Maybe it has something to do with the Maple Leafs missing the playoffs for six straight seasons, but Toronto the Good has a lot of pent-up blood lust. Enough to account for all 55,000 seats for the first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts staged in the city being snapped up in just 20 minutes. Enough to hand the Las Vegas-based promoters of the April 30 beat-downs a gate estimated at more than $10 million, the most lucrative single event in the history of the Rogers Centre, née SkyDome. So much that even the Bay Street suits have gotten in on the action, with more than 90 per cent of the stadium’s luxury suites sold to bankers, stockbrokers and head office honchos. “We’re not going mainstream,” says a satisfied Tom Wright, the UFC’s point man in Canada. “The mainstream is coming to us.”
Once feared, and infamously reviled by John McCain as “human cockfighting,” mixed martial arts (MMA) has gone from outlaw sideshow to big-time sport in just a decade. In 2001, only Nevada and New Jersey sanctioned the punishing bouts—kitchen-sink combinations of wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu, Thai kickboxing and pretty much every other type of weaponless combat ever devised. Today, it’s legal in 45 of the 48 U.S. states that permit prizefighting, as well as nine Canadian provinces. UFC, a privately held company and the sport’s biggest brand, is estimated to be worth more than US$2 billion. Propelled by stars like Montreal’s Georges St. Pierre—who will defend his welterweight title against American Jake Shield in Toronto’s main event—it attracts corporate sponsors like Anheuser-Busch, Bacardi, Burger King and Gatorade. Fights are now broadcast to 150 countries worldwide, and in 2010 UFC’s pay-per-view offerings drew more than nine million “buys” in North America alone, generating upwards of $400 million in revenue. (By comparison, WWE wrestling, which once dominated the sector, sold less than two million buys.)
But for all the global growth, the epicentre of MMA fandom is Canada in general, and Ontario in particular. “On a per-capita basis, this is by far our largest market in the world,” says Wright, a former commissioner of the Canadian Football League. The first card ever held in Vancouver last June drew more than 17,000 people. Two title fights with St. Pierre in Montreal both packed 23,000 into the Bell Centre. The Toronto event will be the biggest live show in the sport’s history. (UFC title fights in Vegas usually draw around 11,000.) Maybe Canada, like Australia, another MMA hotbed, simply has a culture that embraces any and all sport. Or perhaps decades of watching hockey goons duke it out has created a deep-seated appetite for pugilistic mayhem. “What happens at a hockey game when a fight breaks out? It’s 18,000 people on their feet,” says Wright. “We, as a people, just get the UFC.”
How big is mixed martial arts in the country’s most populous province? Four months after it was finally legalized by Dalton McGuinty’s government, the Ontario athletics commissioner has already handed out permits for 20 different events, versus just three boxing cards and one kickboxing bout. “Basically, it’s the Wild West right now,” says Robin Black, a Toronto musician turned MMA manager, commentator, blogger and ring announcer. “There are all these people coming out of the woodwork to stage events. Some of these guys are offering fighters twice their normal salary.”
One of the more established promoters jumping on the UFC bandwagon is the Jones Entertainment Group, which has events planned for mid-May in London, Ont., and early July in Sudbury, Ont. A family-run company for three generations, the Jones Group specializes in bringing live shows to smaller centres. Its founders, Charles and Wilf Jones, were the bookers for Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. Charles’s son Don had a two-decade-long touring collaboration with the late Ernie Coombs, a.k.a. Mr. Dressup, and still manages Stuart McLean, host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Cafe. His son Brad Jones, now the JEG president, has found success with acts like Roch Voisine, the Rankin Sisters and Alice Cooper. “It gives us an opportunity to branch out into the sporting world,” Jones says from backstage at a Larry the Cable Guy show in Kitchener, Ont. Decades ago, his father and grandfather used to put on the occasional boxing and wrestling show. “This isn’t that far a departure,” he says. The London show, at the 5,500-seat downtown arena, is already half-sold. The marketing plan relies heavily on ads on classic rock radio, and the databases of the local Ontario Hockey League teams. The demographic is 18 to 45, loves hockey and is “obviously male,” says Jones. “It’s not Mr. Dressup or Stuart McLean. Definitely not.”
The damage done is catalogued in the “remarks” section of the post-fight reports prepared by the Nevada Athletic Commission. “Must have right orbital blowout and nasal fractures cleared by oral, maximal, facial surgeon,” reads one from a January 2010 UFC bout at the MGM Grand. There’s a report of a “broken left ulna/forearm” from a May fight, and hearing loss and a broken jaw at a July event. Page after page of knee injuries, suspected fractures of ribs, hands, wrists and feet, and plenty of lacerations. Few leave the caged-in octagon unscathed.
And that’s the way UFC’s growing legion of fans like it. “We know that our sport is a combat sport, a contact sport and a violent sport,” says Wright, sitting in his office overlooking Toronto’s harbour. “And we’re not about to try and be politically correct to appeal to a wider audience.”
In fact, MMA used to be far rougher. When the contests first started in the early 1990s, they had no weight classes and pitted masters of different types of combat sports against each other, with results that were often as bloody as they were lopsided. It was literally no holds barred, and there was no point system or even ringside judges. Marc Ratner, the long-time executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and, since 2006, the UFC’s chief lobbyist, remembers going on CNN’s Larry King Live in the late 1990s to decry the events. “I said the state of Nevada could never have a sport with no rules.”
