When you think of MMA or boxing apparel, your mind immediately goes to tacky T-shirts with tons of crosses and gothic fonts, maybe even a sequin or two. Basically the Von Dutch hat in T-shirt form.

In that landscape, Roots of Fight stands out. Their collection of T-shirts, tank tops, and sweatshirts pay tribute to legends of the UFC, boxing, and martial arts with zero douche factor. Each of the brand’s garments tells a story, whether it’s about a specific Mike Tyson fight, Bruce Lee’s martial arts path, or Muhammad Ali’s rise to G.O.A.T. status.

Dwayne Johnson and Roots of Fight founder Jesse Katz (Courtesy Roots Of Fight)

Dwayne Johnson and Roots of Fight founder Jesse Katz (Courtesy Roots Of Fight)

Roots of Fight is able to tell these stories because they do extensive archival research and conduct in-depth interview with the fighters. Everything from a ticket stub to a typeface can serve as inspiration for the clothes, which feature artwork created by hand. It’s a concept that has helped the small Canadian company establish a loyal following of fight fans and celebrities alike. Beyoncé wore a Roots of Fight shirt in her “7/11” video and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is usually sporting one of the brand’s tank tops in his frequent Instagram workout pics.

To find out how the brand grew from humble beginnings to work with the biggest names in the fight game, we spoke with Roots of Fight founder Jesse Katz.

What prompted you to start Roots of Fight?
I am a lifelong fan of boxing and martial arts and the UFC and the whole combat sports world. I had started working with big booze brands and naturally gravitated towards their sports properties. That led us to working with the NHL, Major League Soccer, and the Olympics. We really just stopped liking the client side of the business, dealing with huge bureaucratic entities, but really loved all the sports stuff and thought, let’s take a crack at building something for ourselves. So we went for it and started started this little passion project.

When was that?
We got the idea and started tinkering around six years ago. We had a license with Muhammad Ali, and we had a license with Bruce Lee. I had this passion for combat sports and really felt nobody was telling any stories about the golden age of boxing and the stuff that I found interesting. All of the marketing around UFC was lowest common denominator—skulls, swords, flames, and gothic script. I was in my late 30s and thought there’s got to be a lot of people that appreciate this stuff but don’t like the marketing and imagery. We had a relationship with Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, and a relationship with the Ali family and said, “Hey, we want to create a pantheon of the greatest combat sports figures of all time and would love to do with this with you guys.” We’re a tiny company up here in Vancouver. We don’t have a lot of money but we can do some pretty good creative stuff. They supported us fully. After that we signed Eddie Bravo, and then the Gracie family. Then [UFC announcer] Joe Rogan and [UFC president] Dana White started getting behind us and helping this little engine that could.

Why did you think the product connected with those guys?
My partner Richard Lawley is a creative genius that has an eye for these stories and he believes in the art that used to be created by hand. He takes the time to do it right. That mixture of telling stories and creating beautiful art and connecting fans who have a love affair with these historical figures is kind of the magic recipe.

Also we’re an anti-brand. We started out as the anti-Abercrombie because the world was saturated with people promoting their own brands. Our friends in the UFC and in boxing often wore their sponsored gear and hated it. They said they were just wearing it because they were paid to. Our brand is nowhere on the products. So if we make a Bruce Lee shirt, or a Mike Tyson shirt, or a Muhammad Ali shirt, that’s all you find on the shirt. Fighters can pay tribute to Bruce Lee without having it complicated by Roots of Fight. And they look pretty.

Courtesy Instagram

Courtesy Instagram

What was the initial response?
Definitely more of a whimper than a bang. We’re tucked away up here in the north in Vancouver. Neither my partner or I are face people. So it took a while. Dana, Joe, and all these people got behind us and were very vocal. It slowly started to gather some steam. Social media became the way we were built, just from networking and crossing over into different sports with friends of ours who were athletes in different realms, and friends of ours who are actors and have a bigger voice than we do. Everybody loves Muhammad Ali. Everybody loves Bruce Lee. Everybody loves Mike Tyson. We created a vehicle that they could show their love without having to complicate it with another brand in the middle.

Was there a moment when things really caught on?
We’ve had so many, whether it’s Theo Rossi or Laura Prepon or Jay Z or Rihanna or Beyoncé in her “7/11” coming out with our Tyson ‘84 shirt on. Then there’s nothing bigger than your phone blowing up with people telling you that The Rock posted a photo wearing our Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini shirt. That would have been in September of 2013. I tweeted back at him and was like, “Where did you get that?” We only made 150 of those shirts. The next day he responded. He said, “Look, I love your stuff. I want to support you guys and want to buy 50 shirts.” Now if you check his Instagram, he posts [our shirts] regularly and he’s become an incredible partner of ours.

How did you develop relationships with these big stars?
I guess the three biggest are Bruce, Muhammad, and Tyson. I met the group that runs the show with Shannon [Lee, Bruce’s daughter] at a trade show and we really got along. Shannon is the one who introduced us to Dana, who became an enormous supporter as well. They supported the concept even though we came at them with a weird proposition, which was we have no money and I can’t promise you any money. We have Canadian sensibilities so we said we think we can develop something special but we don’t have a crystal ball so we can’t promise anything. With the Ali family we had a license with Evel Knievel and the person overseeing it happened to be the family lawyer for the Alis. We gave them this pitch that it would be all about Muhammad and we would treat the art and history with respect, and create stuff that they would be proud of. With the Tyson family, I think that was the last time I cold called somebody. I called his wife Kiki and said I got your phone number from a friend of a friend and I work with Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee and the Gracies and we would love to tell Mike’s stories. She’s like OK, when can you be here? I said I can be there tomorrow and I flew down to Las Vegas and flew pigeons with Mike Tyson for an afternoon. It was a very surreal moment for sure.

What are the qualities you look for in people to feature?
We’re hoping to get people that transcended their sport. People who had a hand in the evolution of a sport or touched people in a different way. Muhammad Ali was a heavyweight who trained like a lightweight. Bruce Lee changed the game at a time when kung-fu was only taught to Asian people. He started saying, wait a second, these things don’t work because what if you’re fighting a wrestler from Iowa? They’re going to put you on your back and you can’t throw kicks and punches, which led him to jeet kune do, and learning the way of the intercepting fist.

Where do you see this brand moving in the future?
We feel that we’ve created a model that can apply to anything and everything. We are excited to explore the roots of hip-hop, surf, baseball, basketball. We’ve already shot a bunch of stuff with Snoop for Roots of Hip-Hop. We’ve got a strong friendship with RVCA and we’ve talked about Roots of Skate and Surf with them. We’ve already started diving into roots of baseball and hopefully we’ll have something coming out before the end of the year. And I think you’ll see a bunch more in 2016.

Justin Tejada is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @just_tejada.