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Middleweight Tom Lawlor, of Orlando, Florida, sends a message during a weigh-in on Friday July 10 in Las Vegas, as UFC President Dana White looks on. Lawlor faces CB Dollaway at UFC 100. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson
Middleweight Tom Lawlor, of Orlando, Florida, sends a message during a weigh-in on Friday July 10 in Las Vegas, as UFC President Dana White looks on. Lawlor faces CB Dollaway at UFC 100. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson

Stephen Brunt

Letting them bleed Add to ...

A little over 20 years ago, the Province of Ontario was forced to decide how it really felt about combat sport.

The athletic commissioner of the day, Clyde Gray, was revealed to have been more interested in making life easy for some boxing promoters than in enforcing the rules designed to protect fighters' safety in an extremely dangerous game.

Gray - a former boxer who had been appointed by a previous government of a different political stripe - was fired, and eventually convicted of a criminal offence.

Those who replaced him were instructed to follow the rules to the letter when it came to medical checks and verifying records and imposing suspensions after knockouts, even if that made it far more difficult and far more expensive to promote. Ontario wasn't in the boxing business - it was in the regulatory business, in the business of protecting lives. It took its lead not from fight people with vested interests, but from neurologists, who, when it comes to boxing, not surprisingly, tend to be in the abolitionist camp.

And if that meant there was little or no professional boxing in the province, so be it. It wasn't the government's problem.

Now comes another test.

Ontario is one of very few places in North America that still refuses to permit bouts featuring mixed martial arts, arguing that, under the Criminal Code, staging fights other than those contested under traditional boxing standards is illegal.

Popularized under the Ultimate Fighting Championships banner, MMA has become an extremely hot property, especially among the 18-35 demographic, outstripping boxing and wrestling when it comes to pay-per-view numbers.

Major UFC shows have already been successfully staged in Montreal, where the local athletic commission has chosen to ignore, or at least differently interpret, the Criminal Code, and Quebec's Georges St-Pierre is one of the sport's biggest stars.

In order to gain wider acceptance, the UFC made the savvy move of hiring the former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Marc Ratner, a highly respected figure in the boxing world, to oversee and overhaul its own regulations, and to lobby the jurisdictions which had yet to legalize MMA. Most of them have come on board now, with Ontario being one of the major exceptions.

Even taking into account all of that history, the Gray scandal, the attitude that making it easier for people to fight for money isn't necessarily in the public interest, it's a bit difficult to understand why.

Once upon a time, when it evolved out of the world of tough-man contests, MMA was not so far removed from what U.S. Senator John McCain once labelled "human cockfighting." Its appeal, such as it was, came from the fact that it was effectively no holds barred, a bloody, brutal free-for-all.

It's not that any more, and it hasn't been that for a long time. You still get the knee-jerk reactions - see some of the stuff written following UFC 100 last weekend - and MMA still certainly isn't for everyone. (It's not just the anti-fighting crowd that object. Traditional boxing fans tends to hate it, and perhaps tend to feel a bit threatened by it.) But to argue that it is more dangerous than boxing, and therefore less deserving of state sanction, is simply wrong.

When Arturo Gatti died last week, he was immediately celebrated for his ability to absorb, as well as dish out, punishment. His three fights with Micky Ward, in which both boxers fought back from the brink of knockout again and again, are regarded as modern high-water marks of the sport.

In MMA, those kind of fights simply don't happen. The combatants don't suffer repeated blows to the head. They aren't concussed, only to rise before the end of an eight count, and then allowed to fight on. They don't routinely absorb hundreds and hundreds of head shots (albeit, while wearing headgear) as part of their training regimen.

If the possibility of brain injury (and, in extreme - and extremely unlucky - cases, ring death) is the chief concern, then boxing, which is legal nearly everywhere, would seem far more problematic than a sport in which bouts are stopped quickly when one of the fighters is stunned, in which it is possible to nobly surrender by tapping out rather than going out on your shield.

There's plenty of blood in MMA, but the injuries tend to be superficial. Beyond that, the objections seem to have more to do with the look and tenor of the crowd, with the culture of the sport, than they do with what is actually taking place in the octagon.

Where to start with things that make those of us with a foot in a different time feel a bit uneasy?

But that's an issue of taste and sensibility, and those aren't the government's problem, either.

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