IMMAA Statement on IMMAF Child Protection Allegations

The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) have released a statement in response to the recent reports of alleged child safeguarding issues within the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), and the subsequent disassociations of other member federations.

The full statement, which can be read below and on the IMMAA website, reveals that IMMAA sought clarity from IMMAF, following concerns regarding “the allegations of serious safeguarding breaches.”

While IMMAF responded to IMMAA’s request and confirmed that “an investigation had commenced with a view to addressing child protection concerns,” the response fell short of fully addressing IMMAA’s concerns, particularly with the 2023 IMMAF Youth World Championships scheduled for August in Abu Dhabi:

“IMMAF did not address the totality of our concerns in their reply pending the outcome of the
investigation. IMMAF has indicated that they will provide in-depth answers to IMMAA.
IMMAA intends to review this response and IMMAA will make an informed decision on future
IMMAF tournament participation based on IMMAF’s response and the results of the IMMAF
investigation. IMMAA will not be willing to send athletes to IMMAF Youth Tournaments where
we are not satisfied with the quality of the safeguarding in place.”

Full IMMAA statement:

On Monday 1st May, MMA UK reported that Safe MMA—a medical charity dedicated to the safety of MMA competitors—had parted ways with IMMAF. The article highlighted that the decision was made on the recommendation of Detective Superintendent Will Lexton-Jones:

“The development comes following the recommendation of Detective Superintendent Will Lexton-Jones. A high-ranking officer serving with Scotland Yard, Lexton-Jones recently announced his resignation as Chairman of the IMMAF Disciplinary Board. Serious concerns have been raised about IMMAF’s safeguarding and child protection practices, with Lexton-Jones’ resignation letter citing malpractice and a lack of capacity of competence to reform.”

Lexton-Jones was elected to lead the IMMAF Disciplinary Committee in November 2019. The responsibility of the committee, as described by IMMAF, is “for the management and resolution of any asserted violations of the IMMAF Code of Ethics and other IMMAF Rules and Procedures. The Committee will also be responsible for setting up an advisory group/tribunal pool to help with individual cases.”

On Tuesday 2nd May, IMMAF released their own statement, providing the following update:

MAY 2, 2023

IMMAF issues Safeguarding update

We have recently received an official notice of a safeguarding concern dating back to 2021. IMMAF takes all matters related to safeguarding extremely seriously and has immediately taken the following actions:

  • Set up an investigation, which will be carried out by a fully independent individual with support from IMMAF.
  • Pending the conclusion of this investigation, a national team coach has been suspended from all IMMAF events.
  • Conducted a review of the IMMAF Safeguarding policy with a new version of the document circulated to all IMMAF federations.
  • Written to all federations to remind them that they are responsible for the vetting of coaching staff and should ensure that part of their certification includes safeguarding training (including revalidation of these qualifications).
  • Reminded IMMAF Federations that other support staff that work with young people, should also be vetted including officials, medical staff and chaperones.

Following the departure of both Lexton-Jones and Safe MMA, the English Mixed Martial Arts Association (EMMAA) released a statement on Thursday 4th May formally announcing their decision “to suspend, until further notice, any and all inclusion of our athletes, staff and/or officials from all International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) tournaments and events forthwith.”

The statement from EMMAA cited “disturbing reports and evidence surrounding both a major child safeguarding issue and the acute failure from IMMAF to act upon at the time of knowing” as part of their reasoning for (at least temporarily) cutting ties with IMMAF.

On Friday 5th May, a shocking report from MMA UK emerged. The report centered around the appointment of Bulgarian coach Svetoslav Zhelev, and his guilty verdict for raping a 15-year-old schoolgirl in 2014. Zhelev received a 3-year suspended sentence for the crime.

Multiple Bulgarian publications reported on Zhelev’s conviction at the time in 2015. In June 2021, Bulgarian publication 19min published a report highlighting Zhelev’s appointment to the head coaching position of the Bulgarian MMA federation, despite his conviction.

In July 2021, Bulgaria hosted the 2021 IMMAF Youth World Championships, an event for competitors between the age of 12 and 17 yeard old, in their capital city Sofia.

In a November 2022 report on the IMMAF website that focuses on the Bulgarian National Championships, Zhelev is listed as the “National Youth Team Head Coach”. At the event, Zhelev won the “Coach of 2022” award.

MMA Cymru, the Welsh Mixed Martial Arts Association have also announced that they will not participate in the upcoming IMMAF Youth World Championships in August. MMA UK also reported that both New Zealand and Australian federations have announced they will also not compete in the Youth World Championships.

Andy is a multimedia reporter, interviewer, writer, with a strong focus on Irish MMA. Co-host of The Auld Triangle podcast. Follow Andy on Twitter (@andyste123) and Instagram (@andystevensonMMA).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.