Tale of the Tape: How WAR Tape became the industry standard for boxing handwraps
Very little has changed about the practice of hand wrapping in the century since gauze and tape became the standard for protecting fighters’ hands. Rolled gauze goes around the wrist and thumb, with a pad set in place over the knuckles, all of which are held in place by tape.
What has changed is how the wraps look, which can be attributed to the proliferation of tape brands like WAR Tape.
From Manny Pacquiao to Canelo Alvarez to the Charlo brothers and more, many of the top boxers of recent times have had the California-based company’s red, black and white adhesives on their hands when the cameras were on. Each time the company spots their product on television, they can hardly contain their joy.
“We’re the Forrest Gump of the boxing world. Every crazy moment, we’re there somehow,” said William Vittore, who co-founded the company in 2008 with his brother, Kai Vittore.
The Eureka moment came as the brothers, who had a t-shirt production company, were watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight. As the cameras zoomed in on a fist crunching down on their opponent’s head, the brothers wondered why there wasn’t a logo on the masking tape that covered the hand.
The brothers set out to design a product that would not just be the first to market, but would be difficult to top by those entering the market. They added a serrated edge which made it easier to tear, while the company tested several different glues to ensure the adhesive was reliable. The presence of the word “WAR” over the hands adds a psychological edge, though William, a Buddhist, insists that the word war refers to the ever-present internal struggle and is not an endorsement of wanton violence.
The “Great Recession” of 2008 cost the Vittores many of their top t-shirt clients, but their tape was rocketing in popularity. The company was only missing one more piece, an industry insider who could get the tape in the hands of the sport’s most influential figures.
That’s when Mike Rodriguez entered the picture.
The 57-year-old Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department homicide detective had be a trainer after boxing in the Air Force, where he won the heavyweight title at the 1988 San Francisco Golden Gloves. He transitioned to a cutman because the long hours of his day job made it harder to commit to full-time coaching, which meant working with many different camps. Rodriguez began working cuts for opponents with losing records in preliminary bouts, but quickly rose to the main event scene, working with over 20 world champions, including Pacquiao, Errol Spence Jr., Dmitry Bivol and Shawn Porter.
Rodriguez proved he was among the best at what he does in 2016, when he was tasked with stopping the blood when Francisco Vargas was cut in three different places in his HBO-televised bout against Orlando Salido. The ring was covered in blood, but Vargas’ eyes remained clear as he and Salido fought to a draw in The Ring’s Fight of the Year.
Rodriguez admits that he initially thought that all tape was the same before he was introduced to the Vittore brothers. He soon realized that the Vittores had made a product superior to all others, and became a partner in the business in 2011. From there, he began using his connections to build the company’s brand.
“Freddie Roach was really the first big time coach who trusted our tape because a lot of the old boxing guys had the same thought process that I first had, that all tape is the same,” said Rodriguez. The tape has now been used by many of the sport’s top trainers, like Robert Garcia, Derrick James, Joel Diaz, Ronnie Shields, Manny Robles, Stephen “Breadman” Edwards and Aureliano Sosa, plus other cut men like Danny Milano and Mike Bazzell.
“It’s actually easier for us to tell you the trainers who don’t use our product,” said Rodriguez.
The tape has continued to be popular in the mixed martial arts world as well, with Bellator MMA adopting the brand as its official tape in 2016, and the Singapore based promotion One Championship partnering with WAR for its own branded line of tape. The UFC has become one of many brands to to come out with their own tape, but perhaps their greatest star ever endorsed WAR Tape over the UFC’s brand prior to his historic victory over Ciryl Gane to win the heavyweight championship at UFC 285. Jones, who tapes his toes to protect them from injury, said he would have preferred to use WAR tape because of its more reliable adhesiveness, and complained afterwards that the UFC’s own tape began to slip when he started sweating.
Over a decade after they first launched, the company still gets excited when they see WAR Tape on TV. Vittore recalls the strange looks he got as he shouted on his train ride from Merced station to Sacramento while watching Andy Ruiz Jr., whose hands were wrapped with WAR Tape, upset Anthony Joshua in 2019 to win the IBF/WBO/WBA heavyweight championship belts. Those rolls of tape came from William’s own office and were sent to trainer Manny Robles specifically for that fight.
With the success of WAR Tape, the company has branched out, partnering with the WBC for a branded tape line. The company now also markets gauze and cotton swabs, and is looking into offering other products through their website and Amazon store. The company also recently finalized contracts with two NFL teams to start supplying tape to them, and have been in contact with hockey teams for similar partnerships as well. They’ve also become the official tape for the KRONK Gym in Detroit.
“There are a bunch of branded tape companies now. But like my shirt says, we are the original,” said Rodriguez.
“Now I feel like after all those years it’s finally happening. We put in the work, put in the time and people are finally starting to recognize our product,” added Vittore. “The fighters may come and go but the longevity is really building relationships with these trainers, these cut men and just becoming a real part of the industry.”
Ryan Songalia has written for ESPN, the New York Daily News, Rappler and The Guardian, and is part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected].