The five months since Reebok's uniform deal with the UFC began in earnest have been rocky, to say the least. The apparel company drew criticism for a shaky rollout that featured several misspelled fight kits, and that criticism has extended into controversies over the firing of legendary cutman Jacob "Stitch" Duran, an ill-advised UFC Ireland shirt, and a broader conversation about the Reebok fighter payout system, which has effectively nuked the UFC sponsorship landscape.
Veteran heavyweight Brendan Schaub has been a consistent rallying voice against the Reebok partnership on his popular ‘Fighter and The Kid' podcast. Under the Reebok deal, Schaub would have earned $10,000 per fight in sponsorship income -- a number which is a far cry from the six-figure earnings he grew accustomed to under the UFC's previous sponsorship system.
Schaub ultimately chose to step away from mixed martial arts earlier this month, and he attributed much of his decision to the Reebok deal, stating that he would rather not fight than do so for a sum he perceived to be below his market value.
Reebok senior director of combat training Michael Lunardelli is no stranger to the criticism his company has received, but in Schaub's case, Lunardelli believes the big man's frustration is misdirected.
"We've talked about this before, you can't make everybody happy," Lunardelli said during an in-studio appearance Monday on The MMA Hour. "Some people are going to criticize the deal. They may feel that they lost some sponsorships as part of this apparel deal. The way we look at it is, we're not deciding where the money goes. We're investing into all these different things that relate to MMA and the sport, so we've put a lot of money into the UFC deal, we've put a lot of money into fighters, we've put a lot of money into gyms and trainers and coaches, things like that. But then there comes a decision point, and the UFC decides how the fighters are paid. That's not something we get involved in at all.
"So I can understand that he's looking at us and blaming us because it's a Reebok apparel deal. It's a little misplaced from my standpoint. But at the same time, we have to do what we have to do, and that's focus on making great gear, supporting fighters, getting fighters to showcase as the face of our brand. If we do those things really well, then things will come around."
UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman joined Lunardelli as an in-studio guest to announce his signing with Reebok and introduce a signature line of ‘Join the Team' t-shirts and stars-and-stripes shoes.
Weidman echoed Lunardelli's sentiment, suggesting that Schaub's frustration was "misplaced anger" that should be directed elsewhere.
"Right away, you see people wearing Reebok and not getting the sponsors that he was making, so he gets upset. But you can't blame Reebok for that," Weidman said. "Reebok is coming in and doing the best they can to make this sport even better, and they're paying the fighters. So it's not Reebok.
"If he wants to get mad, get mad at the UFC. But in general, I think this is going to be good for the sport, and right now it's just a tough transitional period. But again, I think the anger, you can't keep blaming Reebok. I think MMA fans need to start supporting what's going on, because it's going to happen. Support Reebok and support the UFC in this move, because otherwise you're wasting your time and energy getting upset about it."
Lunardelli said that while he understands the criticism Reebok has received for decisions beyond its control, the company's focus is to move forward with a goal to help "elevate the sport," so that in the future, mixed martial arts becomes a more lucrative endeavor for all involved, including the athletes.
"When the sport becomes a sport like MLB or the NFL or NHL, when it becomes a sport that's viewed in that lens in the U.S., if it's elevated to that level, then there will be a lot more money in the game overall for everybody," Lunardelli said. "That's my viewpoint on it. I don't think it's quite there yet, but it's certainly getting there. It's growing. We're looking at some of these fights in Australia (at UFC 193), if they sell out that stadium, we're talking 65,000 or 70,000 seats for two title fights on the women's side of the UFC. That's amazing."
Weidman is the latest UFC athlete to be handpicked to be a brand ambassador by Reebok, joining a group that includes popular names like Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, and Paige VanZant. Lunardelli said the sponsoring of individual athletes is a decision supplementary to Reebok's original deal with the UFC, and that the company plans to expand even further into the MMA space by sponsoring gyms and coaches, starting with McGregor's Straight Blast Gym in Ireland.
"That's how we learn. We've said this, we come in as humble as possible, as humble as we can," Lunardelli said. "We're really good at training and fitness. We know how to make that gear. We know how to make the shoes, the footwear, all of that. We're great at that. What we need to know is how do we specialize in the realm of combat? How do we make the best spots in here? How do we make the best MMA gear? You're not going to do that just by sitting in your office and designing some cool looking stuff. You've got to get out there, you've got to work with fighters.
"You've got to send your people out there and you've got to talk to people, and that takes time. We're three months into this launch, right? So come and talk to us a year or two years from now, and let's see where we're at then, and that'll tell you how far along we've come. But we feel really good. Remember, we're working out like three seasons out, so I've already seen the spring/summer '17 stuff, and I'm blown away. The line is unreal. I can't wait to get there. We have several layers of things, so instead of having one or two MMA shorts, we've started building four, five, six different MMA shorts. Same thing on boxing and all of that. So it's going to take some time to get there, but we're getting there."