Vancouver could be in line to bring back Ultimate Fighting Championship events after the introduction of a provincial law designed to break the deadlock over regulation and supervision of combat sports.
The city was scratched from the UFC lineup in 2012 because civic officials delayed a decision on renewing a trial period that allowed professional fighting events for the two previous years.
On Monday, the B.C. government introduced legislation that will establish a new body to govern those events across the province.
“With a provincial athletic commission, I would have no issue with it,” said Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang. “The commissioner will set the safety standards, the insurance – all the things we had to do on our own. … If UFC wants to come back, so be it.”
The move comes just as Ontario is warming up to the sport – allowing its first sanctioned professional event last year after a decade-long ban. A single UFC event can bring in millions of dollars to a community and Toronto is playing host to one event in September.
“It’s great news,” said Tom Wright, director of operations for UFC Canada. “It’s all about a consistent framework for athlete’s safety.” He said the UFC held two successful pay-per-view events in Vancouver but went elsewhere this year – Calgary, Montreal and Toronto – because city hall has still not given the sport the green light.
“In the absence of clarity, we could not come back until the city formally extended the trial period.”
British Columbia has left municipalities to govern such events although it has been pressed for years to take over the role. Now it will join four other provinces in regulating and supervising professional fights including boxing, kick-boxing and mixed martial arts.
Ida Chong, Community, Sport and Cultural Development Minister, could not say when the new commission will be running. The regulations will be drafted only after legislation in other provinces is examined. The bill was one of six pieces of legislation introduced on Monday, a last-minute flurry in the final weeks of the spring session.
Ms. Chong said the province will no longer allow municipal regulation of these combat sports, although local governments will be able to ban such events in their communities.
The commission is to provide a consistent standard of qualifications and safety protocols through licensing and permitting. Organizers would have to follow the rules or have their permits cancelled or suspended. Penalties could be imposed as well.
But Mr. Jang said he hopes the commissioner will listen to local communities when it comes to managing events. “Who has to pay for the policing? It has to be us. We need to have some input.”
Promoters of mixed martial arts said the changes are overdue and will help it gain recognition as a major professional sport.
“With this in place, I foresee UFC coming back, bringing millions of dollars to the province of B.C.,” said promoter Darren Owen of the Victoria-based Armageddon Fighting Championship. “This will take the sport to the next level.”
“It’s just better for everybody,” said Stan Peterec, another event promoter who runs a martial-arts gym in Victoria. He said right now it is difficult for organizers to track data about a fighter’s health or whether the fighter has been suspended. Having licenced referees and clear rules “will change everything. It will be a lot safer sport.”
He said the province has been reluctant to get involved until now. “I guess MMA is so big, you can’t push it out of the way any more.”
Although the UFC is currently only interested in one market in B.C. – Vancouver – Mr. Wright said the changes should improve the quality of the sport over all.
Canada plays host to three of the UFC’s 15 events held every year around the globe, and Vancouver’s pay-per-view market is one of the biggest in North America.
“Our sport is a young sport – it’s not even a teenager in terms of years,” he said. Issues such as drug testing and properly trained referees need to be dealt with consistently, he said.
“The sport in this country is one of the fastest growing; we want to make sure it grows responsibly.”