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How Mario Mercado’s startup ‘BATS-TOI’ is making combat sports safer

As an athlete, getting your head sprung was never something to phone-home about back in the day. Nowadays, peeps are more aware of how life-changing head and facial injuries can be and the role technology can play as a solution.

Just ask Mario R. Mercado Jr., the sports industry vet who’s making serious noise with his revolutionary startup, BATS-TOI.

Starting out as an engineering project at NYU, BATS-TOI has now grown to be one of the most innovative companies in sports technology, known for their award-winning wrestling helmet, The Mercado.

The Bronx may not be known for wrestling, but it birthed a Division I standout in Mercado Jr., who wrestled collegiately at Syracuse University and all around the world.

Holding the position as the Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission and producing for the World Series of Fighting, Mercado Jr. is an O.G. in the combat sports game. As a wrestler and a coach, he saw first-hand the difficulties wrestlers encountered with their headgear and the plethora of head injuries. In a discussion with Kulture Hub, he said,

“Traditional headgear has straps and isn’t really a functional piece of equipment, it gets in the way. If you ever see a wrestling tournament or match, 9/10 times you’ll see a guy fidgeting with it. They have to manipulate the headgear in order for it to perform properly”

On top of the headgear being faulty, there was also a plaguing old-school culture that overlooked most injuries in wrestling like other contact sports such as football.

Mercado Jr. had an idea to create headgear for wrestlers that would not only protect them but also look fly. He continued,

“Back then, if you got hurt, you’d put some water on it and jump back in. As the NFL highlighted more and more about concussions, there was a spotlight put on concussions for all sports and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Mercado Jr. coached wrestling and went to graduate school at NYU where he took his idea to life alongside engineering professor Nikhil Gupta.

They linked up with engineers at Columbia University to build out a student research team and eventually enter and win NYU’s first Summer Incubation Program Competition in 2012 for their wrestling headgear technology. Mercado Jr. continued to develop this headgear as BATS-TOI’s first product, The Mercado.

In the four years it took to develop the helmet and startup as a whole, Mercado Jr. worked endlessly, skipping meals and even got close to getting kicked out of his apartment.

The early startup grind was no joke, but Mercado Jr. found hope in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which stresses the importance of creating a simple product and gathering feedback to further establish it. He explained,

“Don’t go in there making sure that it’s perfect, because by the time it’s perfect, it can become either outdated, someone can take the idea, or you can have features that the consumers don’t really want. Build something that addresses the initial hypothesis of ‘why’ and then from there based on feedback, build and approve the second version, which we did”

The Mercado went live on the market in 2016 and created a buzz in both sports and technology industries for its innovative design, which covers and protects an athlete’s head while maintaining a comfortable fit and enhanced air circulation.

Just like any other startup, BATS-TOI found that while they filled a void in the market with The Mercado, there were still some necessary adjustments to be made to propel the product and the brand.

Mercado Jr. admits that one of the toughest parts of the grind as an entrepreneur was accepting feedback. He said,

“From my point of view, the entrepreneur is constantly looking for objective feedback because they hate criticism, it’s their baby. You need objective criticism in order to validate your assumption, and your assumption is ‘is this going to work?’ You have to be open to that criticism and if your not, you’re feeding into your own sense of reality and will never know what needs to be fixed. I had to get over that.”

While processing the feedback from wrestlers using the product it became clear that other contact sports could benefit from the same technology used in the Mercado.

As the second version of The Mercado went into development, BATS-TOI expanded their reach with the initial version to other sports and industries, sparking collabs and starting more conversations about safety in sports.

“We made a customer segment pivot. Because we knew that the wrestling consumer had some problems using our helmet, there were some guys who said ‘you know what’ we could use it for flag-football, where some of the problems you’re having with it for wrestling doesn’t apply to us. Instead of making a pivot to change to another product, we just made a customer segment pivot, where we didn’t focus on the wrestler initially for this particular version, we’re going to go to another consumer segment while we make the second version, the Mercado 2 based on consumer feedback, applicable to our first consumer segment which is wrestling.”

Along with spreading awareness of head injuries and safety, Mercado Jr. aims to help change the way sports brands communicate with audiences.

“One of the drawbacks of a lot of sports brands and how they interact on the internet is that they’re always highlighting the biggest, the fastest, the strongest — that’s only the 1%. Not everybody wants to compete because they want to be the best, they just want to compete, because they want to compete. We want to highlight the athlete who wants to compete as best as they can not because they have to be the biggest and baddest person on the planet.”

BATS-TOI has combined the edge of sports and sleekness of tech to help transform safety for wrestlers and the athletes in all of us. With co-signs from Forbes and Fast Company, you know they ain’t done yet.

“You have to see what’s next.”

Bekim Trenova on building FNT (Fight Series) and staying true as a creative

Real G’s move in silence and for Bekim Trenova, being the mastermind behind New York’s underground fight scene isn’t something to tweet about.

