Ko Classic : Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight
The Professor breaks down this hoops classic.
With the Air Zoom Ultraflight Nike throws down the gauntlet and sends a clear message to the rest of the industry; try and keep up. by Professor K, posted February 14, 2003 I have to admit that sometimes I start feeling jaded. I love hoops and hoops shoes, but after a few years of reviewing them I occasionally fall into ruts when they all just seem to be more of the same-old-same-old. I mean, really, what more is there to say about EVA that hasn't already been said a million times? But then, every now and again, a remarkable new technology is introduced or a new shoe is released that reignites my inexplicable passion for kicks and reminds me why I started and -- against my own better judgement -- maintain this site. The Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight is just such a shoe and it's given me a much needed wake-up call. What's so special about it? Well, for one thing, it's an exceptional performance shoe that, in my opinion, provides the best combination of comfort, fit, and cushioning on the market today (I'll discuss performance in detail in a minute). But above and beyond performance, the Air Zoom Ultraflight is so much more than "just another hoops shoe." Some objects so transcend the boundaries of what they are that they devastate existing definitions and completely remake our understanding of what those objects can and should be. For an example look to the original Apple Macintosh, which redefined computing in both a physical and conceptual sense. Another example is the Herman Miller Aeron Chair. Calling the Aeron just another chair would be like calling the Ferrari 360 Modena just another car (more on the Modena later). Like these products before it, the Air Zoom Ultraflight says to the world "forget what you knew, it can be done better." figure 1. This shot of the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight provides a good look at both sides of the shoe's lightweight, translucent thermo-formed chassis. Note the prominent vents built into the shell and perfed into the upper. The vents together with the shoe's Dynamic-Fit mesh inner-bootie do a great job of dissipating heat and moisture. When I first saw the Ultraflight in person the word that immediately jumped to mind was "audacious." If anyone studying for the SATs needs a mental image to help them remember the definition of that word just picture the Air Zoom Ultraflight. In case your vocabulary studies have fallen by the wayside the word audacious has a few meanings, my favorites being "recklessly bold" and "insolent." The reason I like these definitions is that they're double-edged, they have both positive and negative connotations. Being recklessly bold can sometimes lead to less than desirable results (see our review of the Nike Air Hyperflight for an example), but few great things have ever been achieved without some measure of reckless boldness. And being insolent can turn a lot of people off to what you're trying to say or do, but to achieve greatness you often have to act without regard for propriety or the status quo. And that, in a nutshell, is why I love the Air Zoom Ultraflight -- the people responsible for its design and development clearly had absolutely no regard for the status quo. As proof take a look at the shoe's design and construction. The entire heel and most of the lower portion of the outer is made of a translucent, thermo-formed plastic. This plastic shell acts as the shoe's chassis. The chassis is joined to a rich, full-grain leather along the top of the shoe. Beneath all this is a full-length Dynamic-Fit inner-bootie, which is basically the equivalent of a really comfortable, really plush sock. At the base of the Air Zoom Ultraflight is a Phylon midsole containing a full-length Zoom Air-Sole unit that's further augmented with a second Zoom Air unit at the heel. Because the plastic portions of the upper are translucent you can see the mesh of the inner-bootie and part of the midsole within the shoe. I can just imagine the meetings where these ideas were first discussed. The designer says: "I have this idea for a shoe...half of it would be made of translucent plastic so you could actually see inside of it." Then someone says: "Man, are you crazy?!?!" Now, at this point, at any other manufacturer the conversation would have ended with: "Sorry, but that's going to be too risky, too hard, and too expensive to manufacture." Instead, at Nike the conversation apparently ended with: "Okay, let's do it" (I'm sure that there was quite a bit more cajoling required, but I'm taking some literary license here). That the company even undertook the challenge of producing this shoe amazes me. The fact that they pulled it off at such an incredibly high level of design and performance blows me away. figure 2. This shot of the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight reveals its one-piece solid rubber outsole. Based on a highly modified herringbone pattern, the outsole provides very good traction -- even on less than pristine surfaces. On the topic of performance, the first thing I should mention is the outer chassis. Some people might dismiss it as a gimmick, but the translucent plastic chassis is actually critical to the Ultraflight's performance. What Nike has done is integrate the various elements that go into the uppers of their high-performance hoops shoes into one structure. So where past shoes have incorporated things like a substantial heel counter, a monkey paw anti-inversion device, and a supportive outer as separate, independent elements, the Air Zoom Ultraflight combines them into a singular, lightweight shell. I had my doubts about how effective this would be when I first saw the shoe and my first wearing seemed to prove my doubts well founded. The Ultraflight had the same overly supportive feel that I didn't like about the Air Jordan XVII and was quite stiff overall. But once the shoe was broken-in -- from my second wearing on -- its feel changed markedly. The overly supportive feel and stiffness were gone, replaced by perfect (and I mean perfect) fit. With the shoe fully-laced I felt absolutely no movement of my foot within the shoe, either side-to-side or front-to-back. I also felt zero heel slip. I