Crossing Over

Jake Shields stood across the cage from “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler on June 6 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, and it seemed like business as usual. But as the camera panned to the Jiu-Jitsu wizard when Strikeforce ring announcer Jimmy Lennon, Jr., introduced him to the masses, it became abundantly clear that something was different about him.

It wasn’t the fact he was fighting at a catchweight of 182 pounds –- he is a natural Welterweight who wanted to test his skills against a top-ranked Middleweight. And it wasn’t necessarily because he was fighting for Strikeforce –- the promotion acquired his contract when it purchased select assets from Elite XC earlier this year.

For the first time in his career, Shields was wearing boardshorts designed by his newest sponsor, Metal Mulisha, and he absolutely loved them. “Their shorts are great,” he gushes. “They’re good to fight in. Their quality was awesome, and that’s always nice. It sucks to have shorts that don’t fit right and don’t feel right, so that was great. I like the look. It has a mean look to it, and it’s a really gives [off] the image of fighting.”

Metal Mulisha is just one of the many clothing lines in the extreme sports realm that have crossed over into the world of mixed martial arts, and recently, it has become just as mainstream as the sport itself. While sporting goods stores like Champs carry Affliction and Tapout, many popular retail chains like Buckle, Pac-Sun and Urban Outfitters display MMA-infl uenced clothing from skate apparel and lifestyle companies such as Ecko Unlimited, No Fear, Skin Industries, Silver Star, and So Cal Clothing.

Though some of these fashion enterprises are still catching on, Metal Mulisha has been at the front of the scene since the jump. The brainchild of Larry “Link” Linkogle, a Southern freestyle motocross rider, he developed the idea in 1996 as the counter response to Corporate America. Along with his business partner, Brian Deegan, the duo officially launched the edgy lifestyle company in 1998 out of Temecula, Calif.

It was then when MMA, still in the dark ages, invaded the home turf of Metal Mulisha. With his friend Phil Ensminger competing in Vale Tudo and lacking quality gyms at which to train, Link decided to let him train in the warehouse. “Basically, we built a big ring for my buddy and along with all of us because we were into it, too,” Link recalls. “We wanted to learn how to do a rear naked choke, and that whole deal just fit in because … I don’t know. What’s cooler than riding dirt bikes and fighting in the back of your warehouse with your friends? Not too many things better than that.”

While Link and his friends were having fun preparing for bouts and motocross competitions, Metal Mulisha’s popularity grew immensely due to its creative designs and, more importantly, the exposure of its high-profile riders.

Despite being one of the earliest clothing lines to sponsor fighters, the company has directed more of its attention toward MMA only within the past couple of years. “There’s never really been a lot of focus until recently,” Link says. “It’s always been, ‘Mark Smith is gonna be fighting in Vegas. Let’s make sure he gets flown out there and taken care of.’ Or, ‘Hey, Phil has to fight in Fresno. Let’s make up some special Metal Mulisha Bare-Knuckle shirts and rock it out there.’ It’s been a way to help the bros.” Now those bros include Shields, Dan Henderson, and Renato “Babalu” Sobral.

Metal Mulisha may have the largest retail visibility of any extreme sports-based clothing line, but on the other end of the spectrum is Sinister Brand. Originally launched in 1996 for hipsters on the So Cal club scene, the company hired Ed Soares (known primarily as the manager of Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida, as well as the translator for virtual every Brazilian mixed martial artist) as a sales rep in 1997.

Soares took over Sinister Brand the following year and continued designing clubwear for its target audience. But after dropping by JC Penney one day in 2002, this jack-of-all-trades realized his clothing line looked similar to many others. Some changes were in order. “At that point in time, I thought, ‘You know what? We’re following trends.’ It was a cool brand, but I thought to myself, ‘I wanna make Sinister about what we are as people and the lifestyle we live,’ ” he explains. “Being Brazilian and training Jiu-Jitsu, I always sponsored fighters, so we got involved with MMA. And with the growth of MMA, we got involved with a lot of fighters.”

Some of those fighters include Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell, and Carlos Condit. As a matter of fact, Sinister Brand was one of Rampage Jackson’s earliest sponsors during his days in PRIDE. Just as importantly, the company has expanded into motocross, skateboarding and wakeboarding. “We’ve been involved in sports a long time and we’ve worked with a lot of different guys, and thank God this sport has grown the way it has because it’s brought awareness,” Soares says. “But it doesn’t mean we still weren’t into skiing and surfing, and snowboarding, and motocross. We’re into a lifestyle. Not just MMA.”

