UFC Made Correct Move with Hoelzer Reich Ban

By Jason Probst Dec 15, 2009
In September, a producer from HBO’s “Real Sports” contacted me about the show doing a piece on MMA and skinheads.

Specifically, it was to be a kind of dual-part exploration on A) existing fighters with ties to skinhead/Nazi groups and B) the influence of MMA training on these fringe groups. My possible involvement was based solely on the fact that the producer and I had corresponded a while back on another story (one that didn’t come to fruition), and, given my background covering MMA, I am one of those people a reporter keeps in their contact file when you need a field guide to strange places.

For whatever reasons, the story didn’t pan out, and the show moved on to bigger and better topics. But it did get me to thinking about what might happen if a story like that really did get legs and the potential firestorm something like that could bring MMA if the sport’s decisionmakers failed to recognize the red flags.

As they say, the allegation is halfway around the world before the clarification gets it boots on.

That’s why last week’s decision by the UFC and Strikeforce to ban Hoelzer Reich clothing as a fighter sponsor was a welcome sign. Based in Southern California, the company hoped to increase sales of its clothing line by breaking into the mainstream MMA scene and has sponsored a handful of fighters appearing on big-time shows. On the Dec. 5 “Ultimate Fighter” finale on SpikeTV, one fighter was wearing Hoelzer Reich clothing along with his entourage as they entered the cage in a weird play-out of life imitating online chat (more on that below).

Replete with German military images such as iron crosses, SS death’s head symbols and numerous other items that straddled the line between German Pride and prurient appeals to Nazism, Hoelzer Reich apparel looked exceptionally tasteless even for an MMA clothing company, where the bar is set exceptionally high in that regard. The symbolism and branding used also carried a lot of similarities with white power and various fringe groups, much of which are used to convey solidarity with causes that may otherwise be best furthered if kept underground while unknowing eyes see something entirely innocuous.

That all began to unravel when a thread appeared on the Underground Forum (since removed) where MMA.tv members got involved (ironically, a few weeks before Real Sports contacted me, a thread appeared on the forum discussing fighters with Nazi/White Power tattoos). And the upshot was that, through increased media attention such as stories at Yahoo and other MMA sites, Strikeforce and UFC responded, barring Hoelzer Reich clothing from events. Members of the forum not only exposed Hoelzer Reich for a beyond-the-pale list of questionable imagery uses on their clothing but also used screenshots and pastes from Myspace pages and other sources to show the company’s strong affiliation with fighters who are well-known white power enthusiasts.

As the sport grows, MMA will have to work harder than ever to protect its brand and the perception of that brand. And in America, there’s nothing we enjoy more than tearing down a rising star (be it a celebrity, politician or corporation). It makes for a great story (Tiger Woods, anyone?). The bigger you get, the bigger the temptation is to find cracks in the armor, so to speak. Thus far, MMA has enjoyed incredible growth by offering a kind of widespread appeal. Its athletes are easily the most diverse of any sport in the world except soccer.

Thus far, its ascent has succeeded due to a number of reasons too complex and nuanced to elucidate upon here, but that rise is, in no small way, due to the fact that there haven’t been a lot of mainstream media outlets around to apply a critical eye to easily exploited issues. Remove the UFC and Strikeforce’s quick-as-can-be decisions to ban Hoelzer Reich, then plug in a major news organization with a JDL spokesperson and a couple offended people offering up man-on-the-street opinions. That’s the kind of damage it can take years to overcome.

We live in a quick-trigger world, powered by the viral possibilities of the Internet, where the smallest public relations problem becomes an explosive headline the next. It is no small irony that even Dana White -- the enfant terrible of unscripted tirades -- found himself in the rare position of apologizing after offending the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation with his rant on a Sherdog editor (luckily for White, the transgendered apparently had that week off, or he probably would’ve had to make nice with the GLBT crowd as well).

The sport’s promoters are under no obligation to provide a free speech platform to sponsors. In fact, the placement and management of that content -- which provides a revenue stream for both fighters and promotions -- is extremely important in how perception builds.

Brand management is a big part of why the NBA is rightfully perceived as a declining product. Witness the uproar over the league’s decision in the 2005-06 season requiring players to wear business casual attire while on team or league business.

In a league where the average salary is more than $5 million, it is comical to think of employees kvetching about having to dress up a touch while representing the league (especially in a league where it’s anyone’s guess as to which number is higher ... the number of players in the league, or the number of illegitimate children said players have sired). But that’s the America we live in -- one that is a weird mix of entitlement, explosive identity group politics, knee-jerk media attention and a drive-by-shooting approach to hot-button issues that make for a nice controversy that capture attention and the all-important ratings.

Brand management is the key to preventing things. Public relations people are often like a company safety officer -- when they’re doing their job correctly, you don’t notice they’re doing it.

When the UFC began curtailing the egregious practice of fighters thanking a ridiculously long list of sponsors during post-match interviews, that was an excellent move.

When I see Joe Rogan put the microphone in front of a guy who just fought, I want to hear about the fight, not who’s paying him, especially after I’ve paid $49.95 for the privilege. That kind of thing made the sport look extremely bush league, compounded by entourage flunkies handing fighters a list of sponsors to rattle off (you can thank Tito Ortiz for this, whose relentless practice of this became the scourge of post-fight interviews). It was a small move but a key shifter in helping the sport present itself as sport. The Hoelzer Reich ban by both promotions is indicative that the sport’s biggest players respond to public opinion and, more importantly, know the long-term value in expanding the sport’s appeal to as many demographics as possible.

The brand and what the brand requires to grow is the only objective promotions should serve. They are not a platform for anything but serving their interests, and with much of that tied to public perception, promotions retain every right to control how their brand is perceived. In the free market, unhappy fighters have the right to go elsewhere, and they should do so if that’s how they feel. Ditto for clothing companies and everyone else with their hand in the ever-shifting MMA pot.

Consider it a bullet dodged. And, hopefully, a lesson learned in the coming months and years.

America is a free country, and I’d much rather live in one where everyone has the right to wear clothing with whatever they want on it. But that doesn’t mean you get to automatically hitch your wagon to where the rest of us want to go.
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