On Nov. 11, one day before the 24th anniversary of the first-ever UFC event, Combate Americas will hold a one-night bantamweight tournament featuring eight MMA fighters from seven different companies. The event, which airs live from Cancun, is the biggest event so far from the three-year-old company.
Combate Americas is heavily targeting markets outside the United States, and founder Campbell McLaren knows a thing or two about building something from the ground up. After all, he was the co-founder of UFC, and has never forgotten about the unpredictability and excitement that one-night tournaments can bring.
We sat down with McLaren in advance of the event, and he’s over the moon about the upcoming tournament, where the winner will take home a $100,000 grand prize.
UPROXX: If you were to boil it down, what do you want people to know about this tournament?
Campbell McLaren: Two things. One, it’s a tribute to the beginning of the sport. UFC1 24 years ago, eight-man tournament. So, it’s a tribute to how far the sport has come in 24 years. It’s also, for the first time ever, we are having MMA fighters represent their home country. This has never been done before. So, it’s the beginning of the sport, and I think it’s the future of the sport. Because, as MMA has spread, it’s no longer just a US-based sport or a Brazilian-based sport. It’s now taken off pretty much every country, certainly every Spanish speaking country has really embraced it, and that’s what Combate’s about. So, Copa Combate really means “The Fighting Cup.” So, Copa Americas is a soccer tournament that’s all the North American and South American countries. So, this was going to be all the North American and South American countries, and then Spain called and said, “Yo, you don’t have a tournament unless you have Spain!” So, I like that because the attitude is, “We wanna be part of this!” Is it the Olympics of fighting? It kinda is. It’s sorta the Olympics of MMA.
What was it about the market, or the idea, that got you personally invested in a Latino/Chicano fighting company?
Well, it’s a good question. It’s a lot of things. I can answer from a business point of view and say that the UFC wasn’t doing a good job in reaching US Hispanics or Mexicans or Colombians or anyone in South America other than Brazil, so there’s sort of a business answer to that. You know, find a need and serve it, but at heart I’m a producer. At heart, I’m a fan. I love this sport. I really helped create this sport with Rorion Gracie. So, I love it. So, I don’t really have a business answer. I just thought it would be f*cking cool. Because, if you look at the great fighters of history, Hispanic fighters are the history of fighting, right? There’s so many great Mexican and Puerto Rican, Argentinian boxers, right? And US Hispanic boxers. Oscar De La Hoya, because they don’t think he’s Mexican in Mexico. Chavez is a national hero. And then, the list of Puerto Rican boxers just goes on and on and on.
So, there was this great group of fighters and a great group of fans that weren’t getting their shot at MMA. I thought that would just be cool to roll that up. And then, it just kinda snowballed. A lot of people are now saying, I was asked this in the last interview I did, Miami Harold was talking to me about this. They said, “You may be the number two sport for Spanish speaking sports fans.” Because, if you don’t know, if you’re not a Spanish speaking sports fan, then soccer is the number one sport. But, if you go around in the US, the world series just ended. Football’s starting. College football’s going on. Hockey, the NBA. All the college sports. So, for an American sports fan, there’s tons of sports.
But, for Spanish sports fans around the world, it’s kinda soccer. So, I think we’ve now become the number two sport for Spanish speaking sports fans.
Above boxing, you think?
I think so, because if you go to … I was in Colombia last week and I said, “After soccer, what’s the next most popular sport here?” They go, “There isn’t anything. It’s really cycling.” There’s no great boxing tradition in Colombia. Spain has boxing, but it’s not a great boxing tradition. Argentina does have a boxing tradition. Mexico and Puerto Rico clearly. But, if you get into other countries, that’s not necessarily the case. And, I think … Look, boxing’s a great sport. I got in a lot of trouble when I started the UFC because people thought I was trying to get rid of boxing. I’m not. I like boxing. I paid for the Connor McGregor/Floyd Mayweather fight. I actually paid cash money for that fight. So, I’m not trying to knock boxing in any way. MMA is a younger sport. It skews more to the millennial audience. True in Mexico, true in the US. So, it’s a little bit younger.
What we found is interesting. Working with a company called Nielsen, that does all this analysis and ratings, not just TV ratings, and they found that Combate’s audience is averaging 27 years old and the UFC’s audience is 47 years old. So, I would say not only is MMA the new sport, Combate is the new version of MMA.
Do you think the same thing is happening with UFC that’s happening with pro wrestling, in that everyone who got into it is aging with it as opposed to it constantly creating new fans?
