by Jesse Holland 

Worst. Traffic. Ever.

On a brisk and overcast day in late October, commuters lined Mexico City’s Autopista del Sol in a static formation not unfamiliar to stateside drivers seasoned on the bottlenecked streets of Los Angeles. The collective grimace from those idling souls sandwiched between broken blacktop and a layer of thick smog painted a very grim portrait. In a word, everyone looked, well ... fucking miserable.

Not Campbell McLaren.

The founder and CEO of Combate Americas, the world’s first Hispanic-based mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion, was all smiles alongside a handful of top executives — as well as veteran talent — on his stop-and-go route to TV Azteca, where he recently inked a broadcast agreement with one of the two largest producers of Spanish-language television programming in the world.

Not Mexico. The world.

“This is a big fucking deal,” McLaren reminded me as the shuttle driver tested the resiliency of our equilibrium. Maybe he wasn’t Pancho Villa commanding División del Norte, but for a spirited visionary who co-created Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) -- which recently sold for roughly $4 billion — this latest triumph was an affirmation that lightning could indeed strike twice.

And Mexico is ground zero.

“This is a Hispanic promotion,” McLaren continued after arriving at the Azteca studios in Mexico City. “To us, this is not a foreign country, this is home, this is Mecca. Mexico gives us real credibility in the U.S. as being genuinely Hispanic. How can you be genuinely Hispanic and not be in Mexico? It’s just not possible.”

There’s just one teeny, tiny little problem.

McLaren, a stout Scot with a rich history of award-winning television, doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish. Neither does Vice President of Operations and former Strikeforce Director of Communications Mike Afromowitz, or Logistics and Operations Coordinator Brandi Murry.

Enter Alberto Rodriguez, newly-minted President of Combate Americas.

Competing as "Dos Caras, Jr.," the former PRIDE fighter compiled a 9-5 record in MMA with seven submissions, but is perhaps best known by his WWE moniker Alberto Del Rio. “El Presidente” has taken a leadership role behind the scenes and will spearhead athlete recruitment and development, calling on his years of experience as both a sports entertainer and professional fighter.

“When I was fighting in Japan and Korea 17 years ago, they didn’t know what MMA was here in Mexico,” Rodriguez told me during the Azteca launch. “Just a few people, some people in Monterrey across the border, they knew what MMA was but now they’re completely ready. We scouted some of the fighters the other day and they’re spectacular. They’re ready.”

The fighters are ready. But is the market?

The blueprint for carving out space in an industry largely controlled by a singular entity reads like Le Mythe de Sisyphe. Let’s face it, history has not been kind to up-and-coming (or long-running) fight promotions. One look at the MMA memorial returns a litany of now-defunct organizations that like Combate Americas, showed tremendous promise from the start.

Remember when EliteXC was still a thing?

UFC, which signed a deal with Televisa back in 2013, will return to Arena Mexico this Saturday night (Nov. 5, 2016) with UFC Fight Night 98: “Dos Anjos vs. Ferguson,” airing stateside on FOX Sports 1 and UFC Fight Pass. It’s yet another underwhelming fight card for a partnership once deemed “one of the biggest deals in the history of UFC.” Its prior outing, the UFC 198 pay-per-view (PPV) event back in June, was headlined by “an American who thinks he’s Mexican.”

McLaren, ever the opportunist, is ready to capitalize on the opening.

“I think this may be the most important element,” he said. “The talent here is ready to be discovered. We’re down here looking for the best new fighters and in essence, they’re all new fighters because this is the time and I think Mexico is ready to unveil its talent.”

Every new market is teeming with undiscovered talent, but Mexico has produced some of the most accomplished prizefighters in history, including Ruben Olivares and Julio Cesar Chavez, among others. It could be just a matter of time before MMA finds its next Conor McGregor, who like so many young Mexican fighters, was simply waiting for his opportunity.

And the first available platform.

“It’s a real phenomenon,” longtime MMA referee Mike Beltran explained. “These guys fight with honor, they fight with heart and determination and resiliency.” Beltran, a former Marine, is a first-generation Mexican with roots in Culican, Sinaloa, as well as Tepehuanes, Durango, and studied English as a second language. “They have the warrior spirit, like the Azteca, they never fight backwards, they always move ahead.”

A strategy shared by Combate Americas.

The promotion will next introduce its brand of hurt to the Hispanic market by way of its new weekly MMA series, Combate Americas Azteca, hosted by Combate Americas color commentator Andrea Calle. The premiere episode, showcasing some of the best fights of the year, debuted Thursday night on Azteca US and airs later tonight in Mexico.

“This is not going to be a reality show,” McLaren assured me. “This is an introduction to new fans on what MMA is about, so we’ve gone and we’ve found our best fights and then we’ve revoiced them with TV Azteca talent and Alberto, so it’s a chance to handpick the fights we think are most instructive.”

“If we want to show what the ground game looks like, if we want to show how Muay Thai is an influence, if we want to show a great armbar, a great chokeout, we can pick those fights and present them and explain it to the audience,” he continued. “What we’re really finding is the most entertaining but also the most instructive fights for new fans. We’re gonna follow the Mexico soccer league on Friday nights.”

Consider Combate Americas Azteca a primer for January’s live event in Mexico City.

Headlining the promotion’s big shebang will be the bantamweight championship do-over pitting Gustavo Lopez against John Castaneda. The bantamweights first went to war in a slam-bang thriller last month in Verona, New York, but Castaneda’s controversial victory failed to earn him the belt, thanks to a difficult weight cut that left “Sexy Mexy” considerably over the championship limit.

McLaren was understandably “deflated” by the result — but don’t call it a rematch.

“It didn’t give us what we wanted,” he said. “What we want is a clear winner and a clear champion, so I don’t even think of this as a rematch in a way. This is going to be our first championship and we’re doing it in Mexico. Look, I wanted to go into the history books with the first MMA championship in New York. I didn’t get it, but okay, so I get the first MMA championship in Mexico.”

Let’s just hope it doesn’t end like UFC 188 (gory details here), which turned the men’s locker room into the pie-eating contest from Stand By Me.

Think Denver is bad? Mexico City stands a towering 7,382 feet above sea level.

“We can help them to have more time to train, taking them to the places we’re gonna be having the events,” Rodriguez assured me, covering his chest with one of his massive mitts in an effort to drive the point home. “Especially in places like Mexico City where people suffer from the altitude. Even me, I used to live here for years and years but the altitude is affecting me now because I don’t live in Mexico City anymore. I was a competitor, I’m still an athlete, so I know exactly how they feel.”

The MMA landscape could change dramatically over the next twelve months. With UFC under the direction of Ari Emanuel and WME | IMG, the big dog in the yard is already looking to move its fence inward, closing up shop in international territories and firing Latin America director Jaime Pollack. To complicate matters, Asia now answers to Victor Cui and ONE Championship, while Russia is pretty much doing whatever the hell it wants (and not all of it’s good).

With UFC putting less money into emphasis on international events and a tepid viewership for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF): “Latin America,” Combate Americas is on the cusp of a breakout year, beginning with its Jan. 19 showcase south of the border.

And it’s been getting a little help from some familiar faces.

“This has been a building year for Combate Americas and I think next year you’re going to see the results of all that we’ve put together,” McLaren beamed. “A live event every month, our first pay-per-view, a weekly TV show in the U.S., a weekly TV show in Mexico, and of course continuing our great relationship with UFC Fight Pass. I think next year is going to be about bringing it all together, but we’ve got to keep upping the ante. I feel like we’re doing amazing things and we’ve got to do something else.”

There goes the neighborhood.

 

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