Seven Questions for Francisco Aguilar

The attorney and Nevada Athletic Commission chairman on working for Mr. and Mrs. Andre Agassi, repairing our education system and the “F”-word he hates to hear

francisco aguilar

Photo by Jon Estrada

There’s nothing at all intimidating about the very soft-spoken, very humble Francisco Aguilar … until you get a glimpse of his résumé. He was student body president at the University of Arizona, where he concurrently earned a law degree and an MBA. His mentor and first boss was Jim Rogers, the multimillionaire broadcasting mogul who brought Aguilar to Las Vegas full time in 2004. In his first three years here, he served as counsel for Nevada First Bank and KSNV-TV—both owned by Rogers—as well as the Nevada System of Higher Education and Southwest Gas. His current bosses? None other than Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, for whom Aguilar is general counsel for Agassi Graf Holdings and the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education. His side gig? He’s served on the Nevada Athletic Commission since 2009, and was named chairman of the five-member board six weeks ago. All this by the age of 36.

Safe to say it’s been a memorable first decade of your career?

It’s been phenomenal. But it goes back to luck and hard work. Jim [Rogers] would always say there’s a part of luck that helps you be successful, but ultimately it’s the hard work that you invest. And I’d like to think that I’m a hard worker, but I’ve also been fortunate to have mentors and leaders like Andre to give me opportunities that wouldn’t necessarily come about under normal circumstances.

Were you career-driven even as a kid?

I considered myself a young entrepreneur. I was always figuring out ways to make money around the neighborhood. It’s a funny story, but we had a community pool in our neighborhood in Tucson, and when I was in fifth or sixth grade, I opened up kind of a snack/soda shop. When the kids wanted to get snacks, they would come to the door and tell me what they wanted, and I would deliver the product to the pool. My brother was a lifeguard at the time, and I think there were days where I made more money than he did!

I think the motivation was to be able to buy what I wanted when I wanted it, and in order to have that extra cash, I had to work for it. It was great business.

What was it about working for Andre and Steffi that appealed to you?

Agassi Prep. If you visit that school and you see the students who are there, and the feeling of opportunity, it’s exciting. … The last six years, I’ve been able to watch the kids come in as kindergartners and then grow throughout the years. And to see their progress from the time they were in kindergarten, when they were happy, young little kids, to still being happy older kids maturing through an education system, has been incredible.

Working closely with Agassi Prep and the Nevada System of Higher Education, you’ve obviously familiarized yourself with the state’s educational challenges. What needs to be done to repair our broken system?

There are a lot of ingredients that go into making something successful, but education is tough, because it’s not like a business, where you have a singular objective with one constituency. In education, you have students, who are most important; you have parents; you have teachers; you have the administrators; and you have the community. So to get those five inputs and try to make something work takes a lot of massaging, a lot of patience and a lot of direction to each individual group as to what the ultimate goal is. And until we decide as a community what we want from our education system, we’re not going to get to that point of success.

Even though you don’t have kids yourself, is it still frustrating to see the educational challenges we’re facing as a community?

It is extremely frustrating. Every day at Agassi Prep, we are able to react at a moment’s notice; we are able to turn the ship much faster than the school district can. And I see the desire of the parents to have success for their children, and sometimes they feel Agassi Prep is a last resort. And when you look at the [school’s] waiting list, it’s pretty telling that there is demand for alternatives, and we’ve got to increase those alternatives for parents and families.

That’s where the frustration is, knowing that there are parents who want to create change and they want something for their children, but not being able to deliver it. You see this when a kid signs up for the Agassi Prep lottery but doesn’t get a seat at the school. That’s the most heartbreaking.

Was the gig at the Nevada Athletic Commission something you pursued, or did somebody approach you?

I received a phone call one day from an aide to the governor asking if I would have an interest, and I thought it was a joke. To get that phone call and have that question asked of me was almost too good to be true. Because going to boxing matches when I first arrived in Las Vegas, I quickly learned what the commission was. And I knew about the commission from watching pay-per-view [fights] as a kid. And to have that opportunity to be a part of history, to be a part of that group, was pretty exciting.

