Reece McLaren, Going For Broke

By Jacob Debets Mar 11, 2019

It’s been a full year since Reece McLaren became the No. 1 contender in One Championship’s flyweight division, but injuries, an interim championship and the recently announced flyweight tournament have put some distance between him and the world title he’s spent his entire adult life chasing. A former bantamweight who came within a hair’s reach of lifting that division’s strap back in December 2016, McLaren made the move down to flyweight in 2017 and has since rattled off three straight victories. He’ll need three more if he wants to win the tournament and bring the title back home to Brisbane, Australia. And that would, in all likelihood, entail beating the man many believe to be the great mixed martial artist of all time in Demetrious Johnson.

In a wide-ranging interview with, “Lightning” spoke candidly about his journey to mixed martial arts, competing in One Championship’s flyweight tournament, and the organization’s aggressive expansion.

“I learned about the tournament on the same day everybody else learned about it” McLaren said. “All we were given was the name, and then it went quiet and then another name, followed by a contract. Not so long afterwards, they publicized the bracket.

“I don’t really mind” he elaborated when asked whether the increase in workload was frustrating. “You can be called the number one contender, you can be interim champ… but the only thing to me that matters is to be the champ. All this other stuff is just muddy water. I think you need it to be clear, to be the champ. Until then, it’s just whatever.”

Fighting out of the Potential Unlimited Mixed Martial Arts gym on Australia’s Gold Coast, the 27 year old boasts a 12-5 professional record, and began his journey into the sport 14 years earlier when he took up kung fu. Born on mainland Australia but growing up in Christmas Island, a miniscule territory with a population of less than 2,000 that is most well-known for its immigration detention center where McLaren’s father worked, his formative years were spent partaking in every sport that was available; it wasn’t long before he saw fighting as a potential vocation.

“If there was any type of sport [available to participate in] I was jumping in there all guns blazing” McLaren said of life on the island. “For a small community, we had a lot of people that were really good at specific sports. You actually developed a really good skill base.

“My mate’s dad was a kung fu instructor,” he continued. “So we started doing a bit of kung fu. From there it led on to other things, different influences… I always knew I wanted to do something sporty. When I did jiu-jitsu, it was pretty much love at first sight. I did dive in, and just wanted to see where it took me. I competed [in BJJ] pretty much within three months [of starting]. I did well, and just kept going from there.”

A BJJ black belt, McLaren is often touted as one of flyweight’s most dangerous grapplers, and the seven submission victories on his record bolster that claim. But he eschews any suggestion that his skillset is one-dimensional and emphasises that BJJ was always a means to an end.

“My jiu-jitsu experience, even though it was very solid, was always influenced by Jeet Kune Do, which comes from my coach [Vincent Perry],” McLaren explained. “Jiu-jitsu was always for MMA. Even in itself, it was very much a hybrid discipline. People say that I’m a grappler, and I agree with them, but I’m a mixed martial arts grappler. A lot of jiu-jitsu gyms work the gi, or they’ll spend time working on the grips, whereas we would be looking at the under-hooks, just stuff that translated better for fighting.”

McLaren made his MMA debut in 2010 and racked up a 7-3 record with two regional titles before being signed by Singapore’s One Championship. As one of just a handful of Australians competing for the promotion, he’s something of an anomaly on the roster.

“I got lucky,” he said of how he was able to get onto the organization’s radar. “Poor Jordan Lucas cut his eyebrow or something and needed to have stitches, so he had to pull out of his fight [with Mark Striegl] maybe two weeks out. I went to my coach and said, ‘We need to contact One and see if they’ve already paid for an air ticket out of Australia, we can take it’… within eight days we had a contract in our hand and we were flying off to co-main event the biggest show that the Phillipines had seen at the time.”

With One Championship recently signing the best flyweight in MMA history courtesy of a landmark “trade” with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and doubling down on its status as a player in the free agency game by welcoming Eddie Alvarez, Sage Northcutt and Vitor Belfort into the fold, McLaren admits he’s benefited from the increased publicity and awareness of the promotion. But he’s also not shy about the fact that that exposure hasn’t yet translated into increased financial security -- this despite McLaren having headlined two of One Championship’s events last year and being voted as the division’s favorite fighter.

“At the moment I’m [fighting] full-time” he said. “I joke, people ask me how I’m going. I say, ‘Yeah good, another day another dollar, [just] not in my pocket.’ But it’s all good. I do a bit of PT [personal training] on the side for some extra cash. But otherwise, I’m pretty much going broke.

“I think what’s happening is, that with the big-name signings, they draw the money away from guys already on the roster” McLaren continued. “Everyone gets excited, they’re signing so-and-so, which is great, but they’re taking the money.”

McLaren has four fights left on his exclusive One Championship contract, and is open-minded about his future when it ends, but is far from unhappy with his relationship with the promotion and is optimistic about the swelling talent pool at flyweight.

“I’m very open,” he responded when asked whether he was looking towards greener pastures. “One [Championship] is almost like a family. Every time you travel with them, they’re so great to deal with. If they come back with a great offer, I’d be happy to stay.

“I think the best flyweights in the world are in One, straight up,” he elaborated. “It’s a very deep division. There are less bigger bodies in that part of the world and it makes total sense to be pumping up the division the way that they are. I think it’s great.”

Asked whether he thinks One Championship are likely to make inroads on the UFC’s market share -- and whether the promotion is likely to change the status quo for fighters in his neck of the woods -- McLaren thinks carefully before answering.

“I think the way the UFC have marketed themselves, and [are at] the forefront in the US, is because of gambling” he said. “Looking at it from marketing stance, gambling is such a significant part of world trade, I think One Championship would need to get into that [space] to put pressure on the UFC.”

In front of McLaren on March 31 is former flyweight champion Kairat Akhmetov, who sports an imposing 22-2 record. It’s a matchup McLaren is looking forward to.

“I like the matchup,” he said. “It’s going to be nice to fight someone who’s a bit shorter than me for once. He’s the ex-champ, so it’s a great opponent to showcase my skills against. To pick up a win over him would put me in a great place in this tournament. Mentally and physically it’s going to be a tough one, but we’ll get the job done. I’m very excited.”


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