Tragedy strains fabric of MMA apparel line

“Punkass” and “Skyskrape” appear to be the same fun-loving members of the TapouT crew that have become so familiar to mixed martial arts fans over the past few years.

But Dan Caldwell and Timothy Katz, the men behind the colorful nicknames and outlandish outfits, still are dealing with the tragic loss of their friend and business partner.

Charles “Mask” Lewis was killed in March in an automobile accident in Newport Beach, Calif.

The three men were the brains behind TapouT, the signature apparel company in MMA.

For Katz, getting through the tragedy has been a challenge.

“It was tough. It still is tough,” he said. “I still have to drag myself out of bed all the time just to keep going. It’s still fresh. It was only a few months ago. Charles to me was everything. My best friend, brother, father figure. He was so many things to me.”

Caldwell said staying busy has helped him cope with the loss.

“Work is how I stay close to Charles. Work’s how I keep his memory alive. Work’s how I keep my mind off it,” he said.

Lewis and Caldwell founded the company in 1997. Katz befriended Lewis and teamed with the two co-founders almost immediately.

Sales were slow the first year, as they were mostly driving around to underground cage-fighting shows and selling T-shirts out of their trunks.

Caldwell, 34, estimates that sales the first year totaled about $30,000.

He insists he foresaw success, however, because the company’s clothing was so closely tied to MMA.

“We were so enamored by (MMA) just watching it, and I was like, ‘Everybody’s going to love this,’ and when I would talk to some people and they would say, ‘I can’t watch that stuff,’ I was almost confused,” Caldwell said. “I couldn’t believe that anyone wouldn’t love this sport. And if they love the sport, they’re going to love our clothes.”

Eleven years later, TapouT’s sales eclipsed the $100 million plateau in 2008. The brand is expanding into gyms, supplements and fitness equipment.

Caldwell said the continued progress of the company is another way to honor their late friend.

“I think he would have wanted the business to move forward,” Caldwell said. “That’s all he ever thought about, ate, drank and slept. That’s all we ever thought about. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else right now.”

Caldwell and Katz were in town Saturday for the grand opening of the TapouT Research and Development Training Center on West Hacienda Avenue and for the Ultimate Fighting Championship card at the Palms that night.

They were front and center at the fights, dressed in full TapouT regalia, as usual.

Katz, 31, said he was unsure about continuing with the wacky persona after the death of Lewis.

“I had mixed emotions at first. I didn’t know if I could do it,” he said.

But he has found another way to honor his friend.

“All my outfits that I wore, I’m not going to wear anymore because that was Charles and I. I’m going to keep doing my thing, but I’m changing it a bit because I feel that is part of the past,” he said. “I’m going to gear a lot of my outfits like my old outfits but incorporate some of his stuff so it’s a little bit of both of us.”

Katz also has one more reminder of Lewis. He had a rosary tattooed around his neck with Lewis’ name on it.

“I look at myself every day in the mirror and I want to see something of him that’s never going to be gone,” he said. “You could burn my house down and take all the pictures away, but nobody’s going to cut the tattoo off my chest.”

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509.

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