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How a Richmond adman punched his way to Wall Street

Posted at 10:45 AM, Oct 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-17 10:45:14-04

RICHMOND, Va. — What started out as a way to offset the ills of sitting at a desk all day has led a Richmond entrepreneur to the closing bell at Nasdaq.

Richmond-based SuckerPunch Entertainment, a company that manages about 130 professional mixed martial arts fighters and is run out of the West End home of Richmonder Brian Butler-Au, on Oct. 10 signed a letter of intent to be acquired by Alliance MMA.

The pending deal brings together two companies on different ends of the mixed martial arts spectrum. SuckerPunch is run out of Butler-Au’s West End home. Alliance MMA, which aims to be a minor league for mixed martial arts fighters, became a publicly traded company Oct. 6.

Expected to close this month, the sale would cap off a nine-year run for Butler-Au, a VCU alum and longtime martial arts fan who didn’t imagine a hobby would turn into a thriving source of income.

“I just fell into it,” he said. “I wanted to do something to stay in shape. Traditional exercise was boring.”

Butler-Au participated in the closing bell ceremony at Nasdaq in Times Square in early October. (Courtesy Brian Butler-Au)

Butler-Au participated in the closing bell ceremony at Nasdaq in Times Square in early October. (Courtesy Brian Butler-Au)

More than a decade ago, Butler-Au ran ad agency Roundtable Creative out of an office at North 19th and East Franklin streets in Shockoe Bottom. He described the firm as a boutique agency that specialized in doing things for larger agencies. The hours working as the owner and creative director motivated Butler-Au to do something to stay in shape.

The search eventually led him to a mixed martial arts gym in town called Combat Sports Center.  Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is like boxing with one-on-one fights but incorporates techniques from fighting styles like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling. It has entered the mainstream with the rise of promotion companies like the Ultimate Fighting Championship and gyms that teach MMA techniques to amateurs.

Butler-Au, 45, was one of those enthusiasts who watched UFC fights and worked out at a local MMA gym. Fate came calling when the owner of the gym asked if Butler-Au would parlay his marketing skills into doing promotional work for local fight shows.

One of the techniques Butler-Au used for ensuring a big crowd was to pair the fights with a special celebrity autograph session. Butler-Au, an outsider to the business of MMA, impressed one of those celebrity guests so much that he ended up being Butler-Au’s first client.

“You could tell he was in marketing and was different than the old school in this sport,” Jens Pulver, a celebrity guest who did a show Butler-Au was promoting, said of Butler-Au.

Pulver won the first UFC Lightweight Championship in 2001 and was on “The Ultimate Fighter 5,” a reality show produced by UFC. After the event, Pulver reached out to Butler-Au about being his agent to get sponsorships.

Continue reading about how Butler-Au wound up with an office in Richmond, and in New York City, on