It’s been years and years since UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren has worked with the top MMA promotion but he insists that he still loves the product and respects its current owners and executives. That said, McLaren drew from the boxing world for inspiration and strategy with his latest project, Combate Americas – an MMA fighting reality show on new bilingual cable network Mun2.
“I love the UFC and they do it better than anyone else,” McLaren says.
“But I think one of the audiences that they don’t necessarily cater to are Latinos. [Boxing promoter] Bob Arum said in an interview that he believed Hispanic fight fans are what saved boxing and kept it alive. I think that’s true. It can be argued that, broadly speaking, Hispanics are the most enthusiastic and loyal fight fans. But no one had a product geared specifically for them in MMA.”
So, McLaren began crafting Combate Americas, with the intention of creating the most Latino-friendly MMA product in the world. After years of research, development and casting, the show was finally taped and aired on the Spanish/English bilingual Mun2 network.
So far, five episodes have aired in the Sunday, 10 pm EST time slot and McLaren has been pleased with its success thus far. Fans familiar with reality TV shows like The Ultimate Fighter [TUF] may be able to seamlessly begin watching Combate Americas but there are also some major differences between the two shows.
On TUF, fighters usually fight one another on each episode in order to get closer to a Finale match up where they can earn a UFC contract. On the Combate Americas reality show, the fighters are also vying to earn a contract with what McLaren says will become a full-fledged MMA promotion this year with live events held.
However, fighters will not actually fight until episodes 9 & 10 of the Combate Americas season. Until then, they train one another in the gym, live in a Miami area house (they are not restricted communication access with the outside world in the way TUF cast members are) and compete in the types of gimmicky athletic challenges – see, American Gladiatorsesque pedestal jousting - that were prevalent on season one of TUF, in order to earn points. McLaren says that the decision to not have the fighters fight one another until late in the season was a carefully-made one.
“That was a hard choice but I believe the right one,” he says.
“The thing with this cast is, we’ve got some excellent fighters but almost all of them are unknown outside of their areas. I don’t believe people care about fights unless they care about the fighters themselves. So, we decided to focus on these guys’ stories so that viewers get invested in them. Then, by the time they fight, they actually care and are rooting for someone.”
It may be a risky prospect to have a fighting show where fighters don’t fight that often, but Combate Americas has successfully put forward interesting personalities with engaging back-stories. There are fighters with young children at home, there are fighters who are training through injuries, there’s the Youtube fight video sensation, "Level", trying to make it in legit MMA.
The fighting competition reality television genre is not new to McLaren. Neither is the goal of attracting ethnic minority audiences to MMA.
McLaren was the executive producer of The Iron Ring, which aired on the BET network years ago. As is the case with Combate Americas, The Iron Ring did an excellent job of scouting good fighters.
Top fighters like Bellator’s Brian Rodgers and the UFC’s Marcus Brimmage first passed through The Iron Ring. The Iron Ring put good fighters in good fights but often veered into silliness, in large part because of the hip hop celebrity “owners” who knew absolutely nothing about MMA.
With Combate Americas, McLaren is still betting heavily on celebrity cast members and guests, but still insists that he learned from The Iron Ring’s mistakes.
“We have lots of celebrities on Combate Americas (like recording artists Chino & Nacho and Daddy Yankee) but what I learned from Combate Americas was to not position celebrities as experts. We have well-known celebrities on Combate Americas but they are all there because they are interested in and want to learn about MMA. So, they have respect and genuinely want to learn," he explains.
Combate Americas first season of celebrity guests does include some real fight experts, however, like original UFC champion Royce Gracie, who appears on Sunday’s episode. In instances like tonight’s episode with Gracie, viewers get a real sense of what Combate Americas and Mun2 mean by bilingual.
Most of the Combate Americas show happens in Spanish. However, there are always subtitles in English.
When English is spoken on screen, the subtitles become Spanish. All the fighters speak at least Spanish. Royce Gracie, however, doesn’t speak Spanish.
So, the fighting legend speaks to the fighters in English and his words are subtitled. McLaren believes that this open and engaging approach is timely in today’s Latino-American audience marketplace.
Many young Latinos identify with the cultures of their ancestors, whether or not they also possess completely fluent Spanish skills. “It really is about being bi-cultural, not just bilingual,” McLaren maintains.
Combate Americas’ approach of combining good scouting with good stories is proving worth watching thus far this season, but it would all still feel hollow if the fighters weren’t competing for real reward. To that end, McLaren promises that Combate Americas will soon be a full-fledged MMA promotion, with live events that will hopefully be televised.
“We are talking with multiple networks about televising the fights,” he says.
Combate Americas plans to hold three live events in 2014. One will be where the show was taped, Miami, another will take place in Chicago and the third will be held in either San Antonio or San Jose.
“These guys are fighting for a real contract with a real, bonafide MMA organization,” McLaren emphasizes.
“It is a chance of a lifetime for them and you will see it in the way they fight.”