COLUMBUS, Ohio - Fight fans were drawn to the Cage Fighter, House of Pain and Train Like a Freak booths at the recent Arnold Fitness Expo. But interest was especially brisk at one clothing counter.
It's hard to ignore a brand named Jesus Didn't Tap.
"It's a powerful statement," said company owner/CEO Jason David Frank. "Either you like it or you hate it. It's one or the other. Either you're going to see it and people are going to snicker, laugh or go 'Wow, that's awesome."'
The Jesus Didn't Tap logo can be seen on the shorts of such mixed martial arts fighters as UFC welterweight contender Thiago Alves, Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone, Paul (Semtex) Daley, Bart Palaszewski, Jeff Curran and Yves Edwards among others. World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion Mike Brown is coming on board, according to Frank.
"Fighters actually call me now and want to wear the product which is really cool," Frank said in an interview at his booth at last weekend's Expo, part of the Arnold Sports Festival. "And I have fighters that wear it for free sometimes, so it's crazy but it's been a good thing for me."
Christianity and fighting in a cage may seem a mixed message to some but Frank says it makes sense.
"Everyone knows in the mixed martial arts world, tap means to quit, so it means Jesus didn't quit."
If the message behind Jesus Didn't Tap - the T is in the shape of a cross in the name, which Frank has patented - is simple, it also comes in several forms. In addition to the basic Jesus Didn't Tap shirt, Frank sells models that show Jesus thumping the Devil in a variety of MMA ways: applying a rear naked choke (Get a Hold of Your Life is the slogan) or armbar submission hold (Break Your Bad Habits), grabbing Satan - in a wrestling stance - by the horns (Take Life by the Horns!) or Jesus in the mount position, punching away at the Devil (Ground & Pound 7 Days a Week).
"I come up with all the designs, mostly in my sleep," said Frank.
One of his favourites depicts Jesus on the cross, with the shadow below showing one person applying an armbar to another.
A Christian himself, the 34-year-old Frank is a decorated karate black belt who teaches at his Rising Sun martial arts gym in Houston. Covered in muscles and tattoos - including a giant Jesus Didn't Tap on his forearm, a likeness of four-year-old daughter Jenna on his chest and a variety of gambling designs on his beefy left bicep - the kickboxer says he hopes his product does some good.
"I sell shirts to all sorts of people because I don't really judge any of them. I've got people coming up that are stumbling drunk buying a shirt and I feel if they buy that shirt they might wake up in the morning and go 'Hey who bought this Jesus shirt? Wow, maybe I should go to church.'
"I'm just trying to reach out to as many people as I can."
Frank proudly talks of the e-mails from customers "saying how they bought a shirt and it changed their life."
"I had one guy bought a shirt here and he said 'You know I he had 20 kids in his basement and we saw this on Thiago Alves when he beat Matt Hughes (at UFC 85 in June in London) and I had to explain to all the kids what that meant, so I had like a little preaching ceremony going for about 30 minutes or so."'
Frank says the company is getting so many prayer requests, "it's almost like a ministry in itself." So he brought his aunt, a pastor, on board to handle those.
"We're all Christians, I mean obviously. I'm a businessman too, and I thought that'd be an important way to get Jesus into the MMA world where of course He's our biggest champion of all time and all He asks for is loyalty and 10 per cent to the churches and that's just what I've been doing. He's the biggest name of all time."
Frank comes from an unusual background. In addition to entrepreneur, kickboxer, and instructor, he has also had success as an actor - having starred in both the TV and film versions of "Power Rangers."
"Frank was the longest running ranger (Tommy Oliver) in the series and to this day maintains a fan base that stretches around the world," according to his gym website bio.
Frank started the Jesus Didn't Tap business with US$50,000 of his own money. He had a handful of brand ideas but www.mmawarehouse.com CEO Mika Casey, one of the first retailers to back Frank, recommended a year ago that he go with Jesus Didn't Tap.
So Frank brought a dufflebag of product to the 2008 Arnold Expo. He didn't have a booth but plastered the place with stickers. And wore his T-shirt. When people asked him where they could get it, he directed them to www.jesusdidnttap.com.
His company now has four people on staff and just moved into a 185-square-metre warehouse. He has a U.K. distributor and just struck a deal with another in Australia.
"We're about to break even," said Frank, who has a minority partner in friend and boxer Patrick (Bam Bam) Hutton. "I have a lot of money invested in it, but in the first six months we did like a quarter-of-a million which is great for a company for T-shirts. I'm just rolling over the money so I can just get more inventory for everyone."
Future plans for Jesus Didn't Tap include expanding into skateboarding and more mainstream stores, plus a line of more upscale designs.
He says some vendors become hesitant when the word Jesus is involved, but Frank has the numbers to sell them on it.
"Eighty-three per cent of the U.S. is Christian-based," he said. "Now that doesn't mean they're living right but they're Christian-based. In Brazil, 99 per cent Christians. . . . The only place we won't do good is China, two per cent Christians in China. Other than that everyone knows Jesus, everyone knows God.
"You could wear this shirt to be cool, you can wear it (as) the new next thing. We've got people wearing it all different ways."
Wife Tammy is also a martial artist and entrepreneur, having started justmuffins.com, an online distributor of organic, protein-packed and more decadent muffins.