Falling behind


Uncovering the reasons behind the ban on professional MMA in the Prairies

Dietrich Neu
Features Editor

It’s an average Saturday night in Tabanan, Bali. Hundreds of spectators gather around a small concrete circle, sheltered by a worn-and-torn tent tucked away in a discrete location. The quiet buzz of excitement fills the shaded makeshift arena, spectators quietly discuss the events to come, and others discretely place bets at a table off in the corner.

Two men enter the circle from opposite ends; both are holding their prized gamecocks, birds they have trained themselves to fight and kill. Both of the birds have blades attached to their legs to inflict additional damage. The quite buzz of the crowd quickly turns to cheers as the fight begins and the two birds charge at each other and attack. The bout is short – a few minutes of the birds flying, scratching, slashing, biting, and stabbing each other until one of them finally hits the ground, killed by multiple stab wounds in the throat – blood smears the scene of the finish. 

The winning bets are collected, the circle is cleaned, the tent disassembled, and everyone leaves.

Cockfighting is a traditional form of entertainment throughout Southeast Asia involving two gamecocks involuntarily forced to fight one another, often to the death.

Mixed martial arts, one of the fastest growing sports in the world today, is often compared to the gruesome scene depicted above and is frequently referred to as “human cockfighting.”

MMA combines various forms of martial arts into one contest, but it is often dismissed by critics as blood sport, rather than a legitimate athletic competition. As a result, it is still banned in several countries around the world and remains illegal in a handful of regions across North America, including Saskatchewan.

“I think it’s bullshit,” Miles Anstead declared. Anstead, 22, is one of Saskatchewan’s top mixed-martial-arts prospects with an amateur record of 3-1. As Anstead puts it, the hostility towards mixed martial arts is confusing considering the types of athletic competitions that are more socially accepted in North America.

“Everyone watches hockey on TV,” he said. “They love these hockey fights that are completely accepted, but really, those are guys on the ice who are fighting to settle a dispute, not for competition.”

Anstead’s frustration is something he shares with proponents of MMA the world over. During the course of its short history in the limelight, mixed martial arts promotions such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship have had to scratch and crawl their way to mainstream acceptance. And although a lot has changed in the 20 years that the UFC has been working to promote the sport, governments and activists around the globe still speak out against the perceived brutality associated with MMA.

No matter where the sport is banned, politicians have largely led the charge to keep it that way, rarely citizens. During his campaign to ban the sport in 1999, U.S. senator John McCain famously coined the term “human cockfighting” in his letters to governors in all 50 states. Other governments in countries such as Germany have offered heavy resistance from political figures, despite the fact that MMA is fairly well-accepted by the general population everywhere it goes.

Amid the resistance to the revolutionary combat sport is controversy. Allegations of politicians working with professional boxing promoters, the supposed “rivals” of MMA, to keep the sport illegal, in addition to unfounded remarks about the sport’s brutality, have only served to aggravate the tension between MMA enthusiasts and their critics.

While the U.S. has had its own well-documented battles with MMA regulation, Canada has had its own share of difficulties getting the sport legalized, the struggle for regulation in Ontario being the most notable. 

While Ontario did eventually legalize the sport for professional competition, mixed martial arts still remains illegal in Saskatchewan, one of the last provinces in Canada to do so.

During Ontario’s path to regulation, it was the same story, different scenery. Mixed martial arts were viewed as a brutal freak show, rather than an athletic competition. It was only after years of lobbying, and fans calling for change, that the laws where altered to allow professional competition.

But why is the sport illegal is Saskatchewan? Mixed martial arts practitioners have been without an avenue for professional competition, and fans have been left without the opportunity to watch live MMA on a professional level.

The battles for regulation in regions like New York, Ontario, and Germany have been well-documented, full of drama and controversy. However, little is known about why the sport has remained illegal in the heart of Canada. There has been minimal news coverage on the issue apart from passing statements that acknowledge the illegal status of MMA in Saskatchewan.

Are we seeing another rehash of the drama and ignorance observed in New York and Germany? Or is there a simpler, more logical explanation?

MMA, a brief history

Mixed martial arts is a full-contact sport that divides into two foundational phases: grappling and striking. Striking is what most North American fans are familiar with, causing damage to an opponent by hitting him or her with kicks, punches, and elbows to the body or head. Grappling is the lesser-known side of the story. In grappling, a competitor uses a wide range of physical maneuvers to gain an advantageous physical position over their opponent, then, once the dominant position has been achieved, uses strikes or attempts a submission hold.

Mixed martial arts’ combination of striking and grappling allows competitors to incorporate techniques from virtually every other pre-established combat sport in existence. 

Although the sport of MMA has only been in the spotlight for a short amount of time, the roots of the competition date as far back as ancient Greece in the form of the historic martial art Pankration, style of wrestling that allowed striking. 

Hybrid martial arts competitions continued well into the early 1800s, and at this time, still featured wrestling with striking elements. During the late 1880s and early ’90s, the first professional boxers competed in bouts with world champion grapplers.

