ONE Championship World Title contender Reece “Lightning” McLaren has become familiar with seeing his face pictured on billboards all throughout Asia’s most iconic cities, and on television sets around the world.
As he prepares for his main event clash with Gianni Subba at ONE: VISIONS OF VICTORY this coming Friday, he notices the bright lights and the attention being given to the show, and he knows a second chance at world title gold could soon await him if he wins.
Far removed from the sprawling metropolises of Manila or Kuala Lumpur, however, all he knew growing up were small, close-knit communities.
A Small Town Boy
McLaren was raised on Christmas Island, an Australian territory off the coast of Indonesia. It was an idyllic life for a youngster that came with no worries, and safe in its own way.
He moved there with his mother, a single parent at the time, when he was only 3 years of age, and some of his earliest memories were formed in the Indian Ocean outpost.
“It was phenomenal. I cannot express how great it was,” the 26-year-old Filipino-Australian recalls.
“You would just go outside, and hitchhike down to the beach. As a kid, the freedom was incredible. There was no risk of anything. If someone stole your wallet, you would know who it was, go to the basketball courts and ask for it back, and there it was.”
However, it would not last forever. McLaren’s mother found love on the island, but the new family struggled to make ends meet, even with another breadwinner. A huge, government-funded detention center, which was to be the hub of the labor market, was put on the backburner, and there simply were not enough jobs to go around.
The family tried sticking it out for as long as possible in hopes that the project would return. But soon after McLaren graduated from Christmas Island District High School, his step-dad managed to secure another job back on mainland Australia.
Even though they left Christmas Island, the lasting effects of monetary stress traveled overseas with them.
“We were not in a great financial position when we left, because the work had dried up that much. We were in that bad of a position that we could not even afford school,” he reveals.
“Luckily, I had worked. I am like a work dog, so I worked and worked, and had enough money to pay for school myself. I finished year 12 on my own money.”
A New Journey Begins
During his time on Christmas Island, “Lightning” had become enamored with martial arts.
McLaren and his friends had toyed with training amongst themselves as energetic teens do, practicing moves they saw on the internet. He even took a few lessons at a kung fu club. But it was at work where his passion was truly ignited.
While working at a local airport, he met the head of security, who set him on the martial way. He introduced McLaren to functional combat through Muay Thai and BJJ.
Ironically, without a desire to work and pay his way through school, this encounter may never have taken place.
“Basically, me finding this sport was a bit of luck,” he explains.
“A guy that happened to work at the airport had done a lot of stuff in Canada. He introduced [me and my friends] to the sport, and it all got started. Then, when I moved to the mainland, it really kicked off.”
The family’s move may have been forced from a financial perspective, but the silver lining was that it opened doors for “Lightning,” who immediately sought out a way to make the most of it.
Chasing The Dream
Like many other times in his young life, McLaren did not have an easy path. The family moved to Gatton in South East Queensland, where there was a corrections center with work available. But again, it was a small country town that was populated with only a few thousand inhabitants.
“It was interesting,” he offers. “The country folk are a unique breed. I went from an island where I was the only Australian in a class, to now being the only, I guess, Asian. I went from one extreme to another. It thickens your skin.”
The good thing was that the city of Toowoomba was merely a half an hour drive away, and had much more in the way of training opportunities for the youngster. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable, making the trip as often as he could to his first club, Kachi MMA, and even driving three hours every Saturday to reach Potential Unlimited Mixed Martial Arts (PUMMA) for extra sessions.
In Toowoomba, his coach Joseph Perry headed up a renowned school and offered great training. But for McLaren, it was not enough.
Perry’s brother, Vincent, had PUMMA on the Gold Coast, a city with five-times as many residents, and therefore a busier schedule and more training partners. McLaren’s desire to be the best meant he had to relocate yet again.
“I just thought, ‘I can do this.’ I backed myself,” he recalls.
“I finished my apprenticeship, shipped myself off to America for about a month [to train at Team Alpha Male], then came back and moved to the Gold Coast. I moved into my mate’s shed, and the rest is history.”
He is not prepared to let anything stand in the way of his goals. Moving into “a literal shed” away from his family, and with only his savings to support him, the success he enjoys today is all due to his will to succeed.
A Second Chance
McLaren’s drive has led him to ONE’s global broadcast to 1.7 billion potential viewers in 136 countries, and even challenging ONE Bantamweight World Title Bibiano Fernandes for the title in December 2016, which he lost via razor-thin split decision.
As the saying goes, lightning could strike twice for the Filipino-Australian, though.
On Friday, 9 March, McLaren heads to the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He will meet hometown hero Gianni Subba in the main event of ONE: VISIONS OF VICTORY, with the winner promised a shot at the ONE Flyweight World Championship.
This time, he is adamant that he will make the most of his second chance.
“This is what I have been dreaming of since day dot, to become a world champion,” he says. “This is my second opportunity to do so. I fell short the first time, but now I am gunning even harder for it.”