SportsBiz: From Denver With Kicks

Denver-based Glory Sports International looks to mixed martial arts' transformation from hobbyist diversion to global business franchise

Here's a handy life tip: Try not to get kicked by Chris Camozzi.

It’s a revelation, the usefulness of which becomes apparent seconds after the 6-foot-2 martial arts specialist begins sparring on a Thursday afternoon with his friend, Marc Montoya, owner of the Factory X gym in Englewood.

Except “sparring” seems an understated way to express what Camozzi does in the ring. The kicks he launches from his muscular frame produce thunderous echoes as they smack hard against the protective pads Montoya’s thrusting out from either hand. It basically sounds like a gunfight’s going on. Even so, the moment lacks any suggestion of menace. Camozzi, an affable, polite, look-you-in-the-eye 30-year-old who graduated from Jeffco’s Bear Creek high school, is half-smiling and conversing nonchalantly as he follows an arpeggio of punches with a devastating wheel-and-deal blow from his right leg. For him, it’s just another afternoon at the office.

Camozzi’s training for a big moment: his debut as a professional kickboxer in a fight scheduled for Dec. 1 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. As a six-figure earner on the UFC circuit, Camozzi has plenty of experience fighting for prize money under the lights. But the December fight will be his first in the combat sport of kickboxing, where a different set of rules (no on-the-ground wrestling, no elbows) changes the nature of the game.

The event is one of dozens of tournaments staged annually by Glory Sports International, a promoter and presenter that brings talents like Camozzi to the ring for nine minutes of adrenalin-laced fury. Glory Sports works a global marketplace, staging four- and eight-fighter tournaments in far-flung locales such as Amsterdam and Guangzhou, China. But its home is Denver, where longtime sports executive Jon Franklin runs the show from an office at the corner of Larimer and 21st streets.

Franklin, a University of Denver Sturm College of Law graduate, knows his way around the ring. As a kid growing up in Detroit, he used to ride his bicycle to the famous Kronk Gym, where legends like Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns and Evander Holyfield trained. During the 1990s, he worked for the late Denver-based cable TV mogul Bill Daniels, running a boxing promotions company that staged fights involving Mike Tyson and others.

Franklin later worked for the large sports-and-entertainment agency IMG Media, running the group’s Winter Sports and Olympics divisions, which represented skiers including Bodie Miller. For years, he’s been a fixture on the international TV sports scene, negotiating TV deals for the Golden Gloves boxing organization, for the World Series of Boxing amateur boxing competition and for a variety of extreme sports competitions. Franklin helped put together some of the first TV rights deals for Glory Sports after its three primary investors launched the company in 2011. When they went looking for an executive to run the venture full time in 2014, Franklin, then 53, was at the top of the list.

The business model he’s pursuing relies on some of the same attributes that helped transform mixed martial arts from a hobbyist diversion to a global business franchise for Las Vegas-based UFC, which started out humbly in 1993 with an event at Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena. Franklin thinks kickboxing’s fast pace (three 3-minute rounds) and its limitations on takedowns and “ground and pound” floor fighting appeal to a millennial-generation audience that likes its action fast and furious. But he’s equally respectful of UFC’s role and influence: Glory maintains a symbiotic partnership with UFC, which distributes some of Glory’s kickboxing events in its UFC Fightpass streaming-video platform and features some of the same fighters (like Camozzi) who climb into the ring for Glory’s kickboxing tournaments.

The biggest domestic exposure Franklin has comes from a rights arrangement with ESPN, which televises fights during Sunday nights on its ESPN2 and ESPN3 cable-sports network and on the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes. The ESPN deal represents an important mainstream endorsement that’s helping Glory Sports elevate kickboxing’s profile in the U.S. “We can sell out the big arenas in Europe,” Franklin says. “In the U.S., we’re still in a building phase.”

That could change as kickboxing gains more television exposure and as more kids do what Camozzi did: He tried kickboxing on a hunch and quickly became addicted.

“I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie,” he says. Which makes kickboxing the perfect fix. “It’s nonstop,” Camozzi says before climbing into the training ring at Factory X. “They want you fighting bell to bell.”

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