There is often some boxing at the Air Canada Centre every Tuesday and Saturday night before 19,000 people, but a few Maple Leafs wouldn’t mind sharing the fight audience with mixed martial arts in the province.
Ontario has banned the sport, despite mounting pressure on the government by those tired of going to places such as Montreal to see it live. A big crowd packed the Eaton Centre on Tuesday when the Ultimate Fighting Championship held a promo for its next big event on Saturday in New Jersey.
“I think UFC would be exciting for a lot of fans in Canada,” said defenceman Garnet Exelby, a scrapper of note. “If you have two willing combatants, everyone else should step back. It’s fair when they both know the risks.”
Ex-Leaf Bob McGill, who racked up almost 2,000 penalty minutes in his career, would also support a Toronto MMA base.
“It’s everywhere in the world and it has put boxing on the backburner,” the LeafsTV analyst said. “I like the style of UFC. It’s a different kind of sport when you take into consideration the different disciplines, jiu-jitsu, kick boxing and wrestling.”
But could there be elements of MMA that work their way into the NHL fighting code? Exelby thinks they might have already, though he isn’t endorsing the idea.
“If you look at MMA, a lot of the striking as they call it has its roots in boxing,” Exelby said. “And Rick Rypien in Vancouver for example, puts his elbows up to block where in traditional boxing, you’re supposed to keep your hands up. Brad Staubitz threw some forearm shivers and I don’t think that’s allowed.”
Staubitz, of the San Jose Sharks, surprised Jordan Tootoo of Nashville last season with a series of elbows then finished him with uppercuts. That prompted general manager David Poile of the Predators to ask for a review of such tactics by the NHL competition committee, suggesting a heavily padded elbow could cause as much damage as a fist. But the matter has not been actively pursued.
“I don’t think you’ll see (MMA) in the NHL,” McGill said. “You’ll rarely get a guy in a choke hold or take him down with some kind of submission arm bar or leg tactic. Most NHL fighters stand back and throw the haymaker bombs, such as Colton Orr.”
While the NHL has headshots and blind-side hits topping its current agenda, fighting remains a gray area.
“There’s no real way to say there are rules in fighting,” Exelby said. “You can’t eye gouge in hockey and if you implemented that rule, most guys would respect it.”
Defenceman Luke Schenn thinks fans of MMA and the NHL can make the distinction.
“I don’t mind watching (MMA) once in a while,” he said. “I’m not crazy into it, but every once in a while there’s a match you want to see and people are into it.
“I can see how fighting is still a big part of the NHL, but UFC is a different style. They don’t go hand-in-hand.”