That’s a great question. Yeah, I think that really is the case. I think that, when I launched Combate Americas, which was about four years ago, the first thing I did is I went to see Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta. It’s a very powerful organization and I love the UFC and never have meant any disrespect to the UFC. I went out and told them what I’m doing and Lorenzo, who’s the one who sold the UFC last year, he said, “We’ve tried to reach Hispanic fans, and we failed. Not because we didn’t spend a lot of money.”
So, I didn’t feel like I was taking away from the UFC. I think you’re exactly right. I think the UFC has its audience. Maybe it’s peaked where it is. I’m after new fans. I’m after a new generation of fans. I’m after a new group of fans.
Listen, God bless Joe Rogan, okay? I brought Joe Rogan into the UFC. He was a good friend and a great comedian, and kind of a tough guy. He got a couple kickboxing fights. I brought him in. I love Rogan. But, here’s the thing about Rogan and the UFC. If you turn on the UFC and Joe Rogan’s screaming off his head and his eyes are bulging out of his bald head and he’s screaming at you and you don’t know what’s going on, that’s not a way to introduce new fans to the sport. Joe knows too much. Joe, you know too much. We want to do it in a way where we educate and excite.
We don’t assume … RNC! RNC. A new fan goes, “RNC? Is that the Republican National Convention?” No. It’s a rear naked choke. We don’t assume everybody knows what an RNC is.
Do you think there’s also an aspect in helping you develop the younger fans or gain the younger fans, especially with a promotion that is exclusively Latino, do you think that there’s an aspect of ownership it, as opposed to, say, if UFC tries to create a Hispanic star …
Can you hear me nodding? I’m nodding right now.
You’re coming in, started on Mun2, you go to Telemundo, and it’s something that people can feel ownership of.
Oh, absolutely. 100 percent. 100 percent. Combate, we say, is built from the ground up, right? We’ve reached out to local gyms. Local fighters in every country we’re going to. We’re reaching out to fans that don’t have a place to watch MMA and saying, this is yours. Look, we’re in LA right now. We’re downtown LA. Which, along with Brooklyn, is now the two capitals of hipster-dome. We’re in downtown LA. Coolest place. In the city right now, half the millennials are Hispanic. So, this isn’t just about the Hispanic audience.
This is about the youth audience too. I mean, our fans are younger. We’re representing, we say “mucho mas accion.” Much more action. Our fights end with more finishes. Our guys are coming out of a boxing background, so it’s faster. It’s just a little more exciting. Yes, there’s a Hispanic point of pride here, because we do put the Hispanic fighters and the Hispanic audience first. You don’t have to be Hispanic to fight for Combate, though. We say, you just have to fight like a Mexican. You can be … Look, the Irish, Connor McGregor, to me, is an exciting fighter. Why? Because he comes out swinging. That’s what we want. We want guys and girls … Gees, the women. God, they scare me sometimes. But, they do come out swinging.
So, this is a youth audience. It’s a fan-based audience. We are fighter friendly, and we’re fan friendly. We want people’s input and we do want people to take pride of ownership for Combate.
You gonna get Canelo involved?
Canelo, the answer’s no. The answer is no. Not because I haven’t tried. I offered [Julio César] Chávez Jr. a slot and, I know the Diaz brothers have been working on him a little bit. What I said was, “Look, whether he’s a good boxer or great boxer or an indifferent boxer, no matter what he will always stand in the shadow of his father, you know?” If you have a famous father, it’s a blessing and a curse. It means you’re probably set up for life, but it also means you’re really not ever gonna be able to stand on your own. Chávez Jr., I said to him, “You could be a champ in MMA.”
I went down to Monterey the fight before Chávez Jr. fought Canelo. I was in the audience and he was fighting a guy. I don’t want to say the guy was a cannon, but it was clearly a tune-up fight for Canelo, right? And the guy was big and the guy was strong and in the seventh round, Chávez Jr. missteps. Moves a little bit to his left and BOOM! He takes a right that the other fighter threw from the toes up. The guy landed this punch that woulda killed me. Mighta knocked the head off my body, actually, and I think would have destroyed just about any MMA fighter.
MMA fighters don’t have great chins, mostly. McGregor’s pointed that out. And, Chávez Jr. shook it off. He got hit with a sledgehammer right on the button, and he shook it off. And I said, “you know, in MMA you’re going to be very hard to beat. You’re really going to be hard to beat, and you can punch.”
