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As 2011 dawns, Ontario’s extreme fighters prepare to fight—legally

Jeremy BealWebsite

Extreme fighting has always been illegal in Ontario, but underground fights happened anyway. With legalization in 2011, the controversial sport is about to become big business.

An XCC Match on the Walpole Island First Nations Reserve, August 2010. Photo by Jeremy Beal.

An XCC Match on the Walpole Island First Nations Reserve, August 2010. Photo by Jeremy Beal.

The champ climbs into the steel cage against the sounds of loud, thrashing theme music, polite applause, and the odd hiss. Caleb Grummet may be holding the championship belt, but the crowd isn’t here to see him retain the title. Chris “The Menace” Clements is waiting in the ring, and the 900 fans in attendance have already given their hometown boy a hero’s welcome.

Before the crowd even has a chance to roar, Clements opens with a rush of punches that lands one good right hook to Grummet’s ear and sends him scampering back. Grummet, knowing well he’s outgunned by Clements’ standup game, backs out and buys some breathing room. When the pair lunge again, Grummet performs a textbook takedown, twisting Clements onto his back and wrapping his neck in a headlock, cutting off blood to his brain and air to his lungs. Clements manages to wriggle his way out of the hold, only to be trapped yet again. The partisan crowd groans and the referee squints closely for any sign of submission or loss of consciousness. Clements moves calmly and conserves energy, working his weight against an imperfect hold all the while ticking down the seconds he has left.

Mixed martial arts will be sanctioned in Ontario for the first time starting in 2011. This type of combat sport, incorporating aspects of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and martial arts, is often referred to as Ultimate Fighting, from the name of its most prominent organization. Though six other provinces and at least 46 U.S. states allow professional MMA matches, Ontario has held out longer than just about any other major jurisdiction on the continent besides New York State.

Opposition to mixed martial arts has generally come in two flavours: concerns over medical health and concerns about the moral problem of condoning violence. At the annual general meeting of the Canadian Medical Association in August, the CMA’s then-president Dr. Anne Doig restated the association’s official call to maintain the ban: “We are concerned when people engage in activities, the sole purpose of which is to pummel, kick, punch, scratch—whatever methods they use—until either somebody is seriously hurt or injured, or somebody cries uncle and submits.”

The other major concern that this kind of fighting prompts is that, beyond being damaging to the body, it is also, in some way, corrosive to the soul—that the spectacle of two gladiators beating each other senseless satisfies an appetite too dark and primal to be sanctioned by a modern society. In August, Toronto writer Susan G. Cole called the new move to legalize “a sign of social depravity” and “repulsive,” in her column in NOW Magazine. “Does anyone really think we can do anything about reducing violence in our culture,” she asked, “when the government is making money by entertaining sadistic audiences with vicious bloodshed? The fact that it’s popular doesn’t make a difference to me. Blood lust has always been big, ever since the Romans sent the Christians to the lions.” The arguments against MMA are both scientific and emotional, but they’ve been outshouted by the cheering masses and the ring of the cash register all the same.

MMA might not have been legal in Ontario, but it has been going strong under the province’s nose longer than the current government has held office. Competitions have been running underground in southern Ontario for more than a decade, one of the province’s worst-kept secrets. As early as 1996, they’ve happened on First Nations reserves near Barrie, Brantford, London, and Windsor. The on-reserve location isn’t coincidental: in the wake of the Ipperwash crisis, the Ontario government has shied away from challenging the boundaries of First Nations’ sovereignty. The result was, and remains, jurisdictional ambiguity, allowing grey-market businesses— gambling, tobacco, extreme fighting—to thrive, a legal blind spot hidden in plain view.

But in less than a year, the Ontario government’s position on legalizing MMA shifted from visceral disgust to “not being on the radar” to fast-tracked official endorsement. The turnaround was in large part the result of concerted lobbying by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the sport’s largest, richest, and most recognizable league.

UFC president Dana White has repeatedly called Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe the “mecca” for mixed martial arts, and expressed his intent to conquer. White told anyone who’d listen that “Ontario is the UFC’s biggest market,” that support for his sport was virtually unanimous, and that it was only a matter of time before legalization threw the doors open. In early 2010, White appeared satisfied with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty’s assessment that legalizing the sport wasn’t a top priority. “The world being the way it is, he’d be in real trouble if MMA was at the top of his list,” White quipped. After all, that was solid progress from the premier’s assertion that he “hated” the sport a few short months prior.

