Mixed martial arts coming to Ontario

Markhaile Wedderburn of Toronto takes shots from Victor Bachman of Edmonton at the Shaw Conference...

Markhaile Wedderburn of Toronto takes shots from Victor Bachman of Edmonton at the Shaw Conference Center in Edmonton, Alberta on March 19, 2010 during The Fight Club 10 High Octane mixed martial arts fights. (Jordan Verlage/QMI Agency)

ANTONELLA ARTUSO, Queen's Park Bureau Chief

, Last Updated: 11:42 PM ET

TORONTO -- Coming soon to an Ontario town near you -- live mixed martial arts.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has finally had a change of heart when it comes to MMA, so the UFC is on its way.

McGuinty -- a longtime opponent of the brutal sport -- announced Saturday that his government will officially sanction and regulate the wildly popular MMA, allowing matches to be fought within the province's boundaries.

But the premier's repeated flip-flopping is now drawing criticism from his opposition.

"This is just the latest example of Dalton McGuinty backtracking -- from the eco tax fiasco, to sex ed classes for six-year-olds, to solar panel subsidies and now the MMA," Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Saturday.

"The UFC should give him a belt for world championship backtracking."

Hudak has long been a supporter of allowing MMA in Ontario, believing it would be great for businesses.

"Finally premier dad has given us permission to attend UFC events in Ontario," he said. "But this just looks like a government in chaos with all of this backtracking."

McGuinty has repeatedly said that permitting MMA was not a "priority" with him.

Tom Wright, director of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Canadian Operations, said the organization made a significant commitment to Canada by opening a Toronto office, and is prepared to hold three or four global pay-per-view events in major cities in the country every year.

"We feel confident that, properly managed, that we would probably take our first event to the (Toronto) Rogers Centre, understanding that no decisions have been made and really it's premature until such a time as our sport is actually sanctioned," Wright said before the Ontario government's announcement.

In addition to filling major venues such as the Rogers Centre and the Air Canada Centre, Wright said, the UFC holds fan-based events in the days leading up to major pay per views that bring tourists into town early.

The UFC is also prepared to stage UFC Fight Nights featuring up and coming fighters at smaller venues, likely within two years.

While the large events would continue to be pay per view, the fight nights would be available on free TV, he said.

"Those are the kind of events that we would take to potentially a Windsor, a Kingston, an Ottawa, a London, maybe Hamilton," he said. "Hamilton and even Ottawa could handle a large pay-per-view event as well."

The UFC 2009 video game was second only to hockey in Canadian sales, bumping football from its usual spot, Wright said.

While the largest fan demographic is males aged 18 to 40, women make up 40% of the fans, he said.

The UFC understands McGuinty's argument that MMA was not a priority, but has been providing information on the economic benefits and popularity of the sport to the government to encourage change, Wright said.

Gerald Chopik, founder of the MMA Expo and a pro-MMA rally at Queen's Park in May, said the economic benefits of the sport go beyond even the UFC.

"I know personally of a dozen entrepreneurs waiting in the wings, just waiting for it to be sanctioned. They're all prepared to go," he said.

"They will hold events in each of the major centres, certainly Toronto, but also Hamilton ... and certainly Ottawa for sure. Those three centres absolutely but even in the smaller centres."

Some people disapprove of MMA, but Chopik notes that boxing is a sanctioned sport in Ontario.

And unlike boxing, MMA athletes routinely tap out if they're about to lose or are in danger, he said.

"It's certainly acceptable ... and all the big champs do it," he said.

Jack Bateman, president of Warrior One (W1), the only Ontario-based MMA league, said the fan base in Toronto and Ontario is massive, with the city's residents buying more UFC pay per views per capita than anywhere else in the world.

W1 holds about six shows a year in Quebec and other provinces, drawing about 3,000 to 4,000 spectators, but has big plans for Ontario if allowed to hold matches here.

"We're not in competition with the UFC but we like to think of ourselves as the league right below them," Bateman said. "We're televised very, very heavily. We're in about 100 million homes around the world. We like to build or rebuild fighters."

The W1 has business plans that include four to five large shows in Toronto and other big cities, plus a challenger league that would hold matches in every town across the province from Sudbury to Windsor to London to Hamilton, he said.

Local athletes would compete, and small towns would enjoy the economic benefits, he said.

"Anything that has basically a triple A hockey team, we're going there," he said.

-- With files from Chris Doucette

antonella.artuso@sunmedia.ca


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