João Carvalho: The life and death of a cage fighter
The Portuguese MMA fighter who died a year ago this week was more than just a headline. He was somebody. This is his story.
A mural in memory of MMA fighter João Carvalho in Pragal near Lisbon. Photograph: Malachy Clerkin
Tufts of weeds poke up through the cobbles all the way down Rua São Miguel Nascente. Brick square tower blocks stand sentry on either side, eight-storey chunks of faded pink and blue gouged into the hillside 10 miles south of Lisbon. Pragal is a hardscrabble parish across the river Tagus, tucked in the foothills around the 110-metre Christ The King statue that overlooks the city. And somewhere on or in off this street is, hopefully, a mural of João Carvalho.
It has to be here somewhere. It popped up a few months back on one of the memorial Facebook pages dedicated to the Portuguese fighter in the wake of his death. Painted by his friends over a weekend in Carvalho’s old neighbourhood, a spray-canned shrine on the walls that made him and them. But scouring up and down the hill here, it’s nowhere to be seen.
On the corner of Rua Bela Vista, an old man pulls the good out of a cigarette in the chill of the early spring afternoon. Show him the picture on the phone and his face fades to a sad smile. “Ah, Irlandês?” he asks. And when you nod, he shuffles into a mock fighter’s pose – side on, fists up, head bobbing. This is the place, alright.
He acts out directions. Down the hill, left and left again. Through an arch and out into a courtyard. And right enough, there it is. There’s João Carvalho.
About 18 feet high, shaded black and white and grey. Pretty boy cheekbones framing a boxer’s nose, thick eyebrows on top, thin beard around the chin. Mouth shaped into something between a smirk and a sneer. Defiant, one way or the other. ‘TW RIP’ daubed underneath.
And to the side, scrawled in capitals: ‘Antes morrer lutando do que viver fugindo...’
Better to die fighting than to live running away.
The doctors turned off João Carvalho’s machine in Beaumont Hospital at 9.35pm on the evening of Monday, April 11th, 2016. Referee Mariusz Domasat had stopped his fight with Charlie Ward in the third round the previous Saturday, intervening as Ward stood over him raining unanswered punches. He had been bleeding heavily from the nose from the first round onward but other than tiredness, this nosebleed was his only immediate symptom.
He was able to walk back to the medical room in the National Stadium as the Total Extreme Fighting Event moved on up the card. He was talking and smiling. He had no headaches and no pains of note anywhere beyond the normal battle wounds. The on-site doctor ran a few rudimentary tests and found nothing out of the ordinary in the results. He did, though, recommend a CT scan and an ambulance was called to take Carvalho to hospital as a precaution.
His condition deteriorated quickly while the ambulance was on its way. Within 10 minutes, he complained of a bad headache. He became nauseous and started to vomit. The situation was quickly upgraded by the medical staff and a call was made to Beaumont to let them know he was on his way. He underwent emergency surgery and was attended to in the Richmond intensive care unit. He was kept on life support for 48 hours but nothing further could be done.
A postmortem examination carried out by State Pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy found that Carvalho died from an acute subdural haemorrhage due to blunt force trauma to the head. In layman’s terms, a blood clot on the brain. He was 28-years-old.
And that, give or take a detail or two, is that. Everything in those four paragraphs was reported in the press, either in the days that followed his death or at the initial inquest hearing last December. Otherwise, João Carvalho is a name in a headline and not a whole lot more. New York Times, Sydney Morning Herald, CNN, ESPN, BBC. His death made the news across the world. His life was barely mentioned.
Instead, he became a cypher. A battleground state. Weaponised by ban-it-all fundamentalists on one side, deified by watery-eyed MMA soldiers on the other. He could have been anybody. The world of mixed martial arts was always going to be one punch away from a moment of reckoning and he was just the poor schmoe who took it. It was, literally, nothing personal.
But João Carvalho was somebody. And was from somewhere. He had a family and he had a wife and he had kids. He had friends and a job and bad habits and a sense of humour and nickname. He had good times and tough times, he had ambitions and he had heroes.
