(When will Ontario see its first event?)
When the Ontario government announced a little over a week ago that it had decided to sanction mixed martial arts in the Canadian province, the news came as a very welcome surprise to pretty much all of the issue’s stakeholders.
It wasn’t the fact that the province’s Liberal majority government finally decided that MMA was on par safety-wise and skill-wise with other sports that are legally contested in Ontario, making it a no-brainer to legalize that threw so many people off; it was the fact that the announcement came without much warning or fanfare.
The then-Minister of Consumer Services (she was shuffled to a different cabinet position four days after the announcement) Sophia Aggelonitis tweeted the news early on the morning of Saturday, August 14. Within an hour of sending out her brief message, that simply stated “Ontario will move to allow mixed martial arts,” Aggelonitis’ office posted a press release regarding the decision pointing to “competitor safety and boosting local economies” as its main reasons behind its landmark decision.
“Our government has been monitoring MMA for some time. We know that the sport has evolved and that Ontarians want to see it here,” Aggelonitis was quoted as saying in the release. “My goal is to make sure we have the tools to keep the competitors safe, and provide an economic boost to communities that want to host professional MMA events.”
Several groups and individuals worked diligently for years to help convince the powers that be that Ontario, like the majority of other Canadian provinces and American states that safely and effectively regulate MMA, should legalize the sport in the province and now that it’s done in theory, many feel that the hard work is over.
According to the UFC’s Canadian legal council and Ontario lobbyist Noble Chummar, the man many point to as being the tipping point in Ontario’s shift from saying “legalizing MMA is not a priority for the province” to proving otherwise with the announcement a week and a half ago, there is still lots of ground to be covered before an event is held there.
“There’s definitely a lot of work to be done before an event happens. We’re going to be working with the Ontario Athletics Commission and working with the Ministry of Consumer Services to help them formulate the rules of conduct. They’ve already agreed to, or at least to take a hard look at most of the Unified Rules of MMA,” Chummar explains. “There might be some nuances or variations of the rules for Ontario. I don’t know. They’re going through the process of that review now, but it’s really hasn’t been long since they made the announcement, so we’re anxiously waiting to see how the process unfolds just like everybody else.”
Chummar says that in the grand scheme of things, although it felt to most fans like an eternity, the process of properly lobbying and educating the Premier and his cabinet about the sport, particularly in the case of the UFC and the promotion’s unparalleled safety measures and medical requirements for its fighters really didn’t take very long in terms of political timelines. The UFC only contracted his Cassels Brock law firm, whose roster also includes former Ontario Premier David Peterson, two years ago. The fact that those in power took their time to thoughtfully and carefully decide on the issue is something that should be applauded by Ontarians.
“Premier McGuinty and Minister Aggelonitis should be congratulated for their leadership. They didn’t ever change their mind like some are suggesting. They never said they weren’t willing to look at the issue; they said that it wasn’t a priority and at that time it wasn’t,” points out Chummar. “What they did is they took a hard, serious honest look at the issue and they weren’t swayed by nonsense. They looked at the facts, they looked at the safety statistics, they looked at the economic impact legalizing the sport in the province could have, and they took their time in coming to a decision.”
“A lot of people wanted to see this legitimate sport legitimized in our province but what people also want to see is good leadership in the province and that’s what the McGuinty government has demonstrated with their tact and decision on this matter. They took their time. They listened. They learned. They spoke to stakeholders and they came to an informed and intelligent decision,” he says. “For a government as big as the province of Ontario, of course they took some time to come to a decision, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t make rash decisions on an issue as big as this one.”
So now the next question on the minds of Ontario’s MMA community and fans of the sport in the province is what is the next step in moving things along?
As it stands today, the Ontario Athletic Commission is not in a place to sanction the sport unless it were to hire additional staff to aid commissioner Ken Hayashi in the building of the regulatory body. Such an endeavor would not only take a long time to see through to fruition, it would also pull the OAC head away from his other duties and cost taxpayers a lot of dollars to set up.
Hayashi has stated on more than one occasion that he doesn’t know much about MMA, as he isn’t a fan, which would mean he would need to be educated about the sport in a similar way to that which was used to inform the government about the intricate details of the sport.
A more realistic cost and time effective solution would be for the Minister to appoint a council of established professionals with experience in the sport to oversee the training and certification of fighters referees, judges, cornermen and anyone else involved in any capacity in an MMA event.
Unbeknownst to most, except for a small group with whom the information about its existence was shared and which I was privy to, the groundwork for such a body was being laid for this past year behind the scenes by a veritable who’s who of Ontario’s MMA community.
Led by former Olympic wrestling coach Dave Mair, a decorated wrestler in his own right who has trained and cornered some of Canada’s best MMA fighters including Jeff Joslin, Mark Bocek and UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, The Canadian Grappling & Striking Sports Council was formed to offer the Ministry guidance in establishing a governing body to properly oversee sanctioning if and when the province decided to legalize MMA.