It might seem difficult to find Sinister products. Its clothing is sold mostly in boutiques, online stores like MMA Warehouse, and few chain outlets like Spencer’s. But like the list of crossover brands itself, the list of retailers continues to grown. One of the more unique additions to the fight wear industry has been Marc Ecko. The founder and chief creative offi cer of Marc Ecko Enterprises, the parent company that houses popular clothing lines such as Ecko Unlimited and skating/surf/BMX apparel brand Zoo York, has a style heavily inspired by the hip-hop and urban lifestyles.

In 2006, the entrepreneur introduced his Ecko Unlimited brand to the MMA market when he began sponsoring Matt Hughes. “We have been speaking to the importuner scene and some other very agro-extreme sports; motocross and things like that. Anything that is virtually adrenaline, we have been keen on wanting to align ourselves with,” Ecko says. “I think we were seeing that our consumer, the Ecko consumer, was an MMA fan, and it was a very organic place for us to be.” Since then, MMA has become a concentration area for Marc Ecko Enterprises and every other fighter has seemingly dawned the infamous Ecko Unlimited boardshorts. Some of these fighters include Frank Mir, Dustin Hazelett, Miguel Torres, Michael Bisping, and John Grispi.

In many ways, Ecko feels these modern- day gladiators are replacing the excitement that was once prevalent in other mainstream sports. “There has been a lot of fatigue around American sports. A lot of these athletes in American professional sports have kinda let us down in a lot of the institutions, for better or for worse, be it baseball, football, or basketball,” he explains. “It’s just gotten so big that the intimacy is gone, and there is something that feels really intimate and raw and genuine like you’re watching a piece of history in this current cycle of MMA. Even though it’s been around for more than a decade, it still feels very new.”

Ecko also brings a tremendous amount of legitimacy to the market. Having been in the fashion industry since opening his first office in New Jersey back in 1993, the entrepreneurial juggernaut has placed his products in more than 5,000 department and specialty stores. In 2007, the company had more than 1,300 employees worldwide and reported global sales of more than $1.5 billion. Not bad for the clothing giant who prides itself on its iconic rhino.

At only 37 years old and with 12 successful fashion lines under his conglomerate’s banner, it appears that Ecko is just getting started. “I’m the beneficiary of still being young and having a brand that, relatively speaking, is still young and can adapt and evolve,” he explains. “We haven’t totally been about urban. We have been the brand that’s about convergence. We’ve always been that brand that has ADD.”

Hans Molenkamp might have ADD as well –- or at least s resume does. This 32-year-old entrepreneur has held marketing and art director gigs at XYZ Clothing Company, DC Shoes, and Osiris. He even became the vice president of marketing for Throwdown Industries in 2006. Molenkamp definitely has some resume ADD going on. But in 2007, he had enough. “I got burned out working in the action sports industry. I’ve been involved in skateboarding and motocross my whole life,” he says. “I started training Jiu-Jitsu with Dean Lister in 2001, and I kinda saw there was other stuff out there. As I started training, the industry started growing around me. I basically saw an opportunity and felt there was a lot of void needing to be fulfilled.”

Molenkamp fulfilled that void by creating Triumph United, a premier manufacturer of high-end MMA equipment. Triumph focuses on creating an assortment of top-notch equipment to assist fighters training, including gloves, headgear, rashguards, and shinguards. That isn’t to say Triumph United isn’t making T-shirts and shorts. It is, but it’s using it as a vehicle to introduce its equipment. “Even if you’re just a skateboard company that makes decks or make wheels, you’re always gonna have somewhat of a softer line to help promote what your core product is and that’s what we do,” Molenkamp says. “I think we will continue to have as many different types of apparel that we produce, but the main focus is always going to be on training equipment.”

Now that a wicked array of skating and extreme sports fashion companies are invading retail with their MMA-infl uenced products, one has to wonder if brands like Billabong, DC Shoes, and Quiksilver will follow suit. Molenkamp doesn’t think so. “I think it would’ve happened already,” he says. “They were very aware of what was going on years ago. I just think they’re too nervous to cross over.”

Ecko agrees. “When you look at any emerging new kinda counterculture thing and you mix that with the ‘American Way,’ you’re always going to see this emergence of brands,” he explains. “If we rewind to the late 70s or early 80s when surf was really emerging, there was a host of brands that kinda defined the youth market space that were really aesthetically driven around surf. The same thing happened in the 80s, going to the early 90s, around skate. Some brands survived and some died, and for better or worse, some of the best American brands come out of these genres. I think the same thing is happening now in this emerging business of MMA.” The future looks bright for MMA fans and fashionistas.

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