Privately, however, the UFC was lobbying hard. In May, White decided to flex his company’s considerable muscle: with almost no notice, he announced that the UFC would be making a “major announcement” at a Toronto press conference a few days later. That vague promise drew a scrum of reporters of every stripe, who turned out en masse. The move turned out to be some well-scripted posturing, and White announced to a disappointed crowd the opening of a satellite office in Toronto, helmed by former Canadian Football League commissioner Tom Wright. In addition to the well-known football heavyweight, the UFC had already retained former Ontario premier David Peterson’s bulldog lobbyist law firm Cassels Brock, who had already been applying pressure behind the scenes for some time.

The PR stunt was a pushy, calculated move, but the numbers did their share of talking as well. The nanny-state accusations, the lobbying pressure, and the promise of adding millions to the provincial coffers through sanctioned events proved enough to let MMA legislation skip the queue. On August 14, Sophia Aggelonitis, at the time Ontario’s minister of consumer services, announced that in the interest of keeping fighters safe, Ontario would be giving professional mixed martial arts the go-ahead starting in 2011.

Photo by Jeremy Beal.

Photo by Jeremy Beal.

On the Tuesday before the August 28th match, I’m hanging out at Adrenaline Training Center, a pristine MMA training centre sitting behind a hardware store parking lot in London, Ontario. Adrenaline opened in 2007, a stone’s throw from a rough neighbourhood notorious for OxyContin abuse and prostitution, but the gym’s interior strikes a hard contrast to its host neighbourhood. It’s almost fussily clean, with perfectly maintained equipment and clean-cut staff and patrons. A regulation boxing ring and an MMA-specific steel cage occupy opposite ends of the gym, while punching bags, free weights, and even a gift shop sit neatly between.

Alex “Pecker” Gasson greets me at the front desk and gives me the tour. He stands just under six feet tall and has won enough accolades in kickboxing, MMA, and Pankration (a fighting style descended from ancient Greek wrestling) to fill several trophy cases. Today he sports a pink crescent scar around his left eye, courtesy of a full three-round bout two months prior.

“Three stitches, a nice, clean cut,” he waves dismissively.

Upbeat and energetic, Gasson talks up the mix of groups that use the gym. It plays host to wrestling clubs, fitness fanatics, boxers, martial arts groups, and, of course, MMA classes, their bread and butter. (Though matches have never been sanctioned, official training in the sport is condoned and prolific throughout Ontario.) Their patrons come from varied backgrounds: students from nearby Fanshawe College and the University of Western Ontario flood in every fall; thirtysomething professionals arrive in their BMWs alongside teenagers on ratty 10-speed bikes.

The Ontario decision is only a few days old, but having spoken with Gasson a few weeks earlier, he thought the change was bound to happen. He thinks the organizations that have been operating illegally will flourish under a new regulatory regime. “The people going to the shows, they aren’t die-hard fans of the promoters,” he says. “They’re fans of the fighters. The organizations that know the fighters, that already have relationships with the big names—they’re the guys that will thrive.”

New sanctioning will bring with it a new provincial governing body and, most likely, strict guidelines that help justify the Ontario government’s change of heart on the issue. That means a board of governors and an oversight body. I ask Alex if there is anyone from the tightly knit community he thinks the province should bring onboard, in terms of expertise. “Sure. Me.”

When you make your living getting kicked in the face, a healthy dose of narcissism is more or less requisite. But Gasson and his cohorts from Adrenaline might just be the people best suited to take their sport into the light. They take it seriously, train top-shelf athletes and run a very tight, respectable ship. What’s clear in talking to Gasson and others is their ambition towards the mainstream credibility at home they enjoy everywhere else on the continent.

Chris Clements, a trainer and mainstay of the Adrenaline team, is often credited with holding the world record for fastest knockout in the sport, thanks to landing a quick haymaker to an opponent’s charging jaw in Montreal in 2006. Clements, 34, has been involved in MMA for about eight years. Trained originally in tae kwon do and then as a boxer, he was taking some time off when he read about MMA in the newspaper. Seeing a chance to fight in real matches for real money, he got involved and became one of the bigger Ontario names in the sport while it was still in its infancy.

