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With Canadian doctors calling for a ban on their sport, mixed martial artists train at a gym in Etobicoke, Ont., on Aug. 25, 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
With Canadian doctors calling for a ban on their sport, mixed martial artists train at a gym in Etobicoke, Ont., on Aug. 25, 2010. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Doctors urge mixed martial arts ban Add to ...

Cage fighting, ultimate fighting and other forms of bare-knuckle mixed martial arts should be outlawed because they are barbaric spectacles that pose a high risk of brain injury, Canada's leading doctors' group says.

The Canadian Medical Association said Wednesday that regulating mixed martial arts is insufficient and it should be banned outright.

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But backers of the wildly popular sport came out swinging, saying the physician lobbying group is motivated by ill-informed snobbery, not evidence and that practitioners of mixed martial arts suffer no more brain injuries than cheerleaders and hockey players.

Mixed martial arts, once a marginal sport, has became a lucrative business in recent years. With astute lobbying and media blitzes promoters have managed to get the sport sanctioned in seven provinces. But, along with mainstream acceptance has come scrutiny and criticism, most pointedly from doctors.

"It's savage and brutal. The aim is to disable and maim your opponent. … We should not tolerate this so-called sport in a civilized society," Victor Dirnfeld, an internal medicine specialist from Richmond, B.C., told the general council of the CMA in Niagara Falls, Ont. on Wednesday.

The rhetoric was no less fiery on the other side.

"MMA may well offend one's personal sensibilities, but for better or worse, the current medical evidence does not support a ban on MMA based upon an unacceptable incidence of major injury," said Dr. Johnny Benjamin, a medical columnist for MMAjunkie.com "We are no longer practising based on anecdotes, personal experience or sporting preferences."

He also criticized the CMA of hypocrisy for going after mixed martial arts but not boxing. But, in fact, the CMA also wants boxing banned, a position it has held since 1986.

Gordon Mackie, a Vancouver neurologist who led the campaign for the ban on mixed martial arts prize fights said that given the popularity of the sport it was important for doctors without a vested interest to speak out and warn of the dangers.

"We wanted a medical perspective added to the discussion," he said.

Dr. Mackie said about 50 per cent of mixed martial arts matches end in knockout, technical knockout or 'choke out' - all of which can cause brain injuries. "Legislators should put a priority on brain health," he said.

He also noted that there have been deaths related to bouts and countless injuries that may have long-term consequences on fighters' health.

In June, Michael Kirkham, 30, died after a fight in Aiken, South Carolina. Mr. Kirkham was knocked out, suffered a brain hemorrhage, and died two days later. And in 2007, Sam Vasquez, 35, succumbed to complications of blunt trauma of the head, after losing consciousness following a third-round knockout in Houston. Doctors discovered blood clots on his brain, performed surgery, and put Mr. Vasquez into a medically-induced coma. The 35-year-old remained in the coma for six weeks before passing.

Tom Wright, president of UFC Canada, said there are unfortunate incidents in all sports and mixed martial arts should not be singled out.

He said CMA delegates have not done their homework, accusing them of being "outsiders" who did not make a genuine effort to understand the sport, and suggested that they should work with regulators to make the sport as safe as possible.

"I wouldn't propose a ban on hockey without talking to the NHL," Mr. Wright said. "I'd ask if any of them attended our events, or talked to our athletes."

During the CMA debate, some physicians worried that banning the sport would simply push practitioners and fans underground.

"Even if it's revolting, mixed martial arts is meeting the needs of a marginal part of the population," said Yun Jen, a community-health specialist in Laval, Que. "If we support a ban, it will fuel a clandestine movement that will likely be more violent."

Dr. Jen said that, instead of demanding a ban, physicians should push for stricter regulations aimed at minimizing head injuries. Delegates to the CMA convention rejected the compromise, voting 84 per cent in favour of outlawing the sport.

Atul Kapur, an emergency room physician from Ottawa, said a ban could drive prize fighting underground but, if it does, "it will make it easier to call it what it is: illegal and assault."

Defenders of mixed martial arts often argue that head injuries are no more common in their sport than in hockey or skiing but Dr. Kapur said that is a bogus argument.

"There is a big difference. … The intent of hockey and skiing is not to cause bodily harm to your opponents."

The CMA said it is not calling for restrictions on the practice of martial arts for fitness. It is violent bouts, usually involving prize money, that the group is seeking to have outlawed.

To date, seven Canadian provinces have sanctioned mixed martial arts bouts.

Ultimate Fighting Championship, a MMA promotion company, has staged massive pay-per-view events in Montreal and Vancouver. Other companies like World Extreme Cagefighting, have staged events in cities like Edmonton. Ontario said it will allow mixed martial arts prize fights beginning next year.

Jean Nelson, a lawyer for the CMA, said that the Criminal Code prohibits prize fighting matches with the exception of boxing matches that are sanctioned by provincial bodies. Some provinces have interpreted this as meaning mixed martial arts fights are illegal, while others believe they can sanction the matches as they do boxing.

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