One of those heroes was ringside on the night, clawing the octagon wire and cheering on the last punches he would ever take. On Facebook a few days later, Conor McGregor described him as a champion and a hell of a fighter. It is a grim irony of Carvalho’s death that impressing his idol turned out to be the final act of his life.
“He was my younger brother,” says Alex Silvestre. “I say to everyone that he was my first son, really, more than my younger brother. He was 15 years younger than me. I have a son who is 22 and João was 28 when he died.
“He was a normal boy, a very good person. He was a very good son, he took care of my mother. He wasn’t perfect – no one is 100 per cent perfect, of course. But he was one of those people who there was more good things than bad things to say about.
“It’s not because he was my brother. He was a very, very good boy. If you were close to him, it was never boring. He always try to find a way to keep everyone happy and having a good time.
“Even with me, he tried always to put me in a better mood. It’s not easy to leave your country and go and work in another country. You don’t like to leave your family, you don’t like to leave your home city. It’s not easy to be far away. But he always tried to keep me up.”
Alex works as a healthcare assistant in the Royal South Hants Hospital in Southampton. On that night, he did what he always did when João was fighting. He held his breath, watched it on his phone and worried. They lived in different countries so he never went to any of the fights but even if he was back in Lisbon, he doesn’t think he’d ever have made it along. Couldn’t face it.
“I spoke to him a few times about it. I was never brave enough to go see him fight. I’m not this kind of guy. I watched him all the time on the mobile phone on the internet. But I never was there. I had a chance to be in Portugal the second time he fought but I didn’t really want to. It was hard for me. He’s my brother, you know?”
Something in the way João got to his feet - slowly, gingerly, in instalments almost - something about it felt off
When he saw the referee stop the fight, he breathed out. At least now it was over. But they had a rule, he and João. When the fight is over, when the dust has settled, send a text to say everything is okay.
Actually, João had this rule with a few people. He knew they worried but equally, they knew he loved what he did. He always texted pretty quickly after a fight to say everything was fine, as if he was trying to convince them all that this wasn’t such a dangerous life after all.
Anyway, Alex couldn’t wait this time. Something in the way João got to his feet - slowly, gingerly, in instalments almost - something about it felt off. So this time he sent the text.
He went to bed but couldn’t sleep. He lay there waiting on a reply. It was past midnight when his phone rang and when he saw a Portuguese number, he knew it was bad. João’s coach was calling from a hospital in Dublin. The doctor wanted to speak to a family member.
“They asked me how quick can I get there,” he says. “I said there is a flight at eight in the morning. The doctor said: ‘It’s very bad, you should come on that flight’.”
Lisbon is like anywhere. The mid-morning traffic is a stagnant swamp. Bad cess and no patience. Traffic lights like maverick cops, living by their own rules. And today, rain. For which, understandably enough, the boys in the Reborn Gym blame their Irish visitor.
The gym looms like it’s on stilts at the end of Rua Manuel da Silva Leal. We’re out by Lisbon Zoo, 15 minutes from the airport in one direction, 10 from Benfica’s Estadio Da Luz in the other. The street bends around it, as if intimidated.
Through the door, on the wall of the corridor to the left, the first thing you see is a three-foot high photo of João Carvalho. Stripped to the waist, posing with biceps flexed, TW RAFEIRO emblazoned across the bottom. Look close enough and you can see in the background the words “Official Weight In”. A weigh-in photo is a weigh-in photo, one the same as the next. The misspelling on this one, though – that rogue ‘t’ at the end of weigh – marks it like a fingerprint. It’s from the National Stadium in Dublin, taken on April 8th, 2016.
The corridor opens out into the gym proper. A blue 12m x 12m mat, split into four sectors. Ten heavy bags hanging around the border of the mat, a booming sound system in the corner spitting out everything from deep house to the Game Of Thrones soundtrack. Off to the side, a fenced-off kids’ area with a mini-slide and a couple of bean bags. On the entrance to the mat, a list of 10 Reborn rules.
– Be on time.
– Maintain a clean and rip-free uniform (White, Blue and Black only).
– Greet the teacher and your fellow training partners.
– Do not talk during class.
