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After tough fight over UFC, Vancouver officials bloodied, but unbowed

A bloodied Chuck Liddell, of Santa Barbara, Calif., bleeds during his match against Rich Franklin, of Cincinnati, Ohio, during UFC 115 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Saturday June 12, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/ The Canadian Press

With Vancouver's first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship now over, city politicians and bureaucrats are heaving a sigh of relief at seeing the end of their own long, gruelling cage match.

For months before the Saturday event, they were battered by high-testosterone reports from pro-mixed-martial-arts bloggers and sports reporters accusing them of being recalcitrant or obstructionist, and head-butted by rumours that the event might be cancelled.

City manager Penny Ballem, somewhat bloodied but unbowed, said it was been a rough go but that's to be expected when you're in a business negotiation.

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"They're tough and we have to be equally tough and firm back. But my job has been to make sure we don't compromise or leave the city at risk," said Dr. Ballem, who stuck to a hard-line position of requiring three levels of financial protection for the city.

Dr. Ballem says the road has been paved so future events that bring the popular mixed-martial-arts matches to the city will be much simpler to regulate and approve.

As a sign of the new good feelings, Mayor Gregor Robertson showed up for a part of the six-hour event, and UFC president Dana White said his company would like to come back to Vancouver.

But the match between the city and UFC promoters had many wondering what the real problem was. A too-cautious city? A major U.S. sports-promotion group determined to get its way? The media?

For another sports promoter watching with some bitterness from afar, the problem seemed obvious.

"It seemed to be like the city was semi-bullied by the UFC," said Mark Pavelich, president of Maximum Fighting Championship, an Edmonton-based company that also puts on mixed martial-arts events. "And they just rolled over for them."

Mr. Pavelich had tried to put on an MMA event at Vancouver's Agrodome and was told there was no way the city could come up with the protocols and legal framework in time for his event. Yet the UFC event, scheduled for around the same time, managed to get the needed city agreements in place, albeit after some tussling.

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At the other end, Vancouver's athletic commission chair Mirko Mladenovic didn't blame the UFC. Instead, he repeatedly criticized the city process and told media that Vancouver was obstructing chances of holding the event.

In March, after a flurry of reports that the event would be cancelled and then that it was back on, Mr. Mladenovic said the commission had applied its own pressure. According to media reports at the time, he said, "We really went into it with the city last night, started kicking some backside."

Vancouver, which felt exposed legally because neither the province nor the federal government has laws or a process in place for mixed martial-arts matches, insisted on three levels of protection: millions of dollars worth of insurance, a commitment from the promoters that they wouldn't sue the city, and a cash deposit in case either of the first two assurances didn't work out.

At the March meeting, Mr. Mladenovic, in a first for a city advisory committee, appeared with his own lawyer and disagreed with Dr. Ballem over insurance levels, proposing that UFC be asked for only $5-million in insurance, instead of the $12-million the city wanted.

Still others thought a big part of the problem was overeager sports media.

Councillor Kerry Jang frequently found himself pilloried by local bloggers and reporters for making any comment that sounded less than enthusiastic. (Ironically, he voted in December in favour of the city's two-year test for MMA events. Councillors Andrea Reimer, Raymond Louie and Ellen Woodsworth were opposed.) "I think the main problem was the reporting," he said. "I don't think it was a problem with the UFC."

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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