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What Next for MMA in Ireland?

On April 9th in the National Stadium in Dublin two men walked into the arena; three rounds later & only one emerged. Portuguese fighter João Carvalho was knocked unconscious in the third round of his fight with Irishman Charlie Ward, and was rushed to Beaumont Hospital. Two days of treatment in the Dublin hospital later his passing away was revealed by a post on the Facebook page of his team (Nóbrega team). Before I go on, I would like to offer my sincerest condolences to the family of Mr.Carvalho, his team & his peers; at aged 28 years old he died long before his time, and I would think anyone, regardless of their opinion on mixed martial arts, would agree with this.

My father, the day after the fight, mentioned what had happened to me. Not being the biggest MMA fan in the world I hadn’t heard of the young fighter who was hospitalised, but made an internal note to look into it later. The next time I heard anything about this event it was when the death of Mr.Carvalho was sadly announced in Irish media on the morning of the 12th of April (which was only a day ago, at the time of writing). Upset at the news, and having written about head trauma in MMA before, I was intent on knowing more about the fight: what styles these men practiced, how experienced they are, what were the circumstances of the ending of the fight. That morning, only days after the fight and hours removed from his untimely death, all I could find were vague reports from Irish media, the aforementioned Facebook post and a link to a Youtube video of the fight that had already been taken down.

Monitoring social media over the next hours I next found an article from the Irish Examiner where it was implied Prof.Tim Lynch, consultant neurologist at the Mater Hospital, called for a ban on the sport. Reading the article beyond the title it was clear he did not call for an outright ban, but expressed a personal abhorrence at the sport itself:

I find it abhorrent that you’d be having any sport where the point is trying to hit and knock the player out and cause brain damage

Professor Tim Lynch

He later went on to discuss a more critical regulation of the sport, an opinion echoed by Minister of State for Tourism & Sport Michael Ring. In an interview with RTÉ Radio 1, the Minister expressed deep concerns about the sport, stating that he had written to various mixed martial arts companies in Ireland about safety concerns in early 2014. To break the narrative structure of this article so far, this is about when I stopped listening to the interview.

Reading the aforementioned Irish Examiner article, listening to roughly 4 minutes & 19 seconds of the Minsters’ interview and I just couldn’t read any more: I could not believe, in 2016, that people in Ireland, Ministers even, would use the death of a young man to score political points. The Minister made it very clear in several interviews that he sent a letter to MMA promoters in 2014, about this unregulated sport. Quite simply I would like to ask the Minister for Sport (since 2011) that if he was so concerned about it, why didn’t he regulate it? Doing a Google search for “Michael Ring MMA” brings up quite a few results, I’ll admit: however, searching for that exact phrase from the date he was appointed Minister for Sport (10th of March 2011) to the day before this tragic fight brings up no results. Not one.

Speaking of regulation of MMA in Ireland, I had no idea it was unregulated, though that may be because it is. Mixed martial arts is an amateur sport in Ireland, and is regulated by the The Irish Amateur Pankration Association (IAPA), which is itself a sub-comittee of the Irish Amateur Wrestling Association (IAWA). Since April 2015 the IAWA (and as a result, the IAPA) became a member of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), which governs the sport worldwide and has the backing of the UFC (Jesus, there are a lot of acronyms in this article). The IMMAF is the international governing body of mixed martial arts, similar to FIFA for association football. So quite a lot of regulation.

The Minister was very quick to point out that mixed martial arts receives no funding through the Irish Sports Council (now known as ‘Sport Ireland’). The Irish Sports Council (ISC), if you didn’t know, is a statutory body that sets guidelines, codes of practice and distributes funds to various sporting bodies in Ireland on behalf of the state, which at least up until 2015 included the Irish Amateur Wrestling Association. In 2015 alone the IAWA received €14,605 in ‘core grant funding.’ For comparison, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association received €431,713 in core grant funding in 2015, getting a total €1,515,153 in funding from the State & Sport Ireland/ISC. While I don’t know that the group who hosted that fatal fight, TEFMMA, get any state funding through the IAWA (in fact I heavily doubt they do), the fact that the Minister either knowingly lied about this funding in the face of this tragedy, or was ignorant of this fact despite apparently being deeply concerned about the regulation of the sport in the past, is appalling; either way he is, in my opinion, capatalising on this tragic event & using it for his own public portfolio.

Furthering on from that investigative aside, and to address the question posed in the title, what is the future of MMA in Ireland? It honestly depends. It is not my place to doubt the opinion of Prof.Lynch on the need for regulation, and I have no intention on doing so. All sport in Ireland, as I previously wrote about, needs to take a deep look at itself and its attitude towards head trauma. What is clear though, to stick to mixed martial arts, is that more involved, standardised regulation of these events needs to take place. While the standard level of medical care for any UFC fight was reportedly on hand in the National Stadium, research needs to be done on preventative measures, possibly altering the scoring of MMA fights to focus more on grappling, submissions & take-downs. As I was writing this article the video of the fight, initially taken down, was re-uploaded in part by Joe.ie. Many, including UFC superstar Conor McGregor, feel the fight could have been stopped earlier, so the training of the referees is another aspect that might be monitored more closely in the future.

I don’t think, however, that regulations & legislation will be really the end of MMA in Ireland. Making the comparison that every MMA fan hates to professional wrestling: pro wrestling was rocked by a steroid scandal in the early 90s, and though legally nothing came of it, the popularity of the “sports entertainment” built up by Hulkamania in the 80s was decimated. This event, I believe, could have a similar effect for MMA in Ireland. Coupled with Conor McGregor’s recent loss to Nate Diaz, and a potential loss in their future ‘all or nothing’ rematch for ‘the Notorious One’, this could very well be the end of mixed martial arts in Ireland.

In addition, as I did at the beginning of this article, to expressing my deepest condolences to the Carvalho family, I would also like to state my sadness for the other fighter in the ring, Charlie Ward, who must be going through an incredibly tough time.