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Senate to open hearings on mixed martial arts with eye to amend Criminal Code

Former CFL commissioner Tom Wright heads the UFC off ice in Ontario.

Frank Gunn/CP

A Senate committee will open hearings Wednesday on a bill to amend the Criminal Code to include mixed martial arts.

Scheduled witnesses before the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on Wednesday and Thursday include Bal Gosal, minister of state (Sport), Tom Wright, the UFC's director of Canadian Operations (Ultimate Fighting Championship), Ontario Athletic Commission head Ken Hayashi and Patrick Reid, executive director of the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission.

The Senate bill is the creation of Senator Bob Runciman (Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, Ontario), who is chairman of the committee.

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Section 83 (1) of the Criminal Code currently permits boxing as long as it is overseen by an athletic board or commission or similar body. But it does not refer to mixed martial arts.

Bill S-209 (an act to amend the Criminal Code — prize fights) expands the section to include the popular new sport, in which fighters use a mix of martial arts.

The outdated Criminal Code wording has not stopped the sport in recent years. Georges St-Pierre of Montreal is the current world welterweight champion in the UFC.

Provincial or local athletic commissions have sanctioned events across the country, essentially operating under the belief that MMA is no different from boxing. Ontario was the biggest holdout, eventually agreeing to allow the sport in early 2011.

"It's all about providing a consistent and very clear regulatory environment for our sport to be able to grow," Wright said in an interview from Calgary.

"The heart of that consistent regulatory environment is the health and safety of the athletes. And that's why it's so important. We're a young sport but we still need to make sure that everyone who puts forward a professional mixed martial arts event is held to the same rigour in terms of all the regulatory requirements."

The B.C. government has introduced legislation to create a provincial body to administer combat sports. Previously it was left to a patchwork of local authorities, including Vancouver which had a two-year test run.

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The UFC has held events in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver with Calgary slated to have its debut show in July. The Edmonton-based Maximum Fighting Championship is the largest Canadian-based MMA promoter.

The proposed bill also fleshes the section out to include amateur combat sports "if the sport is on the programme of the International Olympic Committee" or sanctioned by a province's lieutenant governor or "or any other person or body specified by him or her."

After the hearings, the Senate can opt for more hearings or go over the proposed bill line by line. If approved, it would go to the full Senate for third reading and possible vote.

If it makes it through the Senate, it then has to go to the House of Commons.

Bills, with the exception of money or budget bills, can originate in the Senate

The hearings happen the same week as the UFC invades Calgary to bang the drum as tickets go on sale for the July 21 show there.

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Bill S-209 was referred to the committee by the Senate on April 26 for further consideration.

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