The UFC mastermind remembers the days when the only rule was, there were no rules.
Before MMA, before Dana White, before Joe Rogan, even before Big John McCarthy, some bright spark had the idea to pit two fighters of different disciplines against each other inside an octagon, and see which style reigned supreme: That contest would be called Ultimate Fighting Championship. As the owner of the UFC from the first event up until UFC 23, Campbell McLaren – businessman, entrepreneur, and circus ringmaster extraordinaire – has a unique insight into the evolution of the sport of mixed martial arts. With the UFC’s 20th anniversary on the horizon, read on for a tale of bloodshed, John McCain, and the surprising influence of Conan The Barbarian.
By the time you were approached with the idea for a tournament featuring different martial arts disciplines facing off against each other – “War Of The Worlds,” as it was then pitched - a lot of other producers had turned it down. What made you say yes?
It was so apparent to me that it was a great idea! I was flabbergasted that anyone had turned it down. What caught my attention was when [business executive] Art Davie pitched it to me and said that Royce Gracie would fight anyone on Earth; I thought that was interesting. It reminded me of this video game that was very popular then called Mortal Kombat. I wasn’t deeply knowledgeable about the martial arts. I said, “Could we have, like, a sumo guy versus a boxer?” He goes, “Yeah, no, it’ll be anyone.” And in my mind I quickly saw the visual-ness, that’s what caught my attention, that this would look like nothing else anyone had ever seen. Just the idea of the spectacle. Art Davie reminds me a little bit of Joe Pesci in the Lethal Weapon movies; Art’s pitch to me was, “Aye! Everybody else has turned this down. Showtime turned it down, HBO turned it down. You’re my last chance.” So, you know, that’s not exactly a compelling pitch. But his genuineness and his enthusiasm was infectious.
Originally the contest was focused around one martial art versus another. Do you think that it should have remained that way, rather than evolving into MMA?
It’s not want or not want, or like or dislike. It had to go that way. The beginning of UFC was martial art versus martial art, but by the end of it you saw very clearly that Royce was gonna beat everyone on the planet, and we had to figure something out. We didn’t have a strong idea of what it would become, but Karate versus Tae Kwon Do was shown pretty quickly to be silly. UFC has become a style of fighting. See, I don’t really say “MMA” so much, because I’m not really as big a fan of anything but the UFC, and I think the UFC has created this style where you’ve got to have ground skills, you’ve got to be able to kick effectively, you’ve got to be able to punch, on the ground and standing up. Bruce Lee famously said, “Take what works and throw the rest out the window.” He also said, “Style is what leaves when the real fight begins.” So it was always going to go like this - it had to go like this, and now it’s the preeminent style of fighting. It’s natural selection, you know? Otherwise Royce would have beat everyone we found on the planet and after about three or four shows, people would have been a lot less interested.
From those early days where you had, say, kickboxers fighting sumo wrestlers, is there one match that really stands out?
The first fight from the first UFC was the sumo wrestler Teila Tuli [AKA Taylor Wily] versus the savate kickboxer from the Netherlands, Gerard Gordeau, and it was over in 26 seconds. That’s the most amazing fight you’ve ever seen! There is no more amazing fight than that. I come back to this Mortal Kombat image. Gordeau’s wearing the jean pants and he’s got a shaved head - I think he was actually an assassin. I mean, he was the scariest guy I had ever encountered, his eyes were just cold. And Teila was this roly-poly Samoan sumo, and he charges, slapping the top of his bald head, and Gordeau’s backing up, as calm as anything, like he’s out for a walk with a 360 pound man charging him. He kicks Teila’s feet out, and Teila goes boom like a proverbial sack of potatoes. Gordeau kicks out his feet and punches him underneath the eye; it’s the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen. It looked like nothing else I’d ever seen, and that was true for everybody else watching. That fight scared me to death because I thought, we have a three hour block. If they all go like this, it’ll be a nine-minute show!
So you weren’t expecting Tuli to go down so fast?
I was so naïve. I thought the boxer was gonna really hurt Royce, and I thought Teila was going to slam everybody into the chain link fence and smoosh them. So that’s how much I knew! But I knew it was all going to be cool. I’ve always liked the very different fights - I liked when Keith Hackney fought Manny Yarborough in UFC 3, because I’d really taken to sumos, because they looked visual, they’re big. I remember, Keith was underneath Manny as Manny was pummeling him with that giant arm that weighed 180lbs. Keith said it felt like someone was dropping a toolbox on his head. And he said when he kicked Manny’s legs, it was like kicking piano legs. Manny weighed 660lb! When we did the show, he asked me, “Campbell, can you say 600? Because 660 sounds so fat.” I’m like, dude…I think they know you’re eating the sprinkles every time you order the ice cream. But in the end the little guy won, so that’s kind of what I liked. So I’ve always been taken by that David versus Goliath idea.
The UFC’s slogan back then was “There are no rules.” There were actually two rules, right? No biting and no eye-gouging?
Well, “there are no rules” was the marketing slogan, because there were actually a few more. Like there was no fish-hooking - that came up at the first one because everybody said, well, if you can’t bite, then you shouldn’t be allowed to fishhook, because the defense against fish hooking is biting. There were very few rules, but “there are no rules” is a marketing slogan we continued to use. Like the way I said, “banned in 49 states” after we had done it in five - there are 50 states, but nobody ever did that arithmetic. So that would’ve been 54 states. Remember, we had no marketing budget, none, zero. Dana White spends more on lunch now than we spent on marketing. So it all had to be PR and it all had to be on the controversy.
There were a lot of misconceptions about the UFC because of those marketing slogans -
Misconceptions?! You’re being polite, but go ahead.
Did it surprise you when Senator John McCain tried to have it banned?
No. Remember, we were really pushing the envelope. It was a process with John McCain - it wasn’t overnight. I wasn’t surprised somebody was going to attempt to ban us, but I didn’t guess it was going be a man who would eventually run for president! I would’ve chosen a less powerful enemy. He wasn’t on my list of people - I wanted some religious leader, you know, something like that. Someone with less credentials and less credibility. I expected controversy, I went after it, I promoted it, I anticipated it. But I did not expect one of the most powerful politicians in the country, with a war hero’s record, who would eventually run for president, to come out against it. John McCain’s a very worthy foe!
Hit the next page for part two of our exclusive interview!