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Last week an inquest at the Dublin Coroner’s Court which was investigating the death of Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho stemming from injuries sustained at Total Extreme Fighting 1 event in Dublin in April 2016 returned a verdict of death by misadventure. 

Carvalho passed away two days after a third round defeat against Charlie Ward in the bout which took place at The National Stadium in Dublin. The inquest heard that Carvalho was conscious and coherent immediately after the bout. He walked backstage to the medical room under his own power and  had a brief conversation with Ward, before beginning to feel unwell.

When the severity of his injuries became apparent, he was rushed to the emergency room on the floor of an ambulance. Carvalho died two days later, April 11th 2016, at the Richmond intensive care unit at Beaumount Hospital in Dublin. Blunt force trauma to the head was listed as the cause of death.

The death of the Portuguese, nearly two years ago now, ignited a debate in Ireland as to the legitimacy of mixed martial arts as a sport. On the one hand, Conor McGregor had recently become Ireland’s latest world champion, propelling the sport of mixed martial arts to the mainstream in the public eye. On the other, the sport’s detractors — of which there are many — signaled their horror at what they considered to be the more barbaric elements of mixed martial arts.

Carvalho’s tragic passing was the impetus for a national debate as to the virtues of mixed martial arts which continues to this day.

Following the results of the inquest being made public late last week Shane Ross, the Irish Minister for Sport, used the opportunity to criticise mixed martial arts leaders in Ireland for “dragging their feet” when it comes to adherence to safety standards and regulation of the sport throughout Ireland.

He said in a statement: “It appears to me that MMA leaders here in Ireland are deliberately dragging their feet on the establishment of appropriate governance and safety standards.

“Today I call on the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) to do the right thing – take the steps that are required to safeguard your fighters and prevent needless injury and loss of life. Sport Ireland stands ready to help but can only help if you are willing to ask, and if you are willing to do the right thing.”

The thing is, these comments do not ring true to anyone who has been fully appraised of the situation.

Exploratory meetings between then Minister For Sport Michael Ring and representatives from the Irish Amateur Pankration Association (IAPA) and the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) to discuss the safeguarding of those who compete in the sport of mixed martial arts within the borders of Ireland took place in early 2017.

John Kavanagh, President of the IAPA (now IMMAA), wrote on Facebook following a meeting last year that the meetings were encouraging.

“Yesterday a positive preliminary meeting took place between Minister Michael Ring, a representative of Sport Ireland, Professor Dan Healy and senior civil servants. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the future of MMA (mixed martial arts) in Ireland, its regulation and safety measures at competitions.

“Over the course of the next few weeks, a series of meetings are to take place between the IAPA and government officials to commence work towards regulating our sport efficiently and safely.”

Sport Ireland, the governing body which oversees the various sports which take place throughout the country, don’t currently acknowledge mixed martial arts as a legitimate sport in Ireland. For that reason mixed martial arts and its competitors in Ireland are not subject to the various levels of funding and administration that are currently enjoyed by other sports in Ireland.

John Treacy, the Chief Executive of Sport Ireland, took the opportunity of the Carvalho’s inquest results to fire a shot across the bow of mixed martial arts in Ireland, saying that a governing body which oversees MMA must be set up as a matter of urgency in order to mandate specific health criteria which must legally be adhered to by all MMA promoters in the country.

However, it can be readily argued that this governing body already exists in Ireland and it is being held back by lack of support and recognition from Sport Ireland themselves.

In a press release issued last weekend, John Kavanagh refuted Shane Ross’s comments that he and other MMA influencers in Ireland were “dragging their feet” with regard to safety standards and regulation, adding that this opinion must be the result of misinformation.

“IMMAA proactively fulfils its duties as the national governing body for Irish MMA despite lack of official recognition, the main barrier to recognition being administrative,” the group wrote in the release.

“When IMMAA (formerly IAPA) applied to Sport Ireland for official recognition in 2016, it was informed as per Sport Ireland procedure that it would need three years of financial transactions before it could be recognised. It is beyond IMMAA’s powers to speed up bureaucratic process or to grant itself legal mandate to enforce its regulations. In spite of that, Irish MMA’s 100% voluntary adherence to IMMAA protocol since the organisation’s establishment in April 2016 proves the commitment of Ireland’s MMA leaders to establishing appropriate governance and safety standards in the sport of MMA, against all odds and in the face of opposition.

“Since the tragic passing of Joao Carvalho, every MMA promoter in Ireland has voluntarily worked to implement IMMAA’s stringent safety protocol, which includes the independent, medical preclearance services of voluntary organisation, Safe MMA. This can be demonstrated by medical records from all those events. In addition, all events have been commissioned and officiated by IMMAA officials to ensure safety standards are adhered to.

“It is worth noting that IMMAA’s amateur MMA safety standards already far exceed those of any other amateur martial art/combat sport, and our professional requirements are comparable with those of professional boxing. The third party medical preclearance and advisory services implemented by IMMAA are unique in sport; and Irish MMA under IMMAA can reasonably boast the most advanced medical protocols in the world for MMA, which it has sustained for over 18 months without any legal mandate. International promoters holding arena events in Ireland have also complied with the standards set and adopted by the Irish MMA community under IMMAA.”

The release concludes by saying that they agree with Mr. Ross that the regulation of mixed martial arts should not take so long and that they welcome a meeting with him at the earliest opportunity.

Further to Kavanagh’s strict commitment to safety, he announced a program last year for mandatory brain scans for every amateur and professional fighter who competes or trains under the SBG banner to help diagnose any conditions which may make competing or training a health hazard. These types of scans are also mandatory for competitors in the United States, where the sport is regulated.

Sport Ireland currently endorses several full contact sports in Ireland, such as the Irish Taekwondo Union, the Irish Judo Association and the Irish Martial Arts Commission. It is understood that several of these organisations oppose the regulation of mixed martial arts in Ireland, possibly because it would further expand the pool of entities eligible for the finite level of funding provided by the government.

Everyone connected with mixed martial arts in Ireland, your writer included, wants the sport to be as safe as possible for those who choose to compete in it. Unfortunately, Ross’s comments appear to come from a position of willful ignorance to the facts of the situation and undermine the efforts of those who are actively seeking government regulation, the highest safety practices and oversight.

Ultimately in this debate it appears that both the IMMAA and the Irish government want the same thing but with all things considered, it seems that the IMMAA are the only body to be actively pursuing it. The tragedy in the National Stadium on that spring day a couple of years ago is close to becoming a partisan, politicised talking point, used by some to emphasise MMA’s perceived barbarism when the truest tribute to Carvalho would be to ensure conditions where it cannot happen again.

The reality is that since that day the IMMAA, along with entities like Safe MMA, have made tremendous strides in self-governing and the implementation of practices to maintain the highest safety standards possible. And all of this without any funding, or notable assistance from Sport Ireland or the Irish Minister for Sport.

Who is dragging their heels now, Mr. Ross?