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MMA pioneer Campbell McLaren times ‘Copa Combate’ to honor UFC 1

Campbell McLaren was busy making history 24 years ago this month, producing an event he co-created: UFC 1 in Denver.

McLaren, a television executive, was summoned to produce an event originally called “War of the Worlds” on pay-per-view. The premise was to have fighters with expertise in specific disciplines face off in an eight-man, single elimination tournament. There were no weight divisions and very few rules.

The event achieved financial success and McLaren went on to produce 22 events, including the first 12 UFC cards, before ultimately selling the company in 2001 for $2 million to Zuffa LLC, a company led by brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and their childhood friend, Dana White.

The Fertittas sold the UFC to Beverly Hills talent agency WME/IMG for $4 billion last year, and the organization just staged UFC 217 Saturday in New York, the 50th state where it achieved regulatory approval.

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McLaren, now the CEO of Combate Americas, an MMA organization that features predominately Latino fighters from around the world, is marking the anniversary by staging another eight-man tournament in the bantamweight division Saturday in Cancun, Mexico.

The winner of the “Copa Combate” tournament will claim a $100,000 prize and McLaren also confirmed the winner will meet Combate’s biggest free agent signing to date, Erik “El Goyito” Perez, a veteran Mexican fighter who competed in nine UFC fights.

Tournament fighters will represent countries including the U.S., Mexico, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Spain, Colombia and Peru.

“It’s no coincidence that we’re hosting this tournament on the 24th anniversary of the original UFC,” McLaren told The Times in a telephone interview this week. “It’s my way of paying homage to the tradition of the sport. Because we really haven’t seen this since then.

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“UFC 1 went on at a time when there was nothing like it. I envisioned a live-action ‘Mortal Combat’ style tournament.

“I was talking to Dana White recently, and he said you couldn’t do that tournament in the U.S. today. He said that no one could survive that much damage today. But it’s really about endurance and durability and that hasn’t changed at all. So don’t be surprised if you see the UFC hosting a tournament soon.”

McLaren was joking about the last line, but he insists “Copa Combate” will be an annual event, with next year’s tournament possibly taking place in Spain.

“I want this to become the World Cup of fighting,” he said.

Copa Combate will be televised for the first time live in English with a simulcast on NBC Sports Network while also being televised live in Spanish as usual on Telemundo Deportes.

“Combate is special because our guys are new, much more exciting. We have more finishes — an 81% finish rate — compared to 51% at the UFC. My guys are hungrier. The UFC is a style of MMA. Hispanic fighters have always been at the top of the fighting world, especially the Hispanic fight tradition from boxing; the best fighters have always been Hispanic. The UFC isn’t the best fighters, it’s the best UFC fighters.”

Focusing on the Latin America audience will further enrich the MMA audience that McLaren first began building.

“Combate Americas is not for Hispanic fighters, it’s for Hispanic fans. You see a huge Hispanic presence in boxing. Even in the WWE … the top athletes are Hispanic and do huge numbers in Mexico,” McLaren said.

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“You have a tremendous athlete pool from 21 countries that have a tremendous fighting history, particularly in boxing, and not many opportunities for them. I see us as the No. 2 sport in the world for Spanish-speaking sports fans after soccer

“We’re beating the UFC in those countries, not in the U.S. … I did too good of a job 24 years ago with the UFC, so it’s going to take me some time to top myself in the U.S.,” McLaren joked.

He said Combate’s pay structure is competitive with the UFC’s, adding he doesn’t anticipate losing fighters to the UFC.

“This is not a feeder system for the UFC. When you talk to my fighters, there is a great amount of pride being part of a Hispanic organization … .

“We have a running joke in Combate. You don’t have to be Mexican to fight in Combate. You just have to fight like a Mexican. It’s not Floyd Mayweather … no one wants to win on points.”


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