It wasn’t until 2001, the year Vegas Casino magnates Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and their jiu-jitsu buddy Dana White purchased the UFC name for $2 million, that stakeholders came together in New Jersey and gave the sport its first formal rule book. (Ontario, like most jurisdictions, has adopted those unified regulations.) Then began the slow climb to respectability and recognition. “Our mantra is that we run to regulation, not away from it,” Ratner says from his Nevada offices. The sales pitch always begins with talk of UFC’s focus on health and safety—annual medical testing, mandatory pre- and post-fight evaluations, MRIs or CAT scans, as well as training suspensions after knockouts, and lengthy layoffs between fights.
MMA proponents maintain that the risk of serious injury in their sport is less than boxing because of its fewer rounds, officials that have more discretion to stop bouts, and fighters who have the option to “tap out” and surrender with honour. Although equal credit is probably due to those who apply the rules. After UFC 128 in mid-March in New Jersey, the State Athletic Commission handed out medical suspensions to 10 of the 28 fighters involved. A few days later, Ontario’s commissioner ruled out American fighter Brian Foster from UFC 129 in Toronto, after an MRI showed a damaged blood vessel in his brain.
But the more compelling argument for governments in favour of UFC across North America has undoubtedly been the economic one. It is predicted that the Toronto event will produce as much as $40 million in economic spinoffs, and earn the province $1.5 million on the ticket sales tax alone. And it’s money that seems to be willing to travel—analysis of box office data from the first UFC event in Montreal in 2008 suggests that 40 per cent of the fans came from Ontario. When Wright started the UFC’s Canadian operation last May, he told Ontario Liberals that their principles had long ago been trampled by commerce. “If MMA fans wanted to engage in our sport they could go to any store and buy an action figure, video game, magazine or DVD. They could go on the Web, or watch it for free on Sportsnet, or get the pay-per-view at home or in a bar,” he says. “But they couldn’t watch it live. It didn’t make any sense.” Less than three months later, the McGuinty government dropped seven years of opposition and welcomed the sport.
Despite that, Canada is still not quite as welcoming as the UFC would wish. Section 83 of the Criminal Code, which restricts legal prizefighting to boxers wearing at least 140-gram mitts (the open-fingered gloves used in MMA weigh about half that), has slowed the sport’s growth. In British Columbia, for example, where there’s no provincial athletic commission, the City of Vancouver has allowed fights under a two-year pilot project, but is making each fighter carry $1 million in liability insurance—10 times the standard amount. In recent years, the UFC has spent a lot of time and money trying to convince the Harper government to explicitly write them into the definition, even dragging Georges St. Pierre up to Parliament Hill for autograph sessions with MPs and senators. But the changes, part of the Tories’ omnibus crime bill, keep dying on the order papers due to prorogations and, most recently, this election. On the hustings, Harper has promised to reintroduce and pass the sweeping crime legislation within 100 days of being handed a majority government. So it’s no mystery who Las Vegas is pulling for this time around. “We’re still very bullish on Canada,” says Ratner. “But it would be a lot easier if the sport was regulated all across the country.”
The day before and the day of the big fight in Toronto, the UFC is holding a Fan Expo that is expected to attract tens of thousands, each paying $40 ($35 in advance). Along with the long lines seeking autographs from past and present MMA stars like Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, and Anderson Silva, and the crush competing for photos of the scantily clad “Octagon Girls,” there will be a quieter table featuring Michael Tucker. The American filmmaker is premiering his latest documentary, Fightville, at Toronto’s Hot Docs Festival on April 28. The film traces the story of a couple of troubled kids from the hardscrabble neighbourhoods of Lafayette, La., seeking redemption and meaning through their fists and feet. It’s a long way from the Rogers Centre. The battles play out before small crowds in rodeo rings. And graduating to “pro” status on the USA-MMA circuit earns you $500 a fight, with a $500 bonus for victory. The big time is represented as a televised fight in Montreal.
It’s a departure for Tucker and his co-director and wife, Petra Epperlein. Their last four films, including the critically acclaimed Gunner Palace, revolved around Iraq. Tucker says it was the soldiers who turned him on to MMA. And he sees an interesting link between all-too-real combat and what takes place in the octagon. “We live in this very sedate, almost disembodied digital society,” he says. “And I think that’s why these martial cultures have an appeal. It’s something intense and real, with physical meaning and consequences.”
In an increasingly fragmented marketplace, one of the UFC’s advantages is its appeal to the social media crowd. The company has more than five million “likes” on Facebook, and its loudmouth public face, Dana White, counts more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter. Anheuser-Busch’s research shows that 76 per cent of 21- to 27-year-old beer drinkers are fans. And a recent U.S. poll of marketing executives ranked the sport number three in terms of reaching the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, ahead of baseball, basketball and hockey.
Nick “The Ninja of Love” Denis, the No.-1-ranked bantamweight MMA fighter in Canada, knows the sport’s appeal. The 26-year-old recently cut short his studies in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa, opting for a master’s instead of a Ph.D. “When you win, it’s the best feeling in the world. People say it’s better than sex,” he says. An arm injury has kept him out of the ring for more than a year. Now he’s back training in Montreal, living hand-to-mouth with his girlfriend, a pastry chef, and dreaming of the big time. “I’m on the radar,” says Denis. “Two wins at the most, and hopefully I’ll be in the UFC.” Violent dreams for violent times.