We all know that MMA is big in Russia, England, The Phillipines, and of course Japan. But what about our neighbor to south, Mexico? Across the border, there has been a promotion that has existed for a decade, yet very few fans know about. “Combate Extremo” has been holding fights in Monterrey, Mexico since 2003, and has gained a large following in its country as the premiere Mexican MMA promotion, but this nerd admittedly knows very little about them. I had a chance to speak with the CEO of the company, Michael Shoffner, to get the scoop on this company, how they have lasted this long, and to get his take on MMA in Mexico.
The Fight Nerd: I have been a fan of international MMA for a long time, but I have never heard of Combate Extremo up until now. Tell us a little about yourself and the origins of your company starting back when you were “Vale Tudo Mexico.”
Michael Shoffner: I grew up watching Bruce Lee movies and attending Lucha Libre (Mexican pro wrestling) shows on a weekly basis. We also attended boxing functions religiously, as well as the occasional bullfight and even cockfight. Combat was very much a part of my life and a part of the culture. It was only fitting that I’d be a fight promoter.
Hector (my business partner) and I have been promoters all of our lives. As kids, we would produce elaborate lucha libre/martial arts shows at family gatherings and sell makeshift event tickets to family and friends several days in advance. When we were 15, we would promote house parties. We outgrew his parents’ house when 500 teenagers showed up. We moved on to bigger venues such as dance halls and empty mansions that had not been occupied for decades, hosting parties with a DJ, open bar, go-go dancers, etc. We would charge a cover of $20 USD and rake in the money at the end of the night.
I was working as a FIFA-recognized player agent. My partner was working in the music industry. We both had studied martial arts all our lives and grew up around boxing, wrestling and martial arts. We both grew up around the entertainment business. We formed our sports entertainment company in 1999. In 2000, my partner and I attended a UFC event in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After attending the show, we knew we could put together better fights and show people a better time with local talent. Little did we know that there was no local talent, but I still convinced a local boxer and Muay Thai fighter to compete and three months later, we had our first event: an 8-man elimination tournament with no weight classes and no time limits. We rented an 11,000 seat bullring and sold a little over 6,000 tickets. We made almost every mistake in the book that night but we still showed the crowd a good time. We had an incredible after -party that continues to personify our brand to this day.
The Fight Nerd: How was MMA initially received by the mainstream in Mexico, especially considering the rich boxing heritage in Latin America?
Michael Shoffner: MMA continues to gain new fans, but it is still a niche sport just like it is in the U.S. The growth is being fueled by emerging middle class males age 12-34 with similar physiographic characteristics as fans in the U.S. The mainstream initially found the sport to be too “dirty” compared to the sweet science of boxing. The education efforts on our behalf have been very effective among our chosen target market. MMA is not for everyone, but there is a huge market nonetheless.
The Fight Nerd: Your company was one of the first in Mexico to adopt the unified rules of MMA. When did this happen and what rules did you follow before then?
Michael Shoffner: We started using unified rules in 2003. We were using Vale Tudo rules before doing so.
The Fight Nerd: I have seen the evolution of the sport in America, but how has MMA changed in Mexico from 1999 to today (aside from the rules)?
Michael Shoffner: While there is resistance from the boxing industry, the sport has been sustained by the evolution of traditional martial arts to MMA. Muay Thai is very big in Mexico. The martial arts have always been huge in Mexico, and we see martial artists every day, from varying disciplines, crossover to MMA.
There are now MMA gyms in Mexico teaching Muay Thai, boxing, BJJ, and MMA. After our first show, it became evident that we would have to educate the public in order to become a viable long- term promotion. It has become a part of our strategy ever since.
The Fight Nerd: Who are some of the top names that fans might have heard of that competed in your shows previously?
Michael Shoffner: Aaron Riley, Jon Fitch, Larry Parker, Don Frye, Helio “Soneca” Moreira, Brian Ebersole, Shannon Ritch, Eric Prindle, Jonathan Ivey, Andrey Rudakov, Cedric Marks, Edwin Aguilar, Anthony Macias, Wes Sims, Jorge Ortiz, Yahir Reyes, Scott Henze, Rick Mathis, Vince Lucero, etc.
The Fight Nerd: Who are the top up-and-comers in your promotion?
Michael Shoffner: Shah Bobonis is our 145 lb. champion and will be moving down to135 lb. He will easily be one of the top bantamweights in the world. We have several fighters that have the potential to be great.
The Fight Nerd: Bellator FC attempted to pursue the Latino audience during the first season of their shows, but since have switched to general audiences. Is there enough of a fan base in that market to support a niche within a niche sport?
Michael Shoffner: Bellator did not know how to pursue the Latino audience in the U.S. and so they went about it completely the wrong way. When Bellator signed Roger Huerta, we contacted Bellator and requested to set up a meeting with Bjorn Rebney. Bjorn, at the time, said he wanted Roger to fight in Mexico. Roger is an American, but I still could have marketed him properly in Mexico and delivered the Mexican market to Bellator on a silver platter. I believe it would have allowed them to corner the Latino market in the U.S. and possibly block the competition from ever pursuing that niche. I could have turned Huerta into a household name in Mexico but the request by my office went unanswered. It was their loss. I didn’t lose any sleep over it.
But to answer your question, I believe that the Latino fan base in the U.S. could outgrow and outspend MMA’s current audience if pursued and marketed to properly. It’s going to take more than just having Spanish commentary. I know exactly what it would take and I’m willing to help any of the major American promotions that wants to seriously pursue that market.
The Fight Nerd: Combate Extremo has been around for a very long time, so what has kept this promotion thriving in such a competitive environment?
Michael Shoffner: Like in any Latin American country, personal relationships and connections with the government can provide a competitive advantage. We knew early on that MMA needed to be regulated in Mexico in order to protect our long-term investment. We knew that it could take a single act of stupidity by another promoter to ruin the reputation of the sport in Mexico and compromise our efforts. The federal government appointed us as the national commission and in 2004 we put in place regulation for promoters, fighters and managers. We issue licenses and event permits to promoters that comply with our rules and regulations, and shut down those that do not. We are in a different market, with a different product and a different audience. We cater our fights, our product and our brand to what is important to our target market. We are the best at what we do.
The Fight Nerd: To MMA fans that have not seen your shows before, what would be the most defining fight of your company that viewers should watch to be introduced to Combate Extremo?
Michael Shoffner: My favorite fight in the history of our promotion was Scott Henze versus the late Edwin Allseitz. The crowd was on their feet the entire time. It was 20 minutes of intense back-and-forth no holds barred brutality. While a lot has changed since then, I often look back at that fight as influencing our matchmaking, our strategy and our brand.
The Fight Nerd: You have two shows coming up in the next two months with some championships on the line, so give us the rundown about these events.
Michael Shoffner: Our next show will showcase fighters on our roster that are out to prove themselves and move up in our national rankings. It will determine who will challenge our welterweight champions Jorge Ortiz and featherweight Shah Bobonis.
The Fight Nerd: Any plans to enter America and reach out to audiences here?
Michael Shoffner: Yes. We plan to expose Latino audiences to our promotion.
The Fight Nerd: How can Americans check out your shows and keep up to date on the events, and are they available in English?
Michael Shoffner: No English for now. Americans can check out our shows online at combateextremo.com.mx. American fans can attend our shows in Mexico and have a great time.