Former UCLA football player Audie Attar named his sports agency Paradigm in recognition of his shift from a hot-tempered athlete who’s become a thoughtful negotiator at tense, multimillion-dollar bargaining sessions.
“I wasn’t necessarily the best student in high school and college, and that creates deficiencies. But once I started seeing success in business, I had this appetite that kept growing to get better,” Attar said. “The lightbulb went off.”
Attar, 36, has found his niche in representing UFC fighters from offices in Irvine, counting featherweight champion Conor McGregor, middleweight champion Michael Bisping, former middleweight champion Chris Weidman and welterweight title challenger Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson as clients.
Four months after Beverly Hills talent agency WME-IMG purchased the UFC from casino magnate Lorenzo Fertitta for $4 billion, Attar said striking deals in the organization isn’t like the more rigid structuring of player values in the NFL and NBA.
“There’s a wild West to it,” Attar said. “I call it the gold rush.”
No one has struck the mother lode like charismatic Irishman McGregor, who on Saturday night in the organization’s first fight card in New York will seek to become the first active fighter to wear two title belts when he meets lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in the UFC 205 main event at Madison Square Garden.
Thompson will meet welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in the co-main event, and Weidman, a New Yorker who long lobbied state politicians to legalize mixed martial arts, will fight for a chance to get a title shot at Bisping.
“I’m bullish on a sweep. Obviously, this is the biggest card for our company,” said Attar.
The prospects are infinite for Attar, but it once didn’t look that way.
In 2002, the Iraq-born Attar bumped into a patron at a Westwood bar before his senior season at UCLA. After what Attar said was an anti-Islamic epithet, he lashed out, and had an altercation with the man.
Attar, a linebacker, was expected to contend for a starting job. But he was dismissed from the team after the fight. “It’s unfortunate I have to take this action, but this is not the first time Audie has violated team policy,” then-UCLA coach Bob Toledo said.
“They say you’ve got to learn from your mistakes, so that played a part in who I decided to become, no question,” Attar said.
Attar landed at Pepperdine, where he received a master’s in business administration and a letter in, of all things, dispute resolution.
He worked as an associate at a few agencies.
Then he formed Paradigm in 2010, and began amassing his own talent, including England’s Bisping, which gave McGregor some awareness of him.
In 2013, after McGregor’s UFC debut on Fuel TV, the fighter aligned with Attar. “There was that thing you couldn’t miss about his confidence when I watched him fight,” Attar said. “It was clear he was special.”
McGregor’s rise has been staggering since December, as three of his pay-per-views rank among the top five in UFC history.
“When you have that megastar on the UFC side, there’s no [salary] cap like in the NBA, so you can … try to grab as much as you can possibly grab,” said Mitchell Butler, a former UCLA basketball guard who runs Paradigm’s basketball division with another ex-Bruin, Toby Bailey.
Bailey said McGregor’s connection helps lure talent from all sports to Paradigm, which also has an NFL and soccer division under Attar partner Rajiv Sharma.
Attar is convinced McGregor has surpassed Ronda Rousey as the UFC’s top draw.
“From what we see, there’s no doubt who the biggest name in the UFC is. Now — or ever,” Attar said.
That gives Attar sound footing in his negotiations with UFC.
“If I can’t show that restraint or discipline or creativity in the art of getting a deal done, I wouldn’t have the clients I have,” Attar said. “Is it easy? No. But if you ask how I’ve changed from the bar in Westwood? Age, experience, wisdom.”
Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire