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Minister says MMA should be recognised as a sport but government funding is 'a long way away'

MMA “has been a phenomenon”, says Paschal Donohoe.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Paschal Donohoe.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Paschal Donohoe.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

MINISTER FOR TRANSPORT, Tourism and Sport, Paschal Donohoe, has hailed the remarkable success of Irish mixed martial arts star Conor McGregor, insisting that MMA should now be recognised as a sport in Ireland.

MMA does not receive any government funding as it is not recognised by the Irish Sports Council. That’s in spite of the achievements of the likes of McGregor, who is currently regarded as the sport’s biggest global star.

McGregor defeated Jose Aldo in December to become the UFC’s featherweight world champion. The 27-year-old Dubliner will aim to make history on 5 March by also clinching the lightweight title when he faces Rafael dos Anjos in Las Vegas.

“That’s a matter for the Sports Council themselves. They’re an independent body to government and they handle all matters in relation to governing and regulation — independent of the views of myself or my department,” said Paschal Donohoe in relation to the fact that the Irish Sports Council doesn’t currently recognise MMA – in an interview with TheJournal.ie.

“I think UFC, and mixed martial arts more broadly, has been a phenomenon across the world and increasingly so in Ireland, and I do believe that Conor McGregor is an extraordinary athlete.

“His recent, very short match with Jose Aldo I think is propelling him to an even bigger space and I know he has a very big fight coming up now in a few weeks, and he’s looking to make history by holding two belts in two different weights. I wish him the best of luck.”

Mixed martial arts in Ireland is currently overseen by the Irish Amateur Pankration Association [IAPA], which is recognised as the governing body for MMA in Ireland by the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation. The IAPA is currently a sub-committee of the Irish Amateur Wrestling Association [IAWA] — the Irish governing body for wrestling — but it does not receive any government funding.

For that to change, mixed martial arts — and by extension, the IAPA — would require direct Irish Sports Council recognition. John Kavanagh, the owner of Straight Blast Gym Ireland and head coach of Conor McGregor, currently serves as the President of the IAPA.

UFC 189 Mixed Martial Arts UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor. Source: John Locher

“Mixed martial arts can only be entitled to funding if it is recognised as a sport. In order for it to be recognised as a sport, it’s something that the organisers of the sport themselves will want to see happen, and it’s something that the Sports Council themselves will have to decide on,” said Paschal Donohoe.

“I think we’re a long way away from that at the moment. My own view is that I do believe it is a sport. I do believe that it’s a very extreme support and it’s not to everybody’s taste. But I do believe it’s a sport because everybody who gets into the octagon does so on the basis of consent.

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“It’s clear to anybody who looks at any of the fights that anybody who gets into that and does so on a professional basis is an extraordinarily conditioned and trained athlete, and they’re aware of the risks they take when they get into the octagon.

“And also, to an extent, if you look at the number of mixed martial arts gyms that are all over the country now, the growth of some of the codes within MMA, the amount of training that goes into it, the amount of interest it commands, people all over our country are deciding that it is a sport by wanting to watch it and train in it.

“It’s not something I can easily look at myself. There’s too much aggression in it for my own liking and I particularly struggle when I see a man or woman down on the canvas being hit repeatedly by somebody else.

“But all that being said, what McGregor has done and the way he’s moving himself forward is an extraordinary achievement for him. And while it’s not something I can easily watch myself, I understand why others enjoy it and I do believe it’s a particularly extreme sport that I think is likely to become a bit more mainstream in the coming years.”

John Kavanagh said: “As President of the IAPA, I’m delighted with the support we have received from the Irish Amateur Wrestling Association. We’re massively appreciative of their backing.

“Mixed martial arts has come a long way in Ireland. With Conor McGregor winning world titles and being recognised with nominations for things like the RTÉ Sports Person of the Year award, I’m confident the sport will continue to move forward in the right direction.”

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Paul Dollery

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