Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is widely regarded to be among the fastest growing sports in the world. In Ireland, its popularity has skyrocketed, taking the sport into the mainstream. The reason? Conor McGregor.
Ireland doesn’t produce too many global stars and McGregor is undoubtedly one.
The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is the premier tier of MMA. It’s where any budding fighters want to end up. In just six fights, the trash-talking Dubliner became the UFC’s biggest cash cow.
In gyms all around Ireland, children as young as 10 are training and dreaming of becoming the next McGregor and earning millions of dollars in the process.
While recent high-profile boxing events have struggled in terms of media interest and ticket sales, MMA is selling out in every part of the country.
A UFC event at Dublin’s 3Arena featuring Joseph Duffy last October sold out 9,000 tickets in 60 seconds.
UFC’s vice-president of international development, Joe Carr, told the Irish Post that if McGregor was on the bill, it could fill Croke Park.
“I don’t think an Irish boxing event could put 60,000 to 80,000 people in Croke Park, which, based on our demand levels and the research we’ve done, we’re completely confident that if Conor McGregor came back here we’d fill that stadium. We couldn’t be more impressed with the pace of the ticket sales. It crushes what we sold at last year’s event,” he said.
With such popularity come the inevitable calls for the sport to be recognised here by the Irish Sports Council. As it stands, it is not and does not receive any government funding.
It is currently overseen by the Irish Amateur Pankration Association, which is recognised as the governing body for MMA in Ireland by the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation.
Association president John Kavanagh is better known as McGregor’s coach and the head of Straight Blast Gym Ireland. Speaking to a Newstalk documentary last year, he said he wasn’t surprised by the boom in popularity of the sport.
“It’s a well-known phenomenon. I think it’s going to be the same with Conor. He’s a year or two as a proper megastar here in Ireland. That led to us getting a lot of 10-year-olds, 11-year-olds, and 12-year-olds joining [the gym]. Give me five or six years with them when they are turning 17, 18, and 19 — what are they going to be like? It’s very exciting times for Irish mixed martial arts,” he said.
A budding young fighter who appeared in that same documentary spoke about the UFC being the ultimate goal for a young man who leaves school without much of an education.
Cian Cowley has been fighting since he was 13. Now 23, the dream of a better life is what motivated him to move to MMA.
“In combat sports, UFC and MMA — that’s where the money is. There’s no other way around it, and I have nothing else to go on. I can’t just say I’ll do fighting as my hobby and I’ll just get a job or go to college. I can barely read or write. I have to fight,” he said.
However, with the massive surge in popularity for the sport have come the inevitable questions about health and safety. For decades, boxing has faced the same questions. Why do we not ban a sport where the goal is to inflict pain on your opponent?
Despite deaths and brain injuries, boxing has survived these calls and boasts huge popularity on mainstream sports channels like Sky Sports.
The death of Joao Carvalho in Dublin now brings these questions to MMA.
Just last month, consultant neurologist at Beaumont Hospital Professor Dan Healy raised concerns about medical supervision at an MMA event in Dublin and warned of the potential for serious injury in the sport.
“Either MMA is banned or it’s illegal and that’s the end of it; there is no risk. Or, and I think this is the more preferable option, that MMA is recognised and helped and rather than being continually criticised for being unsafe, it’s helped to be made safe,” he said.
Just like boxing, MMA can often be a brutal sport. The risks are well-known to the protagonists. It will likely see more tragic events like those that occurred last Saturday.
It will face more calls for it to be banned as a sport and, just like boxing, it will survive these calls.
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