Combate Americas Copa Combate $100,000 tournament positioned as initiative to reach new fans


Campbell McLaren is name familiar to combat sports lifers, and now he’s bringing the ideas that birthed UFC 1 to a new market of mixed martial arts fans.

The co-creator of the UFC, and current Combate Americas’ CEO, McLaren puts an international spin on a throwback approach Saturday night in Cancún, Mexico. Copa Combate is a one-night, eight-man bantamweight tournament with $100,000 at stake for the winner.

“We did what soccer does,” McLaren said. “We treated it like a Copa America: eight countries. We promote the fact that it’s country-by-country rivalry … The first UFC, I marketed as style versus style: boxing versus taekwondo versus sum oversus jiu-jitsu versus karate, because the arts hadn’t been mixed at that point.

“Being retrospective, I realized in some ways that was country versus country, too. At UFC 1, sumo meant Japan, boxing really meant the U.S., jiu-jitsu really meant Brazil, savate really meant the Netherlands and France.”

McLaren admits there’s no coincidence the event was scheduled the day before the 24th anniversary of the first UFC event, given its inspiration. He also said Combate wanted to thread the needle of world soccer’s international break to avoid competition from major Latin American domestic league fixtures.

Copa Combate is set to air live in 21 countries Saturday, primarily across North and Central America. Spanish-language, U.S.-based Telemundo, among them, will air MMA for the first time.

The Hispanic market is an explicit priority for the promotion, which McLaren hopes to inspire with national pride for native talent. There will be participants represening Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain and the United States.

The first fight, the quarterfinal, will be one five-minute round. McLaren says that’s to encourage an aggressive, all-in approach from the start, with less use of a ground game for stalling or other advantages considered more tactical than striking-oriented.

McLaren also makes an analogy comparing college basketball to the NBA. No one would argue against the talent of the latter, but many find the style of the former favorable, given the option – and it has its fair share of talent, too.

“I think the next level of evolution is getting away from the grappling-based, Anglo-Brazilian hegemony,” McLaren said. “It’s time we saw the UFC as a style of MMA. It’s not MMA. It’s a style of MMA.

“What we’re looking at is the realization that the sports world around the globe isn’t fixed in stone, and things are changing. Combate Americas is well positioned to be the No. 2 Hispanic [sport organization] – the Miami Herald said that about us. But I think it could be a super exciting sport for everyone.”

In truth, there’s no mutual exclusivity in enjoying and following multiple MMA promotions. Still, understanding market position and product differentiation is pivotal to not only avoiding unnecessary competition, say against a juggernaut card elsewhere, but also capitalizing on the MMA appetite, whether to serve existing fans or those yet untapped.

“I love the UFC. I have no desire to replicate the UFC,” said McLaren, 61. “Just as in the U.S. now salsa sales outpace ketchup sales, I think a new group of fans – a new group of people – are looking for something a little bit spicier, a little bit different.

“I think we’re finding people who have maybe heard of MMA and want to try a more exciting style.”

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