While the early forms of MMA consisted mostly of wrestling combined with punching, modern mixed martial arts can be traced back to Brazil. The Brazilian based Vale Tudo competitions were the first to hold raw, no-holds-barred martial arts contests with very few rules (the name itself means “everything allowed”). 

These brutal contests developed a large cult following in Brazil throughout the early 1920s and continued until 1993, when the now-famous Gracie family decided to bring Vale Tudo to North America.

The Gracie family was well known in Brazil for their implementation of what is now called “Brazilian jujitsu” – a grappling martial art that, unlike wrestling, focused not on slamming your opponent to the ground and holding him there, but rather attaining a physically-dominant position on the ground and applying painful joint-locks or chokeholds that forces an opponent to submit defeat. 

In 1993, the Gracie family held the first UFC event, UFC 1, in Denver, Colo. The first event was much like the Vale Tudo competitions in Brazil: no-holds-barred; only biting and eye gouging were deemed illegal. A member of the Gracie family, Royce Gracie, dominated much larger competition, winning UFC 1 with his skilled use of Brazilian jujitsu to submit boxing, karate, and wrestling stylists who had never seen submission fighting before. 

UFC 1 is often regarded as the defining moment in the history of modern mixed martial arts. Royce Gracie dazzled spectators by dominating opponents who outweighed him by as much as 100 pounds to win the tournament. Martial arts enthusiasts all over the world became fascinated with the notion that correct technique and an appropriate fighting style could seemingly nullify size and strength advantages.

However, despite being the launching pad for modern MMA, UFC 1 was a double-edged sword. The brutal “anything goes” rules implemented in 1993 are often used to criticize modern day MMA, despite significant rule changes to improve safety.

After UFC 1, the popularity of MMA began to grow. More and more athletes became enthralled by the prospect of a martial arts competition that combined all styles into one. Boxers began adding grappling techniques to their skill sets, wrestlers began adding submissions, and jujitsu specialists started learning how to strike.

As the sport began to grow, and more events were held around the U.S., new rules were implemented to improve safety and silence critics who deemed the sport to be overly brutal. Some critics claimed it was not a sport at all.

As time went on, martial arts went through a kind of “natural selection.” Less-effective fighting styles were quickly weeded out of competition in favour of the more-effective and practical techniques.

Weight classes were added to prevent size disadvantages and, in 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic commission conducted a meeting to compile a system of rules that has now become known as the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

Under these new rules, fighters were required to undergo medical examinations before and after a fight, and ringside physicians became mandatory. Twenty-eight new fouls were implemented to protect athletes from serious injuries to the neck, head, and vital organs. The rules also banned fighters from grabbing the fence, unsportsmanlike conduct, and disregarding the referee’s instructions at any time.

The result was a new and improved sport. The unified rules put athletes on a safe, even playing field, while maintaining the core elements of grappling and striking that enthralled fans around the world.

Today, MMA is a thriving sport enjoyed by millions around the world. Hundreds of thousands of athletes around the globe train full-time in multiple disciplines. Many observers now view the fighters as some of the most disciplined and hardest training athletes on the planet.

The road to regulation and acceptance

Despite the vast changes to the sports regulation, rules, and presentation, mixed martial arts has still had a difficult time being accepted as a real sport by many viewers.

In spite of an astounding safety record, MMA has faced heavy criticism for its violent imagery, caged ring, striking of downed opponents, and potential to “poison youth.”

Much of the criticism from media outlets, such as Fox news, and outcry from politicians like John McCain is focused around the visual perception of the sport: what they see, rather than medical or scientific evidence regarding the sports’ brutality.

Video footage of underground, unregulated bare-knuckle fighting events are often mixed with footage of early UFC tournaments in combination with quotes from political figures proclaiming that the sport is “barbaric,” “full of people trying to kill each other,” or “the rebirth of ancient gladiators”.

“I think it totally spits on what I train for,” Anstead said. “People look at it more as a sideshow than what it actually is. People don’t realize that there is a lot more to it – you are training in multiple martial arts at the same time. It’s a complete art form and, for the amount of time an effort I put into it, to hear some guy talk about it that way is ridiculous.”

Athletes like Anstead have been defending MMA for decades, trying, one conversation at a time, to convince people that, although the sport may look excessively brutal at first glance, the danger is minimal compared to other full-contact sports.

That claim appears to be backed up by the numbers as well. In an age of athletics where the prevention of severe head injuries is paramount, mixed martial arts, quite surprisingly to some, is far less dangerous than other full-contact sports such as football or boxing.

Over the past 20 years, two athletes have died as a result of injuries suffered in an MMA bout. Those numbers may seem dreadful at first, but compared to the whopping 146-boxing-related fatalities (51 of which occurred at the amateur level) and another 40 fatalities for football, two fatalities is hardly enough to label MMA as a “blood sport”.

At its current pace, it would take 1,472 years for mixed martial arts to reach the same death toll that boxing has eclipsed in just 20, and 780 years to reach the numbers of deaths in football.

In addition, a study performed at John Hopkins University concluded that non-brain related injuries in MMA where on par with other combat sports. The study also concluded that the frequency of brain-related injuries in MMA, such as concussions, where much lower than that of both boxing and football.

