Joe Callaghan

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MMA Ireland: Tragic death of Joao Carvalho was the worst kind of wake-up call

The shocking death of 28-year-old Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho last Monday following a bout in Dublin has thrown Ireland’s lack of regulation of mixed martial arts firmly into the spotlight, writes Joe Callaghan

MMA Ireland: Tragic death of Joao Carvalho was the worst kind of wake-up call

From nothing to something to everything.

This is the six-word summation provided by Conor McGregor in the minutes after his night of nights last December. He had become an undisputed world champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in a chaotic cauldron of noise, the MGM Grand in Las Vegas the scene of a mass Irish invasion of the desert.

McGregor’s offering was eloquent, particularly so for a man who had just left a cage of combat. It was also accurate. His trek to the top had been a whirlwind one. Tto the naked eye, this nothing-to-everything journey took just over two years. Of course, the Dubliner had put in vastly more time and toil into his dream that that.

Yet that timeframe, from his debut in the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion to his ascent to the summit, also provided pretty good staging posts in the history of MMA in Ireland. Its emergence from the shadows and dark fringes to the very centre of the sporting and cultural mainstream was wholly down to McGregor.

From nowhere to somewhere to everywhere, you could say. But after the shocking death of Joao Carvalho enshrouded the sport in darkness all over again this week, the question for Irish MMA is, now where?

The Portuguese fighter came to Dublin last weekend to fight Charlie Ward, trained by McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh, at the National Stadium in an event billed Total Extreme Fighting. By now, we all know the tragic fate that befell Carvalho. His death at Beaumont Hospital on Monday was cause for deep mourning but it also opened another set of floodgates.

At its best, MMA is a bewitching sport of skill. It’s also brutal, often times much too brutal for many. The vociferous members of the latter camp jumped all over the events to bash an activity they abhor.

There is always inherent risk in physical contact sports. In combat sports, that risk is ramped up again and again. Weeks previously, Nick Blackwell, a young British boxer, had been left in a coma after a fight against Chris Eubank Jr. Still, something had quite clearly gone very badly wrong on the South Circular Rd last Saturday night. This was the worst kind of wake-up call for all involved in the sport.

What was most immediately clear was that a sport that has exploded in interest and participation at youth, amateur, and professional levels in this country yet still uncontrolled by the national sporting authorities now, more than ever, needed to be regulated.

Minister for Sport Michael Ring’s immediate response to the tragedy, however, was nothing short of outrageous, jumping on the national airwaves to seemingly score points and tell us over and over how he had predicted this very outcome.

“I saw this coming down the line before you did or anyone else did,” he told Newstalk.

Given that he had apparently foreseen athletes’ deaths, what had the minister done to avert such a catastrophe? He told how he had written a letter to 17 different Irish MMA organisations two years ago — the same letter. So in essence he’d written one letter, copied and pasted it 16 times and might just have left it at that. Now promising regulation, there’s a fair chance that Mr Ring spent more time on the airwaves on Tuesday retelling us “he’d ‘seen this coming” than he had doing anything concrete about it in the first place.

Equally, for a man who had long held such grave concerns about this combat sport taking place on the island, Mr Ring sounded a very different tone as recently as December. In the wake of McGregor’s triumph over Jose Aldo, the minister came across a man struggling to contain his giddiness at the economic boon of a potential Dublin defence of that title.

“He has been an inspiration and it is a sport that has really taken off here,” he told the Irish Star at the time.

“I would like to see him in Croke Park. It’s not for me to tell him where to have his fights. If he wants to defend his title in Ireland then I would have absolutely no problem with that.”

Absolutely no problem.

Sport Ireland chief John Treacy’s initial offerings on the topic were equally unlikely to convince anyone that he is about to take this awful moment, put in some hard yards, and find a solution to an obvious crisis. On Morning Ireland on Thursday he referred to the sport as MNA — over and over again.

“The MNA [sic]...they should be regulating themselves,” Mr Treacy said in a rambling interview devoid of anything that sounded like specifics or solutions.

Yet specifics and solutions abound. On the same day that Mr Treacy couldn’t even get the name of the sport right, across the Atlantic, New York governor Andrew Cuomo was at Madison Square Garden signing a bill to legalise professional MMA in the state, the last in North America to do so.

The UFC were immediately able to announce a first event for November, given how quickly New York officials will handle regulation. They will adopt the Unified Rules of MMA drafted by New Jersey (the first state to legalise it) in 2001, a template that covers everything from the rules of combat to refereeing to medical testing and expertise present on fight nights. It has been used as a blueprint the world over, with small regional tinkering.

Kavanagh had in fact explained to this writer just last month how he had campaigned for those very rules to be adopted in the Irish MMA community many years ago.

“I remember I was trying to get the MMA rules changed in Ireland about seven or eight years ago,” he told me. “I said to the other coaches that we have to change the rules to mimic UFC rules and the reaction was ‘why, sure we’re never going to have someone there?’ I said ‘well you mightn’t but I will’.”

As coach of McGregor, Ward, and a host of top professionals, Kavanagh’s input is pivotal now, especially so as he is also at the forefront of the amateur sport in Ireland having helped one of the country’s leading neurologists Dan Healy push for Safe MMA, a certification for amateur fighters in the country that, among other things, covers pre- and post-fight medical testing.

Once Sport Ireland get their heads around the acronym for mixed martial arts, they would find that the Unified Rules, perhaps supplemented with elements of Safe MMA, could provide a bona fide blueprint for regulating the sport. For their part, the UFC want to help.

Speaking at the New York ceremony, Lorenzo Fertitta, the organisation’s CEO, offered his assistance.

“It’s kind of been our mantra, we run towards regulation,” he said. “We would love to be able to work with the authorities in Ireland so that, not just our events, but all of the events are properly regulated.”

As Kavanagh alluded to, there could still be resistance to certain aspects from some of the smaller native promotions in Ireland. So fractured and messy is the landscape that that’s inevitable. Yet Carvalho’s death, at the age of just 28, is the kind of shuddering tragedy that divides a sport into the then and the now. Future cannot mirror past. Similar dark days have made boxing, cycling, Formula One, even winter sports, eminently safer for those who follow.

And follow they will. MMA is a sport that so many will continue to find impossible to stomach. That’s understandable. This writer can still struggle with certain aspects of it (additional blows landed on a prone, beaten fighter for one). We wouldn’t dream to argue with those who opt to turn away. But McGregor, still so polarising, is going nowhere. In this week, that seems a good thing.

Because such is the glare of the spotlight he shines on MMA in his homeland that, even in these darkest of times, there is no shade in which the Irish authorities, the myriad organisations, or the sport itself can again run and find excuses.

As the Carvalho family mourn a life taken much, much too young, Michael Ring has promised regulation. Now we all wait to see that coming.

Joe Callaghan is a North America-based sports writer and former sports editor of the Irish Daily Mail. He regularly reports on MMA and other sports for the Irish Examiner

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