TORONTO -- On the phone from his office in Las Vegas, Marc Ratner says bluntly that if Ontario were to legalize mixed martial arts, the biggest-ever UFC event in history would go down in Toronto.
“We think we can draw 35,000 to 40,000 there,” said Ratner, vice-president of regulatory affairs for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Despite his desert locale, Ratner should know what he’s talking about when it comes to Canada’s most populous city. As the UFC’s expansion point-man, he’s spent years lobbying state and provincial governments to pass laws legalizing the controversial UFC. Most of them have. Queen’s Park hasn’t.
According to Ratner, there isn’t a place on earth that boasts more of an interest in UFC than Ontario.
“When we look at our TV ratings and our pay-per-view buys, on a per-capita basis, Toronto and Ontario are the No. 1 places in the world,” he said.
“It’s unbelievably popular in the province of Ontario and especially Toronto,” said Ratner, the former boss of the powerful Nevada Athletic Commission, which governs boxing and MMA in the state.
But despite the rabid enthusiasm for ultimate fighting here, Ratner and his colleagues at the Vegas-based UFC have so far been unsuccessful in terms of getting Ontario to follow the lead of 43 U.S. states and eight provinces in allowing mixed martial arts (MMA).
Though it’s not for lack of trying. In the past two years Ratner and his UFC colleagues have been here three times in an effort to sell the McGuinty government. They’ve also paid a visit to Ottawa to meet with members of the federal government. They’ve hired former premier David Peterson and the law firm he works at, Cassels Brock, to help in their lobbying efforts in Ontario.
For Ottawa, where the federal government has the power to amend Sec. 83 of the Criminal Code, which pertains to prizefighting laws, UFC has enlisted The Capital Hill Group.
Perhaps all the elbow grease is working. In an end-of-year TV interview, McGuinty said he’s “got an open mind” about UFC and so far it’s been the strongest signal yet that the province’s historic resistance to MMA fighting might be coming to an end.
Looking to capitalize on what they hope to be a turning tide, Ratner told the Sun he and several other UFC colleagues will likely be travelling back to Toronto at the end of February or March to shake the right hands in an effort to fulfil UFC president Dana White’s goal of bringing ultimate fighting to Toronto in 2010.
“We’re very bullish on Toronto, on Ontario, and we’ll just keep on endeavouring to educate and show the value of the sport, the health and safety of it, the economic impact of it,” Ratner says. “I hope the day comes when we’ll be able to bring it there.”
Ratner said in addition to Toronto, UFC is also looking at Hamilton and Ottawa as potential host cities.
But this week the ministry in charge of the issue wasn’t tipping its hat either way.
A spokesman for the provincial Consumer Services Ministry, which oversees the Ontario Athletic Commission and its governing legislation, was tight-lipped on whether or not the provincial government is set to make the necessary changes in law to allow for competitive mixed martial arts events.
“The government would have to make amendments to the regulations under the Athletics Control Act before professional MMA could be allowed in Ontario,” said Consumer Services Ministry spokesman Sue Carroll.
Provincial athletics commissioner Ken Hayashi, who rightly or wrongly has been perceived by some as being anti-MMA because of his strict adherence to federal Criminal Code regulations, which in his interpretation outlaws mixed martial arts, didn’t respond to calls and e-mails from the Sun.
In a story last year by the Sun’s Steve Buffery, Hayashi maintained his stance that mixed martial arts is an illegal activity in Canada.
Until Sec. 83 is changed to allow for professional combat sports beyond what the law calls a “boxing contest,” there won’t be any UFC bouts in Ontario, Hayashi has said.
Regardless of the federal law, two of the most successful UFC events thus far were staged in Montreal. And the federal government hasn’t put up a fight. Heritage Minister James Moore told Vancouver city council there was “no legal obstacle to hosting UFC events.”
So while Toronto and Ontario continue to wait, UFC will make its Vancouver debut this June. City council there voted in December in favour of a pilot program to allow for MMA events within city limits.
In Toronto, spokesmen for the two front-running mayoral candidates, George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi, said their candidates wouldn’t be available to comment on whether they favour bringing UFC to Toronto.
According to an economic impact study done by HR&A advisors for Zuffa LLC, the parent company of UFC, about 40% of the fans who went to Montreal in April 2008 to watch the first-ever UFC event in Canada were from Ontario. The study says that Ontarians spent $1.4 million in Montreal.
“You look at the sheer amount of dollars and tourism that the UFC can bring in and it’s staggering,” said Freddie DeFreitas, the Canadian correspondent for MMA website Sherdog.com.
In downtown Toronto, at the Football Factory bar at Bathurst and Adelaide Sts., large posters for UFC 109 are taped to the windows. The upscale pub prides itself on showing football matches from around the world, but in the past three months has been showing UFC bouts whenever they air Saturday nights.
“We’ve found that on the nights we have UFC, the place is full,” said Chrissy Penman, who co-owns the bar with her husband Patrick. “It’s almost guaranteed that it’s going to be packed. On the night where it’s a big card, we’re turning people away at the door. On the nights that it’s not as big a card the restaurant is still packed.”
“With the UFC crowd it’s young professionals,” adds Patrick Penman. “I’d say half the clients (on a UFC night) are women.”
Although the sport seems to appeal to both men and women who watch it over drinks and food, at the ground level, mixed martial arts as a fitness pursuit is also attracting women.
On a weeknight at Revolution MMA, a sleek, modern gym in the Hwy. 401 and Leslie St. area, men and women of varying ages take part in boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes, including Minelle Mirchandani, 35, who wears a green martial arts robe — called a gi — with the words ‘Lil’ Ninja’ in yellow emblazoned on the back.
“A lot of people have a really big misconception of MMA,” Mirchandani said. “They feel that it’s for the fighting, but a lot of it is because we love martial arts. We love the tradition.
“It’s not violent. And there’s so many women doing this. I feel really proud.”
Chris Clarke, 22, who trains at the gym, also defended MMA.
“It’s not pit fighting or cock fighting or anything like that. It’s a legitimate sport. We train hard, we’re very respectful,” Clarke said. “It has to come to Toronto. We gotta get with the times.”
Gym owner Joel Gerson, a five-time Canadian jiu jitsu champion, takes pride in his 1,200-square-metre gym, which boasts an octagon and boxing ring, as well as bathrooms that wouldn’t look out of place in a posh hotel or nightclub. At the front of the store, framed pictures show Gerson alongside such MMA luminaries as current UFC welterweight champion and native Montreal Georges St-Pierre, B.J. Penn, Wanderlei Silva, Forrest Griffin, Eddie Bravo, and others.
“The people want it and really the debate as to whether or not it’s safe or whether or not it’s something that could or should happen, I think we’re past that at this point,” Gerson said.