The Montreal Canadiens are one the hottest teams in the NHL and a sense of optimism is growing in Quebec that Les Glorieux could go deep in the playoffs this season.
But the hottest ticket in Montreal these days is not for a Canadiens game, but for the Ultimate Fighting Championship card which will be held at the Bell Centre on April 19 -- the first time in history an UFC event will be held in Canada.
To say that Montreal has embraced the show would be a major understatement. Most of the tickets for UFC 83 (as the promotion is called) were sold within 24 hours -- and tickets were made available only to UFC Fight Club members in a pre-sale. When the remainder of the 21,000-plus seats were offered to the general public, they were snatched up in less than one minute.
Mixed martial arts (the UFC is the leading MMA organization) has grown by leaps and bounds in popularity the past few years and interest in Canada has reached the point where, in 2007, eight of the top 10 live events on Viewers Choice Pay Per View were UFC events (it is UFC policy not to release actual Pay Per View numbers).
While fans in Quebec finally get a chance to see a UFC event live, connoisseurs of mixed martial arts in Ontario may never get that opportunity. In fact, Ontario is one of the last holdouts in terms of refusing to allow MMA promotions, a stance that has become increasingly controversial and unpopular. As usual, the person wearing the goat horns is Ontario athletics commissioner Ken Hayashi.
As far as Hayashi is concerned, mixed martial arts is an illegal activity and until Canadian federal law is changed, there will not be any shows held in this province.
It all comes down to the interpretation of Section 83 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which deems "prize fighting" as being illegal, with this exception: "A boxing contest between amateur sportsmen, where the contestants wear boxing gloves of not less than one hundred and 40 grams each in mass, or any boxing contest 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, shall be deemed not to be a prize fight."
To Hayashi, who is a karate black belt and master instructor, it all comes down to the words "a boxing contest." Hayashi says mixed martial arts, or any sport of that ilk, is not boxing, although the province has made one exception, and that is professional kick boxing, which allows kicking, but only above the waist. Unlike MMA, kick-boxing shows in Ontario are held in a traditional boxing ring and fighters are obligated to wear standardized boxing gloves. UFC contests are held in a showy octagonal cage and UFC fighters wear smaller, open gloves.
"It's still a stretch, absolutely," Hayashi said of the province's amendments to allow kick boxing. "But that's the limit the government feels comfortable with. (Kick boxers) can't kick to the legs, they can't grab, they can't throw to the ground, can't choke out, can't put someone in a submission hold, can't elbow, can't knee ... there is a difference."
Even with stricter rules and safety measures implemented by the UFC in recent years, Hayashi's stance on mixed martial arts is firm, and no other commissioner, no promoter, no fight organization such as UFC, will change is mind.
He believes emphatically that any combat sport, other than boxing and kick boxing, is illegal in Ontario (and Canada for that matter), and he does have precedence on his side.
In March 2000, Ontario court justice Judge Nancy Kastner banned the sport of muay-Thai boxing, a mixed martial art practised by many UFC fighters. Following an investigation by the Toronto Sun and, subsequently, the office of the Ontario athletics commissioner and the province, Kastner ruled that the Thai boxing was "inherently dangerous" in part because of the practise of striking with elbows and knees, and therefore, the sport contravened section 83 of the federal criminal code.
Today, Hayashi says mixed martial arts offer up the same problems, even with stricter rules and regulations.
"If the courts agreed with us, how can the province be wrong?" Hayashi said of the Thai boxing ruling. "If we had lost that court case, then bottom line is, okay, I guess it is a 'boxing contest.' "
Hayashi, who has long been at odds with the boxing and kick-boxing communities in Ontario for his strict adherence to the commission's many rules and regulations, and for not helping promote their sports, is incredulous that other jurisdictions in Canada, including Quebec, interpret section 83 of the Canadian criminal code in such a way that MMA contests, like UFC, are allowed. Hayashi, the Ontario commissioner since 1995, believes that if anyone gets seriously hurt at the April 19 show at the Bell Centre, the Quebec commission and the province could face a lawsuit -- possibly launched by the federal government. As it is now, the feds have not challenged a provincial commission regarding MMA shows, although Vancouver City Council last September voted unanimously to ban MMA contests until more information is gathered about the sport. Then again, no one has been seriously hurt -- yet -- in Canada.