So, I think what this points to is, if you hear it … The UFC and most MMA is a grappling based sport where you learn how to strike. Combate is a striking sport where the guys are learning grappling for defense. So, it creates a little bit different sport. We’d love to … You know, Jr., you know I want you. You know I got money. So, the offer is out there.
Now, I know you’re a supporter, you’re respectful of UFC.
I love the UFC. I really do.
But, at the same time …
I wanna kick their ass.
Well, do you feel like this is the prime moment for other MMA promotions to try and strike?
No. You’re not gonna beat the UFC in the US. You’re just not.
Even with all their contract issues and the fighter unhappiness?
Put things in perspective.
Fans have never been more unhappy with UFC than right now.
I don’t know if that’s true.
That is definitely true. With GSP coming back and jumping the line and all these extracurricular things happening with McGregor.
Alright, let’s … You clearly are a knowledgeable fan. So, let’s clarify your statement. The hardcore MMA fan has never been more unhappy with the UFC.
I think that’s right. But, the hardcore doesn’t drive the business. You make money on the pay-per-views when you get beyond the hardcore. F*cking hardcore fans will watch f*cking penguin wrestling.
If there’s a fight on, the hardcore fan’s gonna watch it. They will get up at 4 in the morning to watch some obscure Czechnian fighter fighting the guy from Belarus, right? I mean, that’s just true. Now, also, the hardcore fan will just belly-ache all the goddamn time too, right?
It’s the same for any sport.
It’s the same for any sport. That’s exactly right. And, I’ll tell you, what do you think before this World Series, I heard a lot of baseball fans last year really complaining about stuff. No one’s complaining now. All the UFC needs to satisfy the hardcore fan is for a great fighter to stand up and shine again. Diaz vs McGregor. Nobody’s complaining there.
Sure. Well, except for the outcome of the second fight.
Well, there’s a reason why. No, I don’t disagree. You’re right. The hardcore fan is saying, “Maybe the heart and soul of the UFC has gone out. Maybe the decisions being made are purely from a business point of view … ”
But, even for a casual fan, beyond McGregor, Rousey’s out. They haven’t built another, I mean, there are other female stars on the rise, but they’re losing that that phenomenon of Rousey was huge for the casual fan and with more and more fighters under UFC contract speaking out about their displeasure of UFC on a constant basis, I mean, it’s always been the case of people. Unhappy fighters cutting promos and trying to sell the fight and sell their own unhappiness so that people will tune in, but it seems like there is a groundswell. And, with Bellator putting on better and better cards and getting bigger and bigger name recognition …
Bullsh*t! That’s bull, you’re so biased! I hope we get to become friends, because we’d have some great lunches together. Listen, you can put it in perspective. The UFC is not worse for fighters than the other organizations. It pays better. It gives them a better spotlight. Dana is the ultimate fan, right? He really is the ultimate fan. He loves this as much, if not more, than anyone, right? And he’s the heartbeat of the UFC. As long as his heart keeps beating and he keeps paying attention, the UFC’s gonna be fine. And, there’s a new group of stars, maybe they’re gonna bring along. Bellator isn’t better. It’s worse. It’s worse. Their biggest ratings have come from …
Oh, no. I wasn’t saying Bellator was better than UFC. I was saying, Bellator’s putting together a better and better roster for them all the time …
Yes and no, but they’re still doing retreads. They’re still doing guys that have had a shot elsewhere. The exciting thing about Combate is it’s all new folks. They may not pan out. Who knows? I’m not a f*cking fortune teller. But, I’m bringing up the next group. I have to. UFC’s got everyone 25-35 signed up with note. They f*cking dropped the ball on Goyito. We snapped him up. Once the lawyers clarified that I could go after him midnight, midnight ‘o’ one we were after him. So, other than Goyito, there’s not many folks that I want, because I want the next new group. That’s what’s gonna build the sport. But, in the US, I think in the whole Anglo world, the UFC’s gonna be dominant. Canada. UK. Australia.
But, I’ll tell you this. My ratings in Mexico are literally 10 times what the UFC’s TV ratings are. Double in Spain. And in South America, we’re the number four show on ESPN in Latin America. I think they’re not only vulnerable, I think we’ve already passed them in a lot of ways in the Spanish speaking world. But, in the US, come on. The UFC. I didn’t create it for it to be the number two in the US.
Right. That’s fair. And, I think that that’s probably wise. In your mind, since you were around for the inception of Mixed Martial Arts as we know it, at what point did it change for you, and what was the signal that it had changed where it went from practices of martial arts fighting each other, to a sport that is mixed martial arts?
