The Ultimate Fighting Championship's director of Canadian operations wants Saskatchewan to change its rules so the company can bring its wildly popular events to the province.
"We can't go to Saskatchewan until such time as the sport is properly regulated," said Tom Wright, who was in Montreal for Saturday night's UFC 158. The event was expected to sell out the Bell Centre with around 20,000 fans paying a live gate of approximately $4 million.
Wright has made it no secret that the company is interested in holding an event in Saskatoon. The size and quality of Credit Union Centre makes for an attractive host building, Saskatoon and Regina are strong pay-per-view markets for UFC events and UFC has promotional ties with SaskTel.
But Saskatchewan does not have a provincial athletic commission to regulate fighting sports such as boxing and without a commission, Wright says UFC will not do business in the province.
The provincial government says while it is looking into the idea of commission, no change "is imminent right now."
"We are having discussions on it right now. As you know, ministry officials have been looking at what other jurisdictions are doing for quite some time," said Jim Reiter, Saskatchewan's minister of government relations.
Reiter says the government is waiting on changes to federal regulations before deciding on whether or not to create a commission.
Meanwhile, Tourism Saskatoon says those potential changes to federal law could effectively make sports like judo, kick-boxing and MMA illegal in the province unless the government decides to create a commission.
"If people are interested in the sport - and people are interested in various high risk sports - we want to ensure that there is guidelines in place," said Randy Fernets, from Tourism Saskatoon.
Tourism Saskatoon has sent a letter to city council urging them to lobby the provincial government to create the regulatory body in advance of the federal changes.
If passed as expected, the change to Section 83 (2) of the code will expand prize fighting to include not just boxing, but also mixed martial arts, which combines jiu jitsu, wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai, judo and other forms of combat.
Since 1934, under strict interpretation of Section 83 (2), sanctioned boxing has been considered the only legal form of prize fighting, although every province with an athletic commission currently allows MMA.
"A lot of the problem that we have without having a commission here is my guys sit a year or more in between fights because we don't have a commission here and we can't have fights here," said Graham Weenk, whose gym, Alliance Martial Arts Systems, boasts some of the most popular MMA fighters in the province.
Weenk said not only would a provincial commission attract big events like UFC, but would help the industry and the popularity of local fighters.
"There is no fighting here for us. We have to travel everywhere," Weenk said.
The Canadian Medical Association has voted to seek a ban on MMA prize fighting, saying participants are at high risk for broken limbs, lacerations and brain damage.
UFC has been hugely successful in Canada, with president Dana White routinely calling it "the Mecca" for UFC. In April 2011, its first-ever event in Toronto shattered records with a crowd of 55,724 paying a live gate of $12,075,000.
UFC has returned twice to Toronto, averaging 17,552 fans paying $2.9 million. UFC recently announced an event in Winnipeg as well.
Wright said it was "very encouraging" to hear about a push from Tourism Saskatoon in support of bringing professional mixed martial arts to the province.
"It's a reflection of where the sport has come the last several years," he said, noting that UFC has now held events in half of the Canadian provinces.
"We've been trying to get some traction in Saskatchewan for some time."'
Once a commission is in place, it would likely only be a matter of time before UFC booked an event - likely a cable television card, not a pay-per-view - in Saskatoon. In addition to the cities that have already held UFC cards, Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa and Edmonton are also targets.
There are an infinite number of potential host cities around the world, said Wright, but a finite number of annual events.
Wright noted that B.C. and Alberta are now moving toward provincial regulatory bodies like those currently in place in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
(Saskatoon Star Phoenix)