The UFC first heard word of a potential problem with its planned Montreal show one day before the first batch of tickets went on sale Feb. 11. Talk of concerns over the rules governing UFC 97 came out of the blue, given the UFC had no problems staging a wildly successful event at the Bell Centre last April.
Still, a warning flag was raised up the line to the highest levels of the company. There was a problem.
Looking at the provincial regulations governing “mixed boxing,” it was clear they did not jive with the unified mixed martial arts rules used elsewhere by the UFC.
The Quebec regulations forbid elbow and knee strikes — hitting an opponent with the bent knee or bent elbow is deemed a foul. They also forbid judo-type throws — “using any other part of the body than the hands, arms, feet or legs, to make an opponent fall.”
Finally, the Quebec regulations say the cage cannot be bigger than 7.5 metres (24 feet) between two facing corners. The UFC Octagon is some 30 feet.
And yet there had been no problem staging UFC 83. So what happened?
As the UFC tried to find out the answer to that question, emotions ranged in the company, according to one source. Some were “cautiously optimistic” that the show would go on. Others feared the dispute would force cancellation. A Las Vegas casino was put on a hold as a backup.
The fact that tickets were flying out the window for the Montreal show added to the pressure.
The rules in Quebec had not changed. But enforcement apparently had — with spokesman Rejean Theriault saying that it was only learned recently that the previous Quebec Boxing Commission leadership had not been enforcing the provincial regulations.
The rules issue was exacerbated, it appears, by a local show by former TKO promoter Stephan Patry who was trying to offer a different brand of MMA.
A meeting between the UFC and provincial officials was scheduled for Tuesday in Montreal, a week after the first concerns.
The UFC, often no stranger to banging its chest, opted for restraint and elected not to issue a release on the Montreal show selling out. UFC president Dana White, talking to a few outlets, said he was confident the show would go on.
There was some cause for optimism Monday when a Quebec official said there was a will on both sides to make it work.
The UFC brought four big hitters to Tuesday’s meeting: co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, vice-president Marc Ratner, CEO Kirk Hendrick and general counsel Lawrence Epstein. Included in the other camp were Richard Renault, the new head of the Quebec Boxing Commission and his boss — the head of the Regie des Alcools, des courses et des jeux, the Quebec agency that oversees the commission — plus a commission official and several lawyers.
The meeting lasted one hour and when it was over, the show had the thumbs up.
It helped that Fertitta, Ratner and Hendrick were all former members of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, people who used to be the gatekeepers of the sport like the Quebec commission. Even in Quebec, they spoke the same language.
Objections were raised and dealt with one by one, according to a source.
Elbow strikes? Not allowed, countered the UFC — at least when the elbow is in the 12 to six position.
Referees checking on downed opponents? The UFC argued that its refs were the best in the business in protecting a fighter who cannot continue?
Knees? The two sides discussed taking and delivering knees.
Size of the cage? The commission waived the rules definition.
Judo-type throws? Never came up.
The meeting was cordial, the source said. Some of the issues seemed a product of translation, with the rules in French offering a better picture of the Quebec regs than those translated in English.
The next day, a short release was issued by Quebec officials that the UFC had its licence to stage the April 18 show. The UFC, showing restraint again, was happy to let Quebec have the final say on the show.
But there was no mention of the rules of engagement.
In a short email to The Canadian Press, a UFC source said: “We are using the same rules that we used last April.”
That comment tiptoes around the issue of foot stomps, which was apparently raised by the Quebec commission during Wednesday’s meeting.
The Quebec commission says the no foot stomps rule was in effect last April. UFC officials say if it was, they didn’t know about it.
So the UFC party line is same rules as last time, perhaps hoping no fighter opts for a foot stomp.