It’s time to recognise MMA is here to stay

MMA is ‘barbaric’ and for others it is a multi-skilled, supremely athletic sport that is no more violent, and just as well self-regulated, as boxing.

It’s time to recognise MMA is here to stay

MMA is ‘barbaric’ and for others it is a multi-skilled, supremely athletic sport that is no more violent, and just as well self-regulated, as boxing.

James Gallagher, right, in action against Anthony Taylor during their featherweight bout at Bellator169 in the 3 Arena in Dublin in 2016. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SportsfileDF

James Gallagher, right, in action against Anthony Taylor during their featherweight bout at Bellator169 in the 3 Arena in Dublin in 2016. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/SportsfileDF

Bellator 217, which takes place on Saturday at the 3Arena in Dublin, will be a huge night for the sport of MMA in Ireland.

And yet the legal and regulatory status of the sport, amateur to professional, is still open to question in this country.

Sport Ireland does not yet officially recognise the sport’s governing body, the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA). The sport remains purely self-regulated and does not receive state funding or oversight.

Without such recognition, the very legality of the sport is in question. In Irish law and going back nearly 150 years to an English case called Coney, prize fighting, meaning “an encounter or fight with (bare) fists or hands between two persons who have met for that purpose by previous arrangement”, has been a criminal offence in common law.

The Coney offence includes not only those engaging in the fight but also all those “aiding and abetting” the fight; for example, anyone found to have promoted the fight, assisted the fighters or even attended the fight.

In Irish criminal law, as elsewhere, the fact that both parties agreed or consented to a ‘fair fight’ is irrelevant given the possibility of bodily harm.

Over the years a number of activities (such as contact sports) have been given an exemption from this general rule. The legality of boxing rests on such an exemption. The justification is that professional and amateur boxing bouts in Ireland take place under well-defined rules, recognised globally, as overseen by a long-established regulatory body for the sport.

This principle of criminal law and the exemption granted to boxing in Irish law was mentioned late last year by the Irish Supreme Court in a case involving a fight between two prisoners. One prisoner was charged with assault but claimed that the injured party had consented to and even arranged the fight in order to get transferred to another prison.

No exemption, implied or otherwise, exists for MMA in Irish law and thus in the absence of clarity on its recognition, the nearest legal definition we have for the sport in Ireland is that of a prize fight.

Theoretically then it is possible that as per the Coney rule, the gardaí could move to shut down Bellator 217 on Saturday night. This is unlikely to happen considering the licencing, medical and other safety measures that Bellator and the host venue will have in place on the night.

The issue of whether MMA is an illegal, criminal act is, as has been discussed in countries such as Canada, one for parliamentary debate and not night-time policing.

For some in Ireland, including members of the Oireachtas, MMA is ‘barbaric’ and should be proscribed. For proponents, it is a multi-skilled, supremely athletic sport that is no more violent, and just as well self-regulated, as boxing and an array of other martial arts.

If we ban it, will it simply go underground and will the resulting lack of oversight lower standards and increase the risks for participants? Getting people involved in MMA has the social and health benefits of getting us off our screens and into a sweat at the gym. But MMA is not the only sport that could do this and many less dangerous and equally beneficial sports exist for us couch potatoes.

The debate on MMA is thus at once familiar and extremely polarised. I am not a fan of the sport but on balance I think it should be regulated in Ireland. I am a boxing fan and on the recent death of the great Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney, I re-read his piece from September, 1980 on the death of Johnny Owen caused by the cumulation of blows Owen took in the final round of his challenge for the WBC bantamweight title against Lupe Pintor.

It remains an extraordinary piece; at once faithful to and doubtful of the sport. It captures both the “red-eyed” anxiety of Owen’s corner as the Welshman slips into “a sinister unconsciousness” and the indifference of that night’s fight crowd at the Olympic Auditorium in LA “emphasised when one of the stretcher-bearers had his pocket picked.”

So as professional boxing, to use McIlvanney’s phrase, “takes us to hospital rooms” so has MMA and its professional iterations, UFC and Bellator.

Tragically, in April 2016, Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho died at Beaumont Hospital from injuries sustained during an event called ‘Total Extreme Fighting 1’ at the National Stadium.

A year later I was asked by John Treacy, Sport Ireland’s CEO, to draft a report on a possible pathway for recognition of MMA.

That report was subsequently published and suggested that the sport might become an affiliate of the long-established Irish Martial Arts Commission (IMAC), the national governing body for various multi-disciplinary martial arts sports on the island of Ireland.

Since that report, and against the backdrop of the complex internal politics of sport in in Ireland, doubts have been raised as to the practicality, feasibility and, simply, the length of time it might take for MMA in Ireland to become a full affiliated member of IMAC.

The question now is: in the two years since that report, has the sport of MMA in Ireland matured to such a point that its governing body, IMMAA, is in a position to unilaterally seek recognition from Sport Ireland?

In the 2017 Sport Ireland report, a key concern was not just how the sport might better regulate itself and gain recognition but, first, who and what exactly was the IMMAA and its membership?

Prior to recognition in Ireland, a national governing body of any sport in Ireland must give evidence of meeting key ‘governance’ criteria — the boring but necessary stuff — including its corporate and membership (club) structure, a written constitution, and independent unqualified audited financial statements for three years etc.

Since 2017, IMMAA appears to have met these concerns as bolstered by its links to the medical charity Safe MMA, which, in conjunction with Professor Dan Healy, consultant neurologist at Beaumont Hospital, provides screening and medical passports for registered fighters.

Ironically, the biggest challenge now facing MMA in Ireland as it seeks recognition may not be Sport Ireland but this month’s failure by the international governing body for the sport (IMMAF) to convince the Global Association of International Sports Federations (the umbrella body which recognises sports globally) to even give IMMAF preliminary, observer status. The global recognition of the sport would have made its recognition in Ireland easier.

Personally, and based on models that apply in Sweden and here in the Australian state of Victoria, and which allows Melbourne to host local amateur MMA bouts to major UFC events, I think that the regulation of MMA would be best put on a statutory basis as run by an independent board working in conjunction with the MMA community in Ireland.

Sport Ireland can only recognise sports in Ireland (and then fund them). It does not regulate them. The regulatory issues in combat sports such as MMA — athlete welfare, anti-doping etc — are of such acute importance and potential danger that a statutory body might be best.

Whatever is decided, MMA in Ireland continues to grow and is here to stay.

IMMAA now has 45 affiliated member clubs in the Republic of Ireland. IMMAA athletes came second on the medal table at the 2018 World Amateur MMA Championships and, at the time of writing, nearly half the fighters in the 16 bouts scheduled on the Bellator 217 card are Irish, including Strabane fighter James Gallagher who features in the main event.

MMA may not be to everyone’s sporting taste, but to again quote Hugh McIlvanney on the fate of boxer Johnny Owen, we must sometimes, whether we like it or not, become “articulate in such a dangerous language”.

Jack Anderson is Professor of Law, University of Melbourne.

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