Reebok's direct participation in the sport of mixed martial arts, and with the UFC specifically as their official apparel provider, hasn't been long. A matter of months, really, and while there have been some notable highs or milestones, their participation hasn't come without controversy either.
From fighters being unable to retain sponsors during UFC-sanctioned events to lower sponsor pay for some to misspelled names on fight kits to the firing of noted cutman Jacob 'Stitch' Duran, the July launch of Reebok's UFC line of products has faced some withering criticism.
Still, the Reebok train has left the station and Michael Lunardelli, Reebok's point man for their combat division, believes while the bumps in the road should be acknowledged, so should the positives that have happened and is yet to come.
"The UFC's a perfect fit for us, for a lot of different reasons," told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour, reiterating the case for why he believes Reebok and UFC have a strong alliance. In the face of UFC fan pushback, some have wondered whether that's strained the partnership between the two companies. According to Lunardelli, everything is full steam ahead.
"The first thing is and I think I told you this before, we're a fitness and training brand. We're already really good at that and we want to be the best in the world. That's really the modus operandi for why we're doing this and which way we're going here.
"We're looking at this thing and we're going, 'Wow, there's 35 million plus people who train like fighters whether it's boxing classes or kickboxing classes or they're doing MMA, partly for fitness.' 10 million of them are in the U.S. and that kind of aligns with our brand. In order to be validated or authentic in this space, we're good at making fitness and training products. We're great at that, but we need to be specialists in combat and that's different. To be specialists we've got to get access to people that can help us with this. We've gotta come in somewhat humble. We've got to know there's things to learn. We gotta know, yeah, we do certain things great in the fitness realm, but this is a little bit different.
"We gotta work with coaches, we gotta work with trainers and we gotta work with fighters," he continued. "The UFC was out there and they were pitching a deal. They wanted someone to come in and help elevate the sport. We all want the sport to be elevated. Everybody wants that. It was a perfect fit."
For Lunardelli, context matters. The context from which he operates requires an understanding of two things. First, this is an iterative process of learning on the part of Reebok. They know they don't have it all figured out yet, Lunardelli notes, but he believes they're on the right path. Second, timeline matters. What some might see as an inability to do everything expected of them, Lunardelli sees it as an ability to do an astounding amount of work in a narrow amount of time.
"There's things we're going to learn from the fighters and learn from the coaches and trainers that we can only get when we're involved all the way. We gotta be all the way in, we can't just be on the outside trying to work with one or two here or there. I think UFC affords us an opportunity to do that," he noted, commenting on the first of his two central arguments.
"The day-to-day stuff where we're working with fighters and we're learning how to build the best products out there, that's what our focus is on," Lunardelli explained. "That's it."
As for the second argument, this is where Lunardelli views matters positively for his apparel brand.
"I think, again, we signed a deal in December. It's August. Call it eight, nine months later. Our normal process to build products is 18 months to two years. You want to talk about having to fast break this thing. We had design, develop, produce and deliver products in the shortest time frame we've ever tried to do for some of the best athletes in the world. You don't want to screw that up.
"So, our focus, to be quite honest with you, has been just on get the product right, get it to the fighters, get it on them on time for all these events that are happening, now until the end of the year," he said. "That's it. There's not a lot outside of that we've really been doing."
The head of Reebok's combat division didn't just provide general context, but weighed in on a number of specific issues or questions circulating the mixed martial arts community, from how they're handling criticism to the future of the fight kits and more.
On the the volume of criticism:
"I don't live under a rock. We know there's been some criticisms of this thing. We expected it at some level. It's OK. The way I look at it is this: MMA in general and the UFC specifically as an organization, have fans that are incredibly passionate about this. Super dedicated and they feel like they're protectors of it. They're going to defend it, they're going to defend its honor, if you will. And we're on the outsides coming in right now. That's OK.
"We're going to have to win over people and we're going to have to do it by building great products and by showing we're dedicated to it, focused on it and on some level, we're listening.
"You talk to one fighter at a time. You talk to one coach at a time. You talk to one UFC employee at a time, you talk to one fan at a time. That's how you do it. It's a process and it's going to take us a period here to get through al that.
"I'd say the vast, vast majority of fighters feel great about what we're doing and we're building really good relationships with these folks very quickly. We got a long way to go. We're at the starting line."
On Reebok's involvement in UFC's decisions about sponsor payouts:
"Also to be really clear, we don't determine fighter pay scales, how they're paid, where does sponsor money go, any of that. None of that has anything to do with us.
"We've never once had a conversation about any of that. That extends out to other things: Some of the people around the game, how they're paid, how they structure it. We don't have anything to do who the UFC hires, fires, any of that. That's on them.
"The good news is we're investing in the sport. We're investing heavily, heavily in the sport. Not only did we do a deal with the UFC - which is a multi-year deal worth a lot of money - but we're signing UFC fighters. We're making deals with gyms. We're outfitting fighters, not only for their fights, but a lot of times for the gear they're wearing outside of fight week. We're in this thing, man."
On the 'Stitch' Duran situation:
"The whole thing's disappointing because I've been a fan before I was actually working in the business. I've known Sitch from way back, I didn't know him personally, but everybody who has ever watched a UFC fight has seen Stitch.
"In his own way, he's an icon of the sport. Everybody recognizes him...I called him and spoke to him recently after everything went down, had a good chat for a while.
"I don't think he was being necessarily disparaging towards Reebok. It wasn't what he was saying. Basically what he was saying was that, 'Hey, in this deal I lost my sponsorships. It was a part of how I made my money. How I live.' And I think he was being open and honest about it. I think he felt like he had to stand up to other people in this.