can't think of any other shoe I've ever tested that fit as well as the Air Zoom Ultraflight, not even the shoes in Nike's Flightposite line. The Ultraflight's fit is simply unmatched in the industry. The only people I can imagine having a problem with fit are those with either extremely wide or extremely narrow feet. My feet are fairly wide and yet I had no problem with the Ultraflight's width. figure 3a, b, & c. This series of images shows the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight as it progressed from early concept (top), to final sketch (middle), to final product (above). Given how difficult it had to have been to manufacture the shoe, it's remarkable how closely the final product matches the final sketch. As good as it is in fit, the Ultraflight might be even better when it comes to comfort. The aforementioned full-length Dynamic-Fit inner-bootie wraps the foot in a nearly seamless cocoon that feels awesome (the mesh used for the Ultraflight's inner-bootie was actually specially developed for the shoe -- it's loftier (i.e. thicker) than the mesh Nike normally uses). Additional padding is strategically placed around the ankle and tongue and it helps the Ultraflight provide surprisingly good ankle support -- better than I expected given the relatively low placement of the shoe's topmost lace eyelets. The Ultraflight was also surprisingly good in the area of ventilation. You might think that a shoe featuring a plastic outer shell would not fare well when it comes to breathability, but the folks behind the shoe clearly took it upon themselves to make sure that this would not be a problem. The shell is dotted with 49 holes that draw in cool air and allow hot air and moisture to escape (the leather portion of the upper is also perfed at the toe and along the medial side of the shoe, see figure 1). What makes the venting so effective is the fact that the entire inner of the shoe is made of highly breathable mesh, which works to pull both heat and moisture away from the foot and out via the holes incorporated into the outer shell. The excellent ventilation really helped the shoe maintain its comfort over the course of long periods of wear. One of my test wearings lasted well over two hours and my feet were still feeling great when it was over. figure 4. This shot of the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight provides a good look at the shoe's sockliner. Note the unique upward wrap along its perimeter and the large vent holes distributed across its surface. Note also that the shoe's Zoom Air units are not contained within the sockliner, but within the shoe's midsole. Like fit, though, comfort really didn't start to shine until my second wearing. As noted above, the Ultraflight felt overly supportive and stiff on my first wearing, but, on top of that, the edges of its sockliner kept pinching the sides of my foot. Upon shifting my body weight to one side or the other, the skin on the outer edge of my foot would get caught in a gap formed between the edge of the sockliner and the inner of the shoe. When I shifted my weight back to center the gap would close and my skin would get pinched. It wasn't a hard pinch and didn't hurt, but it was really distracting. The cause of this pinching was the shape of the Ultraflight's sockliner. Unlike most sockliners, which are largely flat, the Air Zoom Ultraflight's sockliner is highly sculpted and features an upturned edge that cups the foot along its entire perimeter (see figure 4). It was between the inner and this upturned edge that my foot kept getting pinched. Thankfully, by the end of my first wearing the material of the sockliner softened up and by my second wearing the pinching stopped. I believe the sockliner is shaped the way that it is to help keep the foot firmly planted on the footbed during hard cuts. It was definitely effective in this regard and this helped to enhance the overall stability of the shoe. Speaking of stability, this was probably the shoe's biggest surprise. After my experiences with the similarly minimal Nike Air Hyperflight and Zoom Flight Turbine I pretty much assumed that stability would be a weak point of the Ultraflight. But after seven test wearings I can report that it's actually a strength. The Ultraflight is not as stable as a Shox-based shoe, but it is very good in this area. I even spent some time playing low-post defense against a bigger, heavier player while wearing the Ultraflight (something that requires a highly stable shoe) and the shoe never let me down. On one occasion I landed with one of my feet at a strange angle and the shoe started to roll over, but before this could become a problem the monkey paw structure integrated into shoe's outer shell "caught" me and kept me from rolling my ankle. Consistent with my overall experience with the shoe, it didn't start to feel quite right in the stability department until it was broken in, which took one wearing. After that it was all good. figure 5a, b, & c. Here is the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight in its white/varsity royal, white/varsity red, and black/black colorways. These shots provide a good look at the stability structures integrated into both sides of the shoe's outer shell. While the structures on both sides provide lateral support and stability, the structure on the medial, or inner, side is specifically designed to help prevent ankle inversion. I found that the structures and the shell as a whole were terrifically effective and I was very happily surprised by the Ultraflight's stability. The one attribute that required no break-in time was cushioning. As noted above, the Air Zoom Ultraflight is built on a Phylon midsole containing a full-length Zoom Air unit and an additional Zoom Air-Sole unit at the heel -- a combination that performed beautifully right out of the box. If you're talking about a shoe targeted at quick guards and forwards no cushioning system on the market today can beat a good implementation of Zoom Air, and the Ultraflight has a particularly good implemention of Zoom Air. What's so great about it is that it delivers the triumvirate of impact protection, responsiveness (i.e. a springy feel), and court feel, and all at an exceptionally high level. Because of the low-profile of the midsole at the forefoot I wouldn't recommend the Air Zoom