Cage fighting came to Parliament Hill on Thursday and, for a change, it was non-partisan and all rather tame.
Athletes and advocates for mixed martial arts — the violent and wildly popular spectator sport that has made the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, into a multimillion-dollar, global industry — are lobbying parliamentarians for changes to the Criminal Code.
"We're fighting for regulation. We want to be governed. We want to be under rules," Mark Hominick, a featherweight fighter from Thamesford, Ont., said amidst a buzz of MPs and Hill staffers.
"We want the law on our side."
Current federal law says anyone who engages in or aids, abets, umpires or reports on a prize fight "is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction."
The only exception to the "prize fight" definition in the law are provincially sanctioned events in which "the contestants wear boxing gloves of not less than one hundred and forty grams each in mass."
The law effectively dates back to the mid-1800s, say advocates for mixed martial arts, and doesn't reflect current realities. Some provinces have gone ahead and sanctioned UFC events, others have not.
Judging from Thursday's reception, there appears to be all-party support for changes to the federal law, so the event was less about lobbying legislators than it was about swinging a skeptical public over to the merits of the latest "sweet science."
Heritage Minister James Moore served as cheerleader in chief, playing host to a reception that saw a parade of MPs and staff get autographs and have pictures taken with Hominick and bantamweight fighter Yves Jabouin.
"We want to make sure Canadians understand this is a fast-growing sport, the fastest growing sport in the world," Moore told the crowd.
Finely tuned athletes kicking, punching and wrestling each other into submission inside a caged ring still seems to trouble some Canadian sensibilities — especially at a time when head shots in sports and the dangers of concussions are dominating sports pages, Moore noted in an interview.
"Unfortunately as you know, it has a little bit of a stigma still with some folks who are little bit hesitant about welcoming it into the mainstream of the sporting world. I think that's silly."
Moore noted the largest gate in the history of the sport — 55,000 fans — happened in May in Toronto, "so this is something that's not going away any time soon."
"And the idea of legislation should be not to impede but to accelerate the regulation of the sport so that those athletes participating in it can do so with as much protection as possible."
Justin Trudeau, the Liberal sport critic, welcomes a legal change and compared mixed martial arts to sanctioned boxing.
"If you approach it on that level, I don't think there's any fear we're going to be in dingy basements throwing money at bare-chested, bare-knuckle brawlers," said Trudeau, harkening back to the 1830s when Canada's first "prize fighting" bans were enacted in law.
"I don't believe in banning something that a lot of people obviously enjoy partaking in," Trudeau added, after having his picture taken with the fighters.
Any irony that the high-profile endorsement came in the same week that the Conservative government is pushing ahead with a legal crackdown on violence and on drugs — another popular Canadian pastime that some argue should be regulated for health reasons — seemed lost on both Moore and Trudeau.
"I wouldn't draw the same parallel," said Moore.
'Mecca of our sports globally'
Tom Wright, the UFC director of Canadian operations, called Canada "the Mecca of our sport globally" yet noted just six of 10 provinces currently sanction the sport because of uncertainty concerning the federal law.
And everyone stressed the proposed legal changes relate to athlete safety and cross-country consistency — not the bottom line of a growing and lucrative business.
"This isn't about what's good financially for the UFC," said Moore. "This is about what's good for the sport itself and the athletes who are trying to make a living within the sport. ... Of course, certainly the UFC's part of that because they are such a dominant force in the sport."
Dr. Hugo Theoret, a researcher for the Canadian Institutes of Health Researchers at the University of Montreal, said sports that involve contact with the head are getting close scrutiny as more studies are conducted on the effects of athlete concussions.
"I don't know if it sends the right or wrong signal, but one thing is for sure: If you allow more sports that have blows to the head, then obviously there will be health consequences for the persons taking part in the sport," Theoret said in an interview.
But Jabouin, the Haitian-born bantamweight who is a rising star in mixed martial arts, said that "compared to boxing, there's a lot fewer head shots. There's so many different ways to win."
Jabouin said "you can practically win a fight without having to hit the guy once" — although his own 16 career wins include 11 knockouts or TKOs.
Moore said it just makes sense to regulate the sport and have a level playing field across the country, and he defended the beauty of a combat sport that some won't find to their taste.
"There's an actual athletic component to this and a sport aspect to this that is as old as time: the idea of two people competing against each to see who is the more dominant," said Canada's minister for culture.
Moore noted "it's not for everybody" but with such a large public following, regulating the sport "makes a lot of sense for those young kids who might be thinking about participating."