TORONTO — The Ontario government had a sudden change of heart Saturday and announced it will allow mixed martial arts, starting in 2011.
Premier Dalton McGuinty had always dismissed the idea of allowing the cage matches that characterize MMA — often with a chuckle — saying it just wasn’t a priority for Ontario families.
McGuinty wasn’t available Saturday to explain the flip flop, leaving it to Consumer Services Minister Sophia Aggelonitis, who said regulating MMA was the best way to keep the fighters safe.
"We have always said that we would be monitoring mixed martial arts and we have been doing that for some time," said Aggelonitis.
"We need to have a system in place where we regulate it; that’s the only way I can control the safety of competitors."
The province will adopt the same rules for MMA events that are widely used across North America, and the sport will be regulated by the Ontario Athletic Commission, which already oversees boxing.
"We have an Athletics Control Act … and we have to make sure the rules that apply in that act are going to be the same for MMA sports," said Aggelonitis.
Money was also apparently a motive for the reversal on MMA by cash-strapped Ontario, which is running a deficit of almost $20 billion. The government said one MMA could attract up to 30,000 fans and generate up to $6 million in economic activity.
"My other goal is to provide an economic boost for communities who want to hold MMA events," said the minister.
The New Democrats said the sudden about-face on MMA is an indication the Liberal government no longer knows what it stands for, but agreed it made sense to regulate MMA for safety reasons.
"It’s about making sure that this quite extreme support is regulated in a way that makes sure that people are not literally killed or ending up with severe injuries," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"If it’s coming to Ontario, let’s make it safe and let’s make it something people can enjoy and not simply be a blood bath."
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said he has long supported allowing MMA events in Ontario, and believes it will be valuable for the tourism industry.
Hudak criticized McGuinty for "back-tracking" on his position.
"Perhaps the UFC will declare Dalton McGuinty the heavy-weight champion of flip-flopping," he said.
Ontario’s move comes after successful UFC shows in Montreal and Vancouver, which both posted record sellouts for the MMA juggernaut. The UFC, the sport’s biggest promoter, has long targeted Ontario but was frustrated by the government’s reluctance to jump on board.
"It’s been a long time coming and we’re thrilled," Marc Ratner, the UFC vice-president of regulatory and government affairs, told The Canadian Press Saturday.
"Ontario is a very, very important market to us," he added.
"Canada is the Mecca of the sport. Toronto is one of THE MMA cities in the world."
Ratner has said Toronto, on a per-capita basis, is the UFC’s top market in terms of pay-per-view buys and viewers.
The UFC was so confident that Ontario would eventually open its door to the sport that it announced in May that it was opening a Canadian office in Toronto with former CFL commissioner Tom Wright at the helm.
At the time, UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta said Canada was its second biggest market outside of the U.S., accounting for some 17 per cent of its overall business.
Saturday’s announcement opens the door for Toronto to host a blockbuster card featuring UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre of Montreal and trash-talking challenger Josh Koscheck.
The two are slated to meet in December, but the UFC would no doubt hold it until the new year to stage it in Toronto.
Ratner said the UFC was looking at both the Air Canada Centre and Rogers Centre as possible venues for the first card in Toronto.
The UFC will also look at holding shows in other Ontario cities such as Hamilton, Ottawa and Windsor.
Ratner said the push will continue to try to get the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to expand the section that permits boxing to include mixed martial arts.
The existing wording has not stopped shows from being staged from B.C. to Nova Scotia. Still, it made for a confusing patchwork quilt of regulation governing MMA in Canada, with the sport approved in some jurisdictions, but not in others.
In the ’90s, before the UFC’s current ownership was involved, the sport literally had almost no rules and found itself almost a pirate enterprise reduced to taking place in backwaters.
But Zuffa, which now owns the UFC, has worked hard to get the sport sanctioned by state athletic commissions under a unified set of rules with the kind of medical and drug tests that are standard in boxing.
The UFC has already won sanctioning for MMA in 44 U.S. states. It now turns its attention back to New York, where the issue of sanctioning MMA has been tangled in internal budget politics, plus West Virginia and Vermont.
Connecticut, Alaska and Wyoming don’t have athletic commissions.
The sport combines a variety of fighting styles, from boxing to jiu-jitsu. Fights are three five-minute rounds, with the exception of championship bouts which last five rounds.
The UFC holds its fights in an octagon-shaped cage. Other promoters use a cage or ring.