Campbell McLaren: The Scottish co-creator of the UFC

Campbell McLaren: The Scottish co-creator of the UFC

Campbell McLaren: The Scottish co-creator of the UFC

Think of Mixed Martial Arts, or more specifically the main organisation of the sport, the UFC, and plenty of names spring to mind.

Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Georges St-Pierre, Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta and Jon Jones are among the fighters, managers, and promoters famous for taking cage fighting mainstream.

But there’s a true pioneers name you might not have heard of, and it’s a name about as Scottish as they come.

Campbell McLaren might be the only Scot in recent times bar George Galloway to incur the wrath of the United States Senate.

McLaren’s early intervention in the fledging concept of mixed martial-arts helped take it from boxing’s unrefined cousin to a multi-billion bound industry.

From the RAF to the UFC

These days, the sport’s big names like Conor McGregor will train all aspects of the sport, but in the early 1990s, it was all about having a strict single discipline.

The idea was that hypothetical arguments about which combat discipline was better could finally be settled. Could a small jiu-jitsu black belt beat a hulking heavyweight boxer? Was Karate more effective than collegiate wrestling? McLaren helped us find out.

McLaren was born in Cowie, a small town in Stirlingshire, and moved to America as a child after his RAF pilot father decided to emigrate.

After studying in California, McLaren worked for SEG, a cable television company. He has admitted in countless interviews that the video game ‘Mortal Kombat’ first enthused him towards a tournament of fighters.

No rules – or are there?

Now 60, McLaren’s most (in)famous contribution in those early days of the UFC was the marketing slogan ‘There are no rules’.

Typically of the ebullient style of a prizefighting hype man, there were rules, though they were few and far between.

Biting, fish-hooks, and eye gouging were banned for the first event in 1993, though groin strikes were later outlawed, and the unified rules of mixed martial arts brought a boxing style rule book for later events.

Action from UFC 1, November 1993. (Photo by Holly Stein/Getty Images)

Action from UFC 1, November 1993. (Photo by Holly Stein/Getty Images)

The son of a Presbyterian Church Administrator, it was perhaps his Scottish experience of Calvinistic dissaproval that led McLaren to court controversy.

He told Maxim in 2013 that he anticipated, and even desired, for a religious leader to condemn those early tournaments, boosting pay-per-view sales.

He didn’t expect Senator John McCain, one of the best known names in American politics, to seek to outlaw what he called ‘human cockfighting’.

Like many famous British émigrés, such as Piers Morgan and John Oliver, McLaren found a certain irony in his form of violence being condemned, while America continues to resist gun control measures that kill thousands.

As McLaren asked a critical New York Times profiler: “Who ever heard of a drive-by kicking?”

Later struggles

The promise of violence might seem a little uncouth, but McLaren is unrepentant, insisting that as a one man PR operation, he needed controversy to survive.

“The early marketing budget wouldn’t come close to what the current owners spend on lunch,” McLaren told Forbes last year.

But it wasn’t all a success. Despite new rules being introduced, by the late 1990s the UFC and it’s parent company were struggling on the verge of collapse.

For all his bonhomie and dedication, McLaren simply didn’t have the connections to move the company into acceptance.

He made decisions that still impact today, such as hiring famous referee John McCarthy and colour commentator Joe Rogan, but by the year 2000 a reluctant sale was agreed.

A powerful legacy

The importance of this connections is something McLaren has reflected on ruefully since he sold to Zuffa for $2m, noting that new owners the Fertitta brothers had ties in Las Vegas that made sanctioning in the fight capital of the world a breeze.

Dana White, who effectively replaced McLaren, was able to persuade a certain Donald Trump to host an event in his casino.

When Zuffa decided to sell last year, McLaren fronted a near $3bn bid to retake control, losing out to entertainment and talent behemoth WME-IMG.

He told the Sunday Mail at the time he was gutted to lose out, but has no regrets about his involvement even as he launches is own insurgent MMA organisation to tap into the Hispanic market, Combate Americas.

So as the UFC grows, and fans bemoan that Ireland has a star in Conor McGregor while Scotland lags behind, don’t forget our part in history.

The success of the UFC and mixed martial-arts would be nothing without the boy from Stirlingshire.

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