A Dark Day for Irish MMA

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Ireland, that little rock on the westernmost point of Europe, has occupied a paradoxically central position in the global landscape of Mixed Martial Arts in recent years. Buoyed by the ascent of one of their own Ireland can now boast itself as being a part of the MMA community where previously it seemed that the sport was to forever be exclusively the playground of American and Brazilian athletes.

In little more than three years McGregor has gone from an unemployed labourer dependent on social welfare to becoming perhaps the most famous athlete in Ireland. His outrageous rise to the top of the sport reflects that journey of those who accompanied him along the way; the hordes of fans who empty their Credit Union account whenever McGregor has a date in Las Vegas and the athletes who trained and competed in MMA long before there was any money or glory in it.

The two most recent UFC events in Dublin sold out in minutes. The fans in attendance were described by sober American journalists as some of the loudest and most joyous in the world. Much like our impact in other sports, Irish people revel in the spotlight when our little country becomes the centre of something big.

Last Saturday evening the Irish MMA community once again found itself embroiled in international headlines, but this time for much more solemn reasons than any time prior.

Joao Carvalho, a 28-year-old Portuguese welterweight, passed away late last night after injuries sustained during a bout with SBG fighter Charlie Ward at TEF 1 at the National Boxing Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. Carvalho, who according to reports initially seemed coherent and jovial after the bout, suffered a deterioration in his condition in the minutes after his contest and this ultimately led to his death.

Already this tragic incident has reignited a debate which has raged in one way or another since the UFC’s debut show in the Republic of Ireland back in January of 2009. Radio phone-in shows are awash with entrenched opinions on both sides of the divide, some of whom seem content with politicising the incident as a means to underline whatever stance they happen to be taking.

More specifically the MMA vs Boxing argument is on the back pages and national airwaves once again, though this time it seems that it has been amended to include injury statistics for rugby, GAA, even gymnastics and all of this occurring while there’s a national debate on the concussion epidemic in rugby also underway.

When something like this happens it is understandable that there is a need to attempt to make sense of it, or who to point the finger at. Why did this happen? How could we have prevented it? Unfortunately these types of abstract questions don’t (and never will) have an answer.

TEF adopted all of the required in-fight and post-fight medical protocols . The fighter was examined and was ordered to visit hospital even before any the symptoms of his illness became apparent.

While it seems that MMA will never have the safety record of some other sports, it’s important that we don’t just write off Joao Carvalho as a statistic, the unfortunate needle in the haystack by being one of the (to this point) rare serious injuries or deaths in sanctioned MMA. This situation should not be framed as a way to condemn the sport – though that will be hard to avoid – but as an example of why Irish MMA needs investment from the State and recognition from Sport Ireland to build on the work that non-profits like Safe MMA are putting in.

The emergence of MMA in Ireland has led to dozens of new clubs and hundreds, or even thousands, of new students across the breadth of the country and the resources with which the sport currently exists are going to become increasingly more stretched as the years go on. While I want to avoid criticising the referee from last Saturday’s bout, it’s important to note that referees, generally speaking, can really only be as good as their training and, as more and more Irish athletes consider taking fights in this country, there needs to be a functioning system in place to develop referees, judges and medical standards at the same rate by which we’re producing fighters.

Michael Ring, the acting Minister for Tourism and Sport, has called for an investigation into Carvalho’s death and let’s hope that when this report comes out it provides the framework for Irish MMA to thrive and move forward in a healthy and productive manner, rather than it being nothing but a list of potential fragilities within the system and business of Mixed Martial Arts in this country.

While we don’t really know at the time of writing whether or not Joao Carvalho’s life could have been saved last weekend, we do have to use this terrible incident as motivation to improve the blueprint from which MMA in Ireland currently operates.

Whether it be better training for officials, stricter medical testing, relaxed weight cutting procedures or a dogged pursuit of regulation and investment by Sport Ireland, something must change as a result of this. Don’t we owe Joao that much?

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