The UFC's new Reebok era did not get off to the best of starts.
The backlash began with the perception that fighters would be losing out on the kind of pay they used to get from individual sponsorships for their fights. Fans and fighters were vocal, with many expressing their displeasure in having that extra revenue stream taken away without so much as a discussion.
And then came the official launch day for the new UFC Fight Kit.
A few weeks ago in New York City, Reebok and the UFC held a PR event to reveal the kits for the first time. Reaction on social media was swift and brutal; the darkly-lit runway event did the uniforms no favors. Instead of featuring a bit of individuality, the kits were all the same, meaning every fighter who steps in the Octagon wearing them would look pretty much identical.
But the biggest snafu of the launch came when the kits appeared on Reebok's e-commerce website. Many fighters' names were misspelled; the legend of "Giblert Melendez" will live on as an MMA meme for many years to come. Others had the wrong name entirely. In some instances fighters' birth names were used instead of the names they've come to be known by.
Michael Lunardelli, the senior business director of Reebok's new Combat Training department, said the mistakes were unfortunate.
"It's our fault on that. However, people don't realize that nothing was printed. Nothing was produced," Lunardelli told Bleacher Report. "None of that is real. It's print on demand. It's a rendering based on the fighter's name you choose from the drop-down box."
That may come as sad news to fans who wanted to own their own Giblert Melendez kit. Lunardelli said the mistakes came during the process of obtaining the roster list from the UFC.
"There's a process with all leagues. You get the roster from the league. There's a process to vet that out with the fighters. And then it's transmitted over to us," he said. "There was a problem in the transmission to get that over to us. We're working with the UFC to make sure we get them all fixed. I would say 500 of the 580 have been loaded in, and the remaining ones will be fixed by the end of the weekend."
Social media makes it infinitely easier for mistakes like the ones posted to Reebok's site to spread around the world. And spread they did, compounding the frustration felt by the low fighter-sponsorship payouts due to the deal. Reebok was mocked endlessly for the mistakes, but Lunardelli shrugged off the criticism.
"In any license deal, there's always going to be mistakes made at some point in time," he said.
The UFC Fight Kits made their first in-cage appearance at UFC 189 on Saturday, but they were also being sold at the new-look Fan Expo the day before. Many (myself included) wondered if fans would gravitate to the new uniforms or at least gravitate to them enough to fork over the $80 required to purchase one. But looking around the Expo on Friday afternoon, it was evident that at least a portion of the fanbase were buying them. The overwhelming majority were Georges St-Pierre and Conor McGregor jerseys. But they were buying them, and they were wearing them.
Lunardelli said the plan is to take a page from soccer and change the kit's design. Reebok won't do it as often as professional soccer clubs, which usually debut new variations prior to every season. Lunardelli said they don't want to take that stance, because they don't want to force people to buy an $80 shirt only to have it rendered obsolete a few months later.
"We'll probably have this kit for three seasons. We'll probably have it from now through fall/winter 2016, and then early 2017 we'll look at coming out with another design," he said. "We may make a decision to not change it until fall/winter 2017. But certainly during that year, we're going to change the kits. We'll do another big launch, and it'll be great."
Another criticism of the kits: the giant UFC logo splashed across the front, with the fighter's name shuffled to the back of the shirt. Lunardelli said that Reebok felt the major story of this new product launch was the UFC and the way it is "elevating the sport," and so the decision was made to put the emphasis on the UFC logo for the launch.
"We thought the story of the UFC was more important to tell on the shirt," he said. "But that's not what they wear into the Octagon. They're wearing shorts. The big read on the shorts is the fighter's name, and then there's a small UFC logo and a small Reebok logo. So the plan for what they are performing in the Octagon is the fighter's name. We did put fighters first."
Lunardelli has heard the criticism. But it's the kind of criticism that comes with all major changes, and this was a profound change to the way the UFC is presented. Such a change comes with growing pains, often right out of the gate.
But he said that his company is commited to the growth of the UFC and to mixed martial arts in general, and he believes that over time, fans will begin to see that Reebok's intentions are genuine and that the company is in for the long haul.
"I have confidence that over time, that ground swell will change," he said.
Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report.