By Thomas Gerbasi
Jesse Katz is a storyteller. Not in a conventional sense, but then again, Katz isn’t one who likes to sit in the conventional bubble watching the world go ‘round. So when he thought of starting a new apparel company, Roots of Fight, five years ago, it wasn’t with visions of designs, fabrics, and marketing strategies, but of stories.
“We felt that there was a gaping hole in combat sports and nobody was treating the history with any sophistication or interest or anything unique,” he said. “And really, for us, the start was that MMA, and the UFC in particular, was not a new sport. MMA is something that is the evolution and culmination of thousands of years of combat sports. So we wanted to dive in, and it gave us a vehicle to also connect MMA to the history of boxing in particular, but then also dive in to each of the roots, or bloodlines as we call them, of each of the martial arts globally that contributed to the eventuality of mixed martial arts.”
It’s a bold concept to say the least, but once the Vancouver, British Columbia company’s shirts began hitting the streets in early 2012, they were an immediate hit. And of course, having icons like Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and Mike Tyson on your apparel is pretty much a no brainer home run, but what set Roots of Fight apart was their attention to the history of combat sports, and for boxing fans, this meant shirts featuring George Chuvalo, Ray Mancini, Joe Frazier, Jack Johnson, and Kid Chocolate.
For the hardcore crowd, this was heaven in t-shirt form. Everlast had dug into the history of the sweet science a decade ago, with Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Larry Holmes, and Sugar Ray Leonard apparel, but it never seemed to catch on like you expected it would. With Roots of Fight though, you see it practically everywhere in the lead-up to a fight, and even on the streets, it’s become an eye-catching conversation starter.
“When people write us, it’s always about ‘I get more conversations started and more interesting dialogue with people stemming from the shirts that you guys make than I’ve had in the last ten years,’” said Katz, and he’s not exaggerating, as my own walks in a mall or bookstore with a Mancini shirt on has prompted more than a few comments and questions about the career of “Boom Boom.” In short, these shirts are bringing back a history that needs more light.
And that’s where the stories come in.
Despite putting out quality products that clearly set them apart from the sword and dragon crowd that is prevalent in the combat sports space, Katz and company have gone beyond just keeping names like Ali, Frazier, Chuvalo, and Mancini in the public eye, employing a video team led by Jesse James Miller (who worked on the documentaries Facing Ali and The Good Son) to produce short films on those featured on their shirts.
“We are a brand that does not concern ourselves so much with trend, but more story,” said Katz. “We lead with story, everything for us is about story, and once we have the story established, we create art that commemorates that, and once that art is done, we try to translate that to apparel so that people who are engaged with that story or have some sort of history or connection with it can own a piece of that history. Jesse became the head of our film department, and started building all these short documentaries for us that gave us a new outlet and a new way to tell stories and educate and entertain. It’s a key part of who we are as a brand.”
It works. How well? Consider that Roots of Fight recently teamed up with Under Armour, allowing the brand to get even more mainstream exposure. And pardon the pun, but it got to this point thanks to a pure grassroots movement that has focused on word of mouth as well as the unique (these days) idea that if you put out a good product, people will buy it. Shocking, I know.
“We wanted to make something of quality that people would like looking at aesthetically,” said Katz. “And we want there to be a reason for why we make these shirts. If you tell a good story, it transcends whatever the genre is. So if you have these histories and these histories are so beautiful and so incredible, and in some cases so over the top, it makes for good storytelling. And that was the key. You needed to have something compelling, and we built our brand on the concept of being the anti-Abercrombie. We just didn’t want to be another brand. We’ve never paid people to wear our products, we never paid people to be in our documentaries or endorse us. Every person you see wearing our stuff wears it because they want to.”
And if you’re a boxing fan, you’re probably wearing the gear already.