Ireland ‘safest country in world’ to be an MMA fighter
Year after João Carvalho’s death, top neurologist calls for Sport Ireland to recognise MMA
Portuguese MMA fighter João Carvalho during his fight with Charlie Ward in Dublin last year. Carvalho died due to blunt force trauma to the head he sustained in the fight. Photograph: Dave Fogarty
A year after the death of Portuguese fighter João Carvalho, a consultant neurologist from the hospital in which he died has said that Ireland is the safest country in the world in which to take part in a mixed martial arts fight.
Prof Dan Healy, consultant at Beaumont Hospital and the Royal College of Surgeons, has called for Sport Ireland to give MMA official recognition so that the progress that has been made in recent years can be made permanent.
Prof Healy is a cofounder of SafeMMA, a voluntary non-profit body who were set up in 2012 and whose sign-off MMA promoters use as an effective seal of approval for the safety standards at their events in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The Total Extreme Fighting event at which Carvalho lost his life was the last MMA promotion to take place in Ireland without the involvement of SafeMMA. Every fight since has been signed off by them.
“I believe the standards that have been put in place in Ireland and that have been adopted by the MMA community have made it the safest country in the world to take part in this sport. This is not all down to SafeMMA. It would not have worked if it had been imposed on the sport. This works because the community itself embraced it.
“The safety standards that other countries insist upon for professional fighters are ones that are also applied to amateurs here – and there are more amateurs than professionals in sport.
“I want to be clear on the purpose of it all. Anyone who says MMA is a safe sport hasn’t seen MMA. It is not a safe sport – there are dangers with it, as there are with a lot of sports. The purpose of the pre-clearance SafeMMA standards is to minimise avoidable risk. It’s so that we don’t have a situation where we have someone who shouldn’t have been fighting and we only find out after the fact. The safety protocols are so that we know in advance.
“Once a fighter goes down, it’s a frightening thing that happens. Suddenly they are maybe seizing in the ring or they are unconscious. They need everything done for them, they need stretchers, they need oxygen. They need a tube put down to control their breathing.
“You need to make sure there are ambulances there, that they know their route, that there’s nothing blocking them, that Beaumont knows they are coming, that they can go straight into theatre. Every second counts in that situation and those pathways require a lot of planning in advance. Among other things, all of that is happening now.”
Talks with Sport Ireland have taken place on and off in recent times with a view to gaining official recognition for MMA. Along with high-profile coach John Kavanagh and former fighter Aisling Daly, Healy has met with the Government body and urged that the sport be brought under the official umbrella.
He argues that although safety standards are in a good place at the minute, there is no guarantee they will stay that way in the future. No MMA promoter is currently obligated to go through SafeMMA if they want to put on an event.
They do so voluntarily, essentially attempting to give themselves cover in case of something going wrong. But, says Healy, it would be much better if a Government-backed body was involved, rather than volunteer-led SafeMMA.
“My take on the situation is that one of two things needs to happen. Either the sport is banned, which is not my preferred option, or that the sport is governed, regulated and accountable like every other combat sport.
“Recognition would bring advantages for the sport in the shape of grants that might be used to take over what SafeMMA has been doing. That’s what I would like to see happen in the long run – relying on a volunteer project like this is not sustainable.
“But beyond the advantages, there are also responsibilities. Safety, monitoring fighters, rule changes, etc. At the moment, the sport doesn’t have either – not the benefits and not the responsibilities. And to me, that’s dangerous.
“There is no governance. There is no regulation. These are all self-imposed standards. And for longevity, I would suggest that there is a requirement for this to become part of a regulatory framework. It needs to be more than goodwill. Goodwill runs out. Now I think it’s time for systems to be put in place so that this can continue.
“It remains the case that everything that has been put in place at the moment has been done on a voluntary basis and perhaps not on a sustainable basis. The sport has done its part. In some ways, it has done what the government should be doing.
“Self-regulation is really important. But the difference is that other sports are at least recognised by government. What that means is that while they self-govern, they also have responsibilities to meet.”
* The Life and Death of João Carvalho, see Saturday’s Irish Times.