I like where you were going with that, that’s why I … It’s a great question. Clearly number one is karate versus kung fu versus sumo versus … That’s how we promoted it. And that’s what it was. I think it’s UFC 7 when we see a guy named Marco Ruas, badass guy. When I first met him, I was showing him the octagon and I asked him if he liked the surface, through his interpreter. We were always trying to get the surface right. Soft enough for the grapplers to hit the deck, but fast enough for the strikers to be able to move, right? It was a little bit of a, we had to work that out.
So, I was asking him what he thought of the surface and his response to me, through the interpreter, was, “If it’s not concrete, I’m okay.” And I go, “This guy’s badass.” But, we saw him mix the Jiu Jitsu, boxing style punches. His jab was actually a jab, not a feint. It was an actual jab. And then we saw the kicks. It was UFC 7, having Marco Ruas where I went, “Huh, this guy’s got a lot of tools in that f*cking toolbox. You know? He can do a lot. If you wanna go to the ground, you got a high-level Jiu Jitsu guy down there. You don’t want to go to the ground. But, if you stand up, he’s gonna chop your legs down. And, if you try to move out of those low kicks or move the wrong way, you’re gonna get popped.”
So, that was when it really started to dawn on me something was up. But then I think later on you get these high-level athletes coming in from wrestling, like Mark Coleman, right? Powerful guy, but he didn’t know how to close it up. He had to either pound you or hold you down. There was nothing. He couldn’t do anything else. So, Marco was a great competitor. I like Mark a lot, I think he added a ferocity and a scariness to the sport.
Tank [Abbott] added his own particular type of scariness, but then when Coleman came in, it was more like, “That guy’s like the f*cking Hulk.” That guy’s a scary guy, the hammer. But, he did show that there was a lot lacking and started the ground and pound, but it showed how much was missing in his approach. He had to out power guys. So, I think Marco Ruas and Mark Coleman are the ones that really pointed the direction. Mark Coleman by not having what was needed, and Marco Ruas by coming in with more tools than most people.
In your mind, I don’t want to say best, but in your mind throughout from the beginning until now, who was the perfect mixed martial artist?
Wow. Who’s the perfect baseball player, you know?
I was gonna say Derek Jeter, but that kinda shows our … A-Rod, had he been the A-Rod we all wanted him to be.
Well, I’m a Giants fan, so my answer’s Barry Bonds.
Barry Bonds. Which Barry though? Little Barry or big?
Anyway, who’s the … You know, Royce [Gracie] is first and foremost, because Royce is Chuck Yeager. And if you don’t know Chuck Yeager, he was a test pilot. The Wright stuff, all that stuff. He went into the wild blue yonder when we didn’t know if he was coming back from the wild blue yonder. He’s Christopher Columbus. We don’t know if Royce was gonna sail over the edge. He went in, he was super confident. There was no doubt in his mind what was gonna happen. He went in and he discovered the new world, so it’s Royce.
I think those that have brought in, in terms of the UFC, those that have brought in the next level of fans, it’s Tank and Rhonda. Tank brought in the Everyman, and Rhonda was a pretty blondie that kicked ass. She brought in a whole new generation of fans. So, I would say Royce is the founding father. He’s George Washington. And all presidents are measured against George Washington, but Tank and Rhonda really jumped the sport ahead. They really did.
Tank’s in that episode of Friends that’s the highest-rated episode of Friends until their ultimate finale. There’s a reason for that. And Rhonda, I love Rhonda. Best of luck with whatever she decides to do next. She was a pioneer. She helped the sport maybe more than any other individual. And, I think she’s a class act. I know she has her good factors. So, I think it’s them.
I think for … Ariel Helwani, who’s an MMA writer, congratulated us on signing Goyito [Érik Pérez]. Our best signing, he said. That’s right in what has happened, but I think our best signing is really Marcelo Rojo or John Castaneda because they’re the future. Goyito, they’re all gonna take a run at Goyito. It’s gonna be great. We’re doing that early next year. It’s gonna be awesome.
The winner of the tournament Copa Combate is gonna fight Goyito. So, it’s awesome. So, Ariel’s right. He does understand his sport, but I’m not sure he can see the future. The future is my guys that are coming up. The 21, 22, 23-year-old guys. Goyito’s 28. He’s right in the prime of being a fighter. Still physically super fit and mentally super focused and experienced. My guys are babies. They’re puppies. They’re 23 years old. Give them a couple years. They’re gonna change the sport. My best signings are the signings we’re still making.
Copa Combate will air live on Telemundo and NBC Sports Network at 11:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Nov. 11.