Malki Kawa saw this coming two years ago. When he helped broker a deal with Nike for his client Jon Jones, the longtime manager could sense the growing interest in MMA. He knew before long that the UFC would get a uniform — like the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball.
That time is coming soon. UFC president Dana White alluded to it last month at a media luncheon. And although White said the company is just in the "working on it" stage, fighters, managers and sponsors are wondering just what exactly this means for them.
Kawa doesn’t have any inside information, but he believes it’ll be something like how the major pro team sports do it.
"When [a company] sponsors the UFC, we will work in a football/basketball way of doing business," Kawa told FOX Sports. "Everybody will be in a uniform, whethere you have an Afflicton deal, a Nike deal, an Under Armour deal, a Reebok deal, a Tapout deal. Whatever company that you have, the company the league is sponsored by is gonna be on everybody — no matter who it is."
For example, Kawa’s client Jones has a Nike sponsorship. But if the UFC were to be sponsored as a company by Under Armour, Jones would have to wear Under Armour in the Octagon. He would be free to rep Nike in every other way. Kawa compared it to LeBron James endorsing Nike, but the NBA being sponsored by Adidas.
Whatever company that you have, the company the [UFC] is sponsored by is gonna be on everybody — no matter who it is.
"The reason I don’t freak out is because it’s commonplace in the sports world today," Kawa said.
The big question for Kawa is what percentage of this uniform deal will the fighters get. White painted this as a good thing for the lower-level guys, because they struggle to get sponsorships in the first place.
"Do you know how many fighters call me and say they don’t want to deal with sponsorships anymore?" White said at that media luncheon in February. "What can you do? It’s not as plentiful as everybody makes it out to be."
Some fighters are worried, though. Chief among them might be Felice Herrig, who has helped build her own brand through her unique (and sexy) outfits. She’s afraid a uniform will not only cost her money, but also perhaps stifle her creativity and hurt her marketability. Herrig was outspoken on Instagram about being against what the UFC potentially has planned.
"I think that we are not only high-level athletes, but also entertainers," Herrig told FOX Sports. "So I do think a uniform would definitely take away some individuality from the fighters that put effort into it."
Herrig did concede that it might help those who are struggling to earn money through sponsorship. But she’s still not on board with the idea herself. Herrig has always worn "gladiator skirts" to the cage and she doesn’t want to change that now that she’s in the UFC.
"I see that a deal like this could benefit a lot of fighters because sponsorship opportunities are just low right now and most fighters will wear anything as long as it’s paying," Herrig said. "I have never been like that. … Early on in my career I had a previous manager tell me that I had to wear board shorts so he could put sponsors on them. At that time I was making no money at all but I still turned down that opportunity because I was thinking long term about the image I wanted to create for myself. I stuck with it and now have made it to the biggest show on the planet and I would be really disappointed if I never got to express my individuality on this stage."
Tyron Woodley, who meets Carlos Condit next week at UFC 171 in a welterweight contender matchup, is worried that the whole thing is going to hit him in the wallet. He is not a guy who’s havin trouble getting sponsors — in fact, he prides himself on working hard at it and hustling. Woodley thinks a uniform could "take away the free market" from fighters.
"Hell no, I’m not cool with it," he told FOX Sports. "That’s like saying, ‘Guys we’re gonna take all your damn sponsorships away.’ Why would I be cool with that?"
Johny Hendricks, on the other hand, doesn’t mind the idea. He’s sponsored by Reebok, but even if another company comes in to sponsor the UFC, he’s not going to be up in arms. Hendricks actually likes the idea of continuity with fighters.
Johny Hendricks looking sharp in his Reebok gear.
"My whole life I’ve known nothing but colors," Hendricks said. "You have a set uniform for junior high, you have a set uniform for high school, you have a set uniform for college. But that’s one thing that I like. A uniform won’t bother me."
White’s message to the fighters is pretty simple: wait and see. Don’t start complaining until the entire thing is hashed out.
"When we get a deal done, and I come out and announce it, lay out the rules, and tell you how it goes, and things like that, if that day ever comes, then we can b***h about it and argue," White said after UFC 170 last month. "Then we can talk about money made, money lost, and money this. It’s f***ing ridiculous, there is no deal, and we’re sitting here talking about something that doesn’t exist, and people are bitching about something that doesn’t exist. It’s like a f***ing hair salon."