Also like billboards, they employ a brand of advertising so simple and so naked that it's easy to look at them now and assume that they always existed. How hard is it to come up with an idea like this, after all?
If you're a manager, you know that on a typical UFC broadcast, your fighter is guaranteed a few solitary seconds of dominating screen presence. You know where he'll be standing during that time, and what the camera angle will look like. You know these things, even if you know very little about what will come before or after.
Your fighter's walkout might not see air, and he may get knocked out by the very first punch that comes his way, but he'll still get those uninterrupted moments during the introductions to stand there and look menacing. So why wouldn't you have him stand in front of a customized mini-billboard filled with logos of his sponsors? Doesn't that just make sense?
So how, and when, did all that change?
I asked a few managers who have been in the game for a long time, and none of them seemed to know. As Monte Cox put it, "I remember them just showing up."
I asked longtime trainer Greg Jackson, who's probably held up more sponsor banners than anyone else in all his years of working fighters' corners at UFC events, including champ Jon Jones' at UFC 165. While that experience has given him his own system for rolling up and transporting the banners, he said, he had no idea when it all started, or when he held his first one.
But, he added, it's "funny how much of the pre-fight prep they are."
I asked Thomas Gerbasi, the longtime UFC.com scribe and walking encyclopedia of all things MMA. He told me to ask Zuffa's Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs Michael Mersch, who said he discussed it with UFC President Dana White, and they weren't positive but they thought it might have started a little before 2006. When I asked UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby, they told me hey, good question, why don't you go back and look at some tape?
So I did, with the help of my MMAjunkie.com colleague John Morgan. We made it all the way to UFC 69 in April 2007 before we saw anything resembling the modern sponsor banner. And then there it was. Mike Swick had it hanging over the cage behind him before his bout with Yushin Okami. The dimensions weren't quite what they are today, and the presentation wasn't terribly slick, but it was recognizable as a sponsor banner, advertising brands like Sprawl and Toe2Toe. Later that same night, Josh Koscheck showed up with a similar, perhaps even identical banner (though in the main event, both Georges St-Pierre and Matt Serra were both banner-less).
Since Swick and Koscheck were teammates at American Kickboxing Academy at the time, we figured that maybe AKA were the trendsetters we were looking for. Only when I emailed AKA's Bob Cook about it, he wasn't so sure. They may have been the first to roll out a banner filled with sponsor logos (though, Cook stressed, he wasn't 100 percent sure on that), but the way he remembered it, they got the idea from Florida's American Top Team gym, which used to drape its team flag on whatever cage or ring one of its fighters competed in.
And, oh, that flag. Little piece of white fabric, the ATT logo in the center, nothing special.
But boy, said Alex Davis, who's represented many of ATT's fighters over the years, "That flag created a lot of problems."
"It was probably around 2005," Lambert said. "We had guys fighting all over the place, and I think it was our general manager, Richie Guerriero, who one day said, 'Hey, we've got guys traveling all over the world to fight. Let's let them represent.' ... In PRIDE they draped it over the ropes, and then in the UFC they draped it over the cage. That's basically how it started."
Back in those days, the sport of MMA had a little less, shall we say, sophistication. According to Lambert, "You didn't have to ask permission for much." When the ATT crew decided they wanted to fly the flag for their fighters, they just did it. Nobody said anything. Not until the flag itself started to show some signs of the company it had been keeping.
You see, the ATT boys didn't just show off the flag before the fight. They also rushed into the cage or ring afterward to wrap their fighter up in it, a little like Rocky Balboa being clothed in the red, white and blue after knocking out Ivan Drago.
"Guys are bleeding, and you get some of their blood on the flag," Lambert said. "Their opponent bleeds, you get some of his blood. It became a badge of honor. Guys wanted to have some of their blood on that flag."
As Davis put it, "A few years into it, that flag was looking like something out of the Second World War."
That's when the problems started. The way Lambert and Davis remember it, soon the UFC – which was still in the midst of a push into the mainstream American sporting conscious – requested that they stop bringing the flag into the cage. Something about the rust-colored smears of old bloodstains against a graying white background seemed too likely to give people the wrong idea of the sport. Then the whole sponsor banner craze started, and, Lambert said, "Of course we're not going to ask our guy to put our flag up in lieu of the banner, which makes him some money."
Plenty of ATT fighters still wanted that flag around on fight night though, even if they couldn't fly it on TV. One such fighter, according to Lambert, was Thiago Alves, who insisted on having the flag present for his title shot against UFC welterweight champ St-Pierre at UFC 100. As it turned out, that was the closest they'd ever come to losing the flag that they'd carried all over the world, into innumerable cages and rings.
"After the fight everyone was worried about [Alves] since he'd just lost his fight, but we got back to the dressing room and were like, wait, where's our flag?" Lambert said.
Once he realized that they'd left it cageside, Lambert went back to look for it. By then, the heavyweight title bout between Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir was getting started. Security wasn't too keen on letting Lambert drift around the edges of the cage with the main event of a pay-per-view underway.
"I just told the guy, 'No, dude, you don't understand. That's our flag,'" Lambert said. "So during the [Mir-Lesnar] fight, I'm walking all around, sticking my head under cables trying to find our flag. And I did find it eventually."
Sadly, the writing was on the wall for that bloody old relic. Although they'd "cloned" the flag by then in order to allow fighters competing in different cities on the same night to represent the ATT squad, they eventually retired the original, Lambert said.
"It wasn't really politically correct to go walking around with this bloody flag," Lambert said. "That's not the image you want to project now. It's not the wild, wild west like it used to be."
That much seems self-evident. These days you can't just show up to a UFC event and throw your own flag over the cage. Now all sponsor banners must be of a certain size, including certain mandatory add-ons such as venue names and UFC logos, and every sponsor logo that appears on them is pre-approved by the UFC's own internal "sponsor police." The free-wheeling days are done.
How we got from there to here, and who was truly the first to think of slapping some logos on a banner still seems unclear, but it's possible that it was the ATT desire to represent with its bloody, battered flag that served as the catalyst for what is now a ubiquitous fight night staple.
"We always thought we were the first ones to do it," Lambert said. "That and a dime will get you a phone call."