The overall goals of the non-profit organization is to ensure that Ontario’s athletes have plenty of opportunities to compete and that they have the safest and fairest stage on which to compete. A secondary, yet equally important goal of the group is to establish a means of funding for athletes from the various MMA disciplines who compete at the Olympic level.
Mair says he has spoken with a lot of fighters and coaches and has voiced their concerns during discussions with politicians like Aggelonitis.
“The worry we’re hearing from the MMA community is that there won’t be many shows here besides the bigger promotions like the UFC and Strikeforce, because the current athletic commission doesn’t have the means to sanction more than a handful of shows a year. We want to ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for local promotions and smaller venues in smaller communities as well as the big shows,” Mair explains. “That’s important, not only for the local economies, but also for the fighters coming up in the sport to have a stage on which to compete and to develop their skills as well as to grow the sport.”
If the OAC governs MMA like it does boxing and kickboxing in the province, occasionally sanctioning events as the commissioner’s schedule allows, Ontario will only see a handful of events regulated each year. If that happens it won’t take long before promoters start running non-sanctioned events through privately established commissions as is being done currently by start-up kickboxing promotions across the province.
In an article published a year ago in my local newspaper, a kickboxing promoter said he was contacted by Hayashi about a non-sanctioned event he was planning and that after he assured the commissioner that the event would not feature any MMA bouts, Hayashi told him that was his only concern and that he would not prevent the unlawful event from happening. And indeed he didn’t. Considering that the commission is basically made up of Hayashi and a handful of occasional contracted workers, including the commissioner’s wife and son, its no wonder there are issues like these.
Mair says he is aware of concerns that have been voiced to him by coaches, promoters and fighters about the OAC’s lack of the resources necessary to oversee MMA in the province and he says he is hoping his group can help fill any holes in any areas the commission needs help in.
“Underground events happen when there are no other avenues for athletes to compete. We’ve heard from a lot of people from various fighting disciplines from boxing to kickboxing who are very frustrated with the Ontario Athletic Commission because they don’t feel that they are providing them enough opportunities to compete with the few events that are being sanctioned. They feel that the doors of communication aren’t open,” Mair says. “Phone calls aren’t being returned and enquiries aren’t being answered and then gym owners are turning around and doing their own thing. It’s definitely not right but we know it is happening. That’s the kind of thing we want to prevent because a lot can go wrong in situations like that.”
Such concerns aren’t completely without merit.
During my five years as a mixed martial arts journalist, Hayashi has never returned one of my emails or phone calls including several requesting comment on this story, which, as a public servant whose salary is paid for by taxpayer dollars, he has a certain responsibility to do.
To help bolster the council Mair brought in some heavy hitters including former Ontario Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations and Solicitor General David Tsubouchi – the minister responsible for getting kickboxing legalized in the province who also oversaw the OAC and Hayashi at one time.
Tsubouchi, who returned to practice law in Toronto after leaving politics in 2003, explains that the impetus for starting the council arose from a desire to ensure the safety of athletes, to give competitors the means to compete and train at the level of other competitors and to help combat sports grow in the province.
“This is by no means a commercial venture. I’ve been working at this on a pro-bono basis because I believe it’s a good thing this group is trying to do. It goes beyond just mixed martial arts. In addition to helping educate and train individuals involved in the sport about the safety aspects and to improve the quality of officials, the other aspect we were looking at was to try to establish a revenue stream to support our Olympic athletes in all of the disciplines that make up MMA – our wrestlers and our boxers as well as our judo, our karate and our tae kwon do competitors and their coaches. When I watch mixed martial arts, you can see that there are a lot of up-and-coming Canadian fighters that need an opportunity. I think that the sport being legalized in Ontario is going to open things up for some of our young talent to get known and to get ranked like guys like Georges St-Pierre.”
Mair also enlisted the help of some longtime luminaries from the province’s vibrant MMA scene, like Olympic female wrestler Ohenewa Akuffo, former Olympic boxer and MMA trainer Ryan Grant and wrestling and MMA mainstay, Canadian national grappling team coach and Toronto police officer Shawn Geris.
The group met with Aggelonitis several times in the past year and the minister indicated that she was interested in working with them if legalization was passed.
Now that Aggelonitis is out and Liberal MPP John Gerretsen has taken her place as the Minister of Consumer Services, the CGSSC is in holding pattern waiting on the government’s next move.
It makes sense that the council’s efforts and hard work would at least garner them consideration in aiding the ministry in establishing their training programs.
Mair applauds the UFC for its effort in helping to get the sport legalized and says that the commission, whomever it is led by, should look towards the promotion’s benchmarks in safety and medical testing when setting the bar for its sanctioning standards.
