Article by Christopher Reive
In 2019, the rise of the Anzacs in the UFC went to a whole new level.
Israel Adesanya claimed the undisputed middleweight championship against Sydney’s Robert Whittaker in the main event of the most attended UFC event of all time. Alexander Volkanovski won the featherweight championship – becoming the first featherweight to beat Hawaiian Max Holloway since Conor McGregor achieved the feat in 2013. Kai Kara-France made himself known as one of the most exciting flyweights to watch, finishing the year well within the top 10, while Brad Riddell’s UFC debut was a Fight of the Year contender.
But while the new wave of local talent enjoyed success on the biggest stage in the sport in 2019, their roots have been growing in mixed martial arts Down Under for a long time; shaped and cultivated by their coaches and, for many, with help from their partnerships with Engage.
The fast-growing fightwear brand is quickly becoming one of the most trusted not just in Australasia but worldwide – a far cry from its early establishment in 2014 which came after several trips to Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket.
Owner Ash Belcastro says he started to Engage as a way of staying connected and involved with friends who fought.
“I was at a bit of a crossroads in my life,” he says. “I had Engage set up previously, it was meant to be a gym with a couple of other guys but it didn’t end up eventuating.
“I went over to Thailand and guys I worked with already knew guys like (Tiger Muay Thai coaches) Andrew Wood and George Hickman and I got introduced to them over there. A two week holiday turned into a month, I came back, then went back over for another month and a half and fought. My fight career never really pushed out of hitting some pads and a couple of fights, nothing too serious but I fell in love with the sport.
“A lot of the guys that were living over there at the time were guys like Kai (Kara-France) and (UFC lightweight) Brad (Riddell). I wanted to get involved and was like ‘fuck it.’ I’ve got a large ego and don’t think things through too much, especially back then, so I decided I’d start a fight wear brand.”
Without stopping to think what he was getting himself into, Belcastro set out getting three tops – a tank top, t-shirt, and synthetic sports top – screen printed with the logo he had planned to use for the gym: a clenched fist with Engage written underneath in military font. With 100 of each printed, the shirts were handed out to the locals.
“Even to this day, there are old Thai massage ladies wearing original Engage OG t-shirts. They’ll pop up every now and again and the guys will send me photos,” Belcastro says.
After returning to Australia, Belcastro got stuck into developing the brand and, after a year and a half of toil, Engage went online in late 2016.
While the brand was started on little more than a whim, the connections Belcastro made in Thailand have helped Engage flourish.
With fighters like Kara-France and Riddell returning to New Zealand to continue their training full time at Auckland’s City Kickboxing, Belcastro was able to tap into the vast knowledge of the gym’s head coach Eugene Bareman.
When it comes to developing gear, Bareman has a fair amount of say. He’ll look at the gear and let Belcastro know what needs work. As for the fighter’s, each has their own preference when it comes to gear, and help to develop it as such.
Bareman says it was a privilege to be asked his opinion to help develop the gear.
“I had a very strong opinion because I’ve been doing this for the better part of my life,” Bareman says. “I was able to bring all those experiences to the table and give them to ash. I was able to help shape some of those products and say where I think the industry’s going and give my opinion, I think it helped him out a great deal. I don’t think he had that sort of input before me and the boys were giving him a lot of feedback.
“He was able to restructure and reshape his products and his company to what it is today. I’m tremendously proud of having a very small part to play in it – it’s been pretty cool to see the rise of Engage.”
Engage has become best known for its fight shorts, which forgo heavier, uncomfortable materials for lightweight fabrics. The design began with Belcastro seeing a place in the market for something more comfortable. To develop their early shorts, he took a simple pair of board shorts and changed the length to see how they would work.
Now, Engage is globally known for their fight shorts and were among the final four companies being considered by the UFC to replace Reebok as their clothing partner.
“I always want to be better,” Belcastro says. “We’re doing great but for me personally, I always want to do better. The feedback from the UFC was that we had the best presentation, the best proposal and the best quality gear, but just not the runs on the board when it comes to being able to service them globally compared to other brands. But that’s promising.
“Eventually I’d like to partner with the UFC, but that doesn’t define success.”
Belcastro says he wants Engage to be “the Nike of the fight wear”, venturing into lines of casual wear as well as fight wear and hopes to have lines sold in stores such as Rebel Sport and American outlet Dick’s Sporting Goods in the not too distant future.
“I want global domination, mate. That’s what I want,” he says.
“I want Engage to be accessible to the end-user. We’ve got a brand in demand, but we need to be more accessible. We’ve got crazy exciting things happening; the next six months we’re looking at releasing a whole bunch of new stuff before 2021 really hit the ground running.”
It seems fitting that the brand is gaining more and more fans as the athletes on their team do the same. Belcastro says that it’s all purely coincidental; he linked up with most of the Engage team fighters through links with Tiger Muay Thai and City Kickboxing, it just so happens that they’ve gone on to big things.
“It’s been organic; I could never have predicted things to be the way they are. Obviously the guys had their goals and I saw how hard they trained but I was also mates with them.
“I was just helping out my mates. I needed something I could put myself in to and be a part of. It just blossomed from there.”