Reebok’s retool is improved look
After two years in business together, the UFC and Reebok have learned some hard lessons, trying to fit the unwieldy sport into the type of uniform template common in other sports.
Some fighters, accustomed to hustling for their own sponsors and pocketing most of the proceeds, bristled at the flat Reebok payouts based solely on UFC tenure and aired their grievances publicly. The homogeneous look of the UFC uniforms also cut into fighters’ ability to stand out in a business fueled by star power. Several UFC veterans jumped ship to Bellator MMA, citing Bellator’s lack of sponsorship restrictions as a key reason.
Reebok is showing, however, it hasn’t been deterred, rolling out a re-imagined apparel line prior to UFC 215 earlier this month. The company swapped out a soccer jersey look to one more wearable and lifestyle-oriented, and is video conferencing with top fighters from its Canton headquarters to collaborate on custom designs for walkout gear.
“It has been a learning process, and a lot of what we’ve done over the last two years is really tried to ingrain ourselves in the culture,” Matt Bilodeau, Reebok’s global lead for the UFC partnership, told the Herald.
Bilodeau said fighters wanted gear that had less of a sleek, athletic look, and could be worn casually. Prior to the Reebok deal, MMA apparel was mostly characterized by Tapout and Affliction shirts that could be worn anywhere — and were aimed just as much at spectators as those who train.
“We feel like this collection has a lot more attitude, and the style really is born from MMA culture,” Bilodeau said.
Initially, Reebok initially aimed its UFC products at workout enthusiasts who draw inspiration from MMA training regimens, but they were of limited appeal to the average UFC fan.
Reebok created its first line of signature walkout T-shirts for the UFC 215 headliners: Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, his challenger Ray Borg, women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, and her challenger Valentina Shevchenko. Going forward, the “Legacy” gear will be created for payper-view main eventers and both sides of title fights, with repeat fighters in these categories getting new designs each time they compete.
The new look was rolled out with some hoopla, but another vexing reality of MMA threw Reebok a curveball. Borg came down with an illness on the eve of the fight and pulled out, so the Johnson and Borg custom gear never saw the light of day. The fight has been rescheduled for Oct. 7.
“Being a part of (the sport) for the last two years, we kind of are accustomed to the fact that that’s going to happen,” Bilodeau said of injury withdrawals. “Was it a little bit disappointing? Sure, but we know also that that fight’s going to happen again.”
The custom gear is created after video consults with fighters and researching their passions as expressed on social media, a more resource-intensive process for Reebok. Fighters are quizzed about what they want to celebrate on their gear — home city, family, country, gym, etc. Templates are then designed and selected by the fighter and Reebok.
Bilodeau said Nunes, who is nicknamed “The Lioness” and retained her title at UFC 215, knew exactly what she wanted to represent.
“She was very direct — she wanted a lioness, and that’s what we ended up developing for her,” he said. “That’s kind of how it goes.”
There are reportedly four years left on the UFC/Reebok deal, and the company is looking to make steady adjustments until it fits seamlessly into the UFC.
Lauzon’s next in November
UFC veteran and Bridgewater product Joe Lauzon has his next octagon assignment, facing fellow cornerstone lightweight Clay Guida (33-17) on Nov. 11 in Virginia.
“I think it’s a fight that a lot of people expected would have happened a long time ago,” the 33-year-old Lauzon (2712) told the Herald. “We’ve both been in the division for such a long time. I’m excited and I’m glad it’s finally going to happen.”
While Lauzon cedes “neither one of us are really spring chickens” — Guida is 35 — he expects both will uphold their reputations as two of the most reliable action fighters in UFC history.
“He’s got crazy cardio. He’s push, push, push,” Lauzon said. “To me, that’s an exciting problem to deal with. It kind of sucks doing cardio, but when you know you definitely need it, it’s kind of easier to get through it.”
Newell ready for another go
Nick Newell inspired MMA fans by pulling off great feats in the cage despite being born with no arm below his left elbow. But in 2015, after a bruising defeat to current top UFC lightweight contender Justin Gaethje and two subsequent wins, Newell hung up the gloves, citing mounting injuries.
Now, the 31-year-old Connecticut native, who trained for years in Springfield and captained the wrestling team at Western New England, is feeling intact again and ready to return. The Legacy Fighting Alliance announced last week it signed Newell and will host his return fight on a date to be determined.
“I don’t want to look back and wonder what could have been, or have any regrets,” Newell told the Herald. “The main thing that led me to retire was my body. It took about two years, but it feels normal again.”
Nagging back, neck and MCL injuries hampered Newell’s camps such that he spent more time on rehab than his skills. He’s since opened his own gym in West Haven and bought a house with his fiancee, whom he’ll marry in November.
“Everything’s coming together, so if I have everything under control outside, in my normal life, I feel like that’s a good time to start doing stuff that I enjoy,” he said.
Newell was long bearish on his chances of getting a shot in the UFC, discouraged by the response of the company and regulators to his trying out for the “Ultimate Fighter” show years ago. Inked with the LFA, which has been a pipeline for UFC prospects and was the proving ground for one of the UFC’s two current matchmakers, Newell’s tune is changing.
“I feel like I belong in the UFC, and I know that I’m going to be in the UFC,” he said. “It’s just that they have to want me, and I’m not going to sit here and beg. All I’m going to do is just put people away and keep winning fights.”
READY TO WEAR: Amanda Nunes celebrates her successful title defense at UFC 215 on Sept. 9 in her new Reebok gear.