Ultraflight to really big players or to those who are very heavy for their height. But for the vast majority of guards and forwards the Ultraflight will provide great impact protection, a super-responsive ride, and the low-to-the-court feel that most quick players crave. As far as weaknesses go, I only experienced two. The first is the break-in issue that I've mentioned a few times already. Basically, the shoe will very likely feel weird for your first one or two wearings. For me it took one wearing and after that it was golden. The second problem is that the Air Zoom Ultraflight is really hard to put on (for those familiar with the Nike Air Jet Flight, the Ultraflight was very reminiscent of that shoe in this regard). This is because it doesn't have a traditional tongue or even a non-traditional tongue. The full-length Dynamic-Fit inner-bootie is just that; a bootie, and its aperture is only so wide. Unfortunately, this isn't a problem that goes away with time. It was a little bit easier to get the shoe on after it was broken in, but not much. The good thing is that the Ultraflight has two very solid pull-tabs that are a great help when putting the shoe on. Personally, this is an issue that I'm more than happy to live with given the stellar comfort, fit, and overall performance of the shoe, but I imagine it may turn some people off. figure 6. In this rearward view of the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight you can clearly see the midsole and inner-bootie through the shoe's translucent outer shell. Could this shoe be any cooler? I mean, the design is essentially perfect. There's no element that I would take away and none that I'd want to see added. Also note that the colorway shown here, white/varsity maize - black, is one of three limited edition colorways that was released in advance of the 2003 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta. Before summing up just a few notes about the design and construction of the shoe. When I wrote above that the Air Zoom Ultraflight is a pure embodiment of audacity, I didn't mean that only from a design perspective. Like the Nike Shox VC II before it, the Air Zoom Ultraflight is an engineering marvel. I mean, it wasn't like the people developing and manufacturing the shoe had something else to model it on. Before the Ultraflight there was no such thing as a high-performance hoops shoe with a thermo-formed plastic chassis, not even close. I'm a technically inclined person, but I don't even want to think about how difficult it must have been to bring this shoe to life from a blank sheet. Much respect and huge amounts of admirations to the folks responsible -- without you shoeheads like me and our readers wouldn't exist. As for the design, here at least there were a few precedents to go on, though not from the shoe world. The first thing that leapt to my mind as far as potential design influences was Apple's second generation iMac, which featured a translucent plastic case and came in an assortment of eye-catching colors. But according to the shoe's designer, Aaron Cooper, the inspiration for the clear shell actually came from one of Gary Payton's cars, the Ferrari 360 Spider. Aside from the fact that the 360 is stunningly beautiful, an interesting attribute of the car is that it features a clear engine cover. According to Cooper "we realized that Ferrari is just as proud of what's inside their cars as they are the outside...and the same is true at Nike, we are definitely just as proud of what goes into the shoes as we are of how they look on the outside...so we thought that it would be cool to show 'the engine,' which in our case is a midsole containing full-length Zoom with another Zoom bag stacked in the heel." But whatever the influence, the bottom line is that the Air Zoom Ultraflight is, at least in my opinion and those of several people who stopped me to ask what I was wearing, a beautiful shoe. To me, one of the things that really sets its design apart and makes it special is the pairing of the high-tech, New World chassis with low-tech, Old World leather. Nike could have easily used a synthetic material for the top portion of the upper -- it almost certainly would have been cheaper for them -- but instead, they went with high-quality, full-grain leather and it makes a huge difference. It's the exclamation point at the end of a bold sentence. figure 7a & b. A last look at the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight in its white/varsity red and black/black colorways (for a profile shot of the white/varsity royal colorway see figure 3c above). The crease line that runs the length of the outer chassis along the shoe's lateral side is such a beautiful touch -- very car-like. But my favorite thing about the shoe is that its looks are matched by its performance. Even if I like a shoe I'm usually happy to move on to to testing a new one, but the Ultraflight was very hard to put aside. Okay, to sum up, the Nike Air Zoom Ultraflight is a special shoe. One of those rare shoes that can make even a jaded shoe reviewer like me wax poetic (or at least try to). If you're a fast, active guard or forward who loves to take it to the hole this is the shoe you've dreamt of -- just make sure to give it at least one wearing to break-in. Also keep in mind that it's a tough shoe to get on. Big, heavy guys need not apply (no offense, this just isn't the shoe for you). Given my recent spate of positive reviews for Nike products I'm guessing that some people out there are going to say "Man, Prof. K has been blinded by the swoosh!" To those people I would simply say try the shoes on for yourself. If, after one or at most two wearings, you don't think that the Air Zoom Ultraflight is the best shoe on the market today for fast guards and forwards, then I give you license to email me and call me all sorts of nasty names. But, by the same token, after you've tried the shoe and seen the light I expect a message saying "You were right Prof. K, I'm a fool for doubting you!" In all seriousness, the Air Zoom Ultraflight is a great hoops shoe. If your wallet can take the $125 price-tag you will not be disappointed. Who's worn it? Tony Parker (G- San Antonio Spurs), Gary Payton (G- Seattle SuperSonics), and that high school kid in Ohio (he's not in the League yet so I won't mention his name)