Death on the octagon floor: Should MMA ever be recognised as sport?

Death of MMA fighter Joao Carvalho stokes debate about safety in the octagon

Joao Carvalho (left) during his fight with Charlie Ward at the National Stadium in Dublin in April 2016. Photograph: Dave Fogarty

Gore Vidal, in one of his many eloquent moments, once said that music or art or sport must firstly inspire, and secondly entertain.

Although not strictly in that order. Typical of Vidal, it still sounds both timeless and modern, a bit like Kendrick Lamar.

The problem here is that everyone has their own definition of inspiration and entertainment – and indeed sport. Probably more so than music or art for that matter. Although nowhere does this still cause greater divide than around the world of mixed martial arts (MMA).

The latest sad reminder of this came with Thursday’s inquest into the death of Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho.


Indeed, it took a while before the inquest made any mention of sport, and very little of what was heard at Dublin Coroner’s Court about what happened on that fateful night of April 9th, 2016, sounded in any way inspiring or entertaining.

Instead, the inquest jury heard about the 41 blows to Carvalho’s head at the Total Extreme Fighting contest at the National Boxing Stadium.

The final nine of those blows, in the third round, rained down on Carvalho as unanswered punches, as he lay slumped over the side of the octagon and tried hopelessly to protect himself by putting his arm across his face.

His Irish opponent Charlie Ward, sensing Carvalho was helpless, had moved in to finish him off, as is his legal right. Match referee Mariusz Domasat stopped the fight, 23 seconds after Carvalho had gone down, on a “technical knockout”.


The jury heard how Carvalho, aged 28 and a father of two, had died in Beaumont Hospital two days after the fight. There were chaotic scenes in getting him there, the 3ft-wide corridor from the medical room at the National Boxing Stadium being “chocablock” with onlookers, according to ambulance driver Lawrence Fitzpatrick.

There was some confusion over which emergency department he should attend (Carvalho was first brought to the Mater, and later to Beaumont). He was also transferred on the floor in the back of the ambulance.

On arrival at Beaumont, he underwent emergency surgery and kept on life support in the Richmond intensive care unit for 48 hours. At 9.35pm, on Monday, April 11th, when nothing further could be done, doctors switched off the machine.

The postmortem examination, carried out by State Pathologist Marie Cassidy, found that Carvalho had died from “acute subdural haemorrhage due to blunt-force trauma to the head, with aspiration of gastric contents as a contributory factor”.

The jury also heard from Carvalho’s brother, Alexandre Silvestre, who travelled from the UK for the inquest. “This was his dream,” Silvestre said. “It was what he wanted. He loved this sport.”

This being the sport which, depending on your definition of it, is the modern expression for athleticism and physicality and extreme mental strength, or else a brutal human contest which can sometimes end up masquerading as a legal killing, at least as long as the endgame allows for that.

There is no denying that some of what was heard on Thursday sounded more like a drunken or violent assault in the city centre, or a day in the life of Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger.

In the end, the jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure, which, according to one of my medical textbooks, is primarily attributed to an accident that occurred due to a dangerous risk that was taken voluntarily, while performing a legal act without negligence or intent to harm. Whether that death was preventable or not will always be open to some interpretation.

That doesn’t override the need to ensure that every effort is made to prevent something similar from happening again.


On that note, the jury also made some recommendations – that a national governing body (NGB) for MMA in Ireland be endorsed, that all medical partners engage nationally qualified paramedics, and in the short-term, MMA Ireland adopts safety standards as applied by boxing. Although not strictly in that order.

This prompted a response from Minister for Sport Shane Ross, who said the absence of an NGB for MMA in Ireland was “unacceptable”, and then accused the people who run MMA here of “deliberately dragging their feet on the establishment of appropriate governance and safety standards”.

Responding to that, leading MMA coach John Kavanagh accused Ross of “misinformation” and that as far as the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) was concerned, the main barrier to recognition was “administrative”.

According to Kavanagh, when IMMAA applied to Sport Ireland for NGB recognition in 2016, it was informed “it would need three years of financial transactions before it could be recognised”, adding that it was beyond IMMAA’s powers to speed up bureaucratic process or to grant itself legal mandate to enforce its regulations.

He also said the IMMAA would welcome a meeting to discuss how the protection and governance of MMA’s participants could be most quickly progressed.

The problem here is that Sport Ireland, which currently endorses around 60 NGBs and helps fund them annually to the tune of around €21 million, has a pretty clear definition of what a sport should be – at least when it comes to things like proper governance and leadership, regulation and child protection, anti-doping and coach education, plus event safety.

Again, not strictly in that order – all the while ensuring the NGBs remain autonomous and self-governing.

Sport Ireland currently endorses and funds the Irish Taekwondo Union, the Irish Judo Association and the Irish Martial Arts Commission – each of which have a pretty clear definition of what their sport is about.

Only, can MMA, even on strictly entertainment terms, ever be recognised as sport?