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Milton "Skip" Ohlsen dreamed of being the Don King of ultimate fighting in St. Louis. In 2006 the then-34-year-old promoter formed the company Genesis MMA (mixed martial arts) and set up a steel-caged ring inside the St. Charles Family Arena. While other promoters hosted events in out-of-the-way union halls and hotel conference rooms, Ohlsen boasted that his fight drew more than 5,000 fans.
The next bouts — in March and June of last year — promised to be even bigger. Targeting the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic, Ohlsen aired commercials on alternative-rock station KPNT (105.7 FM) The Point, and ran television spots during Late Night with Conan O'Brien. Soon FOX Sports Midwest signed on to broadcast Ohlsen's matches, and the promoter claimed to be in negotiations for a reality show about mixed martial arts.
"It was exciting times," recalls Genesis MMA's director of public and media relations Dave Benson. "I think we had the potential to be substantial. We were creating a real buzz."
Like the first fight, Ohlsen's events in March and June drew thousands of fans, paying $15 to $150 to witness amateur fighters bloody themselves inside the steel ring. A fourth fight at the Family Arena was planned to take place in late September but was canceled the month before.
In October 2007 a new state law went into effect allowing paid professionals to compete in ultimate fighting. Ohlsen scheduled a November match at the Family Arena that promised to be the first large-scale professional mixed martial arts event in Missouri. But again Ohlsen canceled the fight with little warning.
Earlier this month Ohlsen called off his third straight fight at the Family Arena. The January 5 bout was to feature Brad "Hillbilly Heartthrob" Imes, a six-foot-seven-inch Missouri brawler and regular on the televised combat league, Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Mark Reifsteck, booking director for the Family Arena, downplays any concerns about Ohlsen's cancellations. "As I understand it, Skip just couldn't get the fighters together in time for January 5," explains an optimistic Reifsteck. "I'm sure he will bring another fight here soon."
Others aren't as convinced. In the wake of the latest canceled fight, former employees, vendors and investors now wonder what became of Skip Ohlsen and the thousands of dollars they claim he owes them. (Ohlsen did not return repeated calls for this story.)
Before becoming a fight promoter, Ohlsen ran the firms Global Management Solutions and Studio O Productions that specialized in assisting Democratic candidates in political races throughout Missouri. Ohlsen's most successful campaign may have come in 2006 when he helped strip-club operator Mike Ocello get elected to the Mehlville School Board. It was then that Ohlsen was first introduced to the sport of ultimate fighting.
"Ocello and some of his employees were really into martial arts," recalls Peter McElligott, a former employee of Ohlsen with Global Management Solutions and later Genesis MMA. "I think Skip went to a couple shows during that time and decided he could make a lot of money promoting the sport."
In December 2006 Ohlsen booked his first fight at the Family Arena and offered investors a piece of the action. All told, a group of at least four investors would sink as much as $140,000 into Genesis, according to financial backers who asked not to be identified. "I just don't want my name associated with the guy," says one investor. "He damaged me financially. I don't want him to damage my name, too."
Another investor says he's considering a lawsuit against Ohlsen but worries there may not be any money to recover his losses. Another problem, he says, is he lacks evidence of his investments in Ohlsen's company. "From day one I asked him to get me documentation and paperwork showing my ownership in the business," says the investor. "He was always saying that the lawyers were working on them."
Peter McElligott severed ties with Ohlsen last June after working for him for three years on both his political campaigns and Genesis MMA. McElligott maintains Ohlsen never paid him for his last month of work and still owes him $1,600. Now McElligot says he's come to discover that the state has no record of the income tax Ohlsen withheld from his paychecks. "I'm waiting to see if I get a W-2 (tax form) from him," says McElligot. "Then I'm going to file a complaint with the Department of Revenue."
Last July the Fenton-based graphics firm Vinyl Images and Designs filed suit against Ohlsen after the promoter failed to pay for work the company did on his steel-cage ring. "He wanted it to look like a ring of fire," recalls Vinyl Images owner John Duever. "It was a last-minute job and took seven guys to install the image on the ring floor. He owes us $11,000 and won't respond to phone calls or certified letters," alleges Duever.
Following the second canceled fight, Dave Benson, Genesis MMA's director of public and media relations, sensed the business was in a tailspin. Still, he tried to remain optimistic. "We weren't making money, but there was the sense we were on our way," remembers Benson. "But Skip had been drifting further and further away from the business."