"We never even had a conversation about what the stitch men are wearing, whether they were losing their sponsors or not. It wasn't like we forgot about them, but that was going to be phase 2 of this deal. We didn't have enough time to think about the Octagon girls, to be quite honest, or the referees or the cut man or what Joe Rogan's wearing on stage at the weigh-ins.
"We haven't even had time to talk about any of that stuff. We haven't gotten there yet because we spent our first seven months desperately trying to get fight kits to fighters and training gear to fighters and all the product to get this deal kicked off. We didn't have 18 months to two years.
"I told Stitch, 'We were probably going to have a conversation with you somewhere down the road,' but that many not happen now. We don't make decisions as to who the UFC hires and fires.
"We never once had a conversation with UFC about Stitch Duran. Never once. Hadn't gotten there yet. It maybe something we talk about now, down the road but unfortunately, this all happened with Stitch. It's a matter for them.
"I actually talked to Stitch before anyone in my own organization....I did. I just called him man to man. I got his phone number and dialed him up myself. I was on the road and just said, 'I'm going to call him and talk to him, see what's going on'. We had a great talk. We talked for about 40 minutes or so. It was man to man, just between him and I. It was a good discussion. It was great, I wish none of this happened, but it did and again, it's not something that's in our control.
"I had a very brief conversation with [UFC President] Dana [White]. Dana was great about it as he always is. He's like, 'That's not for you guys to worry about. That's between us. You guys shouldn't be taking any heat for that. Basically, that's our situation with our cutman. We're handling that'. That's basically what he said. That was it. You gotta find your place here. There's a place where you can speak up about things, and there's a place where you can't. We're focused on what our job is.
"If something happens there and he comes back, then we're going to have a conversation with him. If he doesn't, then he doesn't. We'll move on and start talking about the other cut men who are here."
Website spelling mistakes about fighter names:
"The UFC has somewhere between 580 and 600 rostered athletes. It's the same for MLB and NFL and NHL and NBA. All of these sports have rostered athletes that the league takes care of. The league's in charge of who they sign, who is under contract and who isn't. That list fluctuates very quickly.
"The game plan very simply for us was, we decided very relatively close to the launch date that we were going to try to go live with every fighter in the UFC - which is a good thing - so we could offer every single fighter's jersey.
"The UFC came to us and asked us if we could do it. We said we could try. So, we were moving very quickly to get to that PR launch. The way it works is, we get a list from the organization. The organization provides the list. I don't know who the 560th fighter is in the UFC. How would I know that? How would my team know that?
"The list was vetted out by the organization and passed to us in a very short period of time. They were moving quickly as well. Again, it's a partnership. We don't want to mess up anybody's name, nor does the UFC.
"We took that list and put it up live, but no products were ever made that were incorrect, so really, it was just a rendering thing on the website.
"Our fault for not going through it and putting it up, but at the same time, it's hard to go through a list; what's my reference point with 600 fighters? Where am I supposed to check to see what it is and how do I know what every fighter wants to have on their jersey? That has to come from them. The league gets that, the league puts the list together, gets it over to us and we put it up online. That's how it works.
On not having more time:
"I wish we had more time, but you don't. I can't be a revisionist here. What happens, happened and we move fast. Honestly, I told my team and everybody we worked with or through on this deal how proud I am of what everyone's done in such a short period of time. We've created the first ever fight kit, for UFC fighters and the entire league. We did it in seven months and we were able to actually get a lot of feedback from the fighters. Not all the fighters. There's 600 fighters. It was a very small percentage of the fighters that we actually worked with on this. Some of the ones we had signed, some of the ones that did some fit or wear testing with us.
"But very proud of what we did in a small period of time. We got fan gear products out there. We've got head wear that's making it's way out shortly here. I actually think we've done a really good job of doing it.
"I also think we've got our own products in our combat training line for those people taking boxing, kickboxing, MMA classes and it's selling like crazy right now. In a seven-month period to be able to do that, I actually feel good about what we've been able to do."
On the future of the fight kits:
"Yeah, there's going to be more iterations of the fight kit. This is the first version. Some people, they either like or don't like the UFC logo on the front. We can't please everybody, but the first ever fight kit should be playing up the UFC logo in my mind, at least on of the three pieces. But the piece that most fighters are wearing into the Octagon is actually just the shorts, and the shorts plays up the fighters name in a big way.
"To me, the fighters are always kinda first in this thing. We wanted to have one item that played up on the UFC logo because it's that first kit, but the hood and shorts played more up on the fighters themselves. We felt pretty good about that as a starting point for the first two to three seasons.
"I think by either season 3 or season 4, we're going to come out with something new. We haven't designed it yet. We're in conversations about it and, of course, we have to work with the league, with the UFC, our partner, on what that'll be. We'll work together on that, but there's a lot more to come. We've got a whole team of people here are just fired up for this business and designing new products and changing it up and keeping this thing exciting.
"We'll be working with more and more fighters as we go forward as we get into this, make more relationships, get to know more people in this business. It's an evolving process. Definitely just a start and a lot more great stuff to come."
On the future for Reebok in the sport:
"You stay humble. You take the criticism and you make sure it makes you better, not going the other way with it. We're excited, man. I think there's been way more good that's happened than bad. It's been a really good start for us. A lot of products are selling really well. We're hearing great things from the fighters. We're hearing great things from our partners at the UFC. We're super excited about what's to come.
"We still have more fighters to sign, we still have more announcements to make, we still have more products to build and even the fight kits themselves - which are the first versions of them - we'll have more versions of those coming out in the future. We're excited to release those. There's a lot of good things still to come."