Hayashi says no matter how safe any combat sport is, serious injuries will occur. Last October, Houston fighter Sam Vasquez died days after being floored by a hard right to the chin, following a flurry of punches by his opponent, Vince Libardi, during a mixed martial arts contest at the Toyota Center in Houston -- the first documented death in MMA in North America (American fighter Douglas Dedge died as a result after competing in a MMA bout in Ukraine in 1998). Vasquez collapsed to the floor and suffered a seizure. His condition gradually worsened and he underwent two operations to relieve the pressure of a large clot in his brain. Following surgery, he suffered a massive stroke and was placed in a medically induced coma, before dying.
The Ontario commish believes if the Vasquez bout was held in Canada, even with the insurance purchased by the promoters, the federal government would have been in a position to consider legal action against the provincial commission because the show would have been ruled illegal, in accordance to section 83 of the criminal code. At least, that's his interpretation.
"It's breaking the law," Hayashi said. "The federal law supersedes provincial law."
It's a different story in the United States. The legality of mixed martial arts is the decision of each state. Part of Marc Ratner's job, as the UFC's vice-president of government and regulatory affairs, is to lobby state commissions and legislatures to sell MMA as a safe and viable (not to mention lucrative) practice, and to encourage states to make amendments to their laws to allow MMA promotions. Ratner is certainly the man for the job, having served as executive director of the Nevada state commission for 14 years.
Ratner insists he respects Hayashi's interpretation of the Canadian criminal code regarding the legality of MMA, but he is encouraging the Ontario commissioner, whom he has known for years, to take steps to have the Canadian code amended, so MMA shows can be held in Ontario. There is no doubt, Ratner says, that there is a demand for live UFC shows in Ontario.
"It's no secret that Toronto would be the next place we would love to go (with a major show), but until (the province) gets the law fixed the way they want it, it certainly won't go there," Ratner said. "But certainly we're bullish on Ontario."
Ratner says he is encouraging, not pressuring, Hayashi to take steps to have the criminal code amended, to allow MMA shows in Ontario.
But Hayashi will not take it upon himself to initiate movement to the have the criminal code amended. If someone wants to make the first move, Hayashi says he will do what he can to help. But he insists that it's not up to him to get the ball rolling.
It's precisely that attitude that has made Hayashi Public Enemy No. 1 with the combat sports community in Ontario.
Mick McNamara, a long-time kick boxing promoter, club owner (Twin Dragons) and instructor, along with his brother, Martin, believes that Hayashi's, and the province's, real agenda is to eliminate kick boxing and boxing shows by implementing unreasonable rules and regulations. Promoters in Ontario have long complained about unreasonable upfront costs and being overregulated by the commission, and have criticized Hayashi for doing nothing to promote either sport.
"They can't ban boxing or kick boxing (like they want to), so they have found another way to do the job," McNamara said. "Safety has been a mask, an excuse, to regulate us to death."
But Hayashi is adamant that it is not his job to help promote boxing, kick boxing, or any such sport, only to regulate it. Hayashi insists his primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and welfare of fighters and that stance would be compromised if he took it upon himself to act as a de factor promoter. Hayashi bristles at suggestions he goes out of his way to make it difficult for promoters to organize shows. If the rules in this province are strict, Hayashi insists, it's only for the safety of the fighters.
Still, the professional fight game in Ontario has been in decline for years and there are fewer and fewer promoters attempting to put on shows. The one bright spot has been IBF super bantamweight Steve Molitor, whose promoters have staged regular successful cards at Casino Rama near Orillia.
Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissioners, said the diminishing popularity of boxing is not restricted to Ontario. Interest in that traditional combat sport has been on the downside for years, and that's one of the reasons his association (of which Hayashi is a member) has embraced mixed martial arts.
Lueckenhoff says the majority of states in the U.S. are now on board to allow MMA contests -- even though, in some cases, it took years of lobbying to have laws amended, as was the case recently in Missouri, Lueckenhoff's home jurisdiction. After two years of working with the state legislature, Missouri amended its laws to allow MMA shows and Lueckenhoff said he is busier than ever.
"Mixed martial arts is huge, it's unbelievable," Lueckenhoff said. "We've had eight shows so far (since September), by far outpacing the boxing shows, with seven more MMA shows scheduled for the next week."
For Hayashi, not allowing MMA contests is a simple matter of interpreting the criminal code. But for others, there is a feeling the commissioner, and others involved in traditional combat sports, believe the real reason for resisting mixed martial arts is because of the sport's reputation for brutality.
MMA, near to its present form, first appeared in Brazil in the early 1900s. In 1993, a North American group formed UFC and held its first show that year, attracting 86,000 pay-per-view hits, increasing to about 300,000 by the third show. In the early days, UFC shows were described as "no holds barred" contests, but with the building popularity of the sport came increased criticism and outrage, as there were few rules, other than no biting or eye-gouging. Arizona Sen. John McCain, now the leading candidate to earn the Republican nomination for the 2008 U.S. presidential election, launched a highly visible campaign against UFC.
