05/09/2012 04:43 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Conservative minister signals support for mixed martial arts legal change

OTTAWA - Proposed changes to the Criminal Code that would clear the way for provinces to freely sanction mixed martial arts as "prize fights" got an easy ride in the Senate on Wednesday.

Bal Gosal, a junior minister in the Conservative government, set the tone when he spoke to the "reasonableness and even necessity" of the reforms.

"I do not believe that popular sports, that are played under an accepted set of international rules, should be deemed to be explicitly illegal in Canada by the mere fact that they are combative sports," Gosal told a Senate committee.

The Canadian Medical Association has come out in favour of banning not only MMA, but also boxing, due to concerns over concussions.

But the green light from a minister of the federal government all but assures the legislation will pass through the Conservative-dominated Senate and House of Commons.

"Mixed martial arts are growing in popularity and organizations — including the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC — have already achieved popular acceptance in Canada and around the world," said Gosal.

Currently, the Criminal Code defines a prize fight as an encounter or fight with fists or hands.

That means that, technically, not only is MMA outside the law, but also Olympic sports such as judo and taekwondo.

But the driving force behind the proposed legal change is the roaring global success of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

"Honourable Senators, this is big business," Senator Bob Runciman, the Conservative who is sponsoring the bill, told the upper chamber when he introduced the bill April 4.

He noted the top four gates in UFC history were all in Canada, including last year's event at the Rogers Centre in Toronto that drew a record crowd of 55,000, generating direct economic activity worth $22 million.

Canadians, said Runciman, account for 25 per cent of the UFC's global commercial closed-circuit television sales.

"These numbers tell the story. Canadians have made their decision on this, and that's the primary reason I'm introducing this bill."

The changes not only broaden the definition of prize fighting to include feet and fists, but also allow provinces to authorize "specific contests" as they see fit.

Ontario and Quebec have already developed what Gosal called a "work-around position" to the law by designating UFC as boxing events, but the clarity in the Criminal Code will take away any lingering worries by other provinces.

A major UFC event is planned for Calgary in July, the ninth in Canada and the fourth province to play host to what is, in point of law, an illegal prize fight.

The issues of concussions was the only point of minor controversy in Wednesday's Senate hearing.

The committee heard from an Alberta doctor who has overseen taekwondo events for a decade and MMA since 2010.

Dr. Teresa DeFreitas said a 10-year study in Alberta showed slightly fewer injuries — including concussions — among MMA fighters than boxers.

"Unfortunately (globally) there's not a lot of solid studies on the subject," DeFreitas testified.

Ken Hayashi, the head of the Ontario Athletics Commission, said he has been to all 17 MMA events staged in Ontario since Jan. 1, 2011, and hundreds of boxing matches over the years.

"I absolutely do not believe it's any more dangerous than boxing," he told the committee.

Hayashi recommended to the committee that it increase the penalties for unsanctioned prize fights under the Criminal Code in order to discourage underground events.

The strongest rationale for proposed changes to the law — beyond simple economics — is that by sanctioning MMA, the sport can be better monitored and regulated for safety.

"If you just completely ban it, I'm concerned that it would go underground or go elsewhere and there would be no opportunity for medical intervention," Dr. DeFreitas told the senators.