– Do not complain about fatigue, this will only worsen.
– Be open-minded to learn.
– Practise your deficiencies.
– Do not resist due to vanity.
– If you lost, try again.
– If you won, respect.
Aires Benros breaks out of the boxing lesson he’s giving and lopes over to clasp a hand. He has organised for the others to come by in a while to talk about the João Carvalho they knew but for now he says to sit and enjoy. He goes back out to the mat and moves around with the sleek grace of a panther. A quick check on Sherdog says he has a 10-4 record. You can see why.
Here in this place, it’s hard to find the road that leads to the howls of outrage that always echo through anything to do with mixed martial arts. Nobody can sit in a room like this and watch these fighters work and sweat and drill and improve without a growing respect for MMA as a life choice. Whatever its ills, whatever your reservations, this is a sport.
Let’s not be coy, though. Or wax overly poetic. It’s a brutal, dangerous sport, with outer boundaries staked at a point far beyond what most people find acceptable. The man died, after all.
Prof Dan Healy is a consultant neurologist at Beaumont Hospital and the Royal College of Surgeons. Make him President of the Planet tomorrow morning and there would be no such thing as mixed martial arts tomorrow night. But since there’s zero possibility of either of those things happening, he chooses to live in the real world and has made his mission to try and make that world a safe one.
In 2012, he joined with MMA fighter Aisling Daly to set up SafeMMA, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the safety of MMA fighters in Ireland and the UK. He has partnered with two neurologists in London and the body has been run out of the Centre for Health and Human Performance in Harley Street these past five years. They have in their database the medical records of around 1,000 fighters, amateur and professional. And they are growing year on year
A fortnight before João Carvalho’s death, Healy wrote a piece in the Sunday Independent decrying the conflict of interests when safety at MMA events is left at the whim of commercial promoters. With eerie prescience, he suggested it might take a cage death to change the situation.
“The purpose of that was that things had been working quite well for a year or two before that,” he says. “Most of the promoters were signing up and going through due diligence and processing. And then suddenly there were two events back-to-back, one in the National Basketball Arena and then the Carvalho event, where it seemed to me that people were going their own way again. When safety is in the hands of the promoter, he has to balance other considerations. When it’s in our hands, it’s our only consideration.”
It has introduced a level of rigour to what could otherwise be a wild west situation
Any promoter looking for SafeMMA’s seal of approval for their event must have all their fighters meet a strict list of safety standards. To fight in a SafeMMA event, you must sign up to a fighter passport that encompasses:
– A yearly medical;
– Six-monthly blood tests;
– Pre- and post-fight medicals;
– Confidential database for competitors’ well-being and current medical status;.
– Member promotions only using athletes found within the registered database;
– Listed promotions upholding medically advised suspensions;
– Access to specially negotiated rates for blood tests and MRI scans;.
– Access to sports-based medical advice that fighters can trust.
By and large, it has worked well. SafeMMA’s mission has been to set a safety standard and to monitor it. It has introduced a level of rigour to what could otherwise be a wild west situation and has brought a safe end to the careers of some high-profile fighters, including its co-founder, Aisling Daly.
A regulation brain scan in 2016 showed up some irregularities and meant that Daly, one of the sport’s most charismatic and recognisable names in Ireland, had to walk away. “It would be unlikely I would be medically cleared to compete again,” she wrote in her retirement statement. “Even in the event I could find a doctor who would clear me it would be very unwise for me to continue to compete with the risks involved.”
Read between the lines there and you can drive a truck through a dangerously grey area. Daly has voluntarily removed herself from the sport. But if she was a different sort of person, if she could find a different type of doctor and hit up with a different stripe of promoter, there’s actually nothing to stop her fighting tomorrow.
Because MMA isn’t recognised by Sport Ireland, the sport is effectively self-policed. For all the progress SafeMMA has made over the past five years, there is still no legal requirement for any event promoter to go through them. In theory, anyone can put on an MMA event – all they need is the price of booking the hall.
In practice, however, every event in Ireland for the past year has made sure to get the SafeMMA sign-off. According to Prof Healy, the last event that went ahead without engaging SafeMMA was the Total Extreme Fighting event that ended João Carvalho’s life.
