Mixed martial arts is a product of the ’90s.
Sure, the infancy of its modern iteration can be traced farther back, but the neatly-packaged, easy-to-consume model we’ve come to know and love has remained relatively unchanged in the west since the UFC’s inception in 1993.
Rules, which were few and far between during the ‘Wild West’ era of those early years, have of course been added and modified in the decades since; but presented with the following images and quizzed on the biggest difference between them, the average person’s answer would likely be: the attire.
And as a general measure of the sport’s evolution from a viewer’s perspective, that answer holds true. One of, if not the most significant observable change throughout the lifespan of mixed martial arts has been that of the attire combatants wear inside the cage; from the early Gi’s, to loud, patterned shorts plastered with sponsorships for ‘Condom Depot’ that remind us of the sport’s ‘hey day’, to today’s approved Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) shorts. Venum currently supplies the shorts worn by UFC fighters today.
How is it, then, that we went from the outrageously ’90s image of Royce Gracie in his iconic Gi throwing a front kick at a man who looks half ready for a boxing match – to the somewhat sterile, largely forgettable, company-designated tricolor shorts that adorn UFC athletes in the modern age?
Come along for a journey as we explore the history of iconic fight wear in The UFC.
The Wild West
In the beginning – that’s 1993, at the inaugural UFC 1 for our intents and purposes – things were, let’s say… a little loose.
With what seemed to be no restrictions in regards to fighting attire, on display that fated night was professional boxer, Art Jimmerson, sporting boxing trunks, shoes, and puzzlingly, a single glove; a stark contrast to the traditional Gi donned by Gracie.
Jimmerson’s unique look acted as nothing more than a handicap throughout the fight, particularly when the pair went to the canvas. He submitted after being mounted by Gracie for just over a minute. Even if the professional boxer had an inkling of jiujitsu knowledge, the glove would have still nullified the use of his left hand almost entirely.
Other notable outfits from the tournament included Ken Shamrock’s hot red speedos (one of the many colors he’d go on to wear) and Teila Tuli’s traditional Polynesian skirt, which, while offering a nice breeze, probably wasn’t conducive to winning a fist fight.
In the years following the sport’s inception, a myriad of outfits graced TV screens around the world. Speedos, wrestling singlets (coupled with the accompanying shoes), and various gis were the early craze. However, in time, this attire slowly made way for less cumbersome and more practical kits.
The golden age
On April 3rd, 2001 the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board proposed what would later be adopted as the Unified Rules of MMA.
Among the litany of rule changes suggested were also new regulations regarding what would be approved to wear in combat. This narrowed a fighter’s attire selection to just shorts, a shirt (for women), open-fingered gloves, a mouth guard, and groin protection. A measure implemented to ensure safety and even footing among combatants.
Most major US promotions, specifically The UFC, adopted these rules immediately, and this era would produce some of the most iconic and instantly recognizable outfits the sport has ever seen.
2011 was the year The UFC finally did away with speedos for good. Company president Dana White was horrified at the image of Dennis Hallman in his purple Training Mask get-up at UFC 133. Thankfully the bout lasted less than a round, after which White gave Hallman’s opponent Brian Ebersole a $70,000 bonus for “getting those horrifying shorts off TV as soon as possible.”
Also notable during this period was a sponsorship deal that Jon Jones had inked with sports apparel giant Nike in 2012; he would display the famous ‘swoosh’ logo on his fight shorts for the duration of the deal.
While the financial value of the sponsorship was never revealed, and the partnership was short-lived in the end, it stands as a testament to how valuable individual sponsors can be to a fighter; which inevitably brings us to…
An end to individuality
July 6 2015; the end of individuality as we’d known it inside The UFC.
The promotion decided to implement a controversial uniform policy in partnership with sportswear brand, Reebok, with the publicly stated intention of presenting the sport in a more professional manner.
However, this in turn restricted fighters even further; putting an end to individual branding and sponsorships on fight wear. In lieu of individual sponsorship stipends, Reebok supplemented fighters with amounts ranging between $2,500 and $40,000 per fight (based on tenure and championship status).
While this was a slight pay bump to less established athletes, former UFC middleweight, Vitor Belfort, claimed the deal ultimately cost him millions, while former bantamweight champion, Miesha Tate, allegedly made $20,000 to $25,000 more per bout before the deal was put in place.
Since the signing of this deal (and the similar, recently renewed partnership that’s been in place with Venum since March 2021), fighters have been limited to a cookie-cutter tricolor design on approved shorts, carrying only the logos of the UFC’s official sponsors at the time.
The initial launch of this partnership was marred by countless spelling errors on fighters’ kits, further fuelling the criticism leveled at the deal by fans and fighters alike. This had little effect on the new policy, however, as it remains largely unchanged to this day; more than seven years on.
UFC champions are now kitted out in the stock-standard black shorts with gold trim. Uncrowned fighters are given a limited choice of colorways, including red, white, black, green, yellow, and blue.
When two non-champions square off in the cage, the higher-ranked fighter is given first preference in regards to their preferred color, while the lower ranked of the two is restricted to a hue that contrasts their opponent’s selection.
There is a glimmer of hope for those tired of the mundanity of it all though.
Featherweight Bryce Mitchell is the only fighter on the current roster that’s managed to stray from the one size fits all designs. The Ultimate Fighter winner campaigned Reebok and later Venum for a custom pair of camouflage shorts with angry tirades during his post-fight interviews.
Both brands eventually obliged, with the current iteration being a collaboration between Venum and Realtree Camo. This was a groundbreaking act and has opened the doors on what may be possible under current uniform policies.
The long and short
Looking back on the early years of the sport, one can understand the necessity of restricting what can and can not be worn in the cage, and for the most part, the sport was already traveling down that path via natural evolution before the introduction of the Unified Ruleset.
In general, the shorts approved for MMA competition haven’t particularly evolved in style since before the turn of the century – the most common still being Vale Tudo spats, Gladiator shorts and kickboxing/muay-thai shorts.
But the individuality and personal flair that’s synonymous with combat sports entertainment, particularly in the ’90s, has taken a backseat in the UFC to allow for a more watered down, corporately palatable look that appeals to investors.
All the while, fighters under the promotional banner, at least established ones, are losing out on potentially millions of dollars in sponsorship revenue. Re-establishing this financial pipeline back toward the fighters would go a long way in resolving some of the issues surrounding fighter pay at the top level of the sport.
Sure we can’t revert to the lawlessness of the pioneer era of the sport, but for the sake of bringing back the spectacle of a UFC event, there must be a middle ground.