As approaching 20th anniversary proves, UFC's early wild marketing efforts paid off

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

Campbell McLaren was looking to pick a fight. He'd created every over-the-top marketing slogan he could think of and brought in every ire-inducing visual element he could in an effort to lure a famous American into a tirade against the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

It was 1993 and plans were in the works for the first UFC card, a pay-per-view event that didn't fit into the domain of any sport at the time, exactly.

In order to get newspaper writers of the day to help publicize this new venture, which would debut Nov. 12, 1993, McLaren understood that the marketing had to be over the top.

And so, came such marketing slogans as "Two men enter. One man leaves," "Banned in 49 states," and "There are no rules," none of which was true.

McLaren, one of the original UFC employees, wanted a fight, and eventually, he got one. But McLaren was hoping for, say, the Rev. Jerry Falwell but instead he got Sen. John McCain.

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And so, just as he was trying to build the UFC into a viable business venture, he nearly killed it.

"I was hoping to lure Jerry Falwell to come after us, and I could have taken Jerry Falwell," McLaren said. "But Sen. John McCain? Oh, boy. War hero, POW, member of some of the Senate's most powerful committees. That's not exactly who I wanted. That was too tough a fight."

McLaren had done such a magnificent job positioning the early UFC as a dangerous, anti-establishment, over-the-top, anything-goes orgy of excess that McCain was compelled to attempt to stop it.

A longtime boxing fan, McCain famously would refer to the early UFC cards as "human cockfighting" and led an effort to have it banned from cable television, nearly killing it.

"It's not like Sen. John McCain said anything that wasn't true back then," UFC president Dana White said.

Things have changed so dramatically for the UFC as it approaches its 20th anniversary that McCain appeared in a new documentary, "Fighting for a Generation," that chronicles the sport's history.

In those early days, when there was no such thing as MMA in the public lexicon, McLaren figured he had to be outrageous to attract attention. The only way to sell a product is to first make sure the public knows that you have something for sale.

Art Davie and Rorion Gracie had come up with the concept of matching fighters representing various fighting styles against each other, and Davie reached out to McLaren to help make it a spectacle worthy of pay-per-view television.

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McLaren set about finding ways to make it appear as outrageous as possible, even though he knew it wasn't all that bad.

The fights were staged in an octagon-shaped area because of a suggestion from "Conan the Barbarian" director John Milius. Conan had fought in a stone octagon in the movie, and Milius thought it wise to have the bouts in an octagon.

McLaren agreed, though he wanted to put razor wire on the top, in an attempt to make it even more outrageous. That idea was scuttled.

"I was thinking we should put razor wire, not regular barbed wire because that's old-fashioned, around the top of the cage," he said. "We were trying to figure what would contain this, and I suggested maybe Plexiglas, but Rorion said they'd slam into it. And so the cage itself became the visual metaphor.

"We were coming out of an era in the '80s and early '90s of glam rock, hair bands, stuff that was kind of way out there. The '90s were reality, genuine, authentic, the beginning of extreme sports, the beginning of reality TV. And so, I wanted something that was visually a knockout and would be perceived as very, very different."

McLaren was more successful than he could imagine at raising ire.

As he was pitching UFC 2, he was interviewed by the respected television sportswriter, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times. Sandomir led his story with a quote from McLaren: "I don't want anyone to die. It may be good for the buy rate. But I don't want anyone to die."

McLaren pitched the UFC as so violent, so outrageous that it was obvious Sandomir was repulsed. Sandomir referred to UFC 2 as "a no-rules war among martial artists that could conclude in rigor mortis."

Later, he wrote, "The Ultimate Fighting Championship pits 16 martial arts experts in areas from jujitsu and kung fu to wing chun and pentcak silat in a one-night tournament without rules, gloves, rounds, break or timeouts, where punches, kicks, elbows, and chokes are encouraged, and winners are decided by surrender, a doctor's diagnosis or death."

Most promoters would have been outraged by such a story, particularly one in a powerful newspaper such as The New York Times. McLaren, though, was tickled. It was advertising he could not buy at any price.

He was successfully, and quickly, developing an outrageous reputation for a venture that had plenty of mainstream roots. The perception he wanted of a renegade event where anything might happen had been created.

"Our offices were at 57th and Park in New York," McLaren said. "John Milius, who wrote 'Conan the Barbarian,' 'Apocalypse Now,' and 'Dirty Harry,' was one of the consultants. Arnold Schwarzenegger had egged me on to do this.

"The first foreign rights were handled by ESPN. Every major cable company was carrying this. We were in McNichols Arena, a huge rock and roll venue in Denver. This was hardly an underground, guerilla thing. My marketing was over the top, without a doubt, but we'd built this to be big, and a spectacle, and something that would knock people's socks off."

By UFC 5, McCain and his allies were driving up the political pressure, and Semaphore Entertainment Group, the UFC's original owner, was making a lot of lawyers rich defending it.

McLaren said SEG was spending so much on lawyers that he jokingly suggested marketing the UFC by saying, "Banned by the AMA, but endorsed by the American Bar Association."

As the UFC evolved and it was becoming a legitimate sport, the over-the-top marketing never slowed. It was the only way to keep it in the news and get attention.

"If I hadn't done that, we wouldn't be getting ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary," McLaren said. "The UFC back then had no marketing budget. Even at that time, there was a lot of stuff on and a lot of choices for people to get their entertainment. If I had not gone to that extent, and hadn't done the New York Times piece [with Sandomir], 'Death is Cheap: Maybe It's Just $14.95,' I don't think we'd have gotten off the ground."

But it not only got off the ground, it developed into a multi-billion dollar international business available on television in 145 countries.

McLaren was an SEG employee, and never owned the UFC himself. The sport’s history might have been different had he had an ownership interest. But with all the political pressure being applied, McLaren finally felt it wise to get out in 1997.

"I’ll tell you, if I had owned the UFC, I don’t think I would have sold it," he said. "I would have hibernated it [while trying to resolve its issues]. I would have done it very differently. I was getting a lot of pressure internally to step away from the UFC. By UFC 12 [in 1997], it was looking like a good idea for me to step away and stop talking."

Two of the reasons for the UFC's current success trace directly to McLaren: broadcaster Joe Rogan and matchmaker Joe Silva. McLaren hired both of them.

After UFC 1, McLaren received a thick envelope in the mail from Silva. On it were numerous pages of hand-written notes on yellow legal pads containing Silva's thoughts about how to transform UFC 1 into a real sport and a sustainable business.

McLaren hired Silva for UFC 2, and Silva is now one of the company's most vital employees.

McLaren remains a big UFC fan, and will be at UFC 167 in Las Vegas next week.

Watching what White and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta have done with his baby has been heartening to McLaren, who still feels a great kinship with the company.

"I loved the UFC back in the early days and I love it now," he said. "I love seeing the billboards in Times Square. I love that. I told Dana, 'You know, Dana, I feel like I had a child, gave it up for adoption and the new family raised it and the kid became the President.' "

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