FFC President Orsat Zovko
By Joe Fernandez
It wasn’t a bad dream, a family emergency or a fire that woke a five-year-old Orsat Zovko from his slumber in his grandparents’ home in Croatia on those special nights. With a giant smile on his face, Zovko’s grandfather, Josip, would take Orsat’s hand and the pair would head to the living room for the big event.
Many years later, their home city of Dubrovnik would provide the setting for Kings Landing in HBO’s Game of Thrones. But on those special nights, the only royal proclamation that mattered to Orsat and Josip was the boxing announcer emphatically calling “LIVE FROM CAESARS PALACE” through their television set.
“My grandfather loved fighting sports. He loved boxing,” Orsat said. “At that time, he didn’t miss one single match with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier or George Foreman. “He never wanted to watch the fights alone. When the events were in Las Vegas at Caesars, because of the time difference, he would wake me up in the middle of the night to watch the fights with him.”
On some nights, the most interesting bout would take place in the living room.
“My grandma – she was pissed,” Orsat said while laughing. “She would say ‘Why are you doing this? He’s a small kid;’ and he would say ‘No, he loves this.’ I think he just wanted someone to watch the fights with – and as I got older, we watched every big fight together.”
That drowsy little boy on the couch continued to enjoy fights. Only now, he watches them as the president and founder of Final Fight Championship. In March, FFC signed a multi-year deal with Caesars Entertainment to host weekly professional bouts from the FFC Fight Dome™ at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. FFC currently showcases mixed martial arts, kickboxing and boxing matches, and will be the first major combat sports company to host weekly events in Las Vegas.
“Many of the big fights growing up were from Caesars,” Orsat added. “Now, I am dealing with Caesars.”
The 51-year-old smiles when he speaks of the recent agreement with the legendary casino-entertainment company. Starting as a freelance cameraman in Croatia, to managing superstar fighter Mirko Filipovic and creating his legendary nickname “Cro Cop,” to building a career as a producer of more than 500 television shows in Europe, Orsat knows the importance of patience and unwavering vision when it comes to long-term business deals and following one’s dreams.
“In the beginning, I went to my friends, my family, my business partners in Europe and I said ‘you know what, guys, I’m going to Las Vegas and I’m going to partner with Caesars’ – 99 percent of them started to laugh. They all said that Caesars was too big.”
Orsat remained persistent.
The process would last over two years – but the production veteran would get his deal with the company he became enamored with over 40 years ago from a couch in Croatia.
“The first two, three months [Caesars] checked my background for the last 10 years – who were my business partners, my results, everything.”
That background included the creation of two channels focused on children’s programming. Both quickly became No. 1 in their respective European markets. Orsat also launched Fight Channel, a cable TV and satellite station, which like the two former channels, saw success and was sold to global investment firm KKR & Co. He founded and still runs Fight Channel World, which broadcasts fights on multiple platforms.
“I was producing five shows a week at one time for Croatian television,” he said while laughing in almost disbelief. “Now when I’m thinking how I did it, it’s hard to explain. There was no Internet then. No digital. All of my post production was analog.”
With his extensive background in television, it’s not surprising that Orsat makes it a point to keep all of FFC’s show and TV production in-house.
“I believe we’re the only promotion in the world that controls their production from scratch,” he added. “So, I was designing the show. I was sitting all night with the light designer and the director. Other promoters are many times former fighters, trainers – but show production is my core business. This is what I do.”
Orsat now lives in Las Vegas and has two sons. Antonio is 21, and his oldest, Ivan (30), is a tennis pro. Part of Orsat’s 17-hour workday is spent inching closer to a major broadcast deal, which he’s unable to disclose but would most likely create a major increase in FFC’s viewership. The FFC president has also been busy preparing for FFC’s Night of Champions™, which will include four MMA, four kickboxing and two boxing matches – all for titles and all during three separate shows that night. The organization is still working out a date with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, but FFC is aiming for early October.
Three shows in one night? This is old hat for the longtime producer.
“When we were starting out, some countries wanted kickboxing, but no MMA. Others wanted MMA and no kickboxing,” the promoter said. “I used to tell them ‘Fine, I’ll do two separate shows. One audience. Opening/closing ceremonies. A five-minute break. One production cost. And I’m selling two separate products in one night.”
When asked about the popularity of multi-discipline shows, Orsat laughed and jumped right in:
“If you take a look at what Bellator did last year, they copied us,” he said. “[Bellator CEO] Scott Coker called me two years ago because I’ve known him for 20 years. I spent the weekend visiting him and his matchmaker in San Jose. He asked me if I was doing kickboxing or MMA and I said that I was doing both. Two shows. One night. One production cost. He said ‘Oh, this is a great idea.’ Two weeks later you have Bellator MMA and Bellator Kickboxing.”
The organization will host an event each Friday night from their new home at Caesars Entertainment’s Rio until December, with a full slate of events scheduled for 2019. After the Night of Champions, the subsequent weeks will feature an MMA show, a kickboxing show in the second week, followed by a boxing show in Week 3. That order will continue each week through mid-December.
Orsat looks back fondly at that time he spent watching fights with Josip. Learning to appreciate not only the beauty of the organized chaos inside the boxing ring, but the organized pageantry on the outside. Coming soon, there will be plenty of FFC fights to enjoy – and just like how those early events inspired Orsat – he hopes his fights awaken the next generation of fans and entrepreneurs.