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UFC founder Campbell McLaren tries to start Hispanic-based company off reality show

Campbell McLaren, the mastermind behind the first few years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, returns to the sport he helped build for a third run, this time with a Hispanic-geared reality show designed to build to a live show promotion.

Ethan Miller

Over the last 20 years, Campbell McLaren has traveled an long and winding road, and now it's led him back to the same door.

In 1993, McLaren, working for Semaphore Entertainment Group (SEG), which produced pay-per-view events, received a pitch from Art Davie and Rorion Gracie. He then green lit the concept and produced an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), pitting fighters of different disciplines against each other.

McLaren came up with the marketing ideas to garner attention. The concept quickly became a hit. But it's success may have led to its near demise. The attention getting promotional ideas he came up with, like claiming the fighters were battling with no rules, two men enter, one man leaves, and banned in 49 states got people to watch out of curiosity or check out videos of at their local Blockbuster. It riled up the media and politicians. He was moved from the helm a few years later and was long gone when Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the once-thriving company in 2001 in something of a fire sale, for $2 million.

On Sunday night, McLaren returns with a new MMA vehicle, Combate Americas, a reality show which, if everything goes well, will be the start of a new promotion aimed at the Hispanic audience. It airs on Mun2, a mostly Spanish language station geared toward younger viewers, which is part of the NBC Universal umbrella.

The concept is introducing a group of fighters, all Americans of Hispanic backgrounds, and tell back stories of their struggles. They compete for their families, or for some sort of redemption. The show consists of a series of physical challengers of strength, endurance and MMA skill. That leads to fights at the end of the season, with the idea that the winners get contracts with the Combate Americas promotion.

Ten one-hour episodes have been produced. The first airing each week, on Sunday nights, is aimed at the Spanish speaking audience. A Wednesday night replay, airing right after mun2's replay of WWE Raw, being "Gringo night," as McLaren puts it, is earmarked for English-language viewers.

"The network loves it," said McLaren. "But if it doesn't do well, we don't come back. If it does well, the second season will start in September."

The season ending fights were already taped at Casino Magic in Miami, near South Beach, where the season was shot. They fight in a circular cage, called "La Jaula," Spanish for cage.

"La Jaula, it sounds so bad ass, it sounds so much better than `the cage,'" he said about the term already entrenched in the Mexican Lucha Libre culture regarding grudge matches "en La Jaula."

There was a fighter who had his entire huge family there with his young daughter screaming, "Go papa."

"I thought I was going to cry," McLaren said about that scene. "I can't imagine that in the UFC. This is such a family culture. It's about fighting for the family, the neighborhood, the country and to make a living. The show is not gritty or down scale. We put them in the nicest places in South Beach, a beautiful home, they met world class Spanish language stars. This was the big time for these guys and they responded to it."

Perhaps the fighting star of the cast is Level Martinez, who McLaren described as the Hispanic Kimbo Slice. He comes in to the show already somewhat well known in the culture for backyard street fights that aired on YouTube.

"It's not a typical story," McLaren said. "He spent four years in prison. He's a bad, bad man. He found truth and MMA while in prison. He now works in anti-gang programs and has turned his life around through MMA. All the fighters have interesting stories..

"We have a guy from Arkansas, Illinois, Texas, California, New York, Florida, they are all Americans, they all speak English and Spanish. I was looking for anyone who considers themselves culturally Hispanic."

McLaren said the show with be more story driven, character driven and plot driven than other MMA reality shows. The goal at the end is to win a contract to fight for Combate Americas, the fight league. The plan is after the reason, to run a live, two-hour fight special from Chicago in May, Miami in June, and San Jose and San Antonio in the fall.

Reality shows about fighters aren't exactly knocking them dead these days. The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) struggles unless there is the right coaching mix. Bellator's Fight Master lasted one season. Dana White's boxing reality show, "The Fighters," lasted roughly as long as it takes to wash and dry a load of laundry. Even McLaren, pairing back up with David Isaacs, who he ran UFC with in the early days, did a show called "The Iron Ring," on BET, which lasted 14 episodes back in 2008.

That was a learning experience. The idea here was to not make the same mistakes twice.

"I tried to program this very differently from Iron Ring," said McLaren. "Iron Ring was annoying to a lot of MMA fans. I don't think this will be annoying."

The concept of that show was celebrity coaches, like Ludacris, Nelly and Floyd Mayweather Jr. It opened to strong ratings, particularly in the 12-to-24 age group that UFC wasn't hitting as well. But the show was heavily criticized, and it was clear the station lost interest.

"People were asking, what does Ludacris know about MMA," he said. "I leaned a lot from that show. I know I had early ratings success, and then an implosion. T.I. got arrested. Nelly was arrested. It'll hurt you show when your cast all goes to jail. A lot of things didn't work."

A couple of the cast members, Jamie Yager, Marcus Brimage and Mike Easton, wound up in UFC. Obongo Humphrey, the show's heavyweight star, was briefly in Strikeforce. Brian Rogers now fights in Bellator.

"It's every man for himself, and family story driven," he said about the differences in the shows. "That and everybody didn't get arrested. In Iron Ring, our commissioner got arrested and he wouldn't answer his calls. He was gone. We didn't her from him until three months after we wrapped."

"If you're building something to appeal to African-Americans, you're very limited," McLaren said. "The Hispanic demo is growing, and it's a youth demo. In the year 2015, the majority of people under the age of 18 will be Hispanic. This is where America is going to be very quickly."

What led to this show was McLaren started learning the Spanish media when he produced a bilingual television show called TuNit con Lorenzo Parro, on Telemundo, as well as an HBO special, called Comedy Salsa.

"I kept thinking, who is more passionate about fighting than Hispanic fighters and Hispanic fight fans," he said. "Bob Arum said that Hispanic fight fans kept the sport of boxing alive."

UFC, largely through Cain Velasquez, has garnered some interest in that audience, but for the most part, that crowd hasn't taken to UFC the way one would have thought given how big boxing and pro wrestling are in the Mexican and Puerto Rican cultures.

"I'm talking about Americans, 55 million Americans, the majority speak English but culturally they are still Hispanic. I think I can bring in a whole new group of fans, people who have heard of mixed martial arts, but don't know it. People who watch the UFC, I'm not after them. One of the big failings of Iron Ring was that T.I. and Ludacris knew nothing about this sport. I wasn't going to make that mistake again."

Bunim-Murray, the creators of "Real World," are putting the shows together.

"Bunim-Murray practically invented reality TV with Real World almost 30 years ago," he noted. "I created the TV side of the UFC, the Octagon, I was the one who hired Joe Rogan and (matchmaker) Joe Silva. Those are my elements on the show."

The cast of the show rubbed elbows with a number of celebrities. Daddy Yankee, the Puerto Rican Reggaeton recording artist, who was a boxer in his youth, serves as the commissioner. Piolin, the leading Spanish language radio host in the U.S., is one of the announcers. Also hosting are Venezuelan Grammy winning recording artists Chino y Nacho and MMA reporter Andrea Calle as the female host. Royce Gracie and Eddie Alvarez are regulars as MMA coaches.

"I want all MMA fans to watch, but I'll be happy if it's just an Hispanic audience because I think it's an under served group."

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