The Case for Legalization: A Fundamental Shift

June 5, 2009

By Kelsey Philpott

The recent developments in New York and Ontario would seem to bring about the proper timing for yet another discussion about legalizing mixed martial arts.

In lieu of my recent debut television appearance for Rogers Sportsnet’s MMA: Connected, speaking on this very subject (in addition to a host of other business-related MMA issues), I’ve also decided to comment in print.

I’ll say this much: the legalization scale seems to be slowly tipping in MMA’s favour. The ball is now rolling so to speak – despite the enormous amount of work still left to be done – but, in order for MMA to move any further, I believe that a fundamental shift in the sport’s approach to seeking legislation needs to occur.

In the past few years I’ve observed a bit of an unnerving trend in the way in which the sport has gone about trying to get itself sanctioned. For a time, educating the naysayers and the unfamiliar about the sport was very much at the forefront of MMA’s agenda. But as MMA began to grow and experience some degree of success, education was put on the back burner in favour of arguments based upon the economic contributions that MMA events make to their host communities.

It truly seemed as though the sport had been waging a media campaign for the legalization and sanctioning of mixed martial arts based almost solely upon financial posturing. Any debate about the legalization or sanctioning of MMA was quickly dominated by revenue figures and profit potentials.

Did it work? To an extent, but I also feel it’s been the cause of some the heel digging we’re now seeing in areas like Ontario and New York (although I’m not about to ignore some of the unique issues in either area that have played a role in shaping their respective landscapes – we’ll save those intricacies for another day).

The argument based upon economic spinoffs is a bit misguided in the sense that although money does make the world go-round, but people also want to know that MMA is an activity which isn’t morally reprehensible or a negative influence within their community.

What’s more is that we live in a society of cultural relativism; where the definition of good and bad is often influenced by the powerful and motivated. It’s not about right or wrong in absolute form, but who can shout the loudest and appeal to the ignorant or indifferent masses sitting on the fence.

And who can blame the fence-sitters? Being anything other than ignorant or indifferent, these days, is truly an effort. Individuals are inundated with thousands of pieces of information on a weekly basis – a great deal of which are biased by government or corporations – and they need some way to process everything. Hence, they stereotype.

That’s why education is so important. MMA has a very important message that isn’t going to be distributed or explained on its own. It’s up to the MMA community as a whole to distribute and explain that message – to cure the ignorant or indifferent of their false stereotypes.

Let me give you an example: I’m Canadian and I know NOTHING about basketball. Take me to a basketball game and give me floor seats and I’ll still know next to NOTHING about basketball. But, if you give me floor seats and put me next to Stan Van Gundy for a game, chances are I’m going to pick up a few things about the sport – at least the basics.

It’s just not enough to call these people ignorant and demand that they go “watch some MMA;” or, worse, throw money at them in hoping they’ll give in or give up. The MMA community has no choice but to take these ignorant or indifferent individuals by the hand and show them how and why MMA is one of the greatest sports in the world.

And what if some, like Bob Reilly, don’t want to listen? There are 20 other members of the Tourism Committee in New York that might. In other words, “coalition build” with the majority and give the minority little choice.

To accomplish this, the MMA community has to return to an approach based upon educating those ignorant naysayers about the true nature of mixed martial arts:

Only afterwards is it time to broach the subject of economic spinoffs because, again, quite simply, no one likes to feel as though they’ve been bought – like they’ve sacrificed their morality for a few bucks and a t-shirt.

The greatest minds in negotiation will tell you that you’re best served in finding the common interests between all parties at the table and working to meet them equitably. If MMA wants global acceptance, it must realize that the interests of the world are far greater than simply money.

Therefore, MMA needs more Marc Ratners preaching the virtues of the sport to congress or parliament, more Ken Hayashi’s visiting UFC events, more websites like, and more people within the community, other than the UFC,¬†stepping up to truly inform the misinformed.

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