Some might find it odd that two men scheduled to pummel each other in a cage can chat amicably over scrambled eggs. I don't.
My friends have practised mixed martial arts (MMA), a combat ring sport that combines striking and grappling techniques, for years.
Those versed in traditional martial arts who participate in combat sports achieve high levels of spiritual and physical fortitude. Admittedly, it's an eccentric vehicle for insight, but should it be illegal?
MMA is a stricter and safer discipline than boxing, which is why we're uncertain why Ontario allows competitions in myriad fighting sports like wrestling, jiu-jitsu, judo, kick-boxing, karate, tae kwon do and muay thai but not MMA.
No one claims that MMA is completely safe. It'd be boring if it were, in the same way that players and fans would find football, rugby and hockey dull without the contact.
Part of what attracts us to MMA is the opportunity to show Hemingwayesque grace under pressure. And the feeling that there's no one in the world more like you than the guy you're fighting. It's all about respect for self and for your opponent.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) wants to bring its pugilistic circus to Canada. UFC president Dana White tells me at a recent promo at BCE Place for a pay-per-view event in Las Vegas two weeks ago that provincial commissioners of sport he's talked to so far have been receptive.
However, in the nay corner, Ontario Athletic Commissioner Ken Hayashi, a martial artist himself, remains reluctant to allow the fights here, citing current regulations.
Says Hayashi, "I can only sanction what I have regulations for. I do have regulations for striking with the hands and feet... and for grappling, but mixed martial arts is a combination of them. I don't have regulations for it. The rules are very strict." Safety is also a concern.
Hayashi says MMA's kicks to the legs, grappling and small open-palmed gloves are not permissible under the Athletics Control Act. That said, he sanctions amateur muay thai, which is famous for its kicks to the legs.
But the uncontrolled brawling that drew the ire of critics, who likened UFC to human cock fighting (and got it banned in 40 U.S. states when it was first introduced to North America more than a decade ago), is a thing of the past.
Back then, there were no weight classifications, no referees, no rounds, no gloves, and the marketing slogan was "Two men enter only one leaves." New rules and weight classes mean serious mismatches rarely occur and participants usually fight opponents with a similar level of experience.
Indeed, MMA has teetered toward the mainstream. It's on a TV reality show on cable, The Ultimate Fighter. Controversy-shy companies like Coca-Cola and Burger King have sponsored events. BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and most recently Nova Scotia have all sanctioned MMA bouts.
Its stars are not your stereotypical brawlers either. In fact, many hold university degrees.
MMA athletes, even those with boxing backgrounds, generally agree that it's less dangerous than boxing, in which participants take sustained pounding to the head. Statistics seem to bear out their claims.
As of January 2004, more than 1,197 people had died in competitive boxing. American high school football averages about four deaths per year. Only one MMA fighter has died in the ring: American Douglas Dedge, who competed against his doctor's orders.
UFC's White concedes that participation levels in MMA are not the same as in boxing or football, but points out how socially acceptable football is despite its inherent dangers.
Dr. Peter Carmel, a trustee of the American Medical Association, is skeptical. Last year he told Time magazine: "As more and more people participate in the sport, we will find more documented cases of damage, and we will find, ultimately, deaths."
But Canadian middleweight MMA champion David Loiseau thinks the chances of competitors sustaining serious injuries are somewhat mitigated by the fact that most are trained in martial arts, "which are all about respect for self and opponent."
Still, the province has shown little reluctance to charge some well-known instructors, including local MMA hero Carlos Newton's manager, Terry Riggs, for hosting an amateur event at his club in Newmarket in 2002.
Riggs was shocked by the charge, since he had a letter from the prime minister's office thanking him for representing Canada overseas in the ancient Greek MMA pankration, the very sport he was charged for.
Hayashi says a better route for promoters would be to establish MMA as an amateur sport in Ontario. It'd then stand a better chance of legalization at the pro level.
However, all the competitors, managers, coaches and promoters I've spoken to, including my own instructor, Shah Franco, say they've been lobbying for this for years, but Hayashi won't even listen to proposals.
Riggs sees the current rules as an injustice to the wealth of local talent . "It's all about the freedom for our athletes to practise their sport and compete in a safe environment," he says.
There are rumblings among Ontario martial artists and fight promoters about a legal challenge to the current fight ban. But that will take someone with deep pockets.