In response to the backlash, UFC officials, including current president Dana White, took steps in the 1990s to clean up the sport, including the establishment of a strict set of rules (including a ban on punches or kicks to the groin), as well as limits on the number of rounds and the time of rounds. Now the sport has gone mainstream and is more popular than ever, confounding those who maintained that its attraction was based on blood lust. In fact, recent studies in the U.S. concluded that knockout rates are lower in MMA competitions than in professional boxing.
Ratner says many serious injuries and fatalities in boxing occur as a result of the amount of punishment fighters absorb during training sessions, and that often leaves them open to serious injury in the actual bout. Mixed martial arts fighters, on the other hand, don't suffer as many shots to the head during training as they work on wrestling moves, kicks to the body and holds.
Lueckenhoff believes that Hayashi's reluctance to accept MMA also stems, in part, from the Stephan Johnson incident.
In April 1999, in a clash for the vacant World Boxing Federation super welterweight belt at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, veteran American boxer Stephan Johnson suffered a TKO loss at the hands of Canadian star Fitz Vanderpool, after absorbing a series of straight rights and left hooks in the 11th round. Johnson was hospitalized after the fight, slapped with a 60-day suspension, and ordered by Hayashi to undergo a series of neurological examinations -- a CAT scan, psychometric evaluation and EEG. Hayashi refused to lift the suspension after it was discovered Johnson had a CAT scan done, but declined the other two tests.
Despite still being under suspension in Ontario, Johnson was allowed to box in South Carolina, Georgia and, finally, New Jersey. On Nov. 20, 1999, six months after his fight in Ontario, Johnson was knocked out during a bout in Atlantic City, fell into a coma and later died. Hayashi denies that the Johnson death has anything to do with his strict stance on mixed martial arts, but others aren't so sure.
"That kind of thing scars you for a long time, and I kind of understand what Ken is feeling," Lueckenhoff said. "But everybody is legalizing mixed martial arts."
Lueckenhoff, who described the early days of MMA essentially as "a free for all," said the ABC is actively encouraging state, provincial and city commissions to legalize the sport, now that strict safety regulations have been established.
"I know Ken very well and I know he's very safety-conscious," Lueckenhoff said, "and some states still feel the sport is barbaric and it shouldn't be legalized. And Ken hasn't been sold on it yet. But we believe that it is truly a safe sport."
As does Quebec boxing commissioner Mario Latraverse, whose jurisdiction is by far the most active in Canada and generates the most money for the fighters, promoters and the province. UFC 83 is expected to generate millions for the Montreal economy and Latraverse had no hesitations in allowing the first UFC in Canada, in his jurisdiction.
In fact, he says the majority of provincial commissions in Canada accept MMA, adding that Ontario is in the minority. Indeed, mixed martial arts is allowed in 32 states and most provinces, including Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and British Columbia -- aside from Vancouver city council's opposition.
Latraverse said he would not allow MMA shows unless he was convinced the sport had cleaned up its act and was now safe, or as safe as any combat sport can be.
"You're going to see more blood in (mixed martial arts) because of the gloves they use. You're going to cut a little more, but, still, you don't have the major injuries you might see in boxing," he said.
In a pro boxing show in Quebec, if a fighter is knocked to the canvas as a result of a blow or series of blows to the head, the referee will often allow him to get back up and continue fighting after he has been given a standing eight count, Latraverse says. In most UFC fights, the referee will stop the fight immediately if a combatant hits the floor as a result of a strike to the head -- a much safer practice, he says, than the standing eight count.
"Even when you get an eight count, you're still traumatized and you're in a position to get really hurt afterward," he said.
Neither Latraverse, Lueckenhoff nor Ratner criticize Hayashi (at least officially) for his stance on mixed martial arts and his interpretation of section 83 of the criminal code, though Ratner has invited the Ontario commissioner to attend UFC 83 in Montreal as his guest, to give him a feel for what the sport is about. Hayashi says he will respectfully decline the invitation.
"I think it would be inappropriate to attend an event that we have determined to be illegal," the commissioner said.
The bottom line is that for MMA to be allowed in Ontario, the criminal code would have to be amended, and that's something that Hayashi says is out of his hands.
"Don't shoot the messenger," Hayashi said, stressing that he couldn't sanction an MMA event even if he wanted to. "I'd be breaking the law if I tried to do that," he said. "I don't have the regulations to do that."