May 9, 2016
Focus: Business of Sports

Entrepreneur launches global 'grappling' bouts from tiny CT suburb

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
The Marlborough-based North American Grappling Association hosts bouts around the world, attracting more than 1,000 competitors to single events. Unlike Ultimate Fighting Championship and MMA, there's no striking in grappling. Instead, contestants try to defeat their opponents using wrestling, judo, jiujitsu and other submission techniques.
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Kipp Kollar stands in front of a bench press at his home gym in Marlborough, where he also runs the North American Grappling Association, which made $3.8 million in revenues last year.
PHOTO | Meghan Keil
At age 50, Kipp Kollar still competes in NAGA events.
PHOTO | Contributed
NAGA events attract thousands of spectators.

North American Grappling Association

2015 gross revenue:
$3.8 million

Year founded: 1995

Countries where 2016 events are being held:
U.S., Ireland, Brazil, England, and Germany.

2015 gross revenue: $3.8 million

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Kipp Kollar saw an opportunity with a new sport 21 years ago and seized upon it.

The former white-collar insurance professional turned entrepreneur founded the North American Grappling Association (NAGA), which is based out of his Marlborough home and posted nearly $4 million in gross revenue last year, hosting wrestling-style events across the globe.

Grappling, which can include fighting techniques like freestyle and catch wrestling, Brazilian jiujitsu, judo, sambo and luta livre Brasileira, is a sport in which contestants try to get their opponents to submit or quit through holds or locks, without inflicting pain.

There is no striking in grappling — distinguishing it from more recognizable sports like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and MMA, which have garnered national media attention in recent years and whose fighters have reached celebrity status in the same way other American professional sports athletes have achieved.

A Global Reach

NAGA bills itself as promoting the largest submission grappling tournaments in the world. It held 60 tournaments last year across the U.S., and in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Monaco and Brazil, or more than one per weekend on average.

One recent weekend in April, about 2,200 people competed in two NAGA events in Honolulu and Morristown, N.J., Kollar said.

"There isn't anybody that runs as many tournaments as us nationally and there certainly isn't anybody who runs them internationally except … for [the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation]," said Kollar.

NAGA is, by far, the largest grappling league, said Kirik Jenness, the official records keeper for mixed martial arts and owner of MMA.TV and Mixedmartialarts.com.

"If you look at the number of events per year, particularly over time … that's when you get a sense of how truly dominant NAGA is," Jenness said.

MMA sans violence

Jenness said most people know about UFC and MMA.

"Grappling is that same sport, but you take out the punching and the kneeing and the elbowing and the kicking, so that it becomes something everyone can do," said Jenness, who has refereed NAGA matches involving children as young as 4 and adults as old as 70.

Kollar got his start in the business teaching taekwondo on the side in the early 1990s, while also working a white-collar job in insurance — initially, teaching insurance executives at his company's health facility.

He was eager to learn about Brazilian jiujitsu after taking a seminar from Rickson Gracie, the brother of Royce Gracie, of the Brazilian Gracie family famous for their martial-arts prowess. (Royce is in the UFC hall of fame and won the fighting league's inaugural 1993 championship, among other tournaments.)

Kollar recalls the seminar in which Rickson Gracie offered $100,000 to anyone who could beat him.

"The first four [opponents] … he just destroyed them with the grappling techniques, which I had never seen before," Kollar said. After that, Kollar bought videos and attended future seminars.

Grappling with Taekwondo

"That's where it all started for me," said Kollar, who grew up in Trumbull and earned a business management degree with a focus on computer science from Bryant University in Rhode Island.

He added Brazilian jiujitsu grappling techniques to the kicks and punches he was already teaching in taekwondo.

He said his side gig started making so much money, he quit his insurance career.

He added grappling divisions to his karate tournaments and fighter interest began to blossom.

"The number of competitors doubled every time we did a tournament; it was catching on," he said. "Ten, 20 years ago, nobody knew what grappling was, nobody knew what mixed martial arts was."

He eventually quit teaching taekwondo and focused instead on teaching MMA and grappling, moving his school to Wesleyan University and getting more serious about the fighting.

Early success

In the beginning, Kollar started organizing some early MMA bouts in boxing rings before the octagon arena became the standard fighting venue, but as MMA exploded, he focused more on grappling. He fought a few MMA fights himself and, at a fit 50 years old, still teaches MMA in his home gym, working out religiously but no longer competing.

He teaches grappling there, too, since it's part of MMA and competes in grappling events. Kollar was scheduled to compete in NAGA's expert division in Rhode Island May 7.

Through NAGA, he still organizes MMA events at Mohegan Sun Arena, under the name Reality Fighting, but grappling is the largest piece of his business.

No Paid Grapplers

"The grappling is really where we make our money because we're not paying fighters to fight, they're paying us — it's an amateur sport," he said of entry fees that run about $100.

Winners get medals, belts or samurai swords. NAGA offers divisions for all ages and skill levels.

Tournaments can attract more than 1,000 competitors. NAGA also makes money at the door from family and friends and other spectators, and from merchandise sales like T-shirts. The organization has an 18-wheeler and two smaller box trucks that travel the country hauling mats, merchandise and other equipment for the tournaments. One of the smaller trucks is dedicated to Reality Fighting equipment.

Robbie Brown, who owns Robbie B's barbershop in Colchester, has grappled in one NAGA event and fought in three of its Reality Fighting MMA events.

"They run a very good show, I mean people love Kipp, people love the organization, the referees are all good, good people," Brown said of NAGA.

Brown said NAGA tournaments are the best grappling competitions around, allowing athletes to test their skills by competing in a live match.

Global expansion

NAGA has a staff of two in addition to Kollar, but contracts with several hundred referees, medics and others on event days. Its referees all meet certain professional requirements, including being purple belts or higher in jiujitsu.

"We were like the first grappling tournament to become professionalized, meaning everybody was trained, people did it on a regular basis, they didn't just do it once a year and that really kind of set us apart from our competition," Kollar said.

Kollar or one of his staff is at every event. He had just returned from a Honolulu tournament one recent April weekend and was preparing to leave the following Thursday for an event in Orlando, Fla.

Kollar wants to grow NAGA, which started as the New England Grappling Association before incorporating as the North American Grappling Association in 2000, when he expanded to other parts of the U.S. and Canada. While he's gone overseas, the NAGA name has stuck and is known internationally, he said.

Room for Growth

There's more room for growth in Europe — NAGA plans an event in Ireland in September — and also in Brazil, where NAGA's held one event and plans another later this year. NAGA plans to expand to other South American countries and also to Asia, Kollar said.

"The whole world basically grapples. Now it's just figuring out the logistics of running shows in those countries," he said.

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