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MMA chiefs: We've reached out to Michael Ring but are still waiting for an invitation to meet

The heads of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation have called for the sport to be regulated in Ireland.

Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho passed away a week ago after an event in Dublin.
Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho passed away a week ago after an event in Dublin.
Image: Facebook

MIXED MARTIAL ARTS has come under much scrutiny in the Irish media recently since Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho passed away shortly after being critically injured at an MMA event in Dublin.

The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation is the governing body for amateur MMA and we spoke to its president Kerrith Brown and CEO Densign White about getting it recognised by Sport Ireland and making it a safer environment for fights to compete in.  

In light of Joao Carvalho’s tragic death earlier this month, there have been several calls for MMA to be banned in Ireland. What do you say to people who are of that opinion?

Kerrith Brown: First of all, our condolences to the family and friends of Joao Carvalho. It’s a sad loss. People are voicing their opinions saying the sport should be banned but we don’t agree that that is the way forward. We all know what happens when you try and ban something. It drives it underground and that doesn’t help.

The way forward is to make sure the sport is recognised and to put regulation in place for the safety of the athletes. As well as looking at the top in terms of the professional end of the sport, we need to look at the bottom and what’s happening with the grassroots, development and the support that needs to be structured around that in order to make the sport a lot safer.

At the moment, it’s just about the top promoters but we need to change that in terms of putting regulation in place.

Is the medical assistance and quality of refereeing at amateur MMA events in this country up to as high a standard as it should be?

Densign White: We can only speak for IMMAF events and we have embarked on a programme for referees and judges going back 12 months now. We’ve held courses in the Czech Republic, Romania, the US, Australia and South Africa and this is ongoing.

We’re rolling out a programme of education for referees and judges. We’ve introduced a classification system for them and developed a progression scheme.

We also have very high medical requirements for our competitions. There’s always a large contingent of doctors, paramedics, there are always two or three ambulances on stand-by.

Athletes have to go through annual medical checks and submit their examination results. They have to do blood works for HIV and Hepatitis B and C. They go through pre-fight and post-fight medicals and what we’ve recently introduced is that if any fighter that had a knockout or a technical knockout automatically is sent for a brain scan.

This is what IMMAF is doing and we’re hoping that other will follow our example. But we can tell people what they should be doing but it’s up to them if they want to follow until our national federations such as the Irish Amateur Pankration Association (IAPA) are recognised we can’t compel them to be compliant.

So how do we go about making it a safer environment in Ireland?

DW: The first thing to do is to get the IAPA recognised as the national governing body for MMA in Ireland. Everyone who practices MMA, whether that be an individual, a club or a gym, they should be compelled to become a member of the IAPA.

That is the only way to regulate what’s happening. If there isn’t one single body that is empowered to do that, then you will always have people who will try to work outside the system.

At IMMAF, we’ve been actively working to introduce regulation, training and education in terms of the quality of refereeing and judging. We’re working on coach education programmes and progression schemes for people who are coming into the sport as novices.

The only way to put these policies in place is if we have the authority to compel people to comply. If we don’t have that authority from the government or ministries of sport, or the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or some big internationally-recognised organisation, then people will ask ‘who the hell are you to try to tell us what to do?’

What role can IMMAF play in getting the IAPA recognised by Sport Ireland as quickly as possible to prevent a tragedy like this happening again?

DW: We’re quite active and we have been very encouraging of the IAPA. We’ve had lots of conversations with (IAPA founder and president and SBG founder) John Kavanagh and (Team Ryano founder) Andy Ryan, and we’ve also written letters to the Irish Minister for Sport Michael Ring and Sport Ireland CEO John Treacy. We’ve reached out and said let’s have a meeting to move this issue forward.

So far, we’ve had an acknowledgement of the letter from Michael Ring’s PA but we haven’t had any invitation to sit around a table and discuss how we move things forward yet. So we’re still waiting for that to happen.

John Kavanagh

KB: I’d like to just add to that and say that the IAPA have done a lot of work in terms of putting out guidelines to the promoters but as they’re not recognised it’s very difficult for them to enforce them and make the promoters fall in line.

We have over 53 federations who are signed up to IMMAF and of those, 22 of them are recognised by their own national bodies.

Michael Ring was interviewed on Newstalk last week and suggested that his hands are tied as the ball is in the IAPA’s court. What do you say to that?

DW: The only thing that is going to make it united is for them to recognise the IAPA. Otherwise, we would people feel compelled to join? There’s got to be something that glues everybody together and the thing that makes that happen is the government making a decisive decision to recognise a body that recognises MMA.

In France, if you want to do judo you have to be a member of the French Judo Federation, otherwise it’s illegal. That’s why their membership is 700,000 people and judo in the UK it’s 30,000 because there’s no compulsion to join the British Judo Association. There are other competitors and what you get is fragmentation and it’s the government’s lack of decision which causes that.

In our conversations with John Kavanagh, he said that there are 80 MMA gyms in Ireland and the membership to the IAPA is only 14. So what’s going to pull in the other 60 and 70? The reason they’re not members is because they don’t have to be.

In that case, would you call on Ring and Sport Ireland to make it their prerogative to get the IAPA recognised?

KB: We are calling on him to do that because it’s what we want. The sport is a phenomenon in terms of its growth globally. But that’s at the top, and as I’ve said before the bottom end is about the amateurs coming through and making their transition to pro.

It’s the safety levels we want to focus on. There’s a lot of money spent at the top but very little at the bottom. We have to support the IAPA and look forward by learning from this tragedy.

We want to meet with the sports minister and Sport Ireland and start the process to get the IAPA recognised as the regulatory body for MMA in Ireland.

With the rate that the sport is growing, what are the biggest challenges facing MMA?

KB: If you look at the core sports, they grow from grassroots up but MMA has grown from the top down so we’re playing catch-up in terms of resources and trying to meet the demand.

There is a new generation that is coming through who don’t come from the traditional martial arts or combat sports in the sense that they are coming from mixed martial arts.

But for the large part, it is unregulated. As I’ve said, we need to be recognised in order to be able to put the regulations in place and the structures around that in terms of referees, judges and also to educate and make it a lot safer for the athletes.

We’re really pushing the agenda and we really want to be the governing body that will empower the national federations like the IAPA.

A lot of people aren’t aware of the work we’ve done in a short space of time. We have 53 national federations and by the end of the year, we’ll probably have about 65. So we’ll continue to reach out and try spread the word.

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Ben Blake

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