Matt Thomas is a fundraiser, fitness coach and storyteller. He founded Brawl for a Cause, a non-profit organization dedicated to training, equipping and inspiring everyday people to literally fight for what they believe in. He plans and promotes charity-boxing events showcasing first-timers fighting to raise funds and awareness for causes close to their hearts. He has bounced on a treetop trampoline in the Costa Rican cloud forest, was out-boxed and out-drank by a world champion in Havana, Cuba, and raced Porters down to Machu Picchu base camp in Peru. He loves people, passion and a good story, and count on him asking you what you believe in enough to take a punch for.
Shantel: Hey Matt. Welcome to the Imagine More podcast.
Matt: Oh, I'm excited to be here. I appreciate you having me on.
Shantel: Of course. We're excited to learn more about your journey and what made you imagine more. I suppose to kick things off, why don't we get started with a little bit more about Brawl for a Cause, and can you tell our listeners a little bit more about that?
Matt: Yeah, sure. I'd love to. I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My mom was obsessed with Sylvester Stallone. She had a Rocky poster in her dorm room back in college, and then when she had me, that rocky poster went above my crib. I grew up being a big fan of Rocky and I did some martial arts growing up, but my mom wouldn't let me compete in any sort of actual combat kind of sport. So, when I got to college, naturally I was looking for ways to exercise my independence and maybe rebel a little bit, so I decided to start boxing classes at the University of Georgia. I got really into it. I started looking around for competitions to be a part of, and what I found was there were competitions out there, but they were for people that had been fighting since they were little kids and that had their eyes set on the Olympics or on becoming pro. I was really just doing it as a hobby, as something that was fun. I didn't want to walk into the ring with these guys that were just going to tear me apart, so the more I looked around, the more I realized there really wasn't an outlet for hobbyists like me, who liked the sport, but didn't necessarily want to do it all the way. So, I decided to start a boxing event just for University of Georgia students. The thinking was we could get first-timers in the ring together, so everyone's kind of in the same boat, and we could raise some money for charity while we were at it. The first Bulldog Brawl was back in 2012. Since then, so about six years, we've done 10 events, we've raised a little over $300,000 for charity, and the model and the organization has evolved a lot over that course of time, which I'd love to talk about.
Shantel: That's amazing. I mean, 10 events, that's huge. Are they all local to Atlanta and still within the Georgia community? Or other places?
| FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN |
Matt: Yeah. So, in college is really where we sharpened our teeth and figured out what Brawl for a Cause was, and what we wanted to do, so it started out as being a traditional charity event. One big thing like a car wash or a bake sale or a gala benefiting one cause. And our cause was Hero for Children, which benefits children in Georgia affected by HIV and AIDS. As we started growing, what I realized is, we were selling a lot of our tickets through the people competing in the event. Naturally, people want to come out and see their friend do this crazy thing in the ring. But, we were also selling tickets through people who just wanted to support Hero for Children. There's that community, or that cause marketing kind of aspect to what we were doing with Bulldog Brawl. What I did, was I entered a business plan competition, and instead of doing the model that we were currently marketing, which was this one big charity boxing event for one big donation check at the end of it to Hero for Children, what we did instead is we allowed for each brawler, each participant in the event to choose their own charity to fight for. As they were training, they were also doing a fundraising campaign for their chosen charity. So, now we were getting the same benefit of people in that network that wanted to buy a ticket to come support their friend, but we were also tapping into let's say 29 other causes. If we had 15 fights, 30 fighters. We had 30 different causes that were benefiting from this event and had incentive to roll out our ticket link or our donation link to their community, so we were getting in their newsletters, we were hitting their mailing lists, and our attendance started going way up, our donation total started going way up, and the organization and the events really gained a lot more traction when we opened it up to allow people to fight for what they believe in.
Shantel: I think that's so unique, and such an interesting kind of twist to that traditional model of charities that you see. I think that's genius that you guys have incorporated a lot of different things that the people actually participating are passionate about, because I imagine that invigorates them even more to spread the message, as opposed to just that singular cause.
Matt: And you and I can see the business benefit, but really the beauty of it is you will never see someone train harder or fight harder in the ring when they're fighting for something they personally believe in. A lot of these people who sign up to get punched in the face aren't just signing up because they're lukewarm about their cause. They usually have a really strong connection to whatever it is. It's a family member that's been affected by a disease that they're fighting for the cure of, or it's a friend that was injured in the line of duty when they were overseas, or the stories just go on and on, and in these 10 events that we've had, some really incredible, powerful, moving stories have come out of it that have inspired others to sign up for what they believe in, which is my favorite part of the whole thing.
