Ontario Canada legalizes mixed martial arts

(Added on Oct 15, 2010)

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Although Noble Chummar has never stepped inside “The Octagon” — the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)’s caged ring —he certainly knows what it’s like to fight for the UFC.

Chummar, a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP in Toronto and legal counsel to the UFC in Canada, added a huge win to his record when the Ontario government recently announced the legalization of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the province.

“Most clients come to me and say, ‘Get government out of my way,’ whereas this particular client ran towards regulation,” said Chummar. “It’s very rare for a client to say, ‘Help us get government involved in our business.’”

Chummar was retained by the UFC a year and a half ago to help lobby the Ontario government to reconsider its stance on the legalization of MMA, which is currently sanctioned in six other provinces and 46 states.

UFC president Dana White had expressed interest in entering the Ontario market for a number of years, even going so far as to call Ontario the “Mecca” of mixed martial arts — one of the fastest growing sports in the world. According to the UFC, Canada represents approximately 17 per cent of its total business, and Ontario represents one of their largest fan bases in terms of pay-per-view buys. Earlier this year, the UFC opened their Canadian office in Toronto despite the fact that MMA was illegal in the province.

Major UFC events have already been held in Montreal and Vancouver — with tickets for the Vancouver event, which was held in June, selling out in less than 30 minutes. It was reported that the event held at Vancouver’s GM Place was attended by over 17,000 fans with a revenue of US$4.2 million.

The announcement not only opens the doors for UFC, the sport’s promotional heavyweight, to hold events in Ontario starting in 2011, but will allow the sport to grow at a local level as well.
Matthew Soble, an associate with Fogler, Rubinoff LLP in Toronto, is already acutely aware of the impact this announcement is having at all levels of the sport.

“Most of the economic talk seems to be about the actual events,” said Soble, who sits on the advisory board of the Mixed Martial Arts Expo, “but beyond that, for the local businesses — from gyms to merchandisers to athletes — there will be a definite influx economically speaking.”

Soble, who represents clients within the sport as part of his sports and entertainment practice, added that some clients said they were already seeing an increased interest in the sport just from the buzz created by the announcement.

The Ontario Athletic Commission now has the task of amending the Athletic Control Act, as well as developing the regulations — a process that will last into 2011.

“By regulating the sport you can ensure standard safety regulations, which simply don’t exist without regulation,” stated Chummar, adding that regulation also helps to legitimize the sport. “The sport is alive and well in Ontario without regulation, but the UFC…would not come to any jurisdiction that is not regulated.”

The UFC is not the only stakeholder running toward regulation. Adam Urch, the manager of administration of Xtreme Couture Toronto, an MMA training franchise headed by former UFC champion Randy Couture, also said that regulation is an important element in bringing the sport into Ontario.

“We don’t want this to become the Wild West out here with people running their own promotions and anybody and their brother being able to host mixed martial arts events,” said Urch. “Fighter safety is always the number one concern with us and with anyone who knows about the sport and wants to see the sport flourish.”

Urch added that he sees nothing but good things for the sport in Ontario as the new regulations come down next year.

“If nothing else, it’s just more opportunity,” he said. “By not having it legalized in Ontario, it made it really difficult for [fighters] who are really into the sport. They put their lives on hold to train and they put everything into it, so it’s good to see that now there’s going to be a lot more opportunities opening up for them, in terms of fights, sponsorship, for just about everything.”

Although Ontario has made great progress in helping to legitimize the sport, Soble said there are still steps that could be taken from a federal standpoint. “In addition to what’s happening in Ontario, I hope we see a nationwide move, preferably an amendment to the Criminal Code so there’s no mystery.”

A good idea? Maybe, especially since MMA doesn’t seem to be a flash in the proverbial pan.

“This is a sport that’s not going away,” said Chummar. “There are millions and millions of fans around the world and it’s extraordinarily popular. It’s no different than any other professional sport that we all enjoy.”

By: Elaine Wiltshire

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