Fighting is relatable, it connects victory, loss, and triumph in a way that everyone can understand, but the history behind these fights is what oftentimes gets clouded, just ask Jesse Katz, the CEO of Roots of Fight.
Whether it’s watching an old Bruce Lee flick, playing Mike Tyson’s punch out or smelling what “The Rock” is cookin’ at Wrestlemania, fighting in some way has always captivated us as a culture.
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With support from the respected fight community, the who’s who of Hollywood, and the everyday swag star, Roots of Fight has grown into not just a popular fight brand, but a lifestyle brand for all.
Katz caught up with the Kulture Hub squad about how he helped develop the brand to get to where it is now. Additionally, we discussed Roots of Fight’s latest drop, RO x Ilaria Urbinati x Johnny Hunt, Muay Thai.
“MMA was being marketed as this vicious thing and to me, there was this beauty in it and nobody was able to capture that.”
New York-born and Vancouver-bred, Katz was a fight fan since he was a kid. Growing up he watched the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Lennard, Lennox Lewis and more during the glory years of boxing.
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#OTD in 1974 – The Rumble In The Jungle, The Greatest Sporting Event Of The 20th century. @MuhammadAli regained the heavyweight title and showed why he was, and always will be, the #PeoplesChamp. . …And as he’d done with Frazier, Ali began to taunt George. “Can’t you fight harder?” Ali asked, right in the line of fire and controlling the battlefield. All the while his eyes were crazed, in the way his eyes always were. The crowd was alive. Ali, boma ye! Ali, boma ye! The rounds began to go by, with Ali stretched out at angles on the ropes. He was consciously taking what Foreman could dish. He was transferring the brunt of the blows through the ropes themselves, sending the shockwaves through his middle down through the ropes, down to the turnbuckles, and into the annals of history. Ali was a conductor. He was redirecting currents of force. When Foreman hesitated, Ali pounced with his graceful right, once, twice — fast enough to ratchet Foreman’s animal instinct to kill up another notch. Contrary to reason, all of Ali’s offense was within the space of a closet, yet one that had an infinite back, a vortex that Ali reclined into like it were an expanse of the sorcerer’s golden fields. Against it, George Foreman lost his bearings. Ali was authoring his greatest moment in a career full of great moments. In the fifth, after it felt like the fight had settled into a rhythm — the famously dubbed “rope-a-dope” tactic — the fight suddenly burst out into another direction. Ali came off the ropes like a tyrant who’d been in wait, slamming rights home, reminding everyone that his game went fathoms deep. He unleashed a preview of the hell he had yet in store for George. They exchanged, and Ali landed big with the right hand. Again, and again. All the doubts about Ali now went into his wonder, as he landed another right. As the bell sounded, Ali, constantly aware of everything around him, winked at Jim Brown, the football great, who was ringside on the call with Frazier and David Frost. Ali seizing the moment. Ali at his most indomitable. Ali at his most poetic. Words by the esteemed Chuck Mindenhall, continue reading on our blog. Shop the full collection now. Link in bio
When the sport began to decline, he got drawn to the buzzing Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). Combined with the increased popularity of reality TV, UFC honed in on boxing’s audience and replaced it as the mainstream combat sport with shows like The Ultimate Fighter.
Believe it or not, Katz didn’t set out to be in the business of fighting,
“I wanted to be pilot or a lawyer”
Growing up in a house full of entrepreneurs, Katz bounced around jobs. He would work at his mom’s restaurant, make his way over to his dad’s U.S. tax consulting firm, and help his brother screenprint t-shirts in the garage.
After graduating from college, he chose to work for his brother’s clothing company, which quickly became the creative agency that birthed Roots of Fight.
“We started as a custom clothing company and pretty quickly realized we were offering something different, there was a value add because we were thoughtful of the brands that we were working with, who their consumers were and what the actual needs were…”
“We weren’t just trying to sell a product, we weren’t a widget company.”
