ARTICLE BY Minh Vuong

Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1: Breaking Down the Differences

Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison Header

Aren’t Nike Dunks and Air Jordan 1s the same shoe? Not quite. For newcomers to sneakers, it might be a little confusing. So, let us help you to see exactly what makes them different.

Nike Dunks are all the rage right now. It’s still too early at this stage to call it a comeback – maybe they’ve been cool the whole time. However, there is also an anticipation that the Dunk might finally usurp the Air Jordan 1 as the zeitgeist sneaker of the current hype wave. Given how popular both styles are, they’re appearing at the same time on social media feeds and the streets, so it’s easy to get them mixed up.

A deep dive into these popular retro basketball shoes reveals more similarities than differences, but it’s in knowing the latter that graduates a casual observer into a full-blown sneakerhead. Strap in for the full dissection.

Nike 1985 Basketball Catalogue
Nike 1985 Catalogue - Basketball Section

The Chicken or The Egg?

According to Nike, the Air Jordan 1 released mere months before the Dunk did. To make matters even more confusing, visual concepts for both silos were born from the mind of Nike’s creative director at the time: Peter Moore. The Dunk actually shares many design cues from basketball sneakers of the era, namely the Terminator and Legend… and the Air Jordan 1. So, perhaps it’s fair to say the Dunk is a slightly more amalgamated model than the straightforward AJ1. It’s a lot to take in, especially on the same catalogue.

Nike Dunk 1985 College Players
Syracuse versus St. John's.
Michael Jordan Air Jordan 1 1985
Michael Jordan a.k.a the GOAT.
Nike Be True To Your School 1985 Poster
1985 Nike Be True To Your School Poster

Signature Status

Fun fact: the Dunk’s working title was the College Colour High, and it was intended for collegiate-level players. Indeed, the monumental Be True To Your School campaign featured the Dunk front and centre, with colours to match college teams’ uniforms. The BTTYS pack has retroed in various guises over the years, and 2020 has brought back some Dunk Lows in recognisable two-toned colourways. The Air Jordan 1 was obviously the signature sneaker for Michael Jordan, also known as the Greatest of All Time. And while some might argue there are simply too many out there, the AJ1’s omnipresence on the feet of everyone from the Bones Brigade in the 1980s to Travis Scott today means it’s here to stay. For now.

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Nylon tongues are the best tongues.
Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison 15
Nylon tongues are the best tongues.
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Nylon tongues are the best tongues.
Nike Air Dunk 1985 Archive Dna
Nike Air Dunk circa 1985 | @archive.dna

Up in the Air

It’s in the name: the Air Jordan 1 contains Air in its midsole. The Dunk does not. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. There have been versions of the Air Jordan 1 using the Dunk outsole unit, and even very very rare Dunks with an Air midsole. The rabbit hole deepens… but for the record, regular Dunks don’t have Air and Air Jordan 1s do.

For posterity, there have been some variants of Dunks with Zoom Air throughout the 2000s, and SB Dunks have always had Zoom Air insoles. So has the Air Jordan 1 SB... and the Air Jordan 1 Zoom has also joined the fray. Yes, it’s complex.

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Left: Dunk. Right: Air Jordan 1.
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Nike Dunk
Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison 11
Air Jordan 1
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Optional ankle strap.
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Integrated ankle strap.

Clipping the Wings

The Dunk’s upper features distinct ankle lace flaps that can be optionally laced for extra support. In the early 2000s, it was popular to leave the flaps loose, along with a popped tongue. Thankfully, these practices are all but extinct… The Air Jordan 1 doesn’t have that option, as the ankle straps are stitched into the upper for more structure.

Count the eyelets. The Dunk High has nine eyelets, and so does the AJ1. The difference is in the strapping, whereby the former has its ninth eyelet above the straps, whereas the latter’s eighth and ninth eyelets are part of the strap. And, if the AJ1 has eight eyelets, it’s a Mid.

Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison 1
Top down, the toe box difference is clear.
Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison 3
Top down, the toe box difference is clear.
Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison 2
Top down, the toe box difference is clear.
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Forefoot eyelets are slightly different.
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Forefoot eyelets are slightly different.
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The Swoosh intersects the ankle panel.
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The Swoosh sits between the counters.

Panel Layout

Staying on the uppers, there are some key areas where the Dunk and Air Jordan 1 differ. Starting at the toe box, the Dunk tends to have a roomier shape, while the AJ1 is a little more tapered. The perforations are just about identical. At the eyestays, it’s an entirely different situation. The Dunk runs its staggered wavy eyestays up to the ankle like the AJ1, but the latter has an additional stitched panel reinforcing the front three eyelets. Towards the back, the heel counter and upper ankle panels of the Dunk are intersected by the Swoosh, whereas the AJ1 Swoosh meets these panels at their edges. At the back, the Dunk has a notable absence of the Wings logo. It’s not the AJ1, after all.

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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
Nike Dunk Versus Air Jordan 1 Comparison 21
Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Note the more detailed texture on the AJ1 outsole versus the Dunk's.
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Narrow and tall.
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Wide and short.

Tread Patterns

The Dunk actually lifts the outsole pattern from the Air Jordan 1, but with some minor tweaks. The basic layout remains the same, using concentric curved sections at the forefoot and ball for quick pivoting. The heel tread resembles a slanted grid, which suits the repeated start-stop movements of basketball.

The arch bridge is a little taller and narrower, compared to the AJ1’s wider design. However, the latter has more detail to individual tread sections as compared to the Dunk. Side on, the Dunk’s outsole extends onto the midsole wall at the heel and forefoot, and these segments are clearly defined. By now, it’s all splitting hairs – but that’s what we’re here to do.

Don’t fake the funk if you don’t know the difference between the AJ1 and the Dunk. With this comprehensive, exhaustive and excessive guide, you’ll be counting eyelets and stroking soles next time you encounter them.

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