The provincial government announced Saturday morning that it will officially sanction and regulate mixed martial arts, allowing matches to be fought within Ontario.

This is a dramatic change of heart for Premier Dalton McGuinty, who has previously said legalizing the sport is not a priority for his government.

“It’s just not a priority for us at this point,” McGuinty said earlier in the week. “We have higher priorities when it comes to developing … jobs and strengthening the economy.” 

“Our government has been monitoring MMA for some time,” said Sophia Aggelonitis, Minister of Consumer Services in a statement. “We know that the sport has evolved and that Ontarians want to see it here. My goal is to make sure we have the tools to keep the competitors safe, and provide an economic boost to communities that want to host MMA events.”

The province says it expects MMA events, such as those put on by the incredibly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship, to draw up to 30, 000 fans and generate up to $6 million dollars in income for local economies.

The first fight could come as soon as 2011. The UFC league already opened up a Toronto office earlier this year in anticipation of the announcement of legalization.

MMA is already incredibly popular in Ontario, and not just amongst men. The UFC’s largest fan demographic is males aged 18-40, but women also make up 40 per cent of the fan base.

When he visited Ontario in May, UFC president Dana White said he anticipated being able to sell more tickets in Ontario than anywhere else.