The country's largest doctors group wants government to ban mixed martial arts, a sport it calls dangerous because of the risk of potentially lifelong injuries to fighters.
After often heated debate, about 250 delegates attending the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association in Niagara Falls, Ont., voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to campaign for a ban on "mixed martial arts prizefighting matches in Canada."
Mixed martial arts (MMA), sometimes also referred to as ultimate fighting, is a combat sport that employs elements of various fighting techniques, including boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu.
Dr. Anne Doig, outgoing CMA president, said one of physicians' primary responsibilities is to promote good health.
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"We are concerned when people engage in activities the sole purpose of which is to pummel, kick, punch, scratch — whatever methods they use — until either somebody is seriously hurt or injured or somebody cries uncle and submits," Doig said at a news briefing.
"This is an activity that leads to serious issues, including damage to people's brains, and we must speak out against that.
"What policy makers decide to do with that information is up to policy makers. But Canada's physicians oppose any activity that would directly lead to the maiming and injury of Canadians."
Mixed martial arts isn't the only combat sport that the CMA wants to get the chop. For almost a decade, the organization has been trying to get boxing prohibited.
Tom Wright, who heads up the Canadian office of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the company that promotes MMA and organizes competitions, said the league is as rigorous as any professional sports organization when it comes to the health and safety of its athletes.
"And frankly, that's a rigour that we will continue to uphold," he said, adding that the UFC would welcome an opportunity to work with the CMA to ensure proper regulatory requirements are in place.
In MMA, opponents use techniques from boxing to wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Ontario, the most recent to embrace the popular sport, will begin sanctioning fight cards next year.
The sport is governed by standards and regulations aimed at protecting participants in the seven provinces and 44 U.S. states where MMA events are allowed.
Ontario, the most recent to embrace the popular sport, will begin sanctioning MMA fight cards next year.
Ontario Consumer Minister John Gerretsen said Wednesday he welcomes the advice of any group, particularly the CMA.
"What's got to be understood is that the safety of the participants is the top priority," Gerretsen said from Kingston, Ont. "We really and truly believe that the best way to strengthen that safety is to regulate the sport, to ensure that promoters and competitors are appropriately licensed and explicit health and safety standards are in place."
The ministry has been monitoring mixed martial arts for some time, he said, and injury rates in regulated competitions are similar to other combat sports.
MMA in Ontario will be governed by the provincial Athletic Commission, which also oversees boxing.
Wright conceded that injuries do occur — as with any combat sport — including broken bones and concussions.
"And you know what? We worry about those concussions, and that's why we will make sure we test our athletes before and after [matches] and put in the appropriate kinds of medical suspensions," he said.
During often impassioned debate prior to the CMA vote earlier Wednesday, delegates jousted over the issue, with some arguing the CMA didn't have enough information to call for a ban, while others wanted a distinction made between recreational mixed martial arts and bouts fought for money.
Those who spoke in support of seeking a ban often cited concerns about brain injuries, which have the potential to cause permanent disability or even death.
"We've heard about other dangerous sports such as skiing and hockey," said Dr. Atul Kapur, an emergency department physician from Ottawa. "The difference between skiing, hockey and mixed martial arts and boxing, which we have a policy on, is the intent of skiing and hockey is usually not to cause bodily injury to your opponent."