“You watch a boxing match, and you see how many times these guys get hit in the face, it’s ridiculous,” Anstead said. “You’re not getting hit to the head as many times as boxing, and sometimes you can be fighting an MMA match and not even get punched once.
“NFL players have some of the worst head injuries in the world, but football is totally socially accepted. Everyone has a hate on for [MMA] and I don’t know why. I just think that it is a bunch of close-minded people that are trying to get rid of something that they know nothing about.”

At the moment, athletes like Anstead, who yearn to compete in mixed martial arts, have to settle for amateur competition. Although these amateur competitions are themselves very well-regulated, an absence of a professional scene only serves to limit the sports growth in Saskatchewan for the long term.

Anstead acknowledges the well-executed amateur events in the province, but insists that having professional competition would be a catalyst for the sport’s development.

“There would be more to shoot for. There would be more promotions coming to town and more guys to fight. It would take off pretty quick,” he said. “Saskatchewan has a very huge grappling influence. You don’t hear about too many MMA fighters coming out of Saskatchewan, just because it isn’t very big here.

“When you ban pro, it prevents bigger promotional companies from coming into the province. But I think that if pro took off, you would be seeing some pretty tough guys coming out of Saskatchewan. I don’t know what it is, but there is something in the water here. We have some really tough fighters.”

Anstead also believes fans have a lot to gain from professional caliber shows coming to Saskatchewan. As he puts it, seeing fights live is a totally different experience.

“It would be nice, man,” he said. “There are so many awesome promotions across Canada. I think that if we opened up to pro [MMA], we would definitely see some of the bigger names coming to town. It’s one thing to watch it on TV, but it is very different to see it live. I think a lot of people would be really amazed if they took the time to watch it.”

Why is it illegal in Saskatchewan?

With the long history of government intolerance towards mixed martial arts, it would be easy to assume that the Government of Saskatchewan is hiding behind the same biased, unfounded opinions as previous lawmakers have. The provincial government claims that is not the case here.

Unlike the drama in New York, or the media frenzy in Germany, the provincial Government of Saskatchewan takes a more practical stand on the MMA situation. To put it simply, they maintain there hasn’t been a large enough demand for it yet.

Scott Langen is the executive director of the Sport and Recreation branch of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport. He explains that the issue in Saskatchewan is not about problems with the sport itself, but rather, the sanctioning bodies that are required by law to regulate the bouts.

According to federal law, all fights are illegal, unless there is a provincial sanctioning body in place to oversee and regulate the sport on a professional level.

“Saskatchewan does not have a professional sanctioning athletic commission,” Langen said.

According to Langen, a sanctioning commission needs to be economically feasible. If there is not enough demand for professional competition, maintaining an athletic commission becomes impractical.

“If you go back to the’80s,” Langen said. “There was a boxing commission set up temporarily, and there were a few bouts that occurred at that time.”

Since there is no sanctioning commission currently in place, Langen’s comments also imply that Regina’s previous boxing commission dissolved because of a lack of interest and public pressure to keep the commission running. However, Langen did note that they have been receiving more interest as of late.

“Over the last year or so, there have been some questions and requests that have trickled in,” he said. “[They’re] wondering if we’ve looked at it, wondering if we have one, asking if we would look into it.”

Although interest in a commission has increased recently, the provincial cabinet has not provided any means of establishing a sanctioning commission at this time.

Langen’s branch is currently conducting preliminary research into other jurisdictions around Canada and the United States, with goal of reviewing and comparing other models for athletic commissions in those regions.

“Ontario recently had a provincial commission rollout,” he said. “They had pro boxing, and so what they did was expand their regulations to include more boarder combative sport activities. Manitoba also has a provincial commission. Alberta, on the other hand, has multiple municipal commissions. So we have done some cross-Canada examination, but again, it is very preliminary.”

Langen admits that he has no idea if their research will lead to a professional commission down the line.

“At this point in time we are really just looking at the models,” he said. “We would also need to do a cost-benefit analysis. All of that would need to be done before any decision could be taken forward. So it is probably too early to tell at this time.”

Langen points to a lack of demand as the prominent issue preventing Saskatchewan from implementing an athletic commission at this time, not intolerance of the sport.

“Obviously, within any population, you’re going to have individuals who are supportive and individuals who aren’t supportive,” he said. “I don’t think that is why there is not [a commission] here yet, I think we just haven’t seen the demand for it yet. However, it is an increasing activity, and that’s probably why we have done some of the in-house work to get ourselves ready.”

MMA regulation in Saskatchewan is still far away at this time. If the government does decide the “demand” is there, and look at legalizing professional mixed martial arts, it will require new legislation, which could take up to 12 months.

Advocates of MMA, like Anstead, believe that the demand is already there, and it will only continue to escalate with the addition of top-level promotional companies crossing the Saskatchewan boarder. In the mean time, all of the top mixed martial artists from the prairies will have to search outside of the province for professional competition – taking their talent with them, for fans else ware to enjoy.

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