy Vargas (7-1) is fighting Cole Escovedo on May 5. Also, Roberto Vargas, a few months ago fought Corey Grant of Team Quest and ended up knocking him out. He’s 9-1 now, his only loss is to Wilson Reis.

And Georgi Karakhanyan will be in the Bellator 145 tournament and he’s fighting on March 19.

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