Clements’ 80-kilogram frame sits slack and comfortable behind the gym’s desk, flanked everywhere by merch bearing his and his partners’ names. He speaks calmly and thoughtfully with the quick cadence of the southwestern Ontario accent, and falls naturally into a conversation about the state of the sport in the province.

“That’s one thing about these fights. Everywhere else you fight, there’s a commission guy watching you get your hands taped. There’s blood tests, steroid tests. On the reserves there’s no one. They could be taping metal bars to their hands. There’s hepatitis, HIV. Blood can get into your eyes, your mouth, you just don’t know.”

Consistency and fairness is another black-market problem. “Pecker and another guy had a draw at the last one. [The promoters] wanted them to go another round, and they said no, so they just went back and changed the scores.”

“With the amateurs it’s even worse. These promoters are making a lot of money. When I first started you had to be training for years. You’d have to have a known MMA coach, he’d put in a word for you, and you’d get a small fight. I’ve been at fights on native reserves, you go talk to the guy in the dressing room, ask him how long he’s been training. He says some guy in a bar offered him $500 to fight the night before. It disrespects guys like me who put in 10, 15 years of martial arts training. It makes us look bad. With some of these events, if they have 15 fights, I’d say out of 30, maybe six guys actually belong in the cage.”

Clements shares the opinion with the rest of the gym that the decision to sanction the sport is a good one. “I’m in the main event this Saturday on the reserve, and it’s my home town. I wouldn’t do it for any other reason. I’d rather see them get wiped out … I think they’ll go under.”

Crossing the bridge onto the Walpole Island First Nation on the Saturday evening, there isn’t much to tell you anything’s changed. The only visible difference is the lack of brand-name franchise stores in the strip mall. The hockey rink hosting the fight looks like anything you’d find in a thousand small towns across Canada.

But the reserve still carries a stigma among outsiders; I was surprised at the friends and family members who warned me of the dangers of setting foot on the reserve. Some expressed concern for my safety, others refused an invitation to come along. An astonishing number recited hearsay about the calamities that had happened to friends of friends who “went over there.” Of course, it was all disturbingly bigoted nonsense: whatever problems exist on this reserve, the urge to rough up white MMA fans with money to spend is not one of them.

The racial dynamics of the event are curious. You get the impression—from the demeanor of the Bkejwanong security guards and police on site and the notably small number of aboriginal fans in the crowd—that the event is regarded as an oddity at best. Native kids with skateboards stand and watch the crowd of almost exclusively white revelers lined up outside the arena with a wary curiosity. There are 900 people here to see the fight, but only a dozen or so are residents of the reserve.

Historically, these events have played the indigenous iconography to the hilt: the last organization to set up shop at Walpole was Fighting Spirit MMA, which bills itself as Ontario’s “Ab”original MMA organization. (The band council at Walpole recently cut ties with the group over some outstanding bills.)

Tonight, however, the promotional team is a company out of Michigan called Xtreme Cagefighting Championship, or XCC. The American league found an aboriginal silent partner to get around local ownership bylaws, which was contentious, but not contentious enough to stop the fight. The coming change could be a bellwether for the soon-to-be-legal business. With legitimacy looming, the larger, better-funded American leagues look poised to crowd out the smaller organizers—mainly aboriginal entrepreneurs—that have controlled the black-market sport for more than a decade. Tonight, titled “XCC 64: Battle at the Border 10,” marks XCC’s first foray into Canada.

MMA events may be illegal, but patronage, promotion, and sponsorship are alive and well: restaurants, energy drinks, gyms and gear outfitters are keen to slap their logos all over the event’s promotional material, and a select few are even shilling their wares in the arena the night of the fight. Local businesses, both directly related to the sport and others looking to advertise to the target demographic the events pull in, actively and aggressively sponsor rounds, intermissions and official after-parties. A small family-owned vitamin water company has been following the various tournaments so closely that their daughter is invited to sing the national anthem to start the night.

Before that can happen, though, an emergency of sorts breaks out. Woodrow James, the XCC lieutenant and promoter responsible for the evening, has been flitting in and out of the arena, dressing rooms, and small circles of agitated entourages, putting out fires. There have been some no-shows (more the rule than the exception at these events), and James is calming down a supremely agitated manager whose fighter is apparently without an opponent. The confrontation degrades almost instantly into a shouting match.

“Your guys should fucking be here; this is bullshit! You’re fucking amateurs! The whole setup is amateur!”

