Jesse Katz has been a fan of martial arts for a long time.
These days, when someone says they're a fan of martial arts, you can probably assume that they're talking about the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and you'd be right in most cases. The UFC is the largest martial arts brand in the world, and they're the ones doing the most to spread the good word of jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, karate and wrestling to the masses.
But Katz was a fan long before there was much of a UFC, and certainly long before Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar waged a classic fight that would help launch the UFC into the mainstream and, as luck would have it, eventually lead to a signature line for Roots of Fight, the clothing company Katz founded earlier this year.
But we'll get into that part of the story a little bit later.
Katz created Roots of Fight because he wanted to tell interesting stories about the history of martial arts. There were dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of prominent T-shirt companies flooding the market with all manner of skulls, angels wings, swords and crosses.
The formula for creating an MMA-themed shirt was fairly predictable: Take a fighter's name, splash it across the top and then fill the rest of the shirt with tribal designs or armor or whatever else you think might represent cool dudes who fight for living. They weren't pretty, but they were a license to print cash.
Katz wanted no part of that racket.
"I saw that there was a hole in this industry, where there just wasn't anybody talking about the history of the sport," Katz said. "I felt that I could do this mix of storytelling and apparel in an environment where there was nobody digging into it."
Katz worked on the concept for Roots of Fight for over two years before finally launching the company early in 2012. "These are the early days," Katz offers when I ask him what the formative days of his company were like. "We just launched this on January 17, so it's only six months old."
Katz's products are unlike anything else on the market. For starters, they're built on a foundation of clean and great design. They're something you can wear in public without the fear of being pigeonholed as a violence-loving, beer-swilling bro.
But they're also a great conversation starter, because they're not just a collection of random images, clip art and known memes associated with mixed martial arts. They're a jumping-off point into the history of fighting, not a celebration of the culture surrounding the UFC. That's an important distinction.
"I think what separates us—and what we strive for in order to separate ourselves—is that we lead with story. We lead with having a point of interest. Every shirt that we make is part of a bigger story. Every component of what we do as a business is related to something that is rooted in an authentic moment or time or achievement of one of these icons, or the story of an icon," Katz said. "This new sport of MMA moves very fast, and we didn't see anybody else telling the history of it.
"So for us, we lead with this story explaining the rich history of all of these arts from around the world and how they've morphed into each other and evolved to culminate in what is today's MMA. It just happens to lend itself really well to telling stories on T-shirts and carrying forward those stories."
Katz's first task for Roots of Fight was the creation of bloodlines. He matched up regions with disciplines: Israel with Krav Maga, France with savate, judo with Japan and so forth. He then anchored each of those bloodlines with an icon of the sport, to give each art its own gravity and to make a point: that these martial arts have a much bigger history than what you see on Saturday night inside the Octagon.
"Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson. These guys are global icons. They're not just combat sports figures. They've been able to transcend their sport, to reach people in every corner of the globe," Katz said.
Tyson's role in the Roots of Fight story is quite interesting. In his early years—and perhaps even the middle ones—Tyson wasn't the easiest man in the world to work with. But that's all changed in recent years, as Tyson has blossomed into a media and film darling, a Broadway attraction and a man far removed from the angry young warrior he was during his heyday.
Katz said that working with Tyson on his Roots of Fight line could not have been an easier experience. They were introduced to Tyson and his wife Kiki through a mutual friend, and Katz said the entire process could not have been simpler.
"We were introduced to them through a mutual friend. We had one conversation with Kiki," Katz said. "And literally from talking to her on a Tuesday, we flew down the next day and ended up spending the day at their house with them and their children and family, and we had a phenomenal experience. They were extremely welcoming and supportive and warm. And they really liked the project.
There's a heavy weight that comes with this. We've had the good fortune of having all of these icons entrust us with their legacies, with telling their stories in a way that is respectful and authentic. It's quite a responsibility."
Tyson said that he's ultimately pleased with how Katz and his company handled his image.
"We wanted to do some kind of university style and varsity style of outfits. Basically something to represent the year I unified the titles," Tyson recently told Complex. "It’s a real cool company and when they presented the idea I just thought it was awesome.
"They did shirts for Ali, Bruce Lee and a number of other fighters. There’s just a conglomerate of connections that they’ve been associated with. I’m just proud to be involved with him."
All of the early Roots T-shirt lines focused on the legendary figures Tyson mentioned above, but the next story they're telling is one that might be a bit more familiar to UFC fans: the legendary battle between Griffin and Bonnar from the first Ultimate Fighter finale on April 9, 2005.
Katz was introduced to the UFC by mutual friends Alex and Shannon Lee. Katz met with the company, showed them what he was working on and said the UFC was excited by what they'd seen. Katz was approached by the promotion about creating some exclusive content for the digital version of UFC Magazine.
"They wanted us to tell some stories about their past. So we collaborated and came up with this idea of something that fits with Roots of Fight, which is all about telling the history, and something that fit into their contemporary marketing plans. We arrived at this series telling stories of UFC legends. We went down and shot Randy Couture, Forrest and Urijah Faber, and just had some great pieces with them and some great storytelling.
"This was the pivotal fight for the company. It's largely regarded—not just by people inside the company but also by people outside of it—as the fight that made the UFC and propelled them into the successful business they are today."
Partnering with the UFC is a huge business opportunity for anyone operating in the mixed martial arts world, and Roots of Fight is no different.
"We're very excited by it. I'm proud to be associated with the UFC. We're telling the story of all of the individual arts and their history and their icons," Katz said. "But really, this is not just the largest stage for this sport, but it also has practitioners that have become the best at all of these individual arts. It's getting unbelievable practitioners in each style that are now competing in the UFC.
"And so it's a perfect fit for us, both marketing-wise and story-wise. We like to talk about the icons of the sport and of the individual arts, but these are the stars of today and the icons of tomorrow. It's an unreal partnership."