As someone that’s been involved in television for decades now, former UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren returned to the entertainment world yet again. This time, his prized project is Combate Americas, an organization that has been on Fight Pass and NBC Universo after starting as a reality series much like the UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter.
With their tenth event scheduled to take place this Thursday on their maiden voyage to Mexico, McLaren was gracious enough to discuss the direction Combate Americas is heading in, new distribution deals, talent scouting, and further international aims.
(Note: This interview was condensed and edited for brevity and clarity)
Victor Rodriguez: So, tell me about how Combate is doing currently and what led to putting on this event in Mexico.
Campbell McLaren: We’ve been on for about three months in Mexico on channel 7, which is owned by TV Azteca and it’s free TV. It has a huuuge free TV audience. So we’re doing great ratings there, almost three million people watching us at 11:00pm on our rerun shows.
So what we’re finding, what we want to achieve with Mexico is two things. One, we think is that it’s an untapped market and the UFC has gotten nowhere near it. I think they could give a shit about Mexico, they don’t care about Mexico, they don’t care about Mexican fighters. The UFC has a global view where the entire world is a feeder system for the UFC and if they’re in Greece it’s Greek, you know? If they’re in Mexico it’s Mexico. So in some ways they’ve done what America has done with immigrants, they just swallow everybody. We really do it differently – we celebrate the differences in each country. We think there’s stylistic fighting differences in each country and we think there’s different histories to combat sports in each country.
So, you know, what we’ve done is not gone down to Mexico and try to impose Combate Americas on Mexico. We’ve gone down to Mexico and said “be part of Combate Americas”. So we really have emphasized local fighters, the local fight scene. We have a number of Mexican-American fighters already and a handful of Mexican fighters. But by doing this we’ve now opened up in terms of our signing […] 20%, 25% of our fighters are now signed in Mexico. That’s a big difference. For us, launching there and doing a live show from Mexico City… I think the UFC’s done three shows? Right? They’ve been around 23 years? We’re doing our first one, we’ve been around three years, so we’re going to catch up with them pretty soon. We’re looking at doing as many as ten shows in Mexico this year, maybe 12. So for us, Mexico does two things: It’s a market that’s untapped, great fighting tradition, right? Boxing is Mexico’s martial art. So we acknowledge that, it’s great. So we’re going to Mexico because it’s a great place to be.
It also points to everybody in the U.S. – and we’re a U.S.-based operation – that we know what Mexico means to the U.S. You know, there’s a state in the U.S. called New Mexico. Mexico is part and parcel of this culture. Partially because there’s what, 50 million Mexican-Americans? We’re in Mexico to an extent to honor the great connection between our two countries.
VR: So how important would you say this first event in Mexico is? Would you consider it a pivot point for the company?
CM: Yeah, it's not a pivot point. It's something we've been working towards for a long time. We've been working on this deal for over a year with the TV Azteca group and so we're in business with them in the U.S. with Azteca America. I'm partnered with Elisa Salinas, whose father Hugo and uncle Ricardo started TV Azteca. So I'm partnered directly with the Salinas family and I think that's going to make a big difference.
It's not a pivot point - all journeys begin with a single step, so this is our first step in Mexico. But again, signing a lot of fighters down there, being on TV already with the reruns for three months and doing nearly 3 million people a week watching, and just having a different philosophy than the UFC. You know, the UFC is a super-established brand. And even thought their value in Mexico is nothing like it is in the US they go in with the attitude that this is huge, they command huge licensing fees - good for them, by the way. Fantastic. Make as much money as you can. However, they’re on satellite down there, which is a lot like premium cable in the U.S. and a lot of people can’t afford it. I think there’s only 11% of the country has satellite? And everybody else has - they call it free TV - I don’t know how old you are, my friend, but there used to be a thing called a TV antenna. What I remember is as a kid my job was to stand there and hold it and move it around until my dad could see better, get better reception. They still have that in Mexico. So we decided to do that.