Shantel: That's amazing. And then, just generally, I imagine everyone that attends are learning about perhaps 29 different organizations that they've never heard of, and now they can perhaps explore more if they wanted to.
Matt: Yeah. You hit the nail on the head. Our last event was our biggest by far. It was February 17th. It was on the field of Mercedes Benz Stadium. We had the whole field to ourselves, and we had 1,600 people come out to watch these everyday people literally fight for what they believe in. What we decided to do, and this is the first time we really executed well on it, is we dedicated an entire chunk of that field to the causes, so each cause had their own booth on the field where people could go up and watch the fight and see Bryan Mood fight for Bert's Big Adventure, but after the fight they could go over to the Bert's Big Adventure booth and learn more about the mission and how to get more involved, how to go to Disney World with these kids and volunteer to make sure they have a great experience, or whatever the case may be. It was a great way to bridge a big population of people that are philanthropists and are willing to support worthy causes, but may not have the awareness of certain ones before the Brawl for a Cause event that they would have liked. A lot of people have become more involved with causes like City of Refuge, who has become one of our big partners through the last couple of events. Just because they didn't know about it before Brawl for a Cause, and because some of our more prominent fights have been benefiting City of Refuge, now they're volunteering every weekend, they're donating a percentage of their paycheck to that cause, and there's measurable impact coming from these events even outside of the four or five hours that we actually put it off.
Shantel: It's amazing. I think I'm kind of getting into the weeds with some of the logistics, but I think it's really fascinating how you've built this. Can you dive a little bit into how the fighters are selected? Do they get nominated? Do they ... have you had any trouble finding people to participate in these 15 fights and get punched in the face?
Matt: There's really a line drawn between the first nine events and the most recent event. For the last five years, it has been me going person to person being like, "Hey Shantel, I really think this experience will change your life. And I know you care about this cause a lot, and I know you talk the talk and tell people about it. I know you walk the walk and you volunteer and you write a check, but if you take it to another level, and if you fight the fight, that much more impact and that much more goodwill will come from you partaking in that experience, and when you're on your deathbed and you look back at your life, you're going to be able to say at least once in my lifetime I stood up and I fought for what I believed in.” The first, I guess 200 people that came through our program got some version of that pitch. And it was me going one-to-one trying to get people to see the value in this and step out of their comfort zone and into the ring to fight for what they believe in. In this last event that flipped, and we had over 100 people apply to get a spot in this event. That was really endearing to see because people are starting to see that a lot of good can come from this, and a lot of personal development, a lot of development for their cause. The way it works now, to answer your question, is you can go to BrawlforaCause.com and you can apply for a spot in the event. Once that application is in, you'll get a call from our team. We'll learn a little bit more about you, about what cause you picked, about why you picked it, and we'll help you craft that story so that you can launch a campaign to earn a spot in the event. This whole Brawl for a Cause experience is a meritocracy, you really get what you put into this, so when you create that campaign, the more that you work to send that campaign to your network or get your cause involved and get them to send it to their community, the more awareness you're going to generate and the more pledges you're going to be able to garner. The way a pledge works is kind of like Kickstarter. You're familiar with Kickstarter?
Matt: Yeah. So you say, "Hey, if we reach our goal, which is me getting a spot in this event, then your pledge will turn into a donation. But, I need you to commit donating $50 or $100 or $250 for me to earn a spot in this event.” So, you're going around to your people. You're saying what you care about, why you care about it, and that you're willing to get punched in the face for it, and that you need their help to get into the position to be able to do that. What we've found is that a lot of people are willing to support someone that's willing to put themselves out there like that. After you garner all these pledges and we choose our Brawl for a Cause class for that year, those 40 people will get all the benefits of our organization. What that entails is you get eight weeks of free training through our partner, which is X-Three Sports. They have five locations around Atlanta, so no matter where you live in the metro area, you're going to have a convenient place to train for free as many times a day as you want leading up to the event. They also offer discounted one-on-one training, so if you want a coach that can work with you individually, and be in your corner on the day of the fight, you can do that in an affordable way. We also give you all the equipment that you would need, so wraps, gloves, mouth guard, any kind of defiance fuel, water, or pre-workout supplements or protein. And all of that comes from our sponsors. So you get the training, you get the equipment, and you also get the inspiration. We have motivational speakers, we have life coaches, we have personal branding experts that come in and tell you how to craft your campaign, how to brand yourself and market your campaign for your cause in order for it to resonate with your friends and family, and your cause's audience to get the most out of that fundraising part of all of this. And really, that's the heart of this, it's not about whose hand is raised at the end of the fight, it's about that journey. It's about what kind of personal development you go through as a brawler. It's about how much funds and awareness you can raise for your cause, because you're doing this for something that's bigger than yourself, and really everyone wins the second that you step in the ring, because you overcame that fear. You got out of your comfort zone. You got into the ring, and that's a commendable thing, regardless of like I said, whose hand is raised at the end of it.
