Since its establishment in 2014, St. Catharines’ Meridian Centre has hosted hockey, curling and basketball games. But the arena, and many others like it across Ontario, haven’t played a part in hosting any mixed martial art (MMA) events, even though the combat sport became legal in the province in 2010.
Rogers Centre, Air Canada Centre and TD Place Arena are the only arena locations in Ontario which have hosted Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) events in the last few years.
Ontario has a plethora of arenas with MMA event-hosting capabilities.
Meridian Centre director of operations Dave Saldana said he has not been approached by any promotion as of yet but is open to the idea of MMA as long as it adheres to event protocol and gets approval from the acting governing body.
“It takes a production team to bring in the talent,” said Saldana. “What happens for a properly-run event is fairly comprehensive. There is marketing involved, ticket sales, and fighting licenses that would need to be acquired by production before this could be discussed.”
Rent costs, guest services, operations and security would be also be considered.
“We would love to host all sorts of events here and MMA certainly has a place in mainstream sports,” Saldana said. “The feasibility of the event depends on the size of the event.”
The key is for fans to build relationships with MMA promoters in order to bring shows to places like the Meridian Centre.
“Talk with local MMA groups and build a team that could start to put together a vision for it,” Saldana said. “When that’s ready, we’d love to have a conversation about how to have that event here.”
Amateur MMA fighter Filip Laporcak said these locations are ideal for fighters to pursue their careers. If the Meridian Centre had jumped on board with a promotion while Laporcak was living in St.Catharines, he said it would have motivated him for several reasons.
“It would’ve made it easier to compete without the cost of travel,” Laporcak said. “It was hard, especially in my youth, as I had a limited source of income and means of transportation.
“Competing close to home would have boosted my popularity in the city and made it easier to get sponsors. It also would have made me that much hungrier to perform to the best of my ability knowing people that are closest to me are watching in person.”
Laporcak plans on turning professional this year and wants a chance to compete close to home.
“It would mean the world to me because even though St. Catharines is a small city compared to Toronto or New York, it’s still my hometown where I grew up and experienced most of my life,” Laporcak said. “I think that it would be easy to attract people to an event like this based on the culture and lifestyle of cities like St. Catharines and Hamilton.”
Despite fighters having opportunities to fight on the amateur level at Ontario bars and banquet halls, a major blow came to the sport on July 1, 2017, when amateur MMA competitions were made illegal in Ontario. Government and financial circumstances have crippled events and promoters, leaving both amateur and professional MMA fighters in a virtual limbo.
Amateur MMA remains illegal as there is no Provincial Sport Organization (PSO) recognized by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. If a PSO is to be considered for recognition, it must meet all of the criteria outlined in the province’s Sport Recognition Policy.
Professional MMA remains legal, but promotions must follow guidelines from the Office of the Athletics Commissioner (OAC) and the Athletics Control Act. The OAC sets out the rules and serves as the governing body of professional mixed martial arts.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship seized its opportunity soon after legalization and in 2011 brought UFC 129 to Toronto. At the event’s press conference, UFC president Dana White declared Canada as “The Mecca of MMA.”
Those words promised a bright future for combat sport fans and competitors in Ontario, but the reality hasn’t lived up to expectations.
According to a CBC article from 2010, the UFC had plans to reach the Hamilton and Windsor areas for hosting opportunities, but nothing has come to fruition.
Wreck MMA promotion manager Nick Castiglia said there is a lot of work involved in producing a professional show in Ontario if you’re not a major player like the UFC.
“The majority of the work is about lining up the gate for the first six months of the year,” Castiglia said. “We had 12 events in the last two years, but we tend to keep our pro shows out of Ontario and in Quebec or near the border.”
“There’s a lot of money involved in hosting these pro events, but we are open to the idea of holding more of them with the assistance of a solid partnership,” Castiglia said.
Bellator MMA president Scott Coker expressed his desire to have more events brought back to Canada now that the organization’s roster is filling up with Canadian talent.
“Canada is a location that’s always on our radar,” said Coker. “With the addition of Canadians Rory MacDonald and Valerie Letourneau to our roster, as well as our current women’s featherweight champ Julia Budd, we’re confident that we have the right fighters to host an event in Canada. We’ll explore all potential venue options and make sure that Bellator’s return to Canada is a memorable one for the fans.”
TKO MMA president Stephane Patry expressed similar goals for his Quebec-based MMA organization.
“We are currently working on bringing TKO to Ontario in 2018,” said Patry. “We are exploring a few markets including Hamilton, Windsor and London.”