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The Ultimate Fighting Campionship: That was then, this is now

Submitted by on June 30, 2011 – 7:45 pmNo Comment

Demand for mixed martial arts, and in particular the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has increased exponentially over the past decade.

But while MMA’s popularity has grown in leaps and bounds – as highlighted when more than 55, 000 people set the North American attendance record for the sport in Toronto at UFC 129 in late May – the sport, and its premier league, has only recently started to find mainstream acceptance.

Promoted in earlier years by its original proprietors as a collection of human cage matches, where no rules applied, the UFC once boasted a bad rep as a bush league promotion. Under new ownership, however, the UFC has, over the past 10 years, helped transform MMA from a fringe spectacle to a legitimate sport.

Recently, the Ontario government, after backing a ban for years, moved to regulate MMA in the province. The UFC’s director of Canadian operations, Tom Wright, believes moving into the province was always only a matter of time and knowledge.

Well-intentioned, smart people eventually make well-informed, intelligent decisions when they’re presented with the facts. I don’t expect everybody to be a fan but I do expect, if people are going to have strong opinions, they be based on facts,” Wright explains, adding: “The biggest challenge was one of education.”

Educating government officials was made easier by someone who, in Wright’s view, served as a beacon of reason within the Ontario government.

As is the case, in politics, in business and in sports, it always helps to have a champion,” he says. “And in this case the champion, at least from our perspective, was Sophia Aggelonitis.”

In her previous role as minister of consumer services, Liberal Sophia Aggelonitis (now minister of revenue) played an internal role in the legislative battle to legalize MMA in Ontario.

A self-admitted fan of the UFC, MPP Aggelonitis says the provincial government had been monitoring MMA for “some time” before finally coming to the conclusion that the sport was something it wanted to regulate in the province.

Aggelonitis says what the government needed to see, and what the UFC ultimately proved, was that its practices were safe, that athletes entering the octagon were in no more danger than hockey players taking to ice or football players to turf.

If this sport was here, we wanted to make sure it was safe. That is something we heard from all people,” she says. “It was time to make sure we regulated this sport in Ontario and this came from many Ontarians, not just one group.”

From her post at Queen’s Park, Aggelonitis explains how she fielded thousands of e-mail, letters and calls from people wanting the option of seeing MMA events in the province. The only natural move, she says, was to see to it the countless voices who spoke up on the issue were heard.

It’s a very, very popular sport. A lot of different fans were contacting me personally and saying, ‘there’s a time when we need to have a choice. And this is the time.’

Of all the files I had in my ministry, this one was probably the one that I got the most comments on,” she says. “Ontarians were telling me they wanted a choice to be able to see the sport they love.”

On Nov.12, 1993, 2,800 people braved a snow storm that battered the city of Denver, Colo. and gathered at McNichols Sports Arena to watch eight men fist fight for a $50,000 prize.

The event, a first of its kind in North America, was billed as “brutal,” where “street-tough warriors” battled “bare knuckle, locked inside a steel cage” and there were, as emphasized by the show’s announcers, “no rules!”

While there were in fact two rules, no eye-gouging or biting, Ultimate Fighting Championship: The Beginning was promoted as “no holds barred, anything goes,” for seven “brutal matches” and no time limits. Competitors also had to win three fights in the same night to claim the cash prize.

Almost two decades have passed since The Beginning. And though the company continues to grapple daily with an image tainted in its infancy, the tide has started to turn for the UFC.

Over the past decade – since the promotion was first purchased by Zuffa and Dana White installed as its president – the sport, Wright believes, has transformed from a spectacle of sorts to a respectable sport.

The UFC now has 31 rules, with illegal offences ranging from the obvious (hair pulling and fish hooking), to the imperative (striking to the spine or back of the head). The idea of a competitor fighting more than once in a night is laughable to men like Wright.

It wasn’t a sport. What we’re building now is a sport – the sport of mixed martial arts,” he asserts. “In order to be a credible, legitimate sport, you need to have rules. You need to have regulations, you need to have a level playing field and you need to have consistency in how events are conducted.”

One of the promotion’s most promising young lightweights, London, Ont.-based Sam Stout (26), has spent years promoting the sport in his home province.

Stout, who trains out of the Adrenaline gym in London, calls the Ontario government’s move to legislate MMA a “dream come true.” In his view, the decision reflects the UFC’s coming of age. No longer, says Stout, are people viewing MMA as an archaic cage match but, rather, as a legitimate sport.

It’s become a lot more of a mainstream sport and people are starting to really understand the rules, and get interested in it,” he says. “In the beginning, people were closed minded. And the people who were saying all these negative things about MMA had never watched a fight in their life, never looked behind the occasional bloody fight to see what these athletes are putting into it.”

Embodying many of the characteristics of a modern-day mixed martial artist, Sam Stout is educated, humble and well-mannered. He believes firmly in respect, both in and out the ring, and represents, in many ways, the reasons the UFC has found mainstream acceptance in its adolescence, despite an inglorious youth.

I realize it’s a young sport and there’s still a stigma attached to it, even though it has come this far,” says Stout. “But if you compare MMA fighters to athletes in other sports, in a lot of cases we’re more civilized. I’m not a criminal, I’ve never been to jail, I don’t get into street fights and I’m not a thug – I’m an athlete.”

The title of a book by American author S.E. Hilton may rightly define the difference between events put on by the UFC in the early 90s, when the company was owned by Semaphore Entertainment Group, and today: That Was Then, This Is Now.

Wright believes the UFC is nowadays the most regulated league on the planet, whose athletes are the best trained in the world. He uses words like “consistent” and “diligent” to describe how the company now conducts events and approaches the safety of its athletes.

We seek out regulation,” Wright emphasizes. “We will not hold an event in any jurisdiction where the sport is not regulated. If you don’t sanction the sport, it’s still going to exist; it’s going to continue to grow underground, in an unregulated state, where you’re not going to have consistency in officiating, rules and drug testing. And that is when accidents will happen.”

He believes that fact – coupled with the safety record of the UFC relative to other contact leagues (namely the NFL and NHL) and huge demand for UFC in Ontario – led to the legislative changes that now permit for an event like UFC 129 to take place.

With the sport’s popularity growing daily, Wright is confident opening new markets like Ontario is not a matter of it, but when. He stresses the greatest challenge the UFC faces going forward, is making sure people have factual information so they, like the Ontario government, can make informed decisions about the sport.

When you’re trying to do anything that’s new, when you’re trying to break through some traditional barriers,” he says, “there are often misconceptions and preconceptions about things that are more urban myth than anything else. The whole educational process isn’t a destination… it’s more of a journey.”

Story by Rémi L. Roy; lead photo by Alexander Vlad

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