Everybody called him Tweety
“I want to make it clear that I’m not to making any comment on that event,” says Healy. “I don’t know the details of the safety that they had in place. All I can say is that we weren’t involved in any way in the process. Obviously there’s an inquiry that will determine what safety levels were there – or not – on the night. All I can say is that it was not a SafeMMA event. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a safe event.”
In the Reborn gym, you take off your shoes before you go out onto the mat. Aires Benros takes us out into the middle and we sit in a semi-circle and set the tape rolling. The idea is to learn more about João and his background but as soon as you say his name, you see them catching each other’s eye.
“Tweety,” says Fabio Texeira, smiling. “Tweety was his nickname.”
(Hence the ‘TW RIP’ underneath the mural.)
“Rafiero was a fight name, just for the cage. It means mutt. But it was just a fight name. Nobody who knew him called him that and nobody called him João. I did not know his real name for a long time. Everybody called him Tweety.”
Ground rules established, we sit and talk for an hour. In a semi-circle of seven guys, three do most of the talking. Fabio and Aires have near-perfect English so they translate for the others. But even without having a word of Portuguese, you can tell that Armenio Neto is the group leader.
He doesn’t say much but the others defer to him when he does and they help him get the right phrasing. These are hard men. They are cage fighters. Stick any of their names into YouTube and you’ll see them lean and ruthless in action. But here on the mat, they talk about their lost friend with catches in their throat.
Armenio knew him the longest. When Tweety was 16, he turned up in one of Armenio’s jiu-jitsu classes, hung around for a while and then disappeared for a while. Then came back, then disappeared. On again, off again. In again, out again. He wasn’t the dependable type. Then again, he was 16.
“A lot of his training partners graduated quicker than him,” Armenio says. “They went white belt, blue belt, purple belt, all the way up. He stayed always white belt because he was always leaving and coming back. He had another life.”
So fighting wasn’t everything?
“No, not at the start,” says Fabio. “He always started, trained a little bit and then he stopped. He was not the kind of angry guy who needed to fight all the time. He wasn’t a street guy who came to the gym with a mad face. “He trained because he liked to train. But he also liked to do other things. So when the summer came, if he wanted to go to the beach, he stopped training and he went to the beach. Next time, when the clouds came, he came to training again.”
“He was funny guy,” says Aires. “He was the kind of guy who would sometimes say the wrong thing in the wrong moment. Everything that he think, he say. He didn’t think about consequences. If it came to his mind, he said it. In training, everybody would be serious and quiet and then you would hear somebody laughing and it would always be Tweety.”
“Yes!” chimes Fabio. “No one would sit beside him in classes because he was always joking. Tweety was funny guy – he would joke about you, he would joke about him, he would joke about me, he would joke about himself. In class, you want to be serious but he was joking, joking. You would say, ‘Hey, Tweety, come on man. We’re training now.’ But you like being around him.”
You can’t be 16 forever, hard though João Carvalho tried. When he was 17, he got a girl pregnant and found himself with a son. He was too young. They were too young. A relationship wasn’t a long-term prospect.
Life isn’t a straight line for anyone. It takes twists and it takes turns and sometimes you lose the thread of what you’re at for a while. When João was 22, he found himself with a daughter. Different girl, similar scenario. As he grew older, he went back and picked up the thread. Stayed in contact but kept moving all the while. He was married when he died, not to the mother of either of his kids.
He was no saint. Neither his friends nor his family would ever pretend he was. “Tweety was a pretty guy, you know?” says Aires. The half-smile and the shake of the head tells you Tweety knew all about how pretty he was.
João Carvalho grew up the youngest of three brothers. Family life was pretty fractured in Pragal – he and Alex have different fathers – but the boys always stayed close and between them they looked out for their mother. At the time of João’s death, she was close to her 70th birthday and in poor health. He worked weekends as a bouncer so he could go to the gym during the week and take care of her in the evenings.