We’re here to be a part of the culture of Mexican combat sports. We’re not going to go in there and say “here’s what you fucking do“. We’re saying “what can you add to this mix?“ It’s much more of a grassroots approach.
So obviously our first live event there is very cool. It lets us bring in people and present new Mexican fighters and give them a new opportunity and... we should check, we’re about to announce the ESPN deal that’s going out today (note: that announcement has not been made official as of yet), it’s going to be live in every country in North and South America and I don’t think anyone’s done that before.
I just think it’s awesome, and you know... as the creator of the UFC, I do think of the UFC as sort of mine. Do I own any of it? No. Did I get any of the $4.3 billion? No. Did I offer Lorenzo 2.8 billion to buy it, which I thought was a lot? No. So, I love the UFC, but I’m delighted when we can beat them to stuff. We produced the first UFC in New York. I produced the first MMA event in New York after the laws changed (note: this was the Empire Rising event in October of 2016). And being the first live MMA event in every country in North and South America on free TV - not on the internet - free TV and on Fight Pass? I just think that’s awesome!
VR: Well, I’d have to ask if this would affect at all the Fight Pass agreement that you have with the UFC?
CM: Oh no, we love the Fight Pass agreement. It’s great. It lets non-Spanish speaking fans, because the rest of the broadcasts will be in Spanish, watch our English broadcast. We’re going to do kind of two separate shows for English and Spanish. It’s not just a translation. It’s not just separate audio. We have very different announcers. Gil (Gilbert Melendez) doing the English language commentary here. You know, we’ve had Julianna Pena as a regular commentator. For Fight Pass we like to bring in a UFC star and have them do that with us, so I think that’s very cool. Alberto Del Rio being totally bilingual is able to be a guest on both the English and the Spanish commentary side.
VR: Moving on from there, then - how regularly will you be having events staged?
CM: Is this the part I’m not supposed to talk about? (laughs) I should get my attorney on, too! We are going to do monthly events. February 16th in L.A. at the Burbank Convention Center is our next event. We are trying very hard and hope to conclude a new deal where we go to weekly. Nobody is doing weekly events, I think we could pull it off. We did back to back Mondays last April and it was very well-received. We just need to have the right venue and partners in place. So we’re looking to do - our Fight Pass deal I believe is ten, minimum, ten shows with Fight Pass this year. We’re definitely going to do monthly unless we switch to more frequently.
I would say we’re looking at a minimum of ten events from Combate Americas this year, maybe as many as thirty. But definitely ten.
VR: You’ve already mentioned the next event taking place in February. Is Kyra Batara going to be on that card?
CM: We’ve really done a lot of work to beef up our 105 women’s division. I think with some of the new signings that the team has made, I think the best 105ers in the world. That’s a bold statement, but not a lot of organizations emphasize 105. We think it’s one of the most exciting ones for women. It’s very fast and crazy, and we have a lot of great athletes with Kyra Batara, Nicdali Rivera-Calanoc who is fighting this Thursday in Mexico City... I tell you, the two of them, it looks like Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate a few years ago. They have very different personalities and don’t like each other so much. I’d like to see a rematch there. A lot of girls have turned down Kyra and won’t fight her. If Kyra wins, you know, we’re gonna crown her champ. It’s not a title fight but people are dodging the fight and she’s beating everyone so I’m just gonna make her the champ. This year, we’re going to have the best 105ers in the world for Combate, and our goal on the men’s side is to do that with the 135ers. And that’s a big statement. I know who’s fighting in the UFC on the 135 side, but I’ll tell you - the new young talent for 135, it’s just awesome. It’s just great.
You know, I have long called Bellator the retirement home for the UFC. And this next event proves I’m right, right?. Tito is headlining the show! Tito was fighting for me 23 years ago when I was running the UFC! So it is the retirement home for the UFC, and that’s great. Let them do good ratings. The old guys need work, too. The UFC has maybe world-class athletes that have competed at a peak level for quite a while. I think what Combate’s point of difference is the most exciting new fighters.
