TORONTO - Having succeeded in helping re-open Vancouver to mixed martial arts, the UFC continues the fight to get the sport sanctioned in Ontario.
That involves a two-pronged approach, with lobbyists working on both the Ontario and federal governments. Having expected sellouts shows in May in Montreal and June in Vancouver should help the UFC cause in Toronto, although privately the UFC acknowledges Ontario has proved to be more difficult than expected.
That's frustrating to an organization that knows a burgeoning mixed martial arts audience awaits it in Toronto.
"We know the interest is there," said Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice-president of regulatory and government affairs.
"Toronto, on a per-capita basis, is our best market -- pay-per-view buys, of television viewers, of bars that are buying it. It's very much a hotbed."
The UFC also saw the Toronto effect in the number of fans that came from Ontario to see UFC 83 and UFC 97 in Montreal in April 2008 and 2009.
Canada has proved to be an ace in the hole for the UFC, whose top officials admit they never expected the sport to be such a hit north of the border. The UFC is extremely keen to harvest that interest in Ontario
The MMA juggernaut has engaged former Ontario premier David Peterson and his Cassells Brock & Blackwell law firm to help lobby the Ontario government. Meanwhile on the federal front, the UFC is using the services of the Capital Hill Group, a lobbyist that specializes "in building constructive, mutually beneficial partnerships between business and government," according to its website
Ratner and the UFC already have the Rogers Center and the Air Canada Centre on side. A senior Rogers executive even reached out to local media earlier this year to add his voice to those who want the sport sanctioned in Ontario.
In addition to working on the province, Ratner and his team are trying to get the federal government to amend the Criminal Code to expand the section that permits boxing to include mixed martial arts.
The existing wording has not stopped shows from being staged from B.C. to Nova Scotia. Still, there is currently a confusing patchwork quilt of regulation governing MMA in Canada, with the sport approved in some jurisdictions, but not in others.
Ratner has been to Ottawa once already and is planning a second visit to Ontario in the next two months. He talks weekly to his provincial and federal lobbyists here and is also looking west.
"I've been talking to Edmonton, I've been talking to Calgary," he said.
"I think Alberta definitely is a possibility ... We're absolutely looking at it," he added. "We had a wonderful letter from the mayor of Edmonton inviting us to bring a show there. So there's a lot of positives."
The UFC is already making steady progress. City officials in Vancouver voted Thursday to allow sanctioning of the sport for a two-year trial period.
Massachusetts and Rhode Island recently came on board to bring the total to 42 states. Legislatures in Alabama, West Virginia and Wisconsin are looking into sanctioning the sport and the UFC continues its full-court press on New York. Vermont and Connecticut are in the on-deck circle.
That leaves only Alaska and Wyoming, which do not have athletic commissions.
"Every jurisdiction is different," Ratner said. "It's still about education. And that's what we're doing more than anything else, saying it's not 1993 or '94 where there were no rules, anything goes. It's a different sport from that. So we have to show it to them. We show them medical reports and injury reports.
"We talk about the state of Nevada, how many shows they've had. The most serious injury we've had here in Nevada was Tim Sylvia's broken arm. I wish I could say that in boxing. I can't say that."
Ratner is one of the UFC's major weapons in the education campaign. Prior to joining the UFC in 2006, he had served with the Nevada State Athletic Commission since 1984, and was executive director for the last 13 of those years.
He is well-respected and well-liked, given his credentials are impeccable and he has an easy way about him. Anyone looking for a bad review of Ratner will have a long time to wait.
So is the MMA regulatory finish line in sight?
"It's impossible to predict, but it's just time to embrace the sport," Ratner said. "You saw the excitement in Memphis (at UFC 107 last Saturday)."
Whatever one thinks of mixed martial arts, a UFC show is a boon to hotels and local business. The Vancouver Athletic Commission, for example, can probably expect a six-figure cash injection from its cut of the UFC gate.
"Wherever we go, when we go to a new market, the energy is so great. It's a happening," added Ratner.
"And it'll be large in Vancouver and certainly it will be unbelievable in Toronto some day."