Just over 26 years ago, a series of flukes led to the birth of MMA as a sport. The term MMA wouldn’t be used for several years, and at first, there was some question as to whether it even was a sport.
Art Davie, a quick-talking Southern California salesman, and Rorion Gracie, a Brazilian transplant, attempted to put together a show called War of the Worlds. Fighters from several different disciplines were put in a one-night tournament in Brazil with almost no rules. The idea was style versus style fights, to a finish. While it sounded like a nice plot for a martial arts movie, everyone in television who heard the proposal slammed doors in their face.
Except one person. Campbell McLaren was working as an executive with Semaphore Entertainment Group, a company looking for new properties to put on pay-per-view. He thought the idea had promise. Saying “the rest is history” is accurate, but it was far more complicated than that. War of the Worlds became the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC for short. Brazil turned into Denver, Colo.
The shows were a success on pay-per-view, a novelty that forever changed the way people look at what a real fight is supposed to be. Semaphore bought the company, and for a few years, McLaren was the man in charge. His unique marketing, such as claiming UFC was banned in 49 states (which a few years later was almost prophetic and nearly killed the entire thing), or that fights could only end via knockout, submission, or death, would make a modern fan cringe. But by the time the term MMA was used for the sport, McLaren was already out of the picture.
On Saturday, the story comes full circle. McLaren returns as a pay-per-view fight producer for the first time in more than 20 years with a Combate Americas show on Saturday night. The event is built around 44-year-old Tito Ortiz (20-12-1), who 15 years ago was the biggest name in the sport, facing 42-year-old Jose Alberto Rodriguez (9-5), better known as former WWE pro wrestling champion Alberto Del Rio. The fight, from McAllen, Tex., will be at 210 pounds. Rodriguez has always fought as a heavyweight, while Ortiz has always fought as a light heavyweight.
The event’s tag line – “Tito vs. Alberto, Which Side Are You On?” – could mean U.S. versus Mexico, since the fight is in a border city. But it could also mean UFC versus WWE, or pro wrestling versus MMA. The idea is that Ortiz is putting up one of his UFC title belts as a side bet, while Alberto is putting up one of his WWE belts.
It’s McLaren’s third act as an MMA producer.
After UFC made MMA popular on television, McLaren and David Isaacs, both key players in the promotion’s early years, created a second made-for-television promotion, the Iron Ring on BET. The show did ratings and demographics that almost any television station would kill for today. It mixed unknown MMA fighters with a team concept and fictitious celebrity owners like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Nelly and Ludacris. The idea was looking for an urban and heavily African American young audience.
As far as viewers, it worked. Then again, 2008 television was very different. Initially, the show was the second highest-rated on BET. After several weeks, it averaged 900,000 viewers, of which 52 percent were women and 50 percent were under the age of 24. Ratings declined later in the season. There were changes at the station, and the show wasn’t picked up. It survived for 14 episodes.
In 2011, McLaren came up with the Combate Americas concept: MMA for a Hispanic audience. Combate started running regular live events in 2015. With a regular Friday night spot on Univision in the U.S., Combate fights have generally outdrawn Bellator for the No. 2 spot in stateside viewers behind the UFC, and while using far lesser-known fighters. Marketing specifically to the Hispanic audience and joining with Univision paid off. The company recently made an English language television deal with AXS TV.
McLaren befriended Rodriguez when the former pro-wrestling star came into the fold as an executive. The original idea was for him to fight on a PPV years ago, right after his tenure in WWE. Negotiations stretched for months. Rodriguez started fight camp training, but felt he didn’t have the hunger for it and decided against returning. Alberto instead became the public face of the company.
Rodriguez was featured prominently to do media and appear on television because he was understood how to promote from his roots in pro-wrestling. His father, the masked Dos Caras, was arguably the most talented Mexican heavyweight pro-wrestler of all time. His uncle, Mil Mascaras, was a masked movie star superhero, a pro-wrestler and cultural icon in Mexico, who had enormous popularity in Japan, Texas and Southern California during his late 1960s and 70s heyday. Because of Rodriguez’s family history and his own WWE success, he’s been able to get the company strong publicity in Mexico.
But Rodriguez also was well-versed as an athlete and competitor. As an amateur wrestler in the late 90s, he placed in the world championships in Greco-Roman wrestling. He became a pro-wrestling star as Dos Caras Jr., using a mask like his father. He also ended up in MMA when Japanese promoters liked the idea of putting the nephew of Mil Mascaras in real fights.
He fought in Japan, Mexico, Spain and Honduras, compiling a 9-5 record. His biggest fights were losses in PRIDE – a decision setback against Kazuhiro Nakamura and a head-kick knockout loss in 46 seconds on October 5, 2003, to Mirko Cro Cop that was, by far, his most famous piece of footage. After nine years in MMA from 2001 to 2010, he gave it up and signed with WWE. He was known as Alberto Banderas and became a big star as Alberto Del Rio.
In the first few years after Lorenzo & Frank Fertitta and Dana White took control of the UFC. Ortiz was the biggest MMA star in the states. The promoters created the 205-pound light heavyweight division specifically for him in a move from 199 pounds, a weight he had more trouble making.
If Rodriguez vs. Ortiz was one decade ago, there would be talk about the curiosity of a huge MMA name facing a major pro-wrestling star who had a legitimate wrestling background. Today is different. Pay-per-view is a much tougher business. Ortiz’s most recent try, with Chuck Liddell, a far bigger name than Alberto, did about 40,000 buys. It led to Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy MMA closing down after one show.
It’s hard to see where this would do any better. Ortiz vs. Liddell was the third meeting in a grudge series so big it later became the subject of an ESPN 30 for 30 series. It was one of the biggest rivalries in MMA history between the two biggest U.S. stars of that era. And while Rodriguez has a name from pro-wrestling, the novelty of a pro-wrestler fighting in MMA isn’t there to that great a degree.
There’s some curiosity when ex-WWE stars take to the cage. Jake Hager and Bobby Lashley have drawn interest crossing over in Bellator. But the only pro wrestlers that have moved pay-per-view numbers in the U.S. in the last decade were Brock Lesnar and the debut of C.M. Punk.