Shantel: That's amazing. You've mentioned a few times Matt, that this year was so different than the previous nine events, and you're scaling a company. What do you attribute that rapid growth in this last year to?
| UTILIZE DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES & SKILLSETS |
Matt: It is all about the brawlers. So, what a lot of causes do, which is absolutely needed and that I respect, is they help people in the most need. It's people without homes, without food, without access to medicine, and it's organizations that make that singular need their mission. And that is absolutely needed and there are people out there that are really good at doing that. Brawl for a Cause is different. What we have decided to do is we're focusing on the one percent of people that already have the network and the resources to be able to create real change, but we're investing in them to be those advocates, those champions for those causes, to inspire other people to follow in their footsteps and to further the change that just they can make. The people like the CEOs, the celebrities, even the everyday people that have strong networks around them, those are the influencers that are going to be able to inspire other people to make change. We're doubling down on those influencers and trying to make them even better influencers for their cause. To answer your question, the way that we book Mercedes Benz Stadium, the way that we were able to quadruple our attendance from our last event was through our brawler network. Our veterans, the people that have gone through this program that had this experience touch them and change their life, that really came back and gave back to the brawl, to make this happen. One in particular, a guy named Sam Konigsberg, has gone through the entire life cycle of a brawler. He came to the first Atlanta event as an attendee, he bought a few tables for his clients and had a good time. The next year, he signed up to fight. He fought for City Refuge, he conducted the most successful fundraising campaign that we had had to date, and he headlined the main event, he won by a technical knock-out in the first round, and effectively hung up his gloves. He retired, but he decided to come onto the board to help us scale Brawl for a Cause nationwide and then internationally. When he did that, that's when he helped me look at this organization that I started differently. A lot of the times, founders will be limited in their vision, because they remember it as this little infant baby thing that they started, and different perspectives and other skill sets can come into their mix and help re-shape and redirect the trajectory of where that organization can go. And Sam Konigsberg is the key person that has helped me think about how Brawl for a Cause could grow differently. He helped us book Mercedes Benz Stadium, we signed a deposit check that was significantly more than my personal net worth, so talk about pressure if that event didn't happen, or we somehow failed, that would have effectively bankrupt me, and that kind of pressure is where I really excel. We signed that check, we got to work, and the whole experience completely changed not just the organization and where we're going, but also my life. What working with a massive organization like Arthur Blank Sports Entertainment, which owns Mercedes Benz Stadium, the Falcons and United. That in and of itself was such an incredible challenge, and a great learning experience that helped us kind of see what the big leagues are like and where we want to go.
Shantel: That's amazing. Kudos to you. You touched a little bit on the trajectory of the company, and nationwide, which is super-exciting. Knowing that you started this in college, and it has a charity component, would love to learn a little bit more ... have you found a way to monetize this in a more traditional sense? Or you're working and doing a few other things on the side to make this a reality?
Matt: Great question, yeah. So for the last six years, this has always been a side project, passion project, my five to midnight kind of thing. I have been a full-time student or an employee at a tech start-up. I work at both Sales Loft and at Roadie while I've been building Brawl for a Cause. This last event allowed me to not just see Brawl for a Cause differently as something I could do full-time, but it inspired me to live out my passion to see Brawl for a Cause for what it is, as the reason I'm on this planet, and then double down on it. Whether or not it makes financial sense. I will still do some freelance work on the side, but I am full-time in Brawl for a Cause, and my primary objective is to scale it, so that we can donate a billion dollars through our charity event model in my lifetime. We are less than 1% of the way there, which is motivating and a little daunting, but I'm excited for that challenge. I think it'll be an interesting journey to donate a billion dollars through every day people literally fighting for what they believe in.
Shantel: It's exciting. So, your mom ... you touched on her in the beginning, and how she was always a little timid for you to get into any super physical activity. Have you been a brawler yourself? And what has that looked like?
