Former Ohio State wrestler Mike DiSabato has been fighting his whole life and he has one piece of advice: “Just avoid lawyers. It’d be better to settle it in the cage, the old-fashioned way.”
Unfortunately for him, lawyers have the muscle in the business world. DiSabato has used a fighter’s mentality as he’s gone from business to business and lawsuit to lawsuit. And now, he has to unload a lot of OSU apparel to help pay off debtors.
DiSabato, 41, comes from a family thick with wrestling tradition and heavily intertwined with the university. He started on the wrestling team from 1987 to 1991, and he and his six brothers — five of whom wrestled at OSU — have excelled in the sport, coaching at local high schools and holding a camp for aspiring wrestlers.
His family donated $50,000 toward a graduate endowment in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. His brother Adam, a three-time All-American wrestler, was inducted into the OSU Hall of Fame in 2006.
Mike DiSabato won the Big Ten’s Medal of Honor, an award given each year to a graduating athlete of each university who demonstrates academic and athletic excellence. In 1994, he got a master’s degree in public administration from the school.
He used his OSU athletic connections after he went into the business world. For example, earlier this decade, he signed OSU football luminaries Archie Griffin, Chris Spielman and Eddie George to marketing deals, according to legal documents.
But DiSabato’s relationship with the university eventually soured and he sued in October 2008.
Nonetheless, he has become an emerging figure in the burgeoning mixed martial arts merchandising and marketing world. He owns a company that is big and getting bigger.
But before that he was a salesman for various sports-related companies, and he ended up in court with two of them.
In 1996 DiSabato began working as a salesman for Nutmeg Mills, a sports apparel business. DiSabato claimed that he had an oral agreement with the firm that would have allowed him to earn $480,000 in his three years with the company, according to a lawsuit he filed against the company in 1999.
In its legal response, the company said there never was such an agreement and denied that it did anything wrong.
DiSabato ended up dropping the suit because the legal fees were too costly.
“It is what it is,” DiSabato said in an interview this month with The Lantern.
In 2003, he sued Team Beans, a company he began working for in November 2001. In his suit he claimed that the novelty sports business failed to pay him proper commission for big sales he made of OSU bobblehead dolls to Donatos and stuffed bears to J.C.
The complaint also claimed that Team Beans didn’t pay all of his business expenses, took away his family health insurance and wrongfully fired him.
Team Beans denied any wrongdoing.
A key disagreement was that DiSabato said he had permission to work with other sales companies while he was working with Team Beans as long as he didn’t directly compete with the company. The company said that wasn’t true.
Team Beans said he used company equipment to sell similar merchandise through a company called Silver Knight. DiSabato formed that company while working for Team Beans.
The company suspected that DiSabato had work on the side. Team Beans requested he hand over his home office phone records so they could reimburse him for business expenses, but he continually failed to do so — a part, they say, of his “scheme” to cover up his unauthorized work.
The company contended that while DiSabato secured business deals with former OSU football players Mike Doss and Matt Wilhelm for Team Beans, he also secured agreements with Griffin, Spielman and George for another company.
He also submitted expense forms for costs incurred while working for other companies and used Team Beans’ confidential customer lists and strategies for his own advancement, the suit claimed.
A judge dismissed DiSabato’s suit in June 2004.
Although he didn’t get what he wanted, DiSabato says he’s happy with where he is now.
“They didn’t do what they should have done — it is what it is, and how do you like me now?” he said of his apparent success in the mixed martial arts business. “Toby Keith wrote that song, didn’t he? ‘How do you like me now?'”
Big Buckeye business blooms
DiSabato wasn’t the only one filing lawsuits. In April 2008, a former employee of Silver Knight sued the company and DiSabato, claiming the company breached its contract with her. The suit was settled.
DiSabato said, “no comment.”
Silver Knight, created in 2001, was a stepping-stone for DiSabato.
He owned the business, which had dozens of deals with colleges, and hit it big when it struck a deal with OSU in mid-2004 to sell its apparel and novelties, joining more than 500 companies with OSU licenses.
