If you’ve ever listened to Tom Atencio speak about his company’s clothing line, you’ve likely heard him proclaim that Affliction is a lifestyle brand, not a mixed martial arts brand. True, perhaps. But there’s little doubt that Affliction’s style of clothing is closely associated with the MMA lifestyle.
On the surface, MMA is a violent and often bloody sport—an image often reflected in apparel produced by companies like Affliction. It’s an image that sells well, but not everyone finds it fitting for a sport that’s less about violence and blood, and more about the art, discipline and honor of professional fighting.
That’s why Gary Ibarra has no use for skulls. Or chains. Or blood, for that matter. The founder and owner of Graffight, an apparel company launched in January 2008, has a vastly different approach to promoting the MMA lifestyle.
“People know the sport is violent. Using that as a marketing strategy to sell more shirts is not the idea we’re trying to perpetuate,” Gary says. “We understand the apparel needs to be tough, but it also needs to be artistic.”
Graffight designs steer clear of what Gary calls “the fear-based artwork” so prevalent in today’s MMA-related clothing, and focuses instead on strong, organic images to convey strength and resilience. The crow is a common symbol in Graffight’s designs as is the silhouette of a bare-branched tree.
“We wanted something that held the line in terms of toughness but could still lend itself to more artistic poses,” Gary explains of the popular motif. “We noticed as soon as we started posting the design on our website, it was copied by others.”
Much time and consideration goes into perfecting a Graffight design, and Gary approaches the work differently than most other companies. The graphic artists he hires have no connection to MMA.
“We commission artists who have nothing to do with mixed martial arts or tattoos,” he says. “They come from mainstream apparel companies such as Quicksilver, Split and Element.”
Graffight’s commitment to promoting more than the violence of mixed martial arts has earned Gary widespread respect within the MMA community, though it’s not the most likely approach for an ex-gang member-turned-business-entrepreneur. Gary was first introduced to the sport during his recovery from a gunshot wound in Los Angeles.
“Training was the only way for me to channel my aggression,” he recalls. “I became really interested in the sport. It was the only thing I could stick with.”
The solace Gary found in mixed martial arts from his own violent history explains much of his commitment to marketing the sport’s virtues. There’s certainly no doubt where his creative talents came from.
“My mother is a fashion designer. The eye she had for design, she must have passed down to me,” he says with a laugh. “She’s amazing. She made her own wedding dress. I never really appreciated what she was doing, though, until later on in life.”
Today, Gary is as committed to helping up-and-coming fighters as he is to growing his business. Graffight currently partners with four—Tim Credeur, Justin Hoglund, Andria Caplan and Mark Miller—though his approach to fighter sponsorships is different from that of other companies.
“To have a company like Sinister or Affliction approach you, you have to be a pretty well-known fighter,” he explains. “At Graffight, our fighters commission us to create the artwork for the T-shirt. The fighter pays for the design, the shirts and the printing but at a lower rate. We give them all the shirts, except for some that we sell on the website, but the fighter gets all the money. It’s a way for the lower fighters to create a stream of income for themselves when they’re not fighting.”
No matter how much Graffight grows as a company, Gary says he’ll continue to help new fighters coming up through the ranks.
“If it wasn’t for the fighters, there would be no Graffight. I appreciate that,” he adds. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. We take care of each other.”
Nearly a year into his venture, Gary has high hopes for Graffight, both as a company and as a standard-bearer for MMA promotion. But until the sport’s current marketing juggernaut takes a more measured, mainstream approach in its promotion, Graffight will remain a welcomed departure within the industry.
“Our goal is to provide the public and mixed martial arts with an alternative to the status quo of what MMA apparel is,” Gary reiterates. “We don’t use skulls on our shirts. We don’t use wire. We don’t use weapons. There’s a reason for that.”
To learn more about Graffight apparel, visit Graffight.com.