Matt: The very first Bulldog Brawl event, I started this because there wasn't an event like this that I could compete in, so I planned this event, but I couldn't compete in it because I was planning it. I had to work behind the scenes. Most of the people that fought in that first event were my friends. They're people that were in my network that I could convince to try this thing out. Out of the 44 people that signed up to fight, we had 22 bouts in the first event. Out of the 44 people that fought, not all of my friends ended up winning, and some of them really got their butts kicked. So I had a little bit of guilt for getting my friends into this mess, and I decided that I needed to fight before I kept planning these events. I needed to make sure it was a good thing, and I needed to walk in their shoes before I decided to keep doing this. I signed up. I trained for three months. I ended up competing and had a really positive experience in my first bout despite an injury. I decided it was worth doing. This injury required me to get a shoulder surgery sometime after my first bout, and while I was recovering from this surgery, I was spending a lot of time on YouTube and Instagram and Netflix just kind of recovering, and YouTube recommended a video to me. It was titled What is Chess Boxing? A similar question kind of popped in my head when I saw Chess Boxing, I was like, "Okay." So I clicked on it, and what I saw was a relatively new sport played out in front of me where you're alternating rounds between the board game Chess and the combat sport Boxing. And I had grown up playing competitive Chess. I stopped when I was 11, but I continued to play casually throughout my life, and in college obviously I found boxing. I saw this sport as a really cool combination of two of my passions. I was sitting there in an air cast for my shoulder, recovering from surgery, but I told myself then that if I get back into fight shape, and if my shoulders can handle it, that I want to compete in one of these Chess Boxing bouts someday. Fast forward two years from then, and I'm healthy, I'm in good shape, I'm sparring with all the brawlers that are preparing for the Brawl at the Benz, the last event that we had, and I thought to myself, "You know what? I think it's time. I feel confident in my shoulders. I'm not getting any younger. I'm 28 and if I want to do something like this, I should do it while I'm young and not keep waiting and say someday and then be too old and never be able to do it and have one of those deathbed regrets." So I reached out to the founder of Chess Boxing, a guy named Iepe. He is Dutch. He's based in Berlin, which is also the headquarter for Chess Boxing. When we connected, he told me that currently Chess Boxing is only in Europe and Asia, and if I wanted to compete, I would have to come overseas and do that. There was nothing in the United States. And I said, "Okay. If the right opportunity comes up, I'd be open to that." And he said, "Well, we have the Amateur World Championship in July in Calcutta, India and no American has ever competed in the World Championship, so you would be the very first. Would you like to represent the U.S.A. in Calcutta?" And I said, "Give me a night to sleep on it. Let me think about this, and I'll get back to you." I tried to sleep that night, but I really couldn't. The next morning I called him, and I said, "I'm 100% in." Most of what I thought about that restless night was our brawlers. What we do is we lead our everyday people, these people that sign up through this eight week transformative kind of journey. We give them all this training, and all this equipment, all these workshops with these inspirational people to equip them and inspire them to be able to fight for what they believe in. And I, with others, have crafted this journey for them, but I haven't walked in their shoes. I haven't done it myself. I don't know from experience whether it's the best that it can be, if there are ways that it can be made better. I saw this Chess Boxing opportunity as a way to be able to walk that brawlers journey myself. So, eight weeks before the Chess Boxing World Championship, I announced to our Brawl for a Cause community and to my friends and family that I would be taking a brawler's journey myself and competing in this. Of course, my mom was devastated. And my friends were like, "What are you thinking? What are you doing? Do you want to end up back in surgery? Are you sure you can handle the Chess side of this? Are you sure you want to go up again, all the way to India, where God knows how the healthcare is and whatever else? Are you sure you want to do this?” And I said, "It feels right, and it feels like what I'm supposed to do." I really had to eat my own dog food here or drink my own Kool-Aid, because I am terrified. I am flying all the way across the world to go compete in a tournament against people from 13 different countries, all of whom have Chess Boxing experience already, they're in the World Championship. The reason why I qualified is because I'm the only person from the United States that is stupid enough to sign up to do it, but everyone else has qualified because they have won Chess Boxing bouts. I'm going over there very much an underdog. Very much a fish out of water. The only thing that is keeping me committed and motivated is that I am doing what our brawlers have done. I am putting this cause, this thing that I believe in, before myself. As long as I go through this journey, as long as I raise funds and awareness for Brawl for a Cause, this whole experience will be worth it. It will be a success when I step into that ring, and even if I get knocked out, even if I get check-mated, the fact that I went through it and the fact that the brawl benefited from it is what makes it all worthwhile. I'm a week out from leaving for India. The actual World Championship is July 27th through 29th, and I think this will air before then, so if you do want to see what the heck Chess Boxing is, you can check out World Chess Boxing Organization on Facebook, and they'll be live streaming the tournament. Or, like I did, you can Google it or YouTube it and watch some of the Chess Boxing matches that are online and just kind of see what it's like. But it is very entertaining. It's very different. If anyone out there has watched dodge ball, you remember ESPN Show, where all the obscure sports from around the world are broadcast, this is definitely one of those sports that would have been on ESPN Show. It is out there. That's what attracted me to it, and I've been training really, really hard the last seven weeks, both in the ring and on the board, and I'm feeling confident. As confident as I can feel, and prepared to take on the challenge.
