Ready to Rumble: UFC Comes to Vancouver

November 1, 2009

Brace yourself. Buy plywood for the windows. Get canned food for the basement. The apocalypse will hit Vancouver next June. Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA—which has been vilified as “barbaric” and “human cockfighting” by no less than John McCain (war hero and lifetime boxing fan)—is coming to an arena near you.

MMA can trace its roots to the Greek pankration, which became an Olympic sport in 648 BCE. But the modern thread begins with the Gracie family of Brazil and their vale-tudo challenges. In the 1920s the Gracies began spreading their gospel of interdisciplinary fighting to America, eventually getting the first UFC show on pay-per-view television in 1993. It’s by many accounts the fastest-growing sport in the world, and after two hugely successful cards in Montreal, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—the pre-eminent MMA organization in the world—has its sights set on Toronto and Vancouver.

That interest is heartily reciprocated. Vancouver consistently rates in the top 10 North American cities for sales of UFC pay-per-view events. Walk down a commercial street on fight night and every bar and café, even the upscale ones, will be packed. The UFC is promising to fill GM Place with a card headlined by one of the sport’s superstars, perhaps even Montreal’s Georges St.-Pierre, UFC Welterweight Champ and Canada’s 2008 Athlete of the Year.

In 2007 this city created a de facto moratorium on MMA events here by insisting on provincial sanctioning. As councillor David Cadman put it: “We don’t want to be a nanny state, but we don’t want the liability. They need to get sanctioned and regulated by the province. I don’t want to spend taxpayer money on lawsuits.” That hurdle looks to have been cleared after some deft negotiating and a visit by the charismatic head of the UFC, Dana White. Attorney General Mike de Jong recently went on record as saying, “We have no problem with it whatsoever.”

But just the suggestion that the UFC will land in our fair city has sent polite society into a minor frenzy. Officials have warned of moral corruption. The cover of 24 Hours blared: “Ultimate Fighting in city streets?” The police have made explicit links between MMA events and gang violence. “It’s a fact,” VPD Sgt. Bill Whalen, spokesman for the Combined Forces special enforcement unit, told the Times-Colonist. “We’ve seen that UFC events attract some gang or organized crime members. It’s popular with them.”

Manny Sobral tells a different story. The 41-year-old, who operates a Burnaby gym, knows something about fighting. Growing up in East Vancouver, he compiled an impressive 113-11 amateur boxing record, winning four Canadian Amateur Championships and six gold medals at international competitions, then competing in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul at age 19. After the Olympics he studied at UBC, finishing his B.A. and his teaching degree. Then he turned pro.

Sobral held the Canadian Super Welterweight title from 1996 to ’98 and the IBO World Super Welterweight title for 1998-99. By 2000 he was teaching at Britannia High School and had completed a master’s in education from San Diego State University. His life had unfolded beautifully: he could retire from the scrapping business, rest on past glories, and settle into comfortable middle-class middle age. But boxing wasn’t out of his system, and in 2004 he founded the North Burnaby Boxing Club.

In his office there one recent afternoon, while kids and adults poured in to train, I asked what he thought of the UFC. “I didn’t think much of it when it first showed up,” he said. “I was training down in California and Tank Abbott [legendary UFC pioneer and biker-style tough guy] used to come to the gym on his Harley. It was pretty out there back then. But over the years it’s evolved a lot. There are lots of rules now, the refs are good at jumping in quickly, it’s totally organized. It’s actually safer in a way than boxing because there are fewer head shots.”

Does he think it’s a bad idea to sanction the MMA in Vancouver? Not at all. Sobral is not only looking forward to the UFC’s arrival, he intends to get into MMA promotion himself. “Look,” he said, “it’s going to happen. Either it’s sanctioned and legal or it’ll just keep happening underground. It’s got nothing to do with gangs. Gangsters go to hockey games, they go to movies, they go to bars. Fighting doesn’t make people violent. If anything, it’s the opposite: once you know how to handle yourself, you don’t have to go around trying to prove it to everyone in the street.”

What about the threat of civil unrest? “Ah, come on. You kidding? C’mon. We’ve held five cards at the River Rock and 11 big events in this gym, and never had a single incident.”

That was more or less the reaction of Stuart Poyntz, an assistant professor in SFU’s School of Communication. “There’s really good, long evidence that people do not act violently after watching violence,” he said. “There are a few select cases that are brought up repeatedly, but if it were true then Canucks hockey fans would be demonstrably violent, and it’s just not the case. The bigger issue here is that a kind of moral panic around MMA is being created, and moral panics are always a cover for something else, a reflexive fear about social change or shifting mores.”

How about this? The popularity of the UFC in Vancouver undermines the city’s desire to brand itself as clean, green, genteel, and benignly wholesome. The rough, often bloody, working-class physicality of MMA events doesn’t fit easily into that narrative. But money talks, and it’s tough to resist something as explosively popular as the UFC. And so, as law-abiding men lock the women and children away, the rough beast approaches.

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