Canada becomes mecca for MMA

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MONTREAL — Things haven't always been easy for Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White in Canada.

He's spent thousands of dollars lobbying, but mixed martial arts is still not legal in Ontario. In March, he nearly had to pull UFC 115 out of Vancouver because of the city's insurance concerns. And there was talk last year that UFC 97 would be moved from the Bell Centre in Montreal because of the Quebec Boxing Commission's determination to prevent elbow and knee strikes.

White was in Canada on Thursday hosting a new conference for UFC 113, which is Saturday at the Bell Centre, and to listen to him rave about Canada, you'd think he's on the verge of applying for citizenship.

When asked about all the roadblocks he's faced in promoting in Canada, White just beamed.

“Nothing about Canada puts me off,” he said. “I'd come to Canada every weekend and do a fight if we could.”

It's a testament to the passion for the sport in the country. Tickets for UFC 115 on June 12 at GM Place in Vancouver sold out in 30 minutes, making it the quickest sellout in MMA history.

UFC 97, despite the controversy about the rules and despite the fact that Canada's most popular fighter, Georges St. Pierre, wasn't on the card, set a North American MMA attendance record with 21,451 fans.

Two of the five largest paid gates in UFC history were in Montreal. UFC 83 came in third at $5.1 million (U.S.) and UFC 97 was fifth at $4.9 million (U.S.).

When White, along with partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, purchased the UFC in 2001, he envisioned having great success in the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom. He believed passionately in the product and felt strongly that it would succeed everywhere, but knew it would be a struggle.

He was dead wrong about Canada, though.

“When we first started this company, the three no-brainers for me were the United States, Mexico and the U.K.,” White said. “They traditionally had had a lot of fight fans and a lot of top fighters had come out of all three of those countries. I never saw Canada coming. I never saw how popular it would be here and how big it would be. It really is the mecca.”

Joe Ferraro is one of the most prominent Canadian MMA media members. He hosts a television show, “MMA Connected,” that airs Monday evenings at 11:30 on Rogers Sportsnet and hosts a radio show, “The Showdown,” in the greater Toronto area.

He said the passion for MMA in Canada is unparallelled. He said he's sometimes afraid to walk by himself to the arena because he's mobbed by Canadian fans. He said he was pleasantly surprised by the sport's acceptance when he became involved in 1998.

Ferrar0 wanted to become a fighter himself, but his body kept failing him, so he got into promoting, managing fighters and doing consulting jobs before he joined the media in 2002.

It wasn't until he interviewed UFC star Wanderlei Silva that he said he learned why MMA resonates so well in Canada.

“[Silva] came to the station one time and he said to me, ‘Joe, I've figured out why MMA is so popular here,’” Ferraro said. “I said, ‘What did you figure out?’ And he says, ‘You Canadians, you play that sport with the stick on the ice. It's quiet in the crowd until they start fighting. And when they start to fight, everyone in the crowd jumps up and goes nuts.’ I thought that was a good analogy. He smiled and said, ‘Fighting is in your blood. It's just in your blood up here.’”

Sam Stout of London, Ont., who fights Jeremy Stephens Saturday in a highly anticipated lightweight bout, said he's recognized far more often in Canada than in the U.S. and said the passion level for the sport is palpable.

“The fans in Canada are really passionate, both in Ontario and in Montreal, and really just anywhere in Canada,” said Stout, who has won Fight of the Night honors four times in his eight UFC bouts. “The big MMA shows like this are a lot fewer and more far between in Canada. There's only been one big one a year here. That has something to do with it.

“I don't know what else it is, but it's pretty clear that the people here just love it. The people in Ontario want it to come there so bad. They're really so passionate about it.”

Stout is convinced Canadian fans are among the sport's most knowledgeable. He's frequently recognized when he's walking the streets in Canada and said it's clear that the Canadians have picked up MMA easily.

That's not the case in many parts of the world, including in the U.S., where there is a still a lot of education needed about what MMA is, and, significantly, what it isn't.

Stout, though, doesn't believe that's the case from what he's seen in Canada.

“Everything MMA that's out there, they watch it, they read about it, they listen to it, they talk about it,” he said. "They're going back, watching older events and buying DVDs of older UFCs, so they are really so into it. It's cool. People are recognizing the improvement I've made in my game and they're recognizing the evolution of the sport.

“It's a lot nicer talking to fans when you don't have to explain what you're doing and they have pretty good, valid questions.”