Shantel: We will certainly be cheering you on, and tuning in to the live stream. I think that's really exciting, and super brave. I just have a couple more questions to wrap things up, Matt. Is there anything you wish you knew when you first got started on this journey as an entrepreneur?
Matt: I'm really glad I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Had I known how difficult the whole experience with Mercedes Benz Stadium would have been, I probably would have never signed that check. But, there's something to be said for just taking the leap and building your wings on the way down that I think every entrepreneur should take to heart. Just because you don't know every single thing that goes into building your business or following your passion, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. Just because your business plan may have some holes in it, or may feel incomplete, if you tap into your gut, or if you pray about it or whatever process you go through to feel sure about something, if it checks those boxes, if it passes that test, you should go for it. You should take that leap, because at least in my experience, every time I've done that, every time I've felt, "Yes, this is where the universe is pulling me. These are where the omens are pointing," it has been one of the most beautiful, challenging, growth-inducing experiences of my life, and Brawl for a Cause is really the impetus for all that. If I could go back and kind of shake the 21 year old version of myself that started Brawl for a Cause, and tell him, "In six years, you're still going to be doing this, and oh by the way, it's going to be full-time, and you're going to have donated over $200,000 through one event at Mercedes Benz Stadium," there's no way that that kid would have believed me. But, if you're listening to this right now, the version of you in five years, the future you could be saying the same thing. So, if you're kind of ... stay awake in bed still thinking about that venture or that passion project, and you can't get it to go away, that's a sign and you should really spend some time getting to know yourself and asking yourself and asking God and whoever else that you trust if that's what you should be doing. Chances are, if you go all the way in, you won't be sorry you did. You'll at least learn a lot.
Shantel: Definitely. That's great. I certainly echo what you said, and that it's challenging having a company and starting something and growing and you learn so much, but at the end of the day, it's all worth it. Last question for us is when is the next event? How can we help? And what's the best way to get in touch if people want to learn more?
Matt: Yeah. So the next event, we do every event kind of like January, February of each year. There have been talks about doing it more frequently, but for this year, we're really expanding what we do. We're focusing less on live event expansion and going to Nashville, or Dallas, or LA, or New York and replicating the model there. We're focusing more on making this Atlanta event the best it can possibly be, and creating more content from that live event. We want to track the entire brawler's journey. We want to get to know Shantel in the red corner, and what cause she picked, why she picked it, and follow her through putting on her gloves for the first time, feeling awkward in front of the heavy bag, sparring for the first time, getting a bloody nose, doubting why she signed up for this, and then re-committing to it because of her cause, and going through that whole lifecycle all the way up to her actual brawl. I think the future of this organization is doubling down on the magical part of this process, which is the evolution of the brawler. It's who they were when they started, having the courage to sign up and then who they turn into from the experience, and capturing that whole story, capturing that hero's journey. Expect a lot more content from Brawl for a Cause in the future, and when our next event comes in early 2019, I would love for some listeners from this podcast or more people in the Atlanta community to apply to be a brawler at BrawlforaCause.com and to see for themselves with first-hand experience, how this experience can change your life and make you a better version of yourself.
Shantel: We're excited. I may have to just gain a little bit more courage before I sign up, but either way, I'll be there, and we'll be cheering you guys on. Thanks so much Matt, for being on the show, we really appreciate you sharing some more about Brawl for a Cause.
Matt: Oh it was fun. I really appreciate the opportunity and I look forward to seeing you at the next event. Whether it's in the crowd or in the ring.