VR: I started off in that question asking specifically about Kyra Batara because you have in her a competitor...
CM: She’s 22. She’s just 22! She’s a baby.
VR: She runs a solid pace as a fighter, great grappling base and she’s the fighter that ended up representing Combate in RIZIN. The notion of having not only a young fighter but having a woman in some way as the de facto face of the organization, was this by design or something that just happened organically?
CM: We took advantage of the opportunity. I didn’t necessarily set out to make the 105 women’s division the first and foremost representative of it. But I think honestly, that she kicked ass in her division and her spirit, her training, her dedication equals anyone in the sport. I’m not the only one to say that. I think Kyra is on a very elite level and her training is unbeaten in the sport. There’s no one training harder, smarter or more dedicated than Kyra - in the world.
In terms of her spirit - we did the New York event, October 24th... who was there? Paulina was there, Paulina Granados who is a great competitor and just won, Jenna Serio, you know, a bunch of the 105ers were there. They all started challenging Kyra saying “we can beat you“, and Kyra turns to them and gives them as cold a look as I have ever seen. Don’t forget, I’ve worked with the Gracies, Tank Abbott, I worked with some killers back then. She turned to her competitors and said “I will fight all of you right now...“ And I was like “she’s not fucking around, she actually means that.” I wasn’t selling tickets to that and I didn’t have it on TV, but Kyra would have fought all of them 1 on 1 in the back of the room. When you find that you go with it, because she’s the sweetest, nicest, most positive young woman. But when she gets in La Jaula (the cage) she’s very different. She’s an assassin. She doesn’t play.
Look at the situation she went into in RIZIN. She fought up a (weight) class, went up to 115. I think her opponent (wrestling champion Kanako Murata) went into that fight at 125-128lbs. Kyra walks around fairly close to 105. She was outweighed and faced a high-level wrestler. It went to a decision, she hung in there the whole time, she put up with very unfair officiating, it was just super impressive. Kyra’s awesome and I was lucky enough to find her at the right time.
VR: You touched on the idea of her being a champion in the near future. Any idea as to what the rest of the title picture will look like for other divisions.
CM: I want to take my time and figure this out. I want it to be meaningful. There’s such a proliferation of belts in boxing. I want it to be meaningful when we give a fighter a belt. How we’ll get there? Not sure yet, but I want people to go “oh, yeah“. Doing a tournament is certainly attractive to me.
VR: You’ve discussed how you’re putting a big emphasis on Mexico and Mexican fighters, but are there plans after this event to stage an event in any other Latin American country. For example: places where there’s a burgeoning MMA scene like Peru or Colombia, anything along those lines?
CM: This year, a big maybe. I think probably new. We’re still very new. We’re growing very quickly. We did the reality series and in that year we only did one event. Then the next year we had two. Then last year we did five events. Mexico is our southern neighbor, but it’s still a foreign country and there’s a lot of logistical factors in dealing with the different commissions, transportation, etc. I’m not sure if we’re really ready and it’s a positive thing to do Colombia this year, but we’re definitely thinking about Colombia. We’ve had a number of scouts connected to Peru and Colombia and it’s clear Peru really has a growing scene. We have great connections in Colombia, I don’t know if we get there this year. I’d like to. I’d like to do Peru and Colombia in 2018.
I’m also thinking about Spain. We don’t hear a lot about the southern European scene. You hear a lot about Amsterdam because they have a great kickboxing tradition and the fighters coming out of eastern Europe, former Soviet Union countries. Germany has a huge boxing tradition that we know about, but we obviously haven’t seen much out of Portugal, Spain, Sicily, and we’re finding a pretty active scene in Spain. We may try something in Spain as well.
Combate 10 takes place this Thursday, January 19th and will be streamed live on UFC Fight Pass. The card will be headlined by Steve Swanson vs Gustavo Lopez.