Part of us dies by legalizing MMA in Ontario

LARRY CORNIES, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

Nearly a year ago, I walked into one of my college classes to find a hefty group of male students -- probably 10 or so -- huddled around one student's computer monitor. They were replaying part of a mixed martial arts bout from the weekend.

"Oooh!" they exclaimed in unison as one fighter landed an especially devastating blow to the other's temple.

Teaching journalism is at least partly about nurturing curiosity, so I gave the first 10 minutes of the class to the guys around the monitor.

They explained, with free-flowing freshman ardour, how the sport is a descendant of the ancient martial arts of eastern cultures; how, despite its vulgar and savage appearance, it combines several highly disciplined martial art forms; how fighters display respect for their opponents and how unfair and short-sighted it was that the sport was banned in Ontario.

The impromptu classroom seminar was my second introduction to the rising phenomenon of MMA and ultimate fighting. Six months earlier, I'd been flying from Winnipeg to Toronto aboard a plane in which, about two rows ahead of me, sat a young man, probably in his 20s. Cuts and stitches blemished an otherwise elegant shaven head. He had already been seated when I boarded, and I assumed he'd been the victim of a car crash or some other type of accident. It was only after we landed that I noticed his "Tapout" jacket and a slight limp.

My third encounter with the sport occurred in March. My son and his girlfriend were in town to attend a concert. Afterward, they said, they were planning to head to a local watering hole to watch whatever was left of an Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view event being telecast from New Jersey. They invited my wife and me to meet them for the final welterweight bout between Canadian Georges St. Pierre and Englishman Dan Hardy. We politely declined.

About 10:30 p.m., however, they called. They were saving two seats at a table in front of a big-screen TV at T.J. Baxter's. We had to come, they argued. A half hour later, we were planted in our assigned spots, a plate of loaded nachos at the ready.

The restaurant's atmosphere was electric, the drinks were cold, the octagon's mat was suitably splattered by blood and Canada's son successfully defended his championship by a unanimous decision.

Back in class the following week, I told my students about having watched part of UFC 111. I said that, apart from the megabucks being made by an industry intent on trading in testosterone and the toned, brawny flesh of young men, I was beginning to understand the appeal of the sport -- the dangerous liaison between brutal pugilism and respectful martial art.

From the back of the class came a small, reluctant female voice: "A little bit of me just died inside." A ripple of laughter washed across the room.

Proponents of MMA have vigorously lobbied the Ontario government to legalize the sport in the hope of bringing their matches to major venues such as the Air Canada Centre -- and reaping the fortunes such cards would bring.

Queen's Park steadily resisted -- until two weeks ago, when the McGuinty Liberals announced a change of heart. MMA matches will be legal starting in 2011. The Ontario Athletic Commission, which already oversees boxing, will regulate the sport.

While criticizing the Liberals for flip-flopping and delay on the issue, the provincial Conservatives and New Democrats support the move as a way to boost the provincial economy. Boosters of the sport are obviously thrilled, predicting the first UFC event at the ACC or Rogers Centre in 2011 could, all by itself, inject $6 million into Ontario's coffers, let alone the bank accounts of promoters.

The singular aim of an MMA fighter is to physically disable or destroy the opponent. Injuries are frequently severe and lifelong. While it's possible to see the upside of MMA on a number of levels, provincial sanction complicates everything from the push to reduce violence in hockey to ridding our schoolyards of bullying and fighting.

Like the province's growing dependence on legalized gambling, which now diverts billions of dollars a year from the pockets of its players, there's something oddly dissonant about writing a blood sport into the income side of the ledger.

That small, plaintive voice was right: Maybe a little bit of us dies inside.

cornies@gmail.com


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