Campbell McLaren, the original executive producer of the UFC, was looking for something new to put on pay-per-view when he stumbled into the UFC project in 1993.
At the time he worked for a company owned by then music giant BMG. They'd been placing music artists on pay-per-view, but McLaren's job was to diversify the product by finding non-music acts. As it turned out, music acts weren't necessarily natural fits for the pay model. They created content infrequently, so momentum in terms of building a series was difficult. Their events were also hugely expensive to stage.
McLaren, though, had a demonstrated record of success finding alternatives to music artists. He spearheaded the effort to put controversial stand-up comedian Andrew 'Dice' Clay on at a time when public backlash against his act considerably raised his profile. He even managed to use pay-per-view to sell a "horror magic show" involving the creative minds behind the Hellraiser movies and the metal band Iron Maiden in the very studios were many of the James Bond films were made.
Professional boxing and wrestling also worked well on pay-per-view, but the hunt was on for other forms of fighting that could also be levered. The major problem? There really weren't any. Nothing immediately stood out, though, until McLaren one day got a call from Art Davie pitching an early form of what would become the UFC.
Several meetings later with Davie and Rorion Gracie, McLaren believed he had an idea he could work with. But what would it look like? How would this be visually presented to audiences to really make it sell and sizzle? As it turns out, an unlikely video game causing a stir piqued McLaren's interest.
"There was a huge hit, a video game, called Mortal Kombat that was just a huge it," McLaren told Ariel Helwani on Monday on The MMA Hour. "It was very controversial and people were very scared of it. It just seemed to be promoting violence and had all the wrong ideas. Except younger people loved it. It was great."
Mortal Kombat, an arcade game released in 1992 that eventually found its way to home consoles, was a character vs. character fighting game. It became controversial for its use of violence and gore, particularly its 'fatalities' that allowed winning players to gruesomely kill their losing counterparts.
"It was a guy in a judo gi versus a karate guy versus a sumo guy, and it just looked wild. And that's how I visualized the UFC. That's what in my mind was a visual spectacle. Things that looked like real fights. It wasn't mixed martial arts. It was martial art vs. martial art."
The more McLaren and his team dug into the project, the more they realized what uncharted territory they were in. Mortal Kombat's essence and trimmings weren't directly borrowed, but it's emphasis on spectacle, distinct characters and glorification of violence helped serve as a loose blueprint by which they could follow.
Yet, those were the big picture details. McLaren knew some of the product would need fine tuning the more they began to develop what this was going to look like once it was all broadcast. For example, where, precisely, were these fighters going to compete? The story of a fictional but helpful analog to the UFC fighter helped lead the way.
"And as we started to get into the planning," McLaren continued, "we went and talked to John Milius, who is a pretty famous director, and wrote 'Dirty Harry', wrote the script for 'Apocalypse Now' and made the 'Conan' movies. He suggested we do an Octagon like Conan fought in in 'Conan: The Barbarian'. Everybody thought that was pretty cool. John wanted to put Greek columns on it and I thought that sounded pretty stupid. After we came up with the idea of using a chain link fence, I actually wanted razor wire on the top."
Wouldn't that actually hurt the combatants? McLaren didn't want actual danger (and wouldn't have placed them in a position to do so), he simply wanted the appearance of danger. "Just for looks, just for show, but I thought it was going to give it that extra, added danger element."
When big picture concerns turned to making sure the more minor details came into focus, McLaren and the rest of the UFC's creators began to realize they weren't just staging something different. The UFC product was diffierent, of course, but it wasn't a copycat or something people were accustomed to. They were in the midst of creating something the modern world had basically never seen before.
"As the TV show started to come together it became obvious we really were really pushing new ground. It wasn't just the controversy or the 'anything goes' and 'no holds barred' and all that stuff; it was we were going to try to put on a type of event, a type of fighting that no one in America had ever really conceived of. There was kickboxing and there was boxing. There was toughman at the time, but there was nothing that brought in professional-quality fighters from all these different disciplines," he said.
"I was always very much taken by the visual-ness of it and just the absolute look and feel that it was going to have on TV just seemed spectacular to me. It was going to be awesome."
These days McLaren has high praise for the Zuffa brass who've taken UFC to that levels it enjoys today. But even as McLaren acknowledges MMA becoming a full-fledged sport has been a net win, it can't be the only positive attribute about it. To McLaren, UFC has spectacle should never be sacrificed on the altar of sport because it's spectacle is what the entire popularity of the product is truly rooted in.
"What I thought what UFC needed to be - and I still think this is true - is it also needs to be a spectacle. It also needs to be the greatest thing you've ever seen. It also needs to have moments that transcend everyone's everyday life. And sport often does that, but it doesn't always do that. UFC in some ways is about heroes and it's about mythology. That's the sense I thought it should transcend sport."