By Thomas Gerbasi
In sad news from the world of mixed martial arts, TapOut founder Charles Lewis, a man better known to friends and fight fans as Mask, was killed in an automobile crash early Wednesday morning in Newport Beach, California.
A staunch supporter of MMA and one of the select few who can rightly claim to be a pioneer in the sport, Lewis started the TapOut clothing company with Dan Caldwell (aka Punkass) in 1997, not with a business degree and a marketing plan, but with a true love for a new sport that made an impact on him the first time he saw Royce Gracie win the first UFC tournament in 1993.
“I bought every color Gracie Jiu-Jitsu shirt,” he told UFC.com last year. “I don’t think they made it in pink, but if they had, I would have bought that too. (Laughs) It was like my armor when I went out into the world. I bet I could walk on water and the sea would part with this shirt on.”
Soon, Lewis would come up with his own armor – shirts with the logo TapOut on them - and in the process of selling the shirts out of the trunk of his car and at local MMA shows, he helped build a brand that is synonymous with the sport today, one that you can find not only at every fight event, but in your local shopping mall.
Last year, he recalled those early days.
“I didn’t know back then that I had to pay to be at a show and sell shirts,” he said. “I can count numerous shows where I showed up and was kicked out of the gym when they finally found me in there. Then I’d go right outside and they’d kick me into the parking lot, and there are guys around today that go, ‘man, I remember you selling in the parking lot because they kicked you out of the inside of the gym.’”
His perseverance paid off – not only for the company, but for all the fighters it sponsored.
“Our shirt sales were doing two things,” Lewis explained. “It was going to make more shirts for the next show, and the biggest thing, we were paying for our fighters in the show. We had to sell enough shirts to pay our fighters at the end of the night. And sometimes, it might have taken us selling at two shows to pay a fighter from the previous week, but they knew that. I was like ‘this is what we’ve got right here; we’ll give you this now, we’ve got another show next week, I’ll pay you the rest of the money next week, and if you come, we’ll even get you in the show free.’ To me, I’m a fighter. It was as though we were all on the same team. We were going to the same underground shows, and it’s always been that we’ve been in the foxhole fighting together. You don’t lie to the guy in the foxhole sitting next to you.”
Strangely enough, despite TapOut’s emergence as a multi-million dollar company, what people may remember Lewis most for is his unmistakable war paint and outfits that forever branded him as “Mask”.
“I don’t care if you call us the Tapout guys, Tapout crew, Tapout fools, two nerds and a cool guy – you know who we are,” he said. “Mask allows me to give my true opinion at all times. Who cares about Clark Kent? I want Superman. Now that my name has come out and who me and Danny are, it’s okay, but the reason I used to fight it so hard in the beginning is ‘who cares?’ You don’t care about Bruce Wayne, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent – you want the superhero. I hated Spider-Man 3 when Tobey Maguire was going around without his gear on. I was like ‘will you put your damn outfit on?’”
Then he would just laugh, and if you ever heard him let it loose, it was infectious. That’s how his personality was as well, and if you walked away from a conversation with him without liking him, there was something wrong with you.
And from a purely selfish standpoint, in my over 12 years of covering both boxing and MMA and conducting countless interviews, there were few people, if any, that I enjoyed speaking to more than Mask. It goes without saying that anyone who knew him will miss him, but it’s the sport of mixed martial arts has suffered an especially hard blow.
STATEMENT FROM TAPOUT
"It is with heavy hearts and great sadness that we must regretfully confirm the passing of our beloved friend, brother and co-founder Charles "Mask" Lewis following a car accident that occurred last night.
We are currently in the process of setting up a memorial service in his honor and will release more details as they become available.
Many thanks to all for the outpouring of blessings and well-wishing during this incredibly difficult time." - The TapouT Family
Remembering Charles 'Mask' Lewis
Thomas Gerbasi March 12, 2009
Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - In sad news from the world of mixed martial arts, TapOut founder Charles Lewis, a man better known to friends and fight fans as Mask, was killed in an automobile crash early Wednesday morning in Newport Beach, California.