Ontario a mecca for mixed martial arts

TORONTO, Canada — If you believe Dana White, the charismatic president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the urge to reduce someone to a bloody pulp dates back to the beginning of human time.

“Fighting was the first sport,” White told some 300 adoring fans at a downtown mall in Toronto last week.

“Two men were put on this Earth and somebody threw a punch. And if people were around, they watched it — you know what I mean?

“I don’t care what color you are, what country you’re from or what language you speak — at the end of the day we’re all human beings and fighting is in our DNA. We get it and we like it,” White said.

The problem for White and his sport, known as mixed martial arts (MMA), is that the government of Canada’s most populous province doesn’t buy his gospel. In Ontario, the sport is banned — both amateur tournaments and professional bouts.

You might think that the Las Vegas-based head of UFC, the most successful, privately-owned organization in what has been described as the fastest growing sport in the United States, wouldn’t give a swift kick about Ontario’s unwelcoming position. You’d be wrong.

White describes the province as the biggest UFC market in North America, judging by the number of pay-per-view subscribers for UFC fights and the number of Ontario fans who travel across the continent to attend UFC bouts. Ontario, he says, is the “Mecca” of mixed martial arts — a whirlwind mix of jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling.

In short, there is money — lots of it — to be made here. And that’s why the 40-year-old White, bald and muscular, found himself pitching the sport in a Toronto mall, welcomed as a rock star by the converted, but given the cold shoulder by skeptical politicians.

“It's just not a priority for [Ontario] families and it's not a priority for me,” Premier Dalton McGuinty said when told of White’s pitch.

White doesn’t give up so easily. Many credit his salesmanship with UFC’s success.

The company, which has a stable of fighters under contract, was valued by Forbes magazine in 2008 at more than $1 billion – a stunning achievement for a company that was more than $40 million in debt just five years ago. White owns a 10 per cent stake; Las Vegas casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta own the rest.

The sport is legal in 43 U.S. states. Massachusetts passed a law regulating the sport this month, and New York is poised to introduce legislation to overturn a 13-year ban.

In Canada, Ontario is the only major province that doesn’t allow it. The sport is wildly popular in the neighboring province of Quebec, home of welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who successfully defended his title in Newark, N.J., Saturday against Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy.

Safety concerns were the main reason UFC was shunned by governments after it staged its first tournament — a bloody, bare-knuckled, 1993 slugfest in Denver. Based on the popular vale tudo (anything goes) fights in Brazil, they were fights to the finish with no time limits, no weight classifications and few rules.

For years the fights were largely underground affairs, evoking images of the street brawling culture in Chuck Palahniuk’s book, "Fight Club." One fighter, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson became infamous for posting his street fights on the internet.

U.S. Senator John McCain famously called the events “human cockfighting.”

UFC cleaned up its act over the years, implemented five weight classes for fighters and banned head butting, eye gouging, biting, hair pulling and striking the throat, spine or back of the head. Bouts are three rounds, a maximum of five minutes each — five rounds for championship bouts.

A 2006 study by academics at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine examined injuries from 171 MMA fights in Nevada. Forty percent ended with injuries, most of them minor. The most common (48 percent) were cuts to the face, followed by hand injuries, nose injuries and eye injuries.

The injury rate, the study found, was “in keeping with other combat sports.” Fighters spend a lot of time wrestling on the floor and bouts are often stopped by fighters who “tap out” — a signal that means they quit. Fights end with fewer knockouts and fewer blows to the head than in boxing, the report says.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that violence is the reason Ontario politicians shy away from mixed martial arts. Hockey, after all, is Canada’s national sport. And rarely has Rodney Dangerfield’s famous quip — “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out” — sounded truer than in recent months.

More disturbing than the hockey fights have been the growing number of body checks to the head that have left players sprawled and concussed on the ice, sometimes with season-ending injuries. (The NHL this month passed a rule to ban them.)

A typical moment occurred March 7, when the Pittsburg Penguin’s Matt Cooke gave the Boston Bruin’s Marc Savard a season-ending concussion and skated away without a penalty. When the teams met again March 18, revenge was on the menu.

When Boston tough guy Shawn Thornton and Cooke finally dropped their gloves and went at it, one network replayed the fight four times, to the euphoric, blow-by-blow description of the broadcasters.

With hockey brawls regularly peddled live on TV, who needs the UFC?