Not any more

Ontario climbs into the Mixed Martial Arts cage

In Canada on August 15, 2010 at 10:29

OTTAWA — The Ontario government is giving in to the growing sports phenomenon of mixed martial arts and becoming the latest province to allow and regulate the controversial fights.

The provincial government announced Saturday it will adopt the same rules for the bouts that are being widely used across North America.

That means the first licensed MMA event could be held in Ontario next year — and the Canadian spokesman for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s top brand, says his company expects to hold a bout, likely in Toronto, in 2011.

"We’re absolutely thrilled that the announcement has been made," Tom Wright, the UFC’s point man in Canada, told Postmedia News on Saturday.

While the majority of Canadian provinces, as well as 46 U.S. states, already allow the fights, until now, Ontario had stood fast with Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon and Nunavut in banning MMA, which has been decried by some as a blood sport.

New Brunswick has a ban on MMA fighting outside of the city of Moncton.

Wright, a former commissioner of the Canadian Football League, was named as the UFC’s face in Canada in May, as the company said it would open an office in Toronto.

"This will be province No. 7 of our 10," he said. "We’ll continue that process until our provinces and states in North America, indeed countries around the world, recognize MMA as a sport." In truth, Ontario’s decision may be less about giving in to pressure to allow the events and more about cashing in.

The Ontario government is estimating that a major MMA event could attract as many as 30,000 fans and generate as much as $6 million in local economic activity.

Ottawa-based promoter Nick Castiglia hopes to host the city’s first local MMA event. His company, Wreck MMA, has put on two shows in the last year, but both had to be held in Gatineau because of Ontario’s recent stance on MMA.

"It made it harder for our organization. Some people just don’t want to drive over there. They want to go and watch a show in their own town," he said.

Castiglia said as soon as the government makes applications for promoters’ licenses available, he’ll start planning for Ottawa’s first sanctioned fight.

He said Wreck MMA’s past events have raised money for local causes, both as way of giving back and to soften the sport’s image.

Mixed martial arts fights pit two competitors against each other in a fighting style that typically combines striking, grappling and submission techniques.

But bloody images of fighters going at each other inside a cage until one taps out, gets knocked out, or time runs out, has been slammed as barbaric by critics.

Two MMA fighters in the U.S. have died of injuries sustained during professional events. Michael Kirkham of South Carolina died from bleeding inside the brain after his professional debut in June 2010. Sammy Vasquez of Houston died in 2007 following a match.

Castiglia said MMA is no more dangerous than other sports.

"How many people die in a year in marathons? You don’t see anybody trying to ban running," he said.

UFC president Dana White was quick to express his excitement at Saturday’s news.

"This is a huge moment for the UFC in Canada," said White in a statement. "Premier Dalton McGuinty, (Consumer Services) Minister Sophia Aggelonitis and Canadian fight fans, thank you for your support. You helped to make this happen and I can’t wait to bring big fights and the biggest names in the UFC to Ontario." White has in the past called Canada the "mecca" of mixed martial arts, a nod to the controversial sport’s growing popularity in this country.

Wright said it’s been a process of education to legitimize the sport.

"MMA is a contact sport, no different than boxing, no different than football," he said, adding that, according to UFC’s information, boxing is more dangerous.

Ontario’s decision comes as the British Columbia Medical Association has been urging its counterparts across the country to push for a ban on mixed martial arts.

The body plans to bring a resolution to that effect to the Canadian Medical Association’s annual general meeting at Niagara Falls, Ont., later this month.

If the national group agrees, it is expected to lobby the federal government to work with the provinces to bring an end to MMA contests in the country.

"We’re not expecting everybody to be a fan," Wright said. "We just want people to make informed decisions when they’re evaluating our sport." MMA would fall under Ontario’s Athletics Control Act.

The province’s athletics commissioner would be responsible for licensing promoters and competitors and ensuring promoters have liability insurance.

The commissioner would also appoint officials and medical personnel, make sure all medical requirements are completed and reviewed before each event, oversee pre-fight activities, and attend each event to make sure they comply with regulations.

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