TORONTO — While the UFC trumpets its first show in Canada, predicting a sellout at Montreal’s Bell Centre for its April 19 card, the door to mixed martial arts in Ontario remains closed.
"It (staging a mixed martial arts show) is a Criminal Code offence," Ken Hayashi, chairman of the Ontario Athletic Commission, said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
Hayashi refers to Section 83.1 of the Criminal Code which says anyone who "engages as a principal in a prize fight," encourages, promotes or is present at a prize fight as an aid, second, surgeon, umpire, backer or reporter is guilty of an offence — unless the "boxing contest" is "held with the permission or under the authority of an athletic board or commission or similar body established by or under the authority of the legislature of a province for the control of sport within the province."
The section also allows "a boxing contest between amateur sportsmen, where the contestants wear boxing gloves of not less than one hundred and forty grams each in mass."
"A mixed martial event is not a boxing contest," Hayashi said.
Other jurisdictions disagree. Quebec and Alberta hold MMA cards regularly. Halifax, Winnipeg and Prince George, B.C., have also hosted events.
Vancouver City Council, however, voted last September to stop holding MMA events.
Keith Crawford, president of the Hardcore Championship Fighting circuit, shakes his head at the discrepancies between jurisdictions.
"It’s the same Criminal Code from coast to coast, obviously," he said. "Section 83 applies the same in Calgary and Edmonton as it does in Ontario.
"I believe it’s just the choice of the individual jurisdictions as far as the boxing and wrestling commissions that are approved by local government choose not to approve the sport for whatever reason. And without being really negative on it, I believe the reasons are personal. To not have this sport showcased in the largest province and, quite frankly too, the largest audience participation province in terms of national television is ridiculous."
Crawford promoted a show Saturday in Calgary, with his next slated for March in Gatineau, Que. Maximum Fighting Championship, based out of Edmonton, has a show planned for Feb. 22 in Edmonton while TKO has an event slated for Feb. 28 in Montreal.
"I can’t speak for other provinces," added Hayashi. "If they want to regulate it, that’s up to them … but the province (Ontario) isn’t going to put regulations in something that will be deemed under the Criminal Code as illegal. Would we want to take on that liability and responsibility?"
Crawford says Ontario could sanction MMA if it came up with proper practices for promoters to follow — such as liability insurance and medicals — and went through the proper paperwork. He estimates it could be done in a matter of weeks.
And despite the Criminal Code provision, Crawford says he is doing nothing wrong in promoting MMA shows.
"Absolutely not. Because in Calgary, for instance, and in Edmonton and in Enoch, Alberta, and in many jurisdictions across Canada, the local governing bodies have chosen to approve a set of rules to allow mixed martial arts. So it’s just a choice, again, that the Ontario Commission is making. Ken Hayashi, if asked, will say it’s out of his hands. He’s absolutely wrong on that point."
But Hayashi says he’s not the bad guy here.
"I don’t want people shooting the messenger here. I said if they had regulations in place, I would regulate it. I have a martial arts background," he explained, adding he has studied martial arts himself for more than 45 years and even taught karate.
.Marc Ratner, who spent more than 20 years with the Nevada State Athletic Commission including 13 as executive director, is now the UFC’s pointman for expansion. MMA is now sanctioned in 32 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and Ratner is working on the rest.
Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Virginia all approved MMA in 2007, according to the UFC.
New York is high on the "to do list."
"We’re coming everywhere," is one of UFC president Dana White’s favourite expressions.
Ratner, who was slated to fly to Tennessee on Tuesday to visit its legislature, said he talked to Hayashi last week and has invited him to see the Montreal show,
"I’ve known Ken for many years and I respect him very much," the UFC vice-president said Monday from Las Vegas.
"Whatever we have to do to change the law, we will help him in whatever ways we can," he added.
Opening up the sport south of the border depends on the jurisdiction. In Nevada, for example, all that was needed was to have the state athletic commission approve the sport. In other states, including New York, legislative action is required.
The sports is still fighting its `back-in-the-day’ Toughman image of no rules and no holds barred.
"It’s about education, is really what it is," Ratner said.
Athletic commissions can make money off the success of the sport. In Nevada, for example, the athletic commission takes four per cent of the gate, which was $2.4 million US last Saturday at UFC 81 in Las Vegas. The commission also made US$50,000 TV rights tax.
"For some of these states, it might be their whole budget," Ratner said of the athletic commission’s take.
With Montreal set for April 19, Ratner is eyeing other Canadian venues despite the local commission’s objections.
"I certainly would love for us to go to Toronto. The city of Edmonton, their arena as well as their commission, has been talking to us for over a year also."