It’s a gift of live entertainment that has been opening up doors for street kids and creatives from all different backgrounds for almost a decade. After a short hiatus, Trenova’s FNT (Fight Series) is about to set Brooklyn on fire on May 18.

Born in Georgia, Trenova relocated to New York after being scouted in a mall by a modeling agent. While traveling the world was dope, Trenova’s creative mindset yearned for more and he quickly found himself being the hype-machine at the center of the city’s party scene.

“I point-blank did not a damn thing in high school but socialize, I just have a very strategic brain in mapping out social life. When I moved to New York, I was always hosting and being social and one day I was joking around with some friends and we ended up throwing a boxing match. I just thought, we can put this together and we did. Then I went on this whole ride of throwing underground fights in New York and it was the hottest party.”

FNT (previously known as Friday Night Throwdown) fuses nightlife and fight culture. Trenova birthed an unmatched experience that merged different groups together to enjoy a night of fights, music, and art that you could only know about by being there.


You’d see everyone from shorty in the latest Dior ad, street kids ready to clang n bang, and the local artsy kid building his portfolio. The fights weren’t sanctioned, so every throwdown was spontaneous and by word-of-mouth.

With the streets buzzing, Trenova dropped all of his savings to put FNT on the road at SXSW. He aimed to get a TV show in the works to showcase the wild ride which put the event on pause and left peeps wondering.

“It’s never really stopped for me. My last fight was 3 ½ years ago and people will be like ‘So why did it stop?’ They don’t know that for a year and a half I did a JV with a production company, packaged up 4 hour-long rough cut episodes, got signed with William Morris and then pitched it to every outlet and TV channel.”

When timing didn’t seem right for the show, Trenova knew that getting the event sanctioned was the next best step to elevate FNT.

“It’s not like I can just walk into a bar and be like ‘HEY! You wanna fight tomorrow?’ It’s bloodwork, training, weights and coaches. I found a really cool matchmaker who really believes in the project and has two major fight companies already, NYFE and Killer Instinct”


That cool matchmaker is Mike Washington, one of the most respected figures in the fight world period.

“We speak this language together that a lot of people can’t because they haven’t thrown fights.”

Back in the day, FNT would have homies join the fight card the day of, but this time around there will only be sanctioned fighters on the card.

“Throwing sanctioned fights are no joke. That was one of the reasons why this took so long to get together. If you want 8 fights, you need to have 10-13 fights in the air. On a real fight night, someone’s hand gets hurt, an ankle gets twisted”.

On top of getting the ill co-sign from the fight world, Trenova has partnered with creative agency, MATTE Projects to produce the event.

The MATTE squad is on the perfect trajectory to team up with FNT and have been friends with FNT’s lead man for over a decade. Trenova has always been a fan of MATTE events like the Full Moon Festival and their Black parties. Plus, the MATTE team were regular guests at FNT smokers. So, the collab was a long time coming.

“I couldn’t ask for a better team, MATTE was like fuck yeah, let’s go!”

In the midst of getting FNT back on the ground, Trenova worked as a real-estate developer during the day but it wasn’t exactly his steez.

“As a creative person, it kills me. I don’t consider it living. There’s great upside and financial gain but I more-so look forward to throwing fights and activating my creative juices.”

While the adrenaline gained from managing multiple ventures fuels Trenova, it does have it’s setbacks.

“It’s a good and bad thing. I’ve learned a lot. When you’re pitching a TV show, developing clothing brands, managing music acts like Dorfex Bos, doing real estate and putting on Fight Night, it’s a catch-22. You’re doing so much and learning so much but not necessarily mastering. You’re getting good at everything, but at a much slower pace than if you just dove into one thing and really gave it your all. It’s the millennial piece in us, you know? My interests have been my school and it’s how I learn”

Trenova’s school of turning your loves into your reality is more than just a mindset, it’s a message he aims to get across to everyone he meets. Life isn’t simple, it’s a fight, it’s a party and so is FNT.

Pull up to FNT’s next Fight Night this Friday in Brooklyn on May 18.

Gone but far from finished: Why MMA still needs Ronda Rousey

The ink just dried on Ronda Rousey’s contract with the WWE and the former “Golden Girl” of the UFC is already set to premiere at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view. While the career move definitely will put Rousey in a great position for continued mainstream success, she still has unfinished business in MMA.

Rousey has been a life-long wrestling fan and has made several appearances on WWE programming throughout her MMA career so the move isn’t that much of a surprise. I mean, she even got permission from the late, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to use “Rowdy” as her nickname.

On the flip-side, Rousey helped break down a lot of barriers for women in MMA, she was the first Female UFC Champion and has six successful title defenses.

Hell, UFC President Dana White was adamant about not having women compete in the organization until he signed Ronda. Now the UFC holds multiple women weight class divisions and fighters like Holly Holm, Amanda Nunes, and Rose Namajunas headline pay-per-views all the time.

