Combat Sports

The Story of the UFC-Reebok Deal, and Fight Gear Through The Ages

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Back when the UFC first started in 1993, uniforms were nonexistent. It was a time of different rules, and fans saw a variety of attire. There were no gloves, although some fighters made the choice to wear some. Wrestling shoes were also allowed, but if worn the fighter could not kick.

This was before the age of the sponsorship craze, a phase that would give us the best BJJ and MMA shorts, some fans would claim. Today, we revisit the golden age of UFC sponsorship and see how things have changed visually, and financially. Discussing the ever-so controversial Reebok deal, and the less-so controversial and newer deal with Venum.

1993-2014, The Rise and Fall of Independent Clothing Sponorships in the UFC

DENVER, CO – NOVEMBER 12: Royce Gracie in action during the Ultimate Fighter Championships UFC 1 on November 12, 1993 at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Holly Stein/Getty Images)

The Beginning

The UFC was ushered into existence with sheer violence, as the first-ever match would end abruptly as Gerard Gordeau would viciously kick a downed Telia Tuli in the head so hard that people say his tooth flew out of the cage and into the crowd. This was the beginning of the UFC and despite their big-money production nowadays, the beginning was quite humble.

As far as attire goes, there was no set clothing or uniform yet. Each fighter could be seen wearing something different, from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Gi’s to athletic pants, you name it. Quite famously, Art Jimmerson even fought with just a single boxing glove on, remaining bare-handed with his other limb.

Mixed Martial Arts as a concept at this time was in its infancy. Originally created to see which discipline of martial arts was the greatest, few could have envisioned the UFC where it is today, or where it would go and how it would change to get there. In fact, the UFC was now famously in major financial trouble back then, as people outside and inside the cage struggled to evolve with the sport.

However, as the century turned, not only would MMA explode (primarily around 2005 with the introduction of The Ultimate Fighter), but independent/private clothing sponsorships with fighters would take off as well. Making the fight game a lot more lucrative for fighters like Brendan Schaub who claimed to be making six figures a year off private sponsorships.

“The Golden Age”

It was like all of a sudden no one knew what to wear, and then in the blink of an eye, the game changed. Jiu-Jitsu Gi’s and odd apparel choices like athletic pants became a thing of the past. Replaced with Vale Tudo, Muay Thai, and Board shorts. They weren’t just shorts though. They were different now. Emblazoned. Symbolic. Unique. In this day and age of MMA history, a singular mom-and-pop store like Rich’s Tire Barn could sponsor some of the faces of the sport, like Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. This would be the equivalent of your neighborhood small-business landing a Tom Brady or Lebron James deal, let’s just say it was a wild time within the sport.

There were hilarious gimmicks during this wild time. Fan-favorite Sam Alvey once got “#PerfectTan” literally spray-tanned onto his extremely pale white chest, a combo that turned Alvey’s chest into a comical billboard for the week of the fight. It was even visible on broadcast in the cage on fight night.

This was actually not that outlandish though. During this day and age fighters would get company slogans or logos painted onto their backs or chests. Turning them into a living billboard and literally monetizing their very own flesh. In a sport that is notorious for paying poorly, it seems evident from historical facts like these that any possible extra bit of revenue was welcome.

This era of custom shorts and banners is still around in other promotions, but in the UFC, it would soon be dead. Reebok was coming…

The Extremely Controversial 2014 UFC-Reebok Deal

By 2014, the UFC had now basically fully separated themselves from that teetering financial disaster they once were. Things were better now for the company and the efforts of Dana White and his crew had them skyrocketing to true legitimacy. Deals like the TV deal with FOX in 2011 were furthering the mainstream authenticity of the brand. There was just one problem. The MMA shorts that were so vibrant with custom designs and logos now made a company so large and dominant look sloppy and unprofessional. Here enters: the Reebok deal.

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 30: UFC fighters display the new Reebok clothing line during the Reebok Fight Kit Launch at Skylight Modern on June 30, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

In a continued push towards “legitimacy”, the Reebok deal would come in as an effort to clean up the brand image and give some uniformity to the show. However, as time passed, the flood gates opened: unleashing a torrent of unsatisfaction from the MMA community about the reality of this deal.

According to a report in 2015, the new breakdown under the Reebok deal was:

  • “Fighters with between one and five fights in the UFC, WEC or Zuffa era Strikeforce will receive $2,500 per fight.”
  • “Fighters with six to 10 will receive $5,000.”
  • “Fighters with 11 to 15 will receive $10,000.”
  • “Fighters with 16 to 20 will receive $15,000.”
  • “Fighters with 21 or more will receive $20,000.”
  • “Champions will receive $40,000 per fight.”
  • “Title challengers will receive $30,000.”

As previously mentioned, some fighters claimed to make upwards of $100,000 for what they were now going to be paid $2,500-$40,000. As you can imagine, people were outraged. Names like Schaub, Aljamain Sterling, Myles Jury, and Matt Mitrione spoke up, and some would even say the UFC never felt the same about them after they did.

Even worse, Reebok experienced tremendous troubles at launch. Famously misspelling MMA legends’ names like “Giblert” instead of Gilbert Melendez, “Marcio Lyoto Machida” instead of Lyoto Machida, and even “Kevin Swanson” as opposed to Cub Swanson. Let’s just say, there’s a reason this deal is still talked about today, and its launch combined with its reception will surely make it live on in MMA infamy forever. According to Sportskeeda, Reebok paid out $39,346,500 total to fighters during their six-year, three-month partnership with the UFC which ended in March of 2021.

A New Beginning with Venum

Starting in April of 2021, the UFC moved on from the Reebok ordeal and partnered with Venum, an MMA apparel and equipment brand founded by Franck Dupuis in 2006. Although the exact numbers have not been confirmed yet, it is believed that the fighters get paid more under this new deal.

So, which age in UFC history was your favorite for fight apparel? Leave your opinion on that and the infamous Reebok deal down in the comments below!

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Combat Sports and Motorsports Editor. Staff Writer for Overtime Heroics MMA. Named first ever ‘Writer of the Month’ in January 2021 for OTH MMA.