Hands-on-experience helped Katz learn what not to do when it came to business, leading them to reposition the t-shirt company as a creative agency, Copasetic Creative.
The agency had a client roster of most sports and beer brands that grew from being local and regional to internationally after getting acquired by bigger companies. As the agency grew, so did the value of good relationships.
“I realized that that was the key for me, that everything is based off of relationships. So I took a different approach didn’t hire salespeople, I just did it all myself and tried to grow and nurture relationships in all fields.”
At the same time, the popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC skyrocketed. Fandom behind fighters like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz got them roles on the big screen and the Ultimate Fighter became one of the most popular shows on TV.
Combat sports awareness continued to increase, but the imagery and perceived values of the sport wasn’t properly defined in mainstream media.
Highlight reel knockouts and bloody wars put new fans in a trance and became synonymous with MMA. Additionally, the heavily branded, foiled, and bedazzled t-shirts fighters wore post-fight did too.
“I started this when I was 40 years old and I was a huge fight fan, but I wasn’t a fan of the marketing. It was really kind of backyard brawler, very low brow. I thought that the imaging and branding all around it were very much the same, I felt like the world was changing away from the big goddy bedazzling, skulls and crossbones, all the foiling. That really was just an awful period in sports and fashion…”
Katz laughed and continued,
“I thought the sport needed to market to a bigger audience.”
Floyd Mayweather talking trash about Muhammad Ali in an interview was the catalyst that inspired Katz to shut the doors down on the agency in 2012.
That moment would allow Katz to create something that would help tell the history of fighting to today’s audience in a way they could easily digest it.
The brutality of fighting can easily overshadow the humanism of it and scare people away. Those new to the sport shouldn’t think that MMA is just brawling and bloodsport. There is truly so much more to it.
“Fighting is something that just appeals to us, it taps into something in our brains and people who can capture that eloquently and explain it I think that’s what was missing from today. I thought you need to anchor this to the history of the fight, you need to anchor MMA as the pinnacle of thousands of years of combat sport from around the world…”
“Every region has its own martial art, every region has its own form of combat. Whether they use weapons or not its always a hand to hand component to it. In Israel is Krav Maga, in China is Kung Fu, in Japan its Judo, Brazil Jiu-Jitsu, France-Savate. For me, that’s what was captivating and interesting and to be able to bring out that history and tap into those meaningful stories.”
Roots of Fight soft-launched in 2012 with t-shirt collections built around some of the most popular names in combat like Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, and the Gracie Family. Through relationships old and new, Katz crossed paths with families members who trusted and believed in his vision.
These relationships represent trust and they are what give him the go-ahead to use fighters’ likeness on the shirts. Additionally, these combatant companionships allow him to tell the stories behind the world’s most loved fighters.
Roots of Fight emerged as an anti-brand, using no branding and heavily researched real-life inspired imagery to help recreate moments through apparel.
The brand started to catch the eye of major combat sports figures, like Dwayne Johnson in 2013, who Katz cites as an important part of their growth as a company.
Aesthetically, Roots of Fight appeals to everyone and it is hard to categorize it as “fight gear” alone. Instead of fists and cages, Roots shows the origins of arts, the fighters, and the communities that helped them grow.
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Expanding the colorways and imagery helped expand the concept of lifestyle gear for the industry, peeling back the curtains for casual fans to learn what fighting was really all about.
“The previous incarnations of all of the fight brands that were out there was always focusing on the toughness and you could almost see someone put on one of those shirts to try and look “tough” or give off a certain vibe. What we were trying to do is take a different approach and make this stuff softer and actually just make stuff that looks pretty.”
“First and foremost we just want it to look good, for you to feel happy in it and for it to fit well. Stuff that in particular everyone would want to wear. Something that crosses over and is acceptable by a greater audience and then, people who are really into combat sports, now theres gonna be layers of detail they can dive into and understand the meaning behind why we’re doing them.”
