In the beginning, Rorion Gracie had a day at his Torrance, Calif. academy, where anyone game enough could test their skills by fighting Jiu-Jitsu exponents until someone quit. A student at the academy, Art Davie, was convinced that the challenge fights could turn into a Pay Per View event. The pair approached HBO, Showtime, and others, with no luck; then they presented to Semaphore Entertainment Group, and it was a go.
SEG, founded by Bob Meyrowitz, was the pay-per-view television arm of the massive international media company BMG. The head of programming at SEG was Campbell McLaren. Chief Operating Officer of the new UFC was David Isaacs, who had graduated from Harvard Law School two years before; Isaacs ran the company for the next half decade.
Thus it was that Art Davie, Rorion Gracie, David Isaacs, Campbell McLaren, and Bob Meyrowitz founded the UFC. Martial arts would never be the same, but there was a price.
Rorion’s vision was to prove what martial art was the most effective. McLaren’s job was to put assess in couches in front of a PPV television screen, and he didn’t think Rorion’s vision was sufficient for that end. McLaren’s efforts were wildly successful, but the marketing was so over the top, it haunted the sport right up until Tuesday, when New York finally legalized and regulated MMA.
The UFC had a release, as does any contact sports event, that references extreme eventualities, including death. McLaren took that legal verbiage and ran with it.
“I don’t want anyone to die,” he told the New York Times’ Richard Sandomir. “It may be good for the buy rate. But I don’t want anyone to die.”
McLaren coined the slogans “Two men enter. One man leaves,” “Banned in 49 states,” and “There are no rules.” None of which was true.
The Times piece, titled ‘Death is Cheap: Maybe It’s Just $14.95,’ launched the sport, earned high PPV rates, and even landed McLaren on the cover of Mad Magazine, with the name “Marky D Sodd.” However, the publicity came at a long, long, steep price.
“I certainly didn’t think that ‘There are no rules,’ and ‘Banned in 49 states,’ would still be around after three decades,” said McLaren to Kevin Iole for Yahoo Sports. “That was definitely not the idea. It was to make a splash. It was to get attention. We thought we’d cycle through that after three events, really.
“What we wanted to do was migrate from that to stories and features and presentations on fighters like Royce and Ken.”
“Absolutely, [it was extremely successful]. Absolutely it was. But it’s a double-edged sword. John McCarthy, Big John, is still mad about how successful that campaign was.”
Pioneering MMA figure and uber ref John McCarthy was not impressed with the marketing, then, or now.
“I’ll tell you straight up,” said McCarthy. “Campbell McLaren takes great pride in the fact he was one of the ones that came up with you could die. He took it off a release the fighters signed. He’s very proud of that, like it was some great accomplishment. But I told him, ‘You’re a f***ing idiot.’ That caused me nothing but problems. He put out there that you could win by knockout, submission or death.
“That just came back to bite me in the ass over and over again. I was constantly being brought into court [when a particular town was fighting to prevent the UFC show from being held in its jurisdiction] and that was brought up continuously.”
When the UFC debuted in 1993, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission was Randy Gordon, and was exposed to the medieval marketing methods. Although chairmanship ended a year later, he was set on keeping MMA from New York.
“I was ranting and screaming and I said to [the state legislature], ‘If you allow this, there will be bloodshed in New York, but it will be on your hands, not mine,’ ” recalled Gordon.
In 1997, George Pataki banned professional MMA in NY. The ban ended on Tuesday.
Davie reflected in a conversation with Iole.
“Campbell and Dan Klores came up with those things, like ‘Two men enter, one man leaves,’ and ‘There are no rules,’ ” said Davie. “It’s funny, but those things hung around a long time. It was so powerful. It drew a lot of pay-per-view subscriptions our way, to be sure. But on the other hand, it was a two-edged sword because it armed our opponents, both in the media and in the government, the politicians, with a lot of ammo.
“We were a fairly easy target and it worked against us in a lot of ways. We lost pay-per-view access in 1997 as an outgrowth of that. But that labeling, which you either adopt yourself or others apply to you, can last a long time. Nixon was ‘Tricky Dick’ from when he was the vice president until the end. When something catches on, it stays in people’s minds. That obviously happened with us.”
“You have to remember, the sport is only 23 years old and it’s still in an early evolutionary phase. We haven’t been around all that long, frankly. Look how long it took to accept professional prizefighting, boxing, back in the day. We’re in a comparable process now, and it doesn’t shock me what it took to get back into New York.
“I personally think there will be another evolution of the sport itself. … It wouldn’t shock me if this does what happened back in ancient Greece and it becomes the premier sport that is truly universal.”