“We want to make sure that every athletes, coaches, trainer and official is educated on as much as possible about the rules and the safety aspects of the sport before an event is ever held. The UFC has helped raise the standard of safety and that’s what we want to ensure is that every athlete competes under the safest conditions to ensure that there aren’t any unnecessary risks being taken by fighters,” Explains Mair. “Between medical requirements that need to be met and kept on file to corner men and official certification, we want to make sure that when we do see the sport officially sanctioned here that it’s done right. We want the sport to grow so that there are more opportunities for our athletes here at home and we want to make sure they are taken care of.”
“The big promotions have the upper echelon of officials that they use for their shows, but we want to ensure that all of our certified officials – from the referees, the judges and the corner men and everyone in between are equally as prepared and educated regardless of what level of show they work at,” he says. “We want the individuals working the smaller, more minor league-type shows to maintain the same standards of quality and safety as the big shows. There shouldn’t be a variance in the levels of certified individuals working events.”
Tsubouchi agrees, adding that the group possesses an unmatched level of expertise that would take years for a group of government appointees, who aren’t familiar with the sport, to develop.
“This association could be a very good vehicle for the government. Having been in the government, I know that you don’t make changes in a specific industry without going to the experts in that industry and asking for their recommendations. It gives them the opportunity to make suggestions and to offer their input rather than just pushing forth a government idea. The idea of this council is something that is supported by experts in all areas of MMA – boxers and wrestlers – the whole group,” Tsubouchi says. “The typical guy wants to see MMA in Ontario and there are always going to be people in the province who are against the sport. We want to ensure that all of the proper safety precautions are being met and that our athletes are kept safe when competing. We also want to ensure that our Olympic combat sport athletes have the means to train properly. The general population and many politicians don’t realize that the safety record of mixed martial arts and the UFC is much better than boxing. We need to educate not only the politicians, but also the public in terms of all of the safety precautions that are in place and that we want to see implemented, and implemented correctly here in Ontario, as well as across Canada.”
The group has had ongoing dialogue with a number of industry officials and community leaders who have committed to support their initiatives in whatever way they can. Revered Canadian referee Yves Lavigne and renowned cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran are just two of the high profile experienced individuals who have already pledged their support and have offered their services to the council.
They have also received the endorsement of a number of community groups like the Toronto Police Athletic Association. TPAA president John Stockfish gave us his thoughts on the initiatives of the CGSSC and credits the Mair and the council for coming together simply because of their collective desire to further the sport in the province and to ensure the athletes are taken care of.
“I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due and I think the CGSSC has taken a leading role in spearheading the legalization of the sport in the province. It’s great to see that the hard work of this group helped make a difference in getting mixed martial arts legalized in the province and we support and applaud their efforts. Knowing members of the CGSSC I know that their only motivation for wanting to be involved with seeing the sport regulated properly is their passion for combat sports,” Stockfish says. “From our standpoint, the main reason we wanted to see MMA legalized here was for the health and wellbeing of the fighters. Ensuring that events are properly regulated by way of mandatory medical, blood and drug testing and that qualified officials are overseeing and sanctioning events is the best thing for the sport. That’s why we’ve come together to back them. Martial arts and combat sport training have become an integral part of officer safety training. We want to see the sport grow in a positive manner and in the right way and we believe that the CGSSC will see that it’s done properly.”
To learn more info on the Canadian Grappling and Striking Sports Council, visit www.cgssc.com
*Editor’s note* Minister Gerretsen’s office declined an interview until he can be properly briefed on Minister Aggelonitis’ progress in getting the sport off the ground in the province. His communications officer supplied us with the following statement:
Thank you for your request for an interview with the Minister on the subject of Mixed Martial Arts. Unfortunately at this time we have to decline the interview. I am not sure where you are writing from so you may be unaware that the Government of Ontario announced a change in Cabinet Ministers on August 18th. Minister Sophia Aggelonitis was transferred to a new portfolio on that day and The Honourable John Gerretsen was appointed Minister of Consumer Services. Minister Gerretsen will need to be briefed on the Mixed Martial Arts file before conducting interviews.
I can, in the absence of an interview, provide you with the following statement from the Ministry:
The government of Ontario knows that MMA is increasing in popularity and that Ontarians are following the sport. We have heard from fans across the province and after thorough consideration, the government has decided to allow professional MMA in Ontario. The priority is safety, and the best way to strengthen safety is to regulate.
Ontario’s Athletics Commissioner will work with promoters and competitors to ensure they have the proper license and that mandatory health and safety standards are in place before any professional MMA event is held. We are looking at adopting the State of New Jersey’s MMA rules, which are the most widely used in North America.
We will consult with medical and sport communities, businesses, the general public and promoters on Ontario’s proposed regulations for professional MMA.
We anticipate the first professional MMA event in Ontario could take place in 2011.