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‘Rising star’ wins legal bout for mixed martial arts
Posted on Wed, Sep 22, 2010 at 5:13 am
by IDMA Editor

He is, it is safe to say, the only Bay Street lawyer whose name has been chanted by fans at Ultimate Fighting Championship matches. But Noble Chummar, 35, has no plans to strip off his pinstriped suit and enter “the Octagon,” as the sport’s caged ring is called, any time soon.

Photo of Noble Chummar - The politically connected lawyer behind a combat sport’s breakthrough in Ontario

UFC did hire Mr. Chummar – a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP – for a kind of fight, however. The fast-growing, billion-dollar sports organization retained him and his thick political Rolodex to convince the Ontario government that it should finally legalize the sport within its borders.

That battle, and Mr. Chummar’s victory last month, made him something of a celebrity among the sport’s rabid fans, a fact that becomes clear when he attends matches in British Columbia and Quebec, where the sport is already legal.

“I go to these matches and people scream my name,” said Mr. Chummar, who usually sits ringside with his clients, the UFC’s top brass. “I’m keenly aware this is my five minutes of fame.”

Lobbying on behalf of martial-arts cage-match promoters may indeed attract more attention than his work for other more humdrum but blue-chip clients. However, Mr. Chummar, a regular on Liberal campaign buses in provincial and federal elections, has also been on the front lines of higher-stakes fights.

With his mentor, former Ontario premier David Peterson, he crossed police lines to negotiate with native protesters in Caledonia, Ont., in 2006. He and Mr. Peterson – Cassels’ chairman – also travelled the world, wooing politicians and sports officials in order to land the 2015 Pan-Am Games for Toronto. He is now a senior adviser to Toronto mayoral candidate George Smitherman, helping him prepare for televised debates.

Made a partner at 31, Mr. Chummar has had to work hard to make what he calls his non-traditional law practice – a mix of political connections and pragmatic problem solving – a success. While he says he plans to stick to law, lobbying and backroom political strategy, he doesn’t rule out one day entering the larger Octagon that is federal or provincial politics.

Controversy came naturally with the UFC file. The sport’s new ownership has had to work hard to distance itself from its violent “no-holds-barred” roots in the 1990s. It now has a long list of rules and the fighters wear gloves. Mr. Chummar says statistics suggest it is safer than cheerleading.

Still, its perception as a blood sport – U.S. Senator John McCain famously once called it “human cockfighting” – has hung around, even though it has been approved in most U.S. states and Canadian provinces. It was this reaction from Ontario politicians that Mr. Chummar had to prepare to counter. But first, he had to learn to like the sport himself.

“When I was first retained to do this … I didn’t know anything about the sport,” Mr. Chummar said. “Frankly, I wasn’t all that attracted to it. I was just, ‘It’s not for me.’”

He says he is now a fan, and that the sport’s highly trained martial-arts fighters, many of whom have multiple black belts, display the “ultimate discipline.”

The controversy over UFC may not be over yet.

Mr. Chummar is quick to dismiss as “ludicrous” the allegations made by NDP MPP Peter Kormos about “illegal lobbying” around the UFC. Mr. Chummar was officially registered as a lobbyist for the UFC, while Mr. Peterson – a boxer as a young man – was not. But the former premier never lobbied the government, both he and Mr. Chummar say, as his role was only to advise the client.

Marc Ratner, vice-president of Las Vegas-based UFC, says the victory in Ontario will give the UFC access to a market he claims is already among its strongest, based on pay-per-view TV ratings. He credits Mr. Chummar’s strategic advice and rapport with cabinet ministers and their aides for helping to make it happen: “We can’t wait to have a fight there.”

Mr. Chummar, whose parents came to Canada from Kerala, India, has a long history with Mr. Peterson. He first met him in the early 1990s, when the former premier was installed at York University’s Glendon College, where Mr. Chummar was studying. He lost touch with him while pursuing a law degree at the London School of Economics.

Back in Toronto, Mr. Chummar – laden with student debt – ended up working for Mel Lastman during his 1997 Toronto mayoral election campaign. Given $20 and told to take a couple of pairs of Mr. Lastman’s shoes to a shoeshine place, he instead bought some polish, pocketed the change and went about shining them himself. When caught out by the mayor, Mr. Chummar said, Mr. Lastman wasn’t angry but impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit.

“Then he pulled out another 20, and he gave it to me, he said ‘You’re my guy.’ And he goes, ‘This is exactly the kind of guy I need working for me.’ … A lot of people on Bay Street know this story, that I would stoop so low to shine a guy’s shoes to make 15 bucks,” said Mr. Chummar, who would go on to work as an aide to Toronto City Councillor Michael Feldman.

Mr. Chummar then articled at Cassels in 2001, where both Ralph Lean – a senior lawyer and Tory fundraiser – and Mr. Peterson now claim him as their protégé. “He’s a very smart, very entrepreneurial kid. He’s a rising star,” said Mr. Peterson, who was among the politicians at Mr. Chummar’s recent Toronto wedding. “He’s well respected and well connected.”

For now, Mr. Chummar – whose Web bio says he wants to fly into space some day – doesn’t foresee emerging from the backrooms to run for office again. (He unsuccessfully sought a Toronto City Council seat in 2000.) At least, not for now.

“I think I’m always going to be sort of a strategist guy, behind the scenes,” he said. “I like my practice too much. I like working for a law firm of such huge tradition. It’s a big deal. My parents are immigrants. My parents have come from a very different world than this. And here I am a partner, an owner of a hundred-million-plus business. And that’s just something that I think is a big honour and something that I’d like to keep pursuing. So I don’t see it in my cards any time soon. But who knows?”

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