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UFC addresses death of amateur fighter with condolences, calls for increased regulation

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On Wednesday, at The Met in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the UFC held a press conference to officially announce UFC 161, a June 15 event that will be held at the gleaming MTS Centre and likely draw 15,000 fans and a massive gate. It will mark the promotion's entrance into the city, making it the fifth Canadian city to host the octagon after Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary.

In most of those cities, the UFC's traveling party did not show up without protest, as politicians placed enough obstacles in their path to make the journey a headache. Winnipeg has been no different.

Recently, city councillor Grant Nordman, a longtime opponent of MMA, voiced his displeasure with the UFC's intention to visit, saying, "If I wanted to see clowns, I'd go to the circus. We've progressed as a society beyond this, but there's certainly an appetite for it."

It shouldn't come as a surprise then, when the sport's sins are held against them.

Earlier this week, it was reported that a 35-year-old Canadian named Felix Pablo Elochukwu died following an unregulated, amateur fight in Michigan. The UFC had nothing to do with the match, which was held an American Legion Post in Lake Huron, Michigan, seemingly a million miles away from the UFC's bright lights. Yet, it is fair to say that there is common strand that weaves it way through the sport at every level. For better or for worse, those humble beginnings are where many stars first shine.

Ask fighters about their first experience, and many of them have common experiences. A hastily assembled cage in a dive bar or parking lot. Little or no money to perform. Minimal safeguards. In other words, not very different than what Elochukwu faced that night.

Of course, Elochukwu's tragic death made the news, and spurred more questions about what exactly Winnipeg is getting itself into by getting into the fight business with the UFC. Some of those questions came on Wednesday, as the UFC set up shop in town.

Instead of UFC president Dana White, who usually presides over press conferences, Tom Wright, the UFC's director of operations for Canada, Australia and New Zealand, stood at the podium. And Wright, a former Canadian Football League commissioner, showed his leadership chops with his poised response to the query.

Wright began by offering the promotion's condolences to Elochukwu's family, and went on to highlight the need for oversight.

"What we don't know is whether or not there were any pre-existing medical conditions that Pablo was suffering from, and in a regulated environment, we would have known that," he said. "We also don't know if the referees were properly trained. We don't know whether or not there were the appropriate EMTs and ambulances and medical precautions in place. We don't even know if it was a fair fight as far as if the competitors were evenly balanced.

"Those are kinds of things we would know if the sport had been regulated, if the event had been regulated," he continued. "It speaks to the importance of regulation in our sport, why it's important that we have the appropriate kind of rigor and standards, from medical care to pre- and post-fight medical testing to drug testing to insuring the health and safety of these athletes is always first and foremost. And in the case of an unregulated event, you don't know whether those things are in place, which is why we as an organization have always run to regulation."

As of now, the event does not appear to be in any jeopardy of not happening, a danger which other Canadian shows like UFC 115 in Vancouver and UFC 97 faced down before overcoming.

In the end, both sides have to admit that like many sports, MMA is a dangerous game, and that trying to mitigate some of the risk is a responsibility that falls upon both the promotion and the commission. On Wednesday, Wright made it clear his side was willing to accept their role.

"It's important that we protect the health and safety of our athletes," he said. "It's important that that our sport is properly regulated, and if anything, what the tragic events of last Friday underscore is the importance of that regulation."

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