From a young age, martial arts sang to him in a key no other sport could hit. Some kids played football in school, he did karate. He moved on to jiu-jitsu with Armenio and Muay Thai with Fabio as he grew older, so that by the time he turned 20, he wanted to try his hand at MMA. Fabio taught a Muay Thai class out near Pragal but Tweety wanted to get out and into the city.
“He always dreamed of this kind of sport,” says Alex. “He was a very positive guy. It was always a dream for him to go for it, to be in this sport. He was very friendly, you know? Even with people who could do nothing for him, he was positive. He always tried to find a way to help someone if someone needed him or if there was a problem he could try to solve.
The flaky kid who would disappear to the beach at the first ding of a text from a pretty girl was gone
“He didn’t have too many friends because friends for him were like a family. I think if you know that kind of sport, the people in it are like a family to each other inside the gym. They are more than friends. He talked about the people in the gym as brothers and sisters.
“He always was a very healthy guy. He never smoked. He wouldn’t even stay in the room if someone was smoking. I smoke and he hated it and he was always telling me to stop. He didn’t drink.
“I never saw him even drink a beer. Maybe he did but I don’t think so. He was always going to the gym the next day.”
By his mid-20s, Carvalho was all in on MMA. The flaky kid who would disappear to the beach at the first ding of a text from a pretty girl was gone.
His friends were fighting here and there, local fights in Lisbon, trips away to mad places like Grozny in Chechnya. He wanted that for himself.
“He was a full-time trainer,” says Aires Benros. “He was focused, 100 per cent. There was no more of the in-and-out like when he was younger. He was devoted now. He was fighting Muay Thai, he was fighting MMA. And then the chance came to fight in Dublin.
“It was his first time fighting outside Portugal. He was crazy about it, really excited. He really, really wanted to go. He knew it was a chance to fight with a guy from Conor McGregor’s gym. McGregor is one of the biggest stars of MMA and fighting against one of his training partners, for him it was a huge thing. And maybe McGregor would be there.”
He signed the contract on March 29th, 2016. The fee was €350, with an extra €50 on top if he won.
Charlie Ward is somebody, too. Just like João Carvalho, he became a name on the internet and lost all control of where it went. A throwaway line from his coach John Kavanagh a few months beforehand ended up making him world famous. A reporter was finishing up a call ahead of Charlie’s first pro fight in Scotland in March 2015 when he made a casual inquiry about a nickname.
“We gave him the nickname ‘The Hospital’ Ward,” said Kavanagh. “I think that’s quite fitting. There are some fighters that you might face where you might get submitted, there are some fighters that you go up against where you might get knocked out clean, but if you’re going to fight Charlie, you’re going to leave that fight hurt.
“There’s no two ways of saying it – you might have to go to the hospital ward. I like that nickname a lot. Charlie is not too fond of it but I’m going to throw it out there and see if it catches.”
Crass and all as it sounds sitting here over two years later, Kavanagh was only doing what has to be done. Ginning up a bit of heat under a new fighter, tossing more chum into the water to see how many of the shoal will bite. That’s the game.
If it feels like he’s missing from the scene here, that’s because he chooses to be
But when the worst came to the worst, the nickname did Charlie Ward no favours. It dressed him up in pantomime clothes and gave outsiders ever more latitude to wade in swinging. The only thing handier than a baddie is a baddie with a memorable handle. And so the distance between person Charlie Ward and fighter Charlie Ward grew wider all the time. He ended up becoming just as dehumanised as his ill-fated opponent.
Little wonder, then, that he had no interest contributing to this article. If it feels like he’s missing from the scene here, that’s because he chooses to be. He doesn’t want to be interviewed and he doesn’t want anyone to be interviewed about him. Kavanagh was in his corner that night and while he has been helpful, he has told The Irish Times he wants to respect Ward’s wishes and not talk to the media about him.
Former teammate Aisling Daly declined to be interviewed as well but sent the following message: “Charlie has always been a very private person so I know he wouldn’t like me to speak to any media about him. All I can say is he’s always been a loyal teammate and he’s a good person. He’s handled everything very well considering. He’s always chalked it down to just being an unfortunate accident that could have happened to anyone. He’s a competitor and all he wanted to do was compete but never for anything to happen like it did.”
