UFC Founder Campbell McLaren Talks Blood, Controversy & The Evolution Of MMA

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!

Is it true that Conan The Barbarian director John Milius came up with the idea for The Octagon?

Oh, absolutely. All the movie tough guys knew of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Hollywood. John was in that camp, and I think he trained with the Gracies for a little while. I came out on a trip 20 years ago and met with John, met with Arnold Schwarzenegger, met with Jean-Claude Van Damme, you know, we did kind of a, “Let’s round up the Hollywood tough guy” strategy session. Arnold said [does Arnie impression], “Yah, that’s a good ideah, you should do that right away. I can’t do that, I’m a moovie star for families now, but that’s a great ideah.” You know, he really said that. He was going, “Yah, now! What are you doing heah now? You should be doing this now.” So he was very encouraging. And Jean-Claude Van Damme goes, “You’re gonna scare a lot of the paper tigers in the martial arts world.” You know, all the guys that sell styles of fighting that no one can really use. Van Damme was very cool. Chuck Norris, not so cool; he was badmouthing it. He didn’t want to be involved, he thought it was bad for the martial arts. How is it bad for the martial arts to find out if your hokey “woona woona woona” style actually works or not? How is that bad? The UFC, one of the things it did that I’m fairly proud of, it really changed the martial arts. You know, it made them more what Bruce Lee had always talked about – less nonsense and more reality. But not everybody likes reality. 

So what exactly was Milius’ contribution?

We talked about where to put a no-rules fight with all these different types of fighters, and I was sort of thinking a sumo ring, which is just the floor, or maybe a boxing ring. And Milius said, “No, you should fight in an octagon, the way Conan fought in a stone octagon in Conan The Barbarian.” It was totally John’s idea. It’s one of those things where you go, “Octagon? That sounds cool.” Like, a hexagon does not sound cool. But you hear “octagon” and it was really fermenting in my mind. “There are no rules,” “the Octagon,” it all sounded like a trailer for a movie. God bless John, he wrote Dirty Harry, he wrote the line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” from Apocalypse Now. You can’t argue with that guy. Well, mostly – he also said, “You should put Greek columns around it.” And I was going, “No, we’re not putting Greek columns around it.” To myself I said that, because that’s corny, you know, “Witness the spectacle of Rome.” We wanted an urban edge. I really was thinking about razor wire on top, but everybody said no, that’s too much, even for you. We considered Plexiglas walls, but realized that if one guy took another guy and slammed him into that, that would hurt. We were gonna do mesh, like nylon pantyhose mesh, but that didn’t seem practical. So the set designer, Jason Cusson, made it a workable design. But really, straight up, John Milius said “the octagon.”

One of the many early moves you made was bringing Joe Rogan into the company. Is it hard to picture the UFC without him?

It’s impossible. Rogan is perfect. I mean Rogan is literally perfect. In sports broadcasting, a good way to do it is to take a former athlete that can talk and put them in the role. But Joe was a professional talker – he was a comedian, very fast on his feet. And he’d had a couple pro-kickboxing matches, he’d started doing the jiu-jitsu, so he could talk, he was funny, he was good on his feet, he was big, he could play the part – he brought an energy and a passion to it that I say other people may equal, but no one surpasses it. Joe is a great, great face for the UFC. Jeff Blatnick, the former Olympic gold medalist, he was brought in for a different reason; he was brought in to make UFC more acceptable, to make it more reasonable and dignified, if you will. Rogan was brought in to pump it up, and he did and he still does. Joe is no less enthusiastic now then he was when I brought him in.

Another staple that’s been around ever since UFC 2 is “Big” John McCarthy. Where did you find him?

He was an acolyte of the Gracies – he was working as Royce’s sparring partner for UFC1. I love John McCarthy – total respect. You have to be respectful because, number one, he is big. It’s not an ironic nickname, it’s an actual description. He’s former LAPD, and everyone knows you shouldn’t argue with cops, particularly LAPD. This is what I say about Big John: In the old days of boxing, the 19th century, it was socially very unacceptable, so they brought in Wyatt Earp, the famous law man, to referee, to clean it up. And I said to Big John, “You’re Wyatt Earp. You were brought in to put rules to a no-rules fight. You are the voice of reason and you’re there to ensure the safety of the fighters, and that’s a key role.” So John was always in a position where he had to answer for stuff I said – he had to cash the checks my mouth was writing. But we really are good friends.

What was the decision-making process that saw you stepping back after UFC 23?

Well, again, things tend to be a process rather than overnight changes, I think in life. The political environment had gotten really hot and S.E.G [Semaphore Entertainment Group] was very uncomfortable with me continuing to be the spokesperson, because it’s very hard to go, “There are no rules! There are rules! Banned in 29 states! Legal most places.” It’s a hard switch, so it made sense for me to pull back. That’s what really propelled it – I was kind of a lightning rod. The New York Times did that interview, “Death is Cheap: Maybe It’s Just $14.95,” which Richard Sandomir did. Sandomir is a bit of a prig – he’s giving me a hard time about the violence and its effect on society, and I said to him very early on that I think the problem in America is gun violence. I said, “Have you ever heard of a drive-by kicking?” I thought that was a very funny line. He said, “You’re not funny.” But when I pulled back, there was no creative force left – it was still powerful men fighting each other, but there was no pizzazz. If you’re not the wild, crazy spectacle, and you’re not a world-class sporting event yet, then what are you? When Dana [White] and Lorenzo [Fertitta] took over, they did an amazing job in that they made it a world-class sport. It’s unbelievable that they built that, that they were able to put creativity and energy back into something that really had become kinda stale. I think doing Ultimate Fighter was absolutely brilliant. I think the way they built up the live shows was fun. I said to Dana, it’s as if you give your child up for adoption and it gets adopted by a good family and then becomes president. That’s how I feel about the UFC; I see the billboards in Times Square and I go, “I created that.” So I’m very proud.

From the way you talk about it, it sounds like you enjoyed the spectacle of the old-style UFC more than the sport that it’s become.

Well, yes and no. I admired the skill and the heart of the guys, too. But you must have spectacle to be successful. What happened was that Dana turned it into a world-class sporting event, where I was doing a circus. I had clowns and I had giraffes. But we all need a spectacle, right? The Indianapolis 500 is a spectacle. The Super Bowl is a spectacle. You need to have the spectacle to be successful.

Where do you see the future of UFC?

I think MMA’s going to be bigger than boxing. I think it’s going to be more mainstream – if it became an Olympic sport, I think that would make it mainstream on a world level. I think that’s probably the next big step and Dana and Lorenzo are working pretty hard to do that. This is an analogy I gave Dana: Boston banned baseball in 1790 because it was breaking too many windows. After the Civil War, a guy called Abner Doubleday was charged by Congress to make baseball into a real sport, codify the rules, make it something that can become the national pastime. So Abner Doubleday codifies it, turns it into the sport you would recognize: nine players, three outs, four balls – the whole thing. So it becomes a real sport. So I said to Dana, “Dana, you’re Abner Doubleday. You turned this into a real sport. You really did, and it will last a long time. But if you’re Abner Doubleday, I’m the guy in Boston that was breaking the windows in 1790.” There wouldn’t be Abner if somebody wasn’t breaking those windows! That’s not to take away from what Dana did, and I don’t want to. It’s amazing what he did. But if I hadn’t gone out there and launched this with “there are no rules” and “banned in 49 states” and guaranteed people that they were gonna see TV like they’d never seen before, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point today.