TORONTO — The UFC has already staged successful mixed martial arts cards in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. But behind the scenes, it has also been regularly taking its fight to Ottawa.
Given the fact the UFC already has a foothold in Canada, some may wonder why bother. But despite its success north of the border, the UFC is dealing with a patchwork of Canadian regulation for MMA.
It wants a level playing field, so it can expand operations.
Tom Wright, the UFC director of Canadian operations, continues that campaign Thursday on Parliament Hill, joined by Canadian featherweight Mark (The Machine) Hominick and bantamweight Yves Jabouin.
The three are slated to meet MPs and senators, attend Question Period and renew acquaintances with James Moore, minister of Canadian heritage and official languages, whose portfolio includes sports.
The UFC is seeking a rewording of Section 83 (2) of the Criminal Code so that MMA — like boxing — is exempted from prosecution in a section that essentially covers unsanctioned "prize fights."
"It’s that kind of clarity that we need to have," argues Wright, noting that different jurisdictions have come up with their own definitions of what prize fighting includes.
Wright notes that the Criminal Code is no spring chicken. "It needs to be updated on a continual basis and this is one of the things we’ve been pushing."
Other jurisdictions have simply ignored that section of the Criminal Code in allowing local athletic commissions or governing bodies to sanction MMA.
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Ontario ignored the Criminal Code vagaries in eventually sanctioning the sport, instead ensuring its Athletics Control Act apply to MMA. Vancouver opened the door to UFC shows via a city commission.
Wright says the issue was close to being resolved federally some two years ago but then Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued the government and the action died on the order sheet.
"Now we feel the political environment that’s right … We feel very confident that hopefully in this Parliament that the issue will be tabled and our changes to the Criminal Code will be part of an omnibus bill that the government is considering," Wright said.
"All of our events in Canada have been off the charts but particularly our last several have been runaway successes," he added.
Wright has been in his job for 16 months and estimates that this may be his fifth or sixth such visit to Ottawa. The UFC, the sport’s biggest player, has also engaged a heavyweight lobbyist and had welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, a native of Montreal who is one of MMA’s biggest stars, work Parliament Hill.
UFC vice-president Marc Ratner, who spent more than 20 years with the Nevada State Athletic Commission including 13 as executive director, has also argued the UFC case in Canada.
The UFC has doubtless played up the fact that UFC 129 drew a record North American MMA crowd of 55,000 to Toronto’s Rogers Centre in April, pumping up the local economy while diverting a small but lucrative portion of the gate to the provincial government agency that sanctioned the event.
"We’re at the stage that the sport has grown tremendously in Canada," Wright said. "It’s been tremendously successful, but we’re still not regulated in all provinces and territories."
While the concept of cage-fighting may still seem apocalyptic to some, the UFC — the sport’s dominant organization — has led the way towards regulation.
In most North American jurisdictions, the sport is sanctioned by the same governing bodies that oversee boxing with the same kind of medical and safety checks, not to mention drug testing.
A revision of the Criminal Code is seen as possibly opening the door to areas in Canada where the sport is currently not sanctioned.
"A good example would be if we wanted to take one of our ‘Ultimate Fight Nights’ (televised cards) to Saskatoon or Regina," said Wright. "We can’t do that until we’ve resolved these kinds of issues."