ASSIMILATE! Why the UFC/Reebok Deal is Bad For MMA Fans


“Reeboks let U.B.U.”

That slogan was used back in the 1980’s by the apparel brand Reebok.

You may not remember it — possibly because it failed.

No one, not even my goofy young teen self, believed that you became more authentically yourself wearing mass produced athletic sneakers.

For some reason, that came back to me as someone named “Lorenzo Frittata” was introduced by Reebok President Matt O’Toole as the new plan for Ultimate Fighting Championship uniforms was unveiled yesterday.

It was a memorable moment seeing the chair of one of the world’s biggest apparel brands describe the “breakthrough” partnership to the UFC, and their CEO whose surname was mispronounced to match an Italian omelet.

To be fair, there’s money to be made, and Mr. Lorenzo Fertitta and company are certainly entitled their share. Then again, they say they won’t make a penny off the deal, and fighters will be the ones who benefit.

“What do you fight for?” goes the new Reebok slogan.

Well, it’s a business. It’s difficult to calculate how much UFC fighters were making in their previous sponsorship deals, which will be essentially void next year. So, it’s difficult to calculate how much any fighter will benefit from the new deal.

But, I know for me as a fan it’s disappointing.

What do you fight for?

Maybe what got us all into the martial arts, and mixed martial arts in particular, is being forgotten.

Sure, I come from a different time. In the 1990’s, there was no little or no conformity on display in this sport. Fighters appearances and styles were very much distinct. Back then, we didn’t even agree on what to call the sport or if it was even legal. Look at a big fan’s top ten bouts and you were as likely to see an event in a ring as a cage.

MMA was just a unique event, every time.

Of course, things changed. The game became more homogenous. Among promotions, UFC found continued success, where others didn’t. At the same time, fighters found out what worked and what didn’t, so they increasingly fought similarly.

But there was still individual expression on display. Maybe a fighter couldn’t wear a gi in the cage under rules of the day, but they would wear one their entrance walk.

Maybe a fighter had limited interest in sponsors, like Mark Hunt, who typically would walk to the cage in his familiar “old school” boxing shorts.

Maybe a fighter got a little theatrical during their entrance to the cage — even after the UFC did away with their elaborate ramp of years past, Genki Sudo still entertained us during his early 2000’s UFC run.

Those days will be gone. (Unless you tune in to Bellator instead, who went as far as to bring back a ramp for dramatic entrances at Bellator 131.)

Go back a little further and think about the association the UFC enjoys with the Bruce Lee foundation. Sure, they go a little overboard calling Lee the original mixed martial artist and the father of MMA. But it’s fun to see the man so integral to popularizing martial arts in the West pop up in the UFC video game or on T-shirts worn by their stars.

But what brought people to Lee? He described his relationship with the Hollywood actors of the day who he instructed and ultimately got his break into Hollywood:

“The way that I teach it, all types of knowledge ultimately become self-knowledge,” Lee famously said to Pierre Berton.  “Therefore, these people are coming in and asking me to teach them, not so much how to defend themselves, or how to do somebody in, rather, they want to learn to express themselves through some movement, be it anger, be it determination or whatever. So, in other words, what I’m saying therefore, is that they’re paying me to show them, in combative form, the art of expressing the human body.”

It’s a common complaint that with the deluge of MMA events, with the talent increasingly watered down, it’s easy for anyone to get lost in the shuffle. Even big fans don’t really know what to look out for.

Now they can expect fighters dressed identically, right down to their entrances to the cage. Even their corner men will be expected to wear approved Reebok apparel.

Were fighters represented or offered input in the decision? Their management is rendered even less relevant than before…

Maybe the new partnership will make some fighters money as well, as has been stated.

But they won’t let you be you… and that made yesterday a sad day.