Shortly after you were named Nevada Athletic Commission chairman, there was a controversial decision in a marquee UFC fight, after which UFC boss Dana White blasted the commission, calling it “the weakest in the country.” Did those words sting?

They hurt personally, because as commissioners we take pride in the work that we do. And there’s more work to be done. Why it stung at that point was because I had just become chairman, and I had started working on some of the issues that we face in the MMA world. And to know the effort we were putting in to resolve some of these issues, it was heartbreaking to hear those comments However, it’s important to note that in order to be successful, we must continue to work together. Dana realizes that, and we have a working relationship. We’re not always going to do what the UFC wants us to do, but we’re going to make MMA the best sport possible.

The public frequently questions the competence of Nevada’s boxing and MMA judges, with fans and critics even going so far as to use the dreaded F-word: fixed. How infuriating is that?

It’s extremely infuriating, because my fellow commissioners and I are honest people, and all we want to do is serve the sport well. To hear that word gets me fired up a bit. But I also understand the duty and obligation we have to ensure that the best judges and refs are in place for the best fights. It’s a process. We are also public figures, so sometimes we do have to accept criticism and look at what we can do to be better.

What’s the most important part of the commission’s job right now?

Increasing the number of judges and referees that we have access to, and increasing the amount of training that they have so that they’re the best prepared individual on that particular day. It comes down to [judges and referees] investing a period of time on a weekend or a late night to sit there for a few hours to really go through fights and understand what happened in a certain round during a certain bout.

MMA or boxing: Which do you prefer?

It depends. Boxing is an incredible sport because of the ability of the fighter to maintain composure for 12 rounds—to hold your hands up for three minutes for 12 [rounds] while throwing punches consistently is pretty tough. And to have that mental capacity to stay strong—boxing just blows me away every time we have a championship fight.

And then UFC/MMA, I can’t tell you how many times where I felt like my heart was going to bust out of my chest because of that adrenaline and enthusiasm that you see prior to a fight, during a fight and after a fight—it just gets your blood working.

What’s the one boxing match out there that you want to see in Nevada?

It goes back to Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao. I think people are still hungry for that fight. Pacquiao, delivering the fight that he did against Brandon Rios in Macau [on November 23], showed that he has the capabilities and the speed. Rios didn’t put up the greatest fight, but Pacquiao showed his ability to continue to fight at a speed that people were wondering if he could still do. And Mayweather is just a phenomenon, one of the greatest fighters we’ll see. To have the two of them go at it would be phenomenal.

Andre Agassi has always been a pretty private guy. What’s one thing the public doesn’t know about him that it should?

He has tremendous compassion and emotion for those who don’t have a voice, and he is constantly fighting on their behalf. And he holds us accountable to ensure we’re doing what’s right all the time for those individuals. … The easy thing for him to do would be to slap his name on a product or a project and walk away. But he is intimately involved in everything, because he knows he ultimately shoulders the responsibility for the final outcome.

Ever step on the court with Andre?

No, but I have been on the court with Stefanie. My lack of coordination as a kid played into my inability to play tennis, but she was doing a photo shoot one day, and she needed someone to hit the ball with her. I tried to explain to her how I wouldn’t be able to do what she needed me to do, and she thought I was crazy. So she started hitting the ball to me, and I tried to return it. After a couple of shots, she just gave up, and said, “Never mind!” That was my one experience to play with a tennis champion, and it was short-lived.

Can’t you at least get a lesson from one of them?

I think I’m at a much lower level than they would be able to start with. I think [their kids] Jaz or Jaden would be the ones to give me the lesson.

Who wins a tennis match between the two right now?

It depends.  Stefanie, she’s still pretty quick. Although Andre has that innate ability to just hit a shot direct and fast and with power. But I think he’s always going to let Stefanie win, because he knows what’s going to happen later on in the day. [Laughs.]

Any resolutions for 2014?

To continue my efforts to be in better shape. I started in October, thinking, “Instead of waiting until January, I’ve got to do something now!” Working for an individual like Andre, there’s a little bit of pressure to be in shape, because you’re representing him. And if you’re not at your optimal performance or comfort level, you’re not going to deliver what’s expected of you. Andre and I have had many conversations, and it always comes down to one thing: It’s all about choice: If you make the right choices, you’ll have the right outcome.