“Fuck you, then, leave—fucking leave!”

As it turns out, the two missing fighters had been pulled over en route from London by the police, who had clocked them at 180 km/hour in a 50 zone. Inexplicably, they were only delayed and all the fights advertised on the card went on, although in shuffled order.

Speaking with James, flush with excitement from having successfully quarterbacked his first Canadian event, he sounds more like the biggest fan in the building than the orchestrator. He is a thirtysomething former fighter who was plugged in to the London scene well before he got his job with XCC. He was roommates with Chris Clements and is on a first-name basis with most of the staff at Adrenaline. “Chris Clements is my best friend,” James says. “Business is business, but I’m scared as shit for him and I want him to win.”

James loves the location and considers it well above the median. “I love the arena atmosphere. The fighters get to have showers, a little breathing room, a place to sit.” Even south of the border where the events are legal, it seems frills like showers and proper dressing rooms are few and far between.

The fights start a full hour and 15 minutes later than advertised but the crowd barely seems to notice. The national anthems are belted out, the announcer spills out the opening ceremony and the fighting commences.

The first match of the evening neatly illustrates the Canadian Medical Association’s assertions about the risks of brain injuries in MMA: Jeff Silver, an Adrenaline-trained fighter, lands a right hook not 20 seconds into the match that leaves his opponent, D.J. Gamble, stupefied on the ground, announced colloquially as TKFO—“Technically Knocked-theFuck-Out.” The crowd doesn’t seem to mind trading substantial fights for highlight material, and excited chatter bubbles up while the next fighters are immediately introduced in the interest of making up the lost time.

The second fight is the sole women’s bout of the event, pitting Bernice Booth against Randa Markos. Their fight is a particularly technical one, filled with more punches and kicks than the average men’s bout. It ends with a full flip into an “arm bar submission,” whereby Booth’s elbow is hyper-extended against her opponent’s thigh, that forces Booth to tap out.

The evening is filled with strange juxtapositions: all-American looking dudes taking on tattooed punks; flabby bodies pitted against muscle-bound Atlases. Throughout the entire night there is a palpable current of energy flowing through the crowd, punctuated by the oohs and ahhs that accompany landed fists, knees, and all sorts of bloodletting. That it caters to baser instincts doesn’t make it any less irresistible or troubling. It’s dangerous and brutal, disciplined and technical, entertaining and grandiose, cheap and sickening.

Chris “The Menace” Clements looked to be on the verge of passing out from the arm twisted around his neck, complemented by an ongoing introduction to Caleb Grummet’s elbow. Somehow, Clements slips free and quickly rises to his feet, and the momentum of the match turns, with Clements landing a string of solid punches until the sound of the bell ends the round. The fighters retreat to their corners, Clements eerily composed, as if he’s standing in his own living room.

Thirty seconds into the second round, Clements’ fist opens up Grummet’s forehead, sending a torrent of blood spattering over both fighters. The cut is bad enough to put the fight on hold for some first aid, but Grummet is soon back on the mat, showing a brave face but not much else, and absorbing blow after blow until the referee halts the fight, calling the match in Clements’ favour and awarding him the belt. Adrenaline has another champion on its staff, and The Menace spends the next 20 minutes posing exhausted but victorious for the cameras, smiling and looking not even slightly dangerous.

These are the last days of underground MMA on the reserves, and whatever your opinion on the sport itself, having events sanctioned and governed by stricter and safer regulations should be a welcome change. Distaste for the sport does not justify indifference to the well-being of its participants. For all the gladiatorial hyperbole put on by the organizers who market the sport, the fighters consider themselves, and each other, legitimate athletes who are due the same protections and respect that their peers in boxing, hockey, and every other violent sport receive. This is a sport that prides itself on pushing limits and buttons, but the core of this phenomenon is still the men and women who choose to enter the ring, but have had to risk shoddy conditions to do so. Those conditions are set to improve, but there is a more important change coming next year. It’s all too clear that the appetite for this controlled violence exists: pay-per-view numbers and the draw to events like the ones on Walpole Island speak for themselves. These blackmarket venues provided a moral cover for Ontario’s collective self-image. MMA was condoned, but could essentially be dismissed as de facto criminals servicing a fringe group of ultraviolent thrill-seekers. Now that the sport has been embraced, it becomes a true piece of Ontario’s official identity. One wonders whether the province will be able to tell the difference.

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