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How four words from Campbell McLaren shaped the early days of the UFC

UFC co-creator Campbell McLaren at a press conference

UFC co-creator Campbell McLaren at a press conference for UFC 3 in September 1994. Credit: Handout

Without those four words, perhaps there is no 20th anniversary UFC show this Saturday in Las Vegas.

Those four words, although completely inaccurate at the time, caused quite the stir when Campbell McLaren first began using them.

Those four words -- "There are no rules!" -- piqued the curiosity of many a young male viewer and, later, political and civic leaders.

"Are you going to sell pay-per-views going 'Safer than high school football?' " McLaren told Newsday. "That is not a good marketing slogan."

McLaren was an original creator and executive producer on the early Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view shows in the 1990s. The man charged with delivering the idea of Rorion Gracie, Art Davie and Bob Meyrowitz to the masses.

The idea was rather simple -- figuring out which fighting style is the best. Could 170-pound Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie beat up a boxer? A wrestler? A kickboxer?

"The fact that the Gracies would fight anyone impressed me because they weren't big guys," McLaren said. "They kind of looked like models. They didn't look like fighters to me. My idea of a fighter was as a boxer or WWE. Big bulky guys, guys with broken noses. I saw these guys, they don't look like fighters, so that was pretty intriguing. Who are these guys who would fight anyone in the world?"

Royce Gracie was who.

The son of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu patriarch Helio Gracie beat three opponents -- pro boxer Art Jimmerson, wrestler Ken Shamrock and kickboxer Gerard Gordeau -- in the same night to win the first UFC event in 1993. A new sport began to take hold.

"I can still picture the day Royce walked into the Octagon for his first fight," said Renzo Gracie, his cousin and a legendary fighter in his own right. "We all had our hearts in our hands because he was the smallest guy in there and we knew he was fighting tough guys and big guys."

Many current and former UFC fighters point to Royce Gracie and "those first UFCs" as the moment they first became interested in mixed martial arts.

"I was in 7th grade, Royce, Dan Severn going at it, and [Ken] Shamrock and those guys," said Frankie Edgar, a former UFC lightweight champion from New Jersey now competing at feathweight. "I remember watching being like 'Wow.' I wrestled a little bit at the time, so I was into it to see how the wrestlers did. And then I saw jiu-jitsu that no one had ever seen before. I was taken back."

The sport we know today as MMA, the one legal in every state except for New York, is nothing like what was on display at UFC 1 in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993.

That was pure spectacle. Something to put on television to make people spend money to be entertained. It included a jiu-jitsu player, a boxer, three kickboxers, a future pro wrestler, a tae kwon do fighter and a 415-pound sumo wrestler named Telia Tuli who lost several teeth when Gordeau kicked him in the jaw.

McLaren's job at Semaphore Entertainment Group was to find alternative, non-music programming for pay-per-view. SEG and Meyrowitz had previously put on a battle of the sexes tennis match between Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova. McLaren had produced Andrew "Dice" Clay's "No Apologies" pay-per-view and Iron Maiden's "Raising Hell."

"Sometimes, you find stuff just by answering your phone," McLaren said.

Right, like naked Olympics, shark fighting in open waters, extreme demo derby or full-contact stick fighting. Those were some of the pitches McLaren said he received.

Then Davie called.

"This idea that anyone that showed up could fight anyone else that showed up, that was pretty amazing," McLaren said. "But it quickly became obvious that the Gracies had a plan. They knew what they were doing."

There were some rules, though, despite the marketing ploys of "There are no rules" and "No holds barred." But outside of fish hooking and biting, it was pretty much anything goes -- Vale Tudo, as it was known in Brazil.

In producing the early UFC pay-per-views, McLaren was essentially creating an entirely new sport, one now seen regularly in prime time on both major broadcast and cable networks. Quite the impressive feat when you consider UFC was kicked off pay-per-view for a while.

He didn't know that then, though.

"I didnt think it was a sport," McLaren said. "I thought it was a 'something.' "

Watching people beat each other up in a street fight without the street and charging people money to do show seemed ludicrous to many. Sen. John McCain famously called this extreme sport "human cockfighting." More than 20 states banned ultimate fighting in the 1990s.

Now, UFC events are televised in more than 175 countries and in more than 20 languages.

Comparing the sport then -- "there are no rules!" -- to what is has become now -- a fully regulated and sanctioned sport with a universal set of rules and distinct weight classes -- McCain might not have been too far off in his analogy in the mid-1990s.

As the sport evolved in the years since, McCain has changed his stance on the sport. But, decades later, it is still a go-to quote for MMA's detractors.

"Not coming back around and saying, oh by the way, John McCain now supports this and is OK with it, is kind of disingenuous," UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta said.

That's part of the legacy of McLaren's over-the-top promotion and marketing.

Controversy sells, of course. But it also shapes perception.

