When I first began reporting on the February 2014 story that would eventually break the news that the UFC was working on creating a uniform for its fighters, I felt optimistic about the deal.
I talked to managers who’d heard various rumors on the specifics of the thing. Some of them ended up being true; others ended up on the cutting room floor, both before and after the deal was announced.
What I was able to cobble together from multiple sources was that the uniforms would be clean and professional. They would give the fighters plenty of customization options, even going so far as to allow them input on the design of their uniform. And they would have several spaces reserved on the clothing that would allow them to sell their own sponsorships, thereby retaining most of the sponsorship money they already received.
Eighteen months later, the uniforms were revealed today in New York City. And, well, they are clean and look professional. But that’s where the similarities between the real product and what the product was originally envisioned to be end with a screeching halt.
Reebok executives stressed customization, allowing individual fighters to make their wardrobe fit their personal style. I figured they’d at least have a Reebok graphic designer available for fighters to pick their own colors or something along those lines.
But no. That’s not the case at all.
Instead, there are three variations of the “kit,” as the UFC has taken to calling it (and I should note that I—as a huge football/soccer fan—far prefer the term “kit” over “uniform” or anything else that could have been used to describe this stuff).
First, there’s a generic black and grey kit. This is the first of two options for nearly every fighter on the roster. The second is the Country kit, which features the colors of the fighter’s home country and an Octagon-style representation of their flag on the right arm. And the third is the all-black Champion’s kit, which has a gold Octagon on the arm. On the back of each of these shirts, and on the left leg, is the fighter’s name.
And look, the champion’s kit is actually nice. And I love the idea of the UFC’s champions being dressed differently and looking a little more striking than everyone else on the roster.
But the rest of this stuff?
It looks professional, sure.
But it also looks a bit…meh. That’s the word I’d use.
I’m as happy as Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White are to see the NASCAR-style sponsorships of previous UFC events in our rearview mirror.
I’ll look back on them fondly, but I’ll be glad I’m looking back on them all the same.
But what I didn’t think we’d see are 600 fighters looking, as Mike Goldberg so vibrantly says, virtually identical. Aside from the various color combinations available in the Country kit, there are no differences in what every fighter will wear to the Octagon beginning next week at UFC 189. Only the fighter’s name sets them apart.
And, boy howdy, the names are where things got real interesting.
Might I interest you in a Giblert Melendez shirt? Reebok already removed it from the online store, but I can assure you that Giblert was a real thing and became an MMA meme in a very short period of time.
Or how about a shirt for your favorite fighter, Kevin Swanson? There’s no Cub shirt, probably because nobody involved with the production of these shirts watches mixed martial arts. If they did, they would know that Jacare “Ronaldo” Souza is absolutely not correct and that Marcio Lyoto Machida is a figment of someone’s imagination, as Machida’s real name is Lyoto Carvalho Machida.
Reebok apologized for the errors and said it would work to fix the online database that drives the store. The only kit items that are premade are the ones for popular stars who will sell a lot of merchandise. If you want a shirt for, say, Buddy Roberts, it will be custom-printed after you order it, and that entire system is driven by a database that, upon first glance, appears to have been constructed by someone who has never watched mixed martial arts.
While Reebok and the UFC work together to fix those name errors, I might also suggest they look into the nationalities of various fighters. We know Benson Henderson’s mother is Korean, but to dress Henderson in the colors of Korea and to put a Korean flag on his arm seems a little bit weird.
The same goes for Jorge Masvidal, who was born in the United States and raised in Miami but is now, somehow, Cuban.
And there is a kit available for Josh Koscheck. That one is interesting, especially since Koscheck recently left the UFC for Bellator. Koscheck appeared none too happy to see his name appear on a UFC kit.
But hey, at least the clothes were designed for maximum “flexibilty,” as the screen at one point displayed during this awkward fashion show.
Hilarity aside—and believe me when I tell you that much of this day will be remembered for a long time, and not for the right reasons—this is a big day for the UFC. It has long insisted that the brand is more important than the fighter. It believes the UFC logo is what draws, and it has done everything in its power to push that to the forefront.
Never has that been more clear than it is with these kits, where the UFC logo takes up much of the front-of-shirt real estate, and the fighter’s name is relegated to a smaller and less visible area on the back.
The sport will look cleaner, and that’s a good thing.
But let’s call this what it actually is.
The UFC doesn’t care about cleaning up its image for the sake of cleaning up its image. It cares about cleaning up its presentation so that it’s appealing to future prospective TV partners.
Because someday, the current deal with Fox is going to end, and the UFC will want to entice a bidding war for its next contract. Presenting the cleanest possible television product is a good way to do that.
That’s what this is: a play for the future. But it is also a way to remind us of its belief that the UFC is what sells and that fighters play a secondary role in all of this.
The fighters had no say in the decision to switch to a uniform.
They have no say in the colors they’ll wear on fight night or during fight week.
They don’t get to negotiate for the money they’ll receive for wearing the clothes they may or may not want.
In one fell swoop, the UFC essentially eliminated managers in the sport while also ripping a heaping portion of control and individuality out of the hands of the athletes.
And most of us will be saddened by all of this, but I suspect there is a mighty celebration taking place on the second floor of the UFC’s offices on Sahara Avenue.
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