The company made a killing on the relationship, bringing in more than $5 million annually during its peak. Silver Knight got exclusive rights to supply the university with T-shirts in 2005.
The shirts featured a motto from Woody Hayes, “You win with people.” DiSabato told Columbus Business First that he expected the shirts to help triple his company sales within two years.
But DiSabato didn’t get to see if that expectation would be met.
In December 2006, he complained to The Columbus Dispatch that the university was exploring a deal with Nike Inc. He said that if Nike signed a contract with the university that included exclusive rights to jerseys, it would destroy more than half of his sales.
It did. Shortly after DiSabato’s comments were published, he was notified that he was being terminated as an OSU licensee. DiSabato then sued the university, claiming the school wrongly terminated its deal because of his outspoken behavior.
In September, they reached a settlement. Silver Knight must sell its remaining inventory and give 20 percent of that revenue to the school, according to Business First.
Despite the suit, DiSabato said he remains a Buckeye fan.
“I love the university. I always have,” he said, praising the university’s involvement with a leadership fund that DiSabato started in honor of his friend and former Buckeye wrestling teammate, Ray Mendoza, a Marine officer killed in Iraq in 2005. Jim Tressel was the keynote speaker for a related event in October.
DiSabato blamed his dispute with OSU on “folks who know who they are who hide in bureaucracy.”
OSU spokesman Jim Lynch said in an e-mail that the school is happy the dispute is over and that it “was an unfortunate situation given the fact that Mr. DiSabato is part of the Buckeye family.”
Lynch said the university’s exclusive contract with Nike to sell jerseys wasn’t a factor in DiSabato losing his contract.
“Five other companies also lost the ability to sell jerseys within their
line of products,” he said.
Switch to the fighting business
Silver Knight has to sell its products because it’s broke. Earlier this year it was placed into receivership after a court in Dallas found that DiSabato had breached a contract with Globex International, a company that helps businesses brand and promote their products.
Silver Knight owes $5.3 million to Globex, according to Business First.
DiSabato agreed to get license agreements in Globex’s name, the company said in its lawsuit. Instead, DiSabato used Globex’s money to get those agreements in Silver Knight’s name.
The receiver company that now possesses Silver Knight’s OSU merchandise is looking at options to sell the remaining inventory at the best price, Lynch said.
DiSabato has money problems in Columbus, too. He was ordered in Franklin County Common Pleas court last month to pay Huntington National Bank nearly $1 million for defaulting on a loan toward his latest business, MMA Authentics. The bank is owed $960,730.04.
Both Huntington and DiSabato’s attorneys declined to comment.
DiSabato said he expects his new business to prosper despite his past problems.
“We’ve recently brought in investors based out of California that’s going to take us to another level, and I think we put a lot of our problems in the past behind us,” DiSabato said of MMA Authentics, which produces mixed martial arts gear and licenses.
He said his company has a nationwide deal with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the first of its kind for MMA apparel. The company’s brands — such as Cage Fighter and MMA Elite — are in stores nationwide and in Canada. DiSabato said the company is ready to ship to Mexico and Great Britain, too.
The market is booming, he said.
“The Wal-Mart program’s [sales] should be in excess of $30 to $40 million next year,” DiSabato said.
MMA Authentics began in March 2007, one day after DiSabato saw a pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Columbus.
The attendance at Nationwide Arena set a record for a mixed martial arts event.
“A light bulb went off,” DiSabato said. “It was clear to me after seeing 20,000 fans in the arena and knowing the numbers of eyeballs watching, 10 to 20 million on pay-per-view, that it was something we wanted to try to do. The next day we got into business.”
High-profile UFC fighters such as “Rampage” Jackson, Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell have worn the brands.
Right now, one of the few athletes the company helps represent is Mark Coleman, a former OSU wrestler who won a 1988 national championship. DiSabato said he has plans to get into the management part of the fighting business sometime in 2010.
He brushes off his litigious past and his debt.
“I’m moved on,” he said. “And the cream rises to the top.”