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Senate okays bid to decriminalize mixed martial arts

Georges St-Pierre grapples with Jake Shields in a welterweight Ulitimate Fighting Championship title bout in Toronto on April 30, 2011.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A Conservative senator's bid to remove the criminal prohibitions against mixed martial arts and other combat sports has been approved by the Red Chamber and is off to the House of Commons, where it will be debated when MPs return in the fall.

With the popularity of mixed martial arts growing and Ultimate Fighting Championship events drawing tens of thousands of people, some provinces, including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, have have found ways to get around the section of the Criminal Code that outlaws all combative sports except boxing.

"They are sort of interpreting it that this is boxing," Senator Bob Runciman, the sponsor of the bill, said in a telephone interview Friday.

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But mixed martial arts is not boxing. "And, if someone wanted to say 'you are breaking the law, why isn't this enforced?' they would have a case," Mr. Runciman explained.

His bill would change definition of a prize fight in the Criminal Code – a section of the law that has not been updated since 1934 – to allow any amateur combative sport that is on the program of the International Olympic or Paralympic Committee, allow amateur sports that involve fists, hands and feet, and permit professional mixed martial arts matches. All events would still require approval by provincial authorities.

When the Liberal government in Ontario allowed the province's first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship last year, the card drew 55,000 fans to the Rogers Centre in Toronto. That came after a protracted period of debate within the cabinet of Premier Dalton McGuinty, with several ministers expressing concern about the perceived barbarism of UFC.

But mixed martial arts is North America's fastest growing sport. There is a major event coming up in Calgary in July and matches in Montreal sell out quickly.

Massimo Pacetti, a Liberal MP from Montreal, has agreed to sponsor the bill when it gets to the House of Commons, Mr. Runciman said. "So that's a good sign in terms of the Liberal Party being on side with this," he said. "I know that in our own caucus there are a few people who may not be enthusiastic. And that may even be right across the board because a lot of people don't like the sport."

Mr. Runciman said he is no fan of mixed martial arts himself. But, as the law now stands, even karate and judo events could be deemed illegal, he said. And "it makes sense to have laws coincide with what is now accepted practice."

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