In the year since Carvalho died, Charlie Ward has made his UFC debut in Belfast. While it was an open secret in MMA circles that he was getting a shot at the big time because of his close relationship with Conor McGregor, there was an uneasy, grizzly aspect to his premature ascension too. The brutal truth of it was that he had a level of name recognition among the sporting public that was above and beyond pretty much everyone on the card that night last November. There was at least a general curiosity to see what he had to offer.
As it turned out, he was out of his depth. He lasted 53 seconds against the unbeaten American Abdul Razak Alhassan. He hasn’t fought since.
Everybody comes in prepared to fight. And everybody comes in prepared to fall down dead
For what it’s worth, the nickname is gone. Charlie Ward goes by “Relentless” these days.
“We all know it’s not his fault,” says Fabio Texeira on the mat of the Reborn gym. “I’m a fighter and if it happened to an opponent, it would be sad for me too. In there, we are not enemies. We are fighters. We are fighting each other, not killing each other. It’s not his fault.
“It was an accident, that’s all. You could catch a plane and the plane could fall. It’s the same thing. You could slip and fall and never wake up. It’s the same thing. It’s a sport. No one comes into the cage or the ring unprepared. Everybody comes in prepared to fight. And everybody comes in prepared to fall down dead.”
The rest of them nod along. There’s no anger towards Charlie Ward here. They would have appreciated maybe a note to the family or someone – anyone – Irish at the funeral. But towards the fighter in the cage, they have only fellow feeling. No rancour.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” says Aires Benros. “When we get into the octagon, we know that it can happen. We think about it but we still do it. We know the risks.”
For Alex Silvestre, Charlie Ward is no enemy. He has been following events here from afar and when the gardaí were in touch last month to say the DPP found no case for criminal proceedings against Ward, he was happy for him.
“Of course, when someone says it’s not a criminal case, I agree. Of course, Charlie has no criminal case for killing my brother. Of course not. I don’t want anything against this boy because he is just a fighter like my brother. If it was a different boy, we would feel the same. We would feel sorry for him.”
But that’s not to say he isn’t angry. Far from it. His brother died in a foreign country and a year later he still doesn’t know why. It took 16 days for João’s body to be released and he still doesn’t know why. In the end, he did an interview on Prime Time and that hurried things up all of a sudden. Within 48 hours, he had his brother home.
In just over two weeks in Dublin, he got virtually no help from anyone. He feels let down by Cesar Silva, the promoter of Total Extreme Fighting, who took no responsibility for what happened on his bill – the contract included no insurance clause. Silva has since left Ireland and works currently for Brave Combat Federation in the Middle East. He didn’t respond to messages asking him to contribute to this article.
As he sat in Dublin waiting on the body to be released, Alex felt angry and abandoned. Two acts of kindness restored some of his faith. Justin Fitzpatrick, an undertaker from Rush, got in touch to say he would organise to bring the body back to Lisbon and cover the costs himself. And a Polish MMA fighter called Pawel Tomczyk approached Alex and Aires in a coffee shop one day to say he knew who they were and that he was organising a collection among other local fighters. A few days later, he handed Alex €2,000.
But otherwise, it was a nightmare, compounded by the fact that he was met with blank faces everywhere he went. He will be in Ireland for the full inquest in September and will pack so many questions in his carry-on luggage.
“From the beginning, I haven’t been looking for guilty. I never looked for guilt. I just look for responsibility. Someone has to be responsible for what happened. It’s legal, what happened. It’s a fight, it’s legal. So someone has to be responsible. I don’t know who. I don’t care who.
“I don’t want nothing for me, definitely. No one can bring my brother back. I can keep the memories of my brother and I have that forever, nothing else. But someone has to be responsible, I’m sorry. Lots of things I want to know and I want to ask about them.
“I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about support. It’s like I say – I don’t want nothing for me. What I want is respect for my brother’s name. Because I think he deserves it. Not just because I think he was a good person but because he died doing what he liked, what he wanted. And I think he deserves a little bit of respect.”