The combat sports landscape in Canada is in need of reform. Some Provinces say they cannot legalize professional kickboxing even if they want to. Others are saying amateur grappling contests are by default illegal. The Criminal Code, which was overhauled in 2013 after extensive UFC lobbying, was drafted poorly giving rise to these uncertainties.
Enter Firas Zahabi of Montreal’s famed TriStar gym. He is hoping that paying athletes in bitcoin is a way around the Criminal Code’s prohibition of prizefights.
First some background. Montreal has taken the position that amateur BJJ contests are illegal prizefights unless and until the Province passes legislation legalizing the sport. This position appears legally problematic with the Sentator that wrote the law saying it was never meant to be extended to amateur grappling contests.
Zahabi states as follows:
Grappling is perfectly legal still, but holding grappling events here is illegal. Alongside this, Canada recently declared bitcoin as a commodity, and to the government, it’s not money, not a currency. So I’m not allowed to hold events and give out prize money, but we are allowed to film and upload ourselves fighting online. And now the fighters get bitcoin, and it’s kinda like them getting a free t-shirt or swag, because I am giving them a commodity as a prize for participation. We thought it was an excellent idea and the viewers can tip the fighters as well and our grapplers have been making money during an event. The grapplers are also enthusiastic about competing again in the future and the audience absolutely loves it.
Zahabi is right that nothing in the Criminal Code prohibits people from training in BJJ. What is prohibited is
engaging as a principal in a prize fight,
Zahabi is hoping that paying a prize that is not actual money is a loophole. It is not. While s. 83 prohibits illegal ‘prizefights’ this word is just a title. No prize of any kind needs to be be paid to violate the section. The section clearly applies even to amateur events where no money or prizes are paid whatsoever.
While it is clear that s. 83 does not apply to pure training its wording does capture events where “two persons who have met for that purpose by previous arrangement made by or for them“. Having a pre-planned contest between specific competitors with a bitcoin payout being made is in all likelihood captured by this wording.
Zahabi’s legal strategy is risky. The best argument is the law was never intended to apply to amateur grappling events in the first place. Until the law is redrafted, or a court weighs in on the issue, no one will know for certain.
I repeat my offer that, while I don’t encourage anyone to break the law, if anyone is charged under s. 83 of the Criminal Code for participating in BJJ in Quebec or Ontario I’ll work with your local lawyer free of charge.