Is Coquitlam pushing MMA out of the city?

Some of Metro Vancouver's most well-known fight promoters are alleging that the City of Coquitlam is overstepping its boundaries in trying to eliminate amateur mixed martial arts events in Coquitlam.

West Coast Promotions founder Manny Sobral told The NOW Wednesday that officials within City Hall are exerting pressure on reps from the Red Robinson Show Theatre to no longer accept amateur fight cards after Feb. 18, despite the fact that the city has no legislative authority to do so.

"The city has given the Great Canadian Gaming Corp. an ultimatum that if they [keep booking amateur fights], they're not going to be happy with them -- even though it's legal," said Sobral, who wouldn't specify if the ultimatum came from elected officials or city staff.

Because there is no governing body for amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fights in Canada, a promoter doesn't need a municipality's blessing before scheduling an evening of fights. In the case of pro fights -- when fighters are paid -- an independent authority is established to lay out rules around fighter safety and compensation.

But because of that lack of an amateur regulatory body, municipalities don't have the ability to cancel amateur fight cards.

"They don't have the ability, but they can influence. I think they're trying to use their influence," said Neil Pope, an event planner with West Coast Promotions. "They're not telling the casino that they can't have amateur MMA, because they can't. They've expressed an opinion that they would not like to see this in their city."

Four amateur fight cards have taken place at the Red Robinson Show Theatre since last April, and West Coast Promotions put on their first fight in Coquitlam on Dec. 3, 2010. Pope estimated that more than 1,000 people showed up -- significantly more than most, if not all, Coquitlam Adanac or Express games by comparison.

"The key people from the city itself, we've invited them to come out and see everything from A to Z ... just so they can get a sense of how a properly run MMA show can go, and they have been unwilling to do that," Pope said.

The next, and potentially last, West Coast Promotions event is scheduled for Feb. 18 in Coquitlam. Sobral said he's been advised by casino staff that it will likely be the company's final amateur card in Coquitlam, due to the pressure placed on casino staff coming out of City Hall.

Howard Blank, Great Canadian Casino's vice-president of media, entertainment and responsible gaming, declined an interview with The NOW. Mayor Richard Stewart did not return calls before deadlines.

Coquitlam council does have a committee -- the Coquitlam Athletic Commission -- to govern the rules and guidelines around professional boxing fights.

Those rules set out specifications for everything from insurance and liability policies, to the necessary amount of medical personnel required for a prize fight.

Coun. Brent Asmundson, who chairs the commission, said council made a decision last year not to extend the athletic commission's governing authority beyond boxing and into MMA. Instead, the city sent a letter to the province asking for a B.C.-wide regulatory body to be set up.

And while Asmundson said he's in full support of the sport of MMA, he did confirm that council has sent a message to casino staffers to stop holding MMA fights until that regulatory body is established.

"Until that's done, [council] does not support MMA in Coquitlam," Asmundson said. "The feeling is with amateur, is that it's more of an end-around to the professional part of the sport and that the casino is sort of using that, or is being used by that. It sort of flies in the face of what council has said."

Despite not having an official sanctioning body, ad hoc committees have been sprouting up across the province to try and bridge the gap. One such body is the Mixed Martial Arts Association of B.C. (MMABC), and its five founding members have more than 50 years of collective experience in combat sports.

"We really saw a need for the creation of an association that could act as a provincial sporting organization in the model of things like Boxing BC or Judo BC -- amateur sporting associations that speak for them and help regulate and control the sport. That was something that MMA just didn't have," said MMABC chair Bill Mahood, who has fought with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strikeforce fighting promotions.

Mahood's organization sets up parameters around amateur fights that include shorter rounds, heavier gloves, less lethal moves and no elbow or knee strikes to the head. The group also lays out the groundwork for how many doctors and ambulance attendants are at fights, on top of taking care of blood testing and pre-fight medicals.

As for the suggestion that political interference is at play in the Coquitlam context, Mahood characterized the situation as "really unfortunate."

"They don't take the time to actually understand what is going on and how safe it is," he said. "But look at skateboard parks: cities are quite happy to pour 20 tons of concrete, install these ramps and rails and then put a sign up saying, 'Wear a helmet' and that's the end of it. They don't seem to be considered with liability in a situation like that."

Tickets for the Feb. 18 fight, dubbed Seeing Red 2, can be purchased from Ticketmaster for between $29 and $49.

By John Kurucz, Coquitlam NOW February 4, 2011 6:01 AM

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