Ontario Combative Sport Advisory Council aims to revitalize province’s MMA scene

TORONTO — Canada has had a rabid MMA fan base since the boom years of the UFC in the early 2000s, but the local scene has rarely matched that level of demand.

That’s a problem Minister Neil Lumsden and his recently formed Ontario Combative Sport Advisory Council look to rectify in the country’s most populous province. With UFC 297 recently hitting Toronto, Lumsden and Council Chair Ned Kuruc answered questions about the goals of the council and how it plans to address the development of MMA on all levels.

“Everyone here has experience in MMA and combat sports, we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Kuruc said. “We mentioned the way it was before, I come from that generation. We have people on our board that battled and pioneered through that generation where MMA, our athletes couldn’t compete in Ontario. Obviously, we’ve had change, but now there’s time for more change.

“Not only have the UFC come to Ontario more often, but we’re going to create pathways in developing amateur MMA, that will happen very, very shortly, with the [provincial sports organizations], the [national sports organizations], and assisting in helping and creating a culture for smaller regional shows to flourish, because that’s also a massive, massive part of it. So we’re going to — I wouldn’t say overhaul — but we’re going to refine all combat sports on all levels. Pro kickboxing is going to come, we’re working on pro MMA. Amateur MMA is coming. Boxing has been pretty good. And with a lot of the rules as far as licensing and making it more affordable for smaller events — the UFC, they’re self-sustainable, this is the biggest player in the world, but we want to make it a more viable environment for amateur regional shows. That’s what we need.”

Lumsden, a former CFL standout who won four Grey Cups in his playing career, emphasized that a key part of building a grassroots MMA scene in the province is getting younger people involved and assuring that parents are comfortable with the safety of the sport. A native of London, Ontario, Lumsden was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 2022 and subsequently appointed as the Minister of Tourism, Culture, and Sport that same year.

He and Kuruc made it clear that the OCSAC is an advisory board that will work in conjunction with Ontario’s Athletics Commissioner going forward. And the first order of business is promoting the growth of amateur MMA.

“Specifically MMA, first and foremost is amateur MMA, and that we’re working on, that’s something on our desk every day,” Kuruc said. “We’re almost there with the rule sets and all that, you will see that in the future, guaranteed, 100 percent. As far as professional MMA, we’re refining some of the weigh-in rules and we’re finding some stuff to do with safety and all sorts of other things, but it’s the licensing aspect, and in five years we want to see thriving promotions. Regionally, smaller, bigger, we want other UFC-quality promotions to come. It’s a tourism aspect.”

“We look at it again through a couple of different lenses, and one of them is that we’re saying there’s a development piece of it, amateur, taking care and making sure that the amateur is done properly,” Lumsden said. “There’s local and regional competitions that drive community. Then it raises to the next level. What we want to do certainly from a tourism and sport perspective is bring people into Ontario. That’s part of the dynamic — the economic impact that sport has on this province is unbelievable. We want that to grow and we want to do it at the right way, at the right time, with the right components. That’s why the council is so important and that’s why our relationship with [UFC CEO] Dana [White] is so important. We had a great conversation, he gets where we want to go.”

Prior to the UFC 297 ceremonial weigh-ins, Canadian MMA pioneers Mark Hominick and Sam Stout took part in a Q&A. The Ontario-based fighters were standouts in the UFC in their primes, but for years were unable to compete in their home province until MMA was legalized there in 2011.

Will the likes of Hominick, Stout, and other veterans be consulted by the council?

“This isn’t a thing that’s going to happen overnight, so in our agenda are we going to consult the MMA legends of Ontario, Canada?” Kuruc said. “One hundred percent we are. That’s the kind of input we need to grow and round out exactly what Ontario needs to promote combat sports, for sure.”

Details are still forthcoming as to how exactly the council plans to implement these changes, but the return of the UFC to Toronto for the first time since 2018 has already recharged the local scene if the boisterous reaction to the UFC 297 headliner between Sean Strickland and new UFC middleweight champion Dricus du Plessis was any indication.

Lumsden plans to capitalize on his relationship with the UFC to lift up MMA in Ontario as a whole.

“The first order of business — and as Dana said, he loves Canada and loves the people in Canada — our goal is to get him to come back more often to Ontario,” Lumsden said. “That’s the starting point. And he has done such great work, they lead the sport in so many categories, we want them to come back and feel comfortable to come back to Ontario to host not just one, not just two, but more events.”

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