Even though "There are no rules!" was factually incorrect, it didn't matter. Even though "Banned in 49 states!" was geographically wrong -- McLaren had already produced shows in five different states when he came up with that one -- it formed public opinion.

McLaren recalled an experience in Charlotte, N.C., at UFC 5 in April 1995.

"The chief of police," he said. "The chief of police! Not the sergeant, not the lieutenant, not a captain, the chief of police, he comes up to me and goes, 'If you ever come back here, I'm putting you in jail. I don't know what the charge is, I don't know what the law is that you're breaking. But I guarantee you, you'll be in jail until I figure it out.'

"I love the UFC," McLaren said, "but I'm a TV producer. I'm not Amnesty International fighting dictators. I don't want to go to jail. Those kinds of things were very sobering."

McLaren never did do another UFC show there. It wasn't until Dec. 10, 2008, that the UFC (now owned by the Zuffa company) returned to the state with the first Fight for the Troops event in Fayetteville. UFC then went back to Charlotte on March 31, 2010. Entirely different ownership, marketing, promotion and circumstances a decade later.

One state that hasn't changed its stance on mixed martial arts in the past three decades is New York.

UFC 12, the last one McLaren considers "mine" even though he was on board for the first 20, was scheduled for Feb. 7, 1997, in Buffalo. About 40 hours before the first fight, the UFC was told that New York would not allow the event to take place. (It wasn't until the end of February when Gov. George E. Pataki signed the ban into law.)

McLaren and others had little time to figure things out. "We brought the fighters together and said, 'Guys, it's gonna be a hell of a show,'" McLaren said. "We'll get back to you on exact details."

The event was moved to Dothan, Ala., the "Peanut Capital of the World." Vitor Belfort, who knocked out Dan Henderson last Saturday at UFC Fight Night 32, won the heavyweight tournament that night. Mark Coleman beat Dan Severn to become the UFC's first heavyweight champion.

Sixteen-plus years later, the UFC continues the political battle to overturn the ban. The New York State Senate has passed the bill to legalize mixed martial arts each of the past four years -- by a wider margin each year -- but it stalls in the Assembly each time for reasons that go beyond the actual sport.

But you still hear that McCain quote mentioned in the legislature. Just last March, it came up during the debate on the Senate floor before the vote. The bill passed, 47-14, then stalled in the Assembly.

"The stigma has lessened, but in certain instances, legislators still use it," said Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs. "It did happen, but we really have overcome it in so many ways."

Ratner was the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission for 13 years. He was on McCain's side of the issue then, saying there was no way he could approve a sport without specific rules and guidelines. In 2001, the unified rules of mixed martial arts were drafted and adopted. In 2006, Ratner was hired by the UFC to help get the sport regulated across the country and world.

"Whatever it was in 1993, I really do believe we've overcome that," Ratner said. "I give McLaren and all those guys a lot of credit."

It has been 17 years since McLaren last produced a UFC show. Mixed martial arts is a legitimate sport now, far removed from the "two men enter, one man leaves" mentality. But McLaren made a lasting impact for the positive as well.

He chose the Octagon on the advice of John Milius, who wrote "Apocalypse Now" in 1979 and directed "Conan the Barbarian" in 1982. Conan fought in an eight-sided arena, so why not these guys, too?

"Octagon sounds cool," McLaren said. "A hexagon doesn't sound cool. But an octagon!"

McLaren hired Joe Rogan to do color commentary at UFC 12. Saturday is UFC 167 and Rogan is as much a part of the UFC as the fighters.

At UFC weigh-ins now, they introduce Joe Silva as the best matchmaker in the business. McLaren hired him shortly after the first event.

McLaren never owned a piece of the UFC. He was just one of the first -- and influential -- employees when UFC was owned by SEG. McLaren left the company in 1997. It wasn't until 2001 when Meyrowitz sold the UFC to Dana White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta for $2 million. Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise. UFC pay-per-views cost between $45 and $55 now, depending on HD or standard defintion. UFC 1 cost $19.95. It did more than 80,000 buys, a good number in 1993 when pay-per-view existed in just a few million homes and required a phone call to purchase.

"Stuff that works works because it's big and it's powerful and it taps into the same stuff whether you're a Roman or a 21st-century American trying to figure out how to balance your sensitive side with your more basic nature," McLaren said. "Doesn't matter. People are people. What they love is an amazing, over-the-top thing that lets them forget about their cublicle life, whatever boring thing and go 'Wow.'

"What I did was find a very new way to do it. It was very over the top. What Dana and Lorenzo did is they figured out how to take that and turn it into a real sport. But the thing is, they wouldn't have this part if I hadn't done this part."

McLaren works out of New York City these days. When he walks through Times Square, he sees the massive billboard the UFC buys to promote their pay-per-view events. There's no controversy anymore.

"When I see the billboards, my heart beats a little faster," McLaren said. "The billboard wouldn't be there if I hadn't said 'There are no rules.'"

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