As media and lifestyle brand Roots of Fight prepares for its European launch, co-founder Jesse Katz discusses the unconventional journey which saw him win the backing of sporting icons and turn a passion project into a global business.
"One of the things that sparked this was Floyd Mayweather," says Katz as he discusses the impetus for Roots of Fight, the sports brand he co-founded four years ago and has since gone on to achieve the kind of veneration that would make even the likes of Nike and Under Armour look on with envy.
The brash self-congratulatory nature of Mayweather couldn't be further removed from the ethos of what Katz has tried to do with Roots of Fight. He readily admits that the undefeated Mayweather can legitimately lay claim to being the best technical boxer ever, but his lack of open humility towards the names who came before him is what motivated Katz to create a brand which would pay homage to the greats like Muhammad Ali.
"Our goal was to shine a light on the icons who not only changed sport but popular culture. We wanted to allow fans to celebrate them in a way that would remind the world who built the house that the champions of today play in."
A Vancouver native, Katz started Roots of Fight with his partner, Richard Lawley, while still running his own sports marketing agency that worked with some of the world's biggest alcohol brands such as Molson, Budweiser and Miller to help activate their sponsorships with the major US sports leagues.
What initially started as a passion project quickly took Katz on what he describes as a “Forrest Gump” like journey which saw him working with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Roots of Fight co-founder Jesse Katz with Lennox Lewis
Before reaching that point, Katz embarked on an ambitious game of six degrees of separation which led him to meet with Ali and his wife Lonnie, as well as Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda, and her daughter Shannon.
Katz recalls meeting with each of them and explaining his and Lawley’s ambition to create a brand that would pay tribute to their life and work and celebrate their relevance in today’s world. He openly admitted that he had no money and did not know if the business would be a success but promised that they would work for them and that the athletes and their families would have full control.
“Both Bruce Lee’s family and Muhammad and his family were incredibly supportive right from the off and nurtured what we were doing, so for Ali’s 70th birthday we took the jump and said it’s now or never.”
After acquiring a few more licences with some other boxers and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu pioneers the Gracie family, Katz and Lawley launched Roots of Fight to coincide with Ali’s 70th birthday. With two of the biggest icons in combat sports lending their names to the brand, Katz continued to build it and soon more big names followed including Mike Tyson.
“A friend of mine's girlfriend was friends with Mike Tyson's wife Kiki so I got hold of her number, called and explained that I worked with Ali and Bruce Lee’s family and said I’d love to have a conversation with Mike. She was really friendly and mentioned how Mike loved Ali, Bruce and the Gracie’s and asked when I could be here.
“I ended up spending the following day at their house, we got on great and Mike signed the deal almost immediately.”
The ability to win over the support of the athletes and their families and bring them onboard with the brand was huge in progressing the company and indicative of Katz’s honest and humble nature.
“We see ourselves as brand custodians and brand curators so we're here to build the brands of our icons, we work under licence for them, they're our bosses.”
The altruistic approach is present within the brand’s designs as well; ‘Roots of Fight’ isn’t printed on any of the products and Katz maintains this is because the brand is trying to connect fans with the icons. “We don't need to be in the middle of that relationship, we're just connecting them,” he says.
This backseat approach with the branding may seem counterintuitive for a start-up but it’s paid off thanks to the distinctiveness of Lawley's designs. Katz has high praise for his co-founder.
“He’s the creative genius behind everything that we do. He’s not just an artist though, he’s a historian and an archivist. He has a knack for finding those salient moments in each of these icons’ histories and is able to capture them in a way people connect with.”
When Dwayne Johnson started posting photos of himself wearing Roots of Fight products to his 60 million plus Instagram followers, the brand’s marketing and advertising took on a life of its own and allowed the company to evolve from a passion project into a full-time business.
Katz said Johnson reached out to them a few years ago asking to help out and was personally involved in every step during the brand’s formative years, joining them on every conference call each week for a year.
“His support at the beginning changed the whole course of how we were able to build. We didn’t need any money from anybody after he introduced us to his fans because then we had our own economy and we could build without artificial pressure.”
As well as having Johnson involved with the company many other big names began supporting the brand including UFC president Dana White, who invited Katz along to events and put him in touch with other athletes who have since come on-board.
In addition to support from key figures with various sports several high-profile celebrities have also endorsed the brand including Beyonce, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay-Z.
“With Dwayne, Joe Rogan and Dana lending us their support, they gave us a way to have enough economic freedom that we could stay the course and continue to focusing on building brand.”
That’s what Roots of Fight will continue to do for the next couple of years. Following a delay incurred by Brexit, the European store will now open later this month and the company will be better placed to capatalise on the market which already makes up 20% of its business despite the steep shipping costs. As well as extending its reach with customers, the brand is continuing to apply its strategy other sports including basketball, baseball, football and possibly even soccer as it grows in Europe.
The popularity of Roots of Fight can largely be attributed to how it has been adopted and openly endorsed by influential figures within the sporting celebrity world. The stimulation for such an influential fanbase stems from the brand's humility, talent and message which resonated deeply with its target audience - an accomplishment which is too often absent in sports marketing today.