Famed fashionista Ilaria Urbinati who styles celebs like “The Rock” and Childish Gambino became a Roots of Fight fan after scooping up a Bruce Lee jacket at a shop in L.A.
Weeks after, she kept bumping into clients who swore by the brand. Hell, Bradley Cooper even said he keeps a jacket in the trunk of his car, “just in case.” Urbinati is also a lover of the arts and partakes in Muay Thai training daily.
So, it was no surprise that her team and Katz’s team hit it off and decided to collab. Along with the expertise of Muay Thai Champion and Fortune Gym trainer, Johnny Hunt, they decided to create a capsule to tell the special story of “Boxing Day” in Muay Thai’s history.
The limited edition collection, RO x Ilaria Urbinati x Johnny Hunt, Muay Thai includes a stadium jacket, tee, sweatpants, and hoody all showcasing regalia of Thailand.
Each color, pattern, and image throughout the collection is intentional and speaks to the greater culture that birthed this particular art of fighting.
Boxing Day is celebrated every March 17 in Thailand and originated in 1774 after Burmese fighter, Nai Khanom Tom defeated nine other prisoned fighters earning a pardon from then King Mangra as well as the release of thousands of other prisoners who were being held away from their home of Siam.
What then was known as Siamese-style boxing became what we now know as Muay Thai, a history that the collection tells through each piece.
“This has been quite a success, we got a lot of energy and enthusiasm for it right off the bat. I actually just hand delivered one to Wiz Khalifa. I’m hoping we can do something maybe even something new with these guys because Ilaria just has ideas forever and nobody knows fashion like her.”
The drop connects modern combat sports and fashion lovers alike with the community that started Muay Thai, a connection that Katz feels can be replicated between any passion and group of people that shares a love for it.
“You gotta be doing something that’s authentic and meaningful. It can’t just be meaningful to you, you have to channel your passion into something that’s accessible and translatable to other people.”
Roots of Fight redefined lifestyle gear for combat sports and continues to bridge the gap between communities past and present.
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Proud to announce this new Muay Thai collab with two amazing people who we have become friends with and created this capsule with. Ilaria Urbinati is a fashion stylist whose clients include Rami Malek, Donald Glover, Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson, Ben & Casey Affleck, Chris Evans and many more. She also trains Muay Thai and boxing with Johnny Hunt – who is a former world ranked Muay Thai champ who fought & trained for many years in Thailand, Japan, and China. He now trains a long list of top celebrities out of Fortune Gym, Hollywood. – Ilaria first discovered ROF when she purchased one a Bruce Lee jackets, then wore it to a set she was working with Dwayne Johnson. She didn’t know Dwayne’s history with us but, he instantly recognized it and offered to make an introduction. That same week, coincidentally another client of hers, Bradley Cooper showed up to a styling wearing an RO Ali Jacket. At that point, Ilaria and RO were connected by a mutual friend (Thank you Slater) and started talking about potential ways to get creative together. Johnny and his love of Muay Thai and knowledge of the history felt like “Boxer’s Day” – which is celebrated every year in Thailand on March 17th would be an ideal subject to dive into. – According to legend, in 1774 Nai Khanom Tom was one of thousands of Siamese prisoners being held by the Burmese King Mangra after the Burmese invasion in the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The king selected Nai Khanom Tom to fight against a Burmese fighter. Nai Khanom Tom won by Knock Out. The referee claimed the win not valid due to possible sorcery. – The King then sent in 9 other fighters, one by one without time breaks. They were all put on the ground by the hands of Nai Khanom Tom. – Impressed by these abilities, King Mangra claimed Nai Khanom Tom to be “blessed with venom”. – He was pardoned, along with the other Siamese prisoners, and allowed to return to Siam. He was acknowledged as a hero and his fighting style became known as Siamese-Style boxing, later to be known as Muay Thai and would be recognized as the national sport. – Shop our Limited Edition RO x @ilariaurbinati x @therealjohnnyhunt Muay Thai Collab now. Link in bio #RootsofFight