Fighters deliver anti-bullying message in Toronto

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Mixed martial arts fighters with the popular but often bloody UFC took aim at bullying Tuesday, delivering a message to students about the emotional harm bullies inflict on their victims.

The event at the Rogers Centre comes amid heightened awareness of the damage bullies inflict, leading to several highly publicized teen suicides in recent months.

Capitalizing on their popularity, four UFC fighters pressed the students to look out for one another, to report bullying to authorities, but most of all, to understand its effects.

“Why have UFC fighters come to talk about bullying?”

Canadian UFC tough-guy Sam Stout posed that question to a group of 1,000 Toronto students Tuesday, as part of the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ controversial event at Rogers Centre.

Then he answered it. “To me, fighting and bullying are very different things,’’Stout said, explaining that he trains every day and participates with other willing fighters who are “evenly matched” and there are always referees and doctors nearby.

He may be known as “Hands of Stone’’in the ring, but the heart of Stout is soft and mushy. At least when it comes to empathy for kids who are bullied. Quite simply, he feels for them and doesn’t feel that’s at odds with what he does in the ring.

Bullying is about attacking another person, not necessarily physically — it could be verbally, or even “text messaging or Facebook,’’ he said.

“We’ve all been picked on or made to feel small. But to inflict that on someone else … is something that has to be stopped.’’

The 27-year-old mixed martial arts fighter from London, Ont., came across as relaxed and at ease, dressed in jeans, ball cap and vest over a hoodie, a far cry from the 155 pounds of lean, menacing muscle he wields in the UFC ring as a mixed martial arts fighter.

And he didn’t mind admitting he was moved by a video (see below) that highlighted the event, sponsored by UFC as part of its community service program.

“That was a pretty powerful video,’’ Stout said, following the poignant, gone-viral YouTube video by 13-year-old Californian Jonah Mowry, who holds up message cards that tell a painful story of being bullied at school. Indeed, the youths who shuffled, talked and snickered during pre-recorded anti-bullying videos from Mayor Rob Ford and Councillor Doug Ford, were quiet and riveted in their seats while Mowry’s sad tale of feeling suicidal and cutting himself unfolded.

The messages from Stout, Canadian UFC fighters Sean Pierson and Mark Hominick and American Matt Mitrione, UFC Central host Joe Ferraro, and Toronto Police Service’s Sgt. Kevin Hooper stayed close to an anti-bullying and motivational theme and avoided any mention of the controversy connected to the event, which was attended by London and Toronto District School Board students.

After the event, some students told the Star that the anti-bullying message resonated with them.

Asadullah Ghani, a 16-year-old Toronto high school student, said he’s been bullied many times over the years. People make fun of him because he’s Afghan and wears braces. “They call me a terrorist, they say Osama bin Laden is my cousin.” The bullying has lessened lately because he’s made “bigger friends.’’

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The event is part of the Community Works program the UFC initiated during its first visit to Toronto in April.

The MMA company pledged then to spend $129,000 to help at-risk youth in communities across Canada.

Toronto’s Cabbagetown Youth Centre was the first to benefit from the initiative, receiving a grant to buy much-needed new sports equipment.

“It’s our way of giving back to the communities who support us,” said Tom Wright, former Commissioner of the Canadian Football League, and currently the UFC’s Canadian director of operations.

The anti-bullying event is just the next of many things the UFC hopes to do, Wright said, noting that programs such as these were some of the most rewarding he experienced as the head of the CFL.

And contrary to a recent media report, the Community Works program does not involve visiting schools and teaching kids to fight.

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