TORONTO - Mixed martial arts fans gave Dalton McGuinty a virtual smack down Wednesday after the Ontario premier said he's not ready to allow wildly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship events nor similar fights to be held in the province.
Despite the likelihood such matches would generate much-needed tax revenue for the cash-strapped province and jobs, McGuinty said it's "just not a priority."
"We have higher priorities when it comes to developing those jobs and strengthening the economy," said McGuinty, who has suggested in the past he was open to having mixed martial arts fights in Ontario.
"We have other things on the go right now, and we'll stay focused on those, whether that's our tax reforms, stimulating the economy through investments in infrastructure, getting our children better opportunities at the outset."
UFC spokesman Marc Ratner said in a release that the group respects McGuinty's position that MMA regulation is not a top priority.
"However, we are confident that our efforts in educating Canadian officials including members of the provincial cabinet will eventually result in regulation of the sport in Ontario," said Ratner.
Despite a strong fan base in Ontario, mixed martial arts fighting -- or MMA -- has long been banned because it's considered to be prize fighting -- making it illegal under the federal Criminal Code.
It can, however, be licensed by provincial and municipal athletics commissions, something that has happened in various provinces and U.S. states.
MMA is one of the world's fastest-growing spectator sports and the UFC, the sport's top promoter, has claimed an event in Toronto could generate $4 million in tax revenue. UFC president Dana White has called Canada the "Mecca" of his sport, citing healthy ticket sales to Canadians for shows around North America and elsewhere.
The backlash online was fierce, with MMA enthusiasts trashing McGuinty for failing to support the sport.
"What is McGuinty talking about -- not a priority? It's not like hosting a UFC event is some project the provincial government is going to organize, promote, host, etc.," said one posting on TSN.ca.
"All that's being asked is you pass one law so that it's not ILLEGAL."
Another reader added: "McGuinty needs a triangle choke."
A posting on bloodyelbow.com stated: "Sweet, now we can watch infrastructure investments armbar tax reforms instead of watchin' those lame GSP fights."
Georges St-Pierre of Quebec, who is often referred to as GSP, is the welterweight champion of the UFC.
Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak said the premier should stop "wrestling with himself" and "just get on with it."
"Forty states allow for mixed martial arts, five other provinces -- just direct your minister to make it happen in the province of Ontario," Hudak said.
"Let's bring some tourism dollars to our province."
Mixed martial arts matches are permitted by provincial athletic commissions in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Manitoba. Municipal athletic commissions in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Prince George, B.C., and several other B.C. communities also sanction MMA events.
Consumer Services Minister Sophia Aggelonitis said the province was watching the sport and aware of its popularity, but like the premier, said she wasn't ready to back it.
"We want to make sure that we protect not only our spectators but also sports participants," she said.
Asked outright whether he found something in mixed martial arts offensive, McGuinty declined to elaborate, nor did he say if he was closing the door on the sport altogether.
Ontario has objected to the 1-on-1 fights in the past, saying they're too violent. McGuinty has also suggested that regulating the sport may be a better option than banning it and forcing its followers into underground fights, with no medical precautions and little training.
Events are planned for Montreal and Vancouver as early as this spring.
That's where Ontario residents will have to travel if they want to watch the sport -- which combines elements of fighting sports such as boxing, wrestling, kick-boxing, karate and jiu-jitsu -- live.