Women’s MMA has come a long way, but that’s not to say there aren’t more barriers that need to be broken. Female fighters still have to deal with their competition being hyper-sexualized by media and fans, rather than appreciated for the dope athleticism they bring to the table.

Rousey was no stranger to this treatment as well, but her no-frills approach to fighting and crazy ground-game skills got the respect of many and helped prove that beauty should not overshadow the skillset of any athlete, especially a woman.

Rousey was no angel though. Her infamous trash talk against opponents got her a lot of backlash from fans, especially before her fight against Holly Holm at UFC 193 where she lost her Bantamweight Title.

After suffering another loss at the hands of Amanda Nunes, many were quick to turn their backs against Rousey, citing her villain-like baditude as the reason.

But Rousey is definitely not the first fighter to talk a lot of trash, the sport has seen dozens of men who talked shit, had setbacks, but were still loved by fans (Tito Ortiz anyone?). What makes Rousey any different?

Not touching gloves during weigh-ins, acting arrogant during press conferences, and being straight-up disrespectful have always been admirable qualities when displayed by male athletes who were donned bad-asses, while Rousey got called a bitch.

Rousey challenged this perception in athletics and was quick to give the finger to anyone who had a problem with it. MMA still needs that. Even in combat sports, women who don’t fit the humble, angelic mold are stigmatized and that shouldn’t be case.

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We need a villain, we need someone with hardcore mentalities who’s unapologetic about it. Rousey’s heel-like arrogance and mainstream marketability made you hate her, love her, and be shook all at the same time. 

Having a women’s division in the most popular MMA organization was one door that got knocked down, but now we have to continue to fight for room for women to be themselves and not get shitted on for it.

Hate her or love her, Ronda Rousey made history and changed the game for women in MMA. In this climate, an athlete of her stature is needed more than ever.

Eric Kelly on his gym SouthBoX, gentrification, and the NY fight scene

From Bed-Stuy to the Bronx, Eric Kelly damn sure knows the fight scene and how fighting can save the yougins. When his new gym, SouthBoX got labeled as the source of gentrification by the New York Times, you know he had to pull up.

“Gentrification killed boxing, that’s why in a gentrifying neighborhood, I put this gym here and I ain’t gonna kill boxing, because I am boxing.”

And that he is. Kelly is a veteran in the boxing game, he’s a two-time Golden Gloves champ and former U.S. Olympic Team member but as much as he loves boxing, he loves guiding the youth more.

After seeing the neighborhood of Mott Haven consistently  ignored and underdeveloped for years, Kelly decided to link up with Keith Rubenstein, his client and close friend of 10 years, to open up SouthBoX.

A safe haven where models, Wall Street folk, pro athletes, and most importantly, the youth can all gather and learn some boxing skills.

“The goal is to make sure they have a place to go. Some kids come here and they can’t even afford the membership, so I let them shoot hoops outside. As long as they ain’t in the streets, as long as they’re right here in my cypher, and I can help them, that’s whats important. Everybody’s welcome.”

Kelly is big on authenticity and maintaining the legacy of the sport of boxing, so when a bunch of fancy, led-light filled boxing gyms started popping up in the city, he wasn’t having it.

“You got Rumble, ShadowBox, Overthrow–that’s not my thing, I’m here for real boxing, I’m not here to make a mockery of my sport. Those gyms aren’t for the kids, they can’t afford those. What’s keeping the kids off the street?”

Kelly has a scholarship and training team dedicated to the kids of the neighborhood and has seen a handful of fighters come up from their diaper days. You know Sadam Ali, the middleweight that snagged the Junior WBO title from Miguel Cotto?

He’s been in Kelly’s cypher since he was a toddler. Kelly knows plenty of young local fighters who are making noise in the game and gives props to boxing programs such as Atlas Cops and Kids in Brooklyn and Staten Island for giving them those opportunities.

Simultaneously, as new boxing gyms have been opening up around the city, so have mixed martial arts gyms.

Hell, back in November boxing heavyweights Deontay Wilder and Bermane Stiverne went at it at the Barclays Center while we saw the return of UFC vet, Georges St. Pierre at Madison Square Garden on the same night.

Kelly doesn’t hate on the MMA folk, he gives big ups to their athleticism and even trains UFC fighters like middleweight Oluwale Bamgbose.

While the two sports have their differences, Kelly acknowledges that they share similarities, such as fighters using performance enhancing drugs. Kelly stresses,

“It’s all of these strength and conditioning coaches, handing you this and making you that. Fighters never used to need that. Muhammed Ali ain’t do that shit.”

Between the businessmen, rappers, and even UFC President Dana White who have tried or shown interest in promoting boxing, Kelly thinks we should just “leave it to boxing people to do boxing.”

Despite the MMA beating boxing on the pay-per-view numbers side, Kelly is loving the current state of boxing and can’t wait to see more fighters from the city glow up.

“New York is in the house and I’m just happy to be apart of it. I’m happy to have passed the torch to some pretty good guys and they’re  gonna take the sport farther than I did and I love it.”