IMMAF: Government have kept MMA at arm’s length, it’s time to regulate

Peter Carroll speaks to IMMAF CEO Densign White and President Kerrith Brown in an exclusive interview for Newstalk

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Picture by: Jeff Chiu / AP/Press Association Images

20:36 15 Apr 2016 Peter Carroll 20:36 Friday 15 April 2016

IMMAF (International Mixed Martial Arts Federation) CEO Densign White and President Kerrith Brown have called for government regulation for mixed martial arts in Ireland following the tragic death of Portuguese fighter, João Carvalho, on Monday night in Dublin.

Carvalho competed at MMA event TEF 1 on Saturday night at The National Stadium before he passed away approximately 48 hours later at Beaumont Hospital.

Currently, the Irish Amateur Pankration Association (IAPA) oversee amateur MMA in Ireland. Straight Blast Gym Ireland head coach John Kavanagh is the head of the IAPA and they are affiliated with IMMAF. However, due to their constitution under Irish Amateur Wrestling Association (IAWA) and Sport Ireland not recognizing MMA as a sport, their jurisdiction only applies to the amateur sport. 

Appearing on Off the Ball on Tuesday, Minister of State Tourism and Sport Michael Ring claimed that MMA had not been regulated in Ireland because Irish MMA bodies “never looked for recognition”. However, IMMAF CEO White claimed that Kavanagh has reached out to the government in the past.

“I don’t agree with the comments of the minister,” said White. “John Kavanagh has reached out to the government for support. It appears to me as though the government have tried to keep mixed martial arts at arm’s length, which has been the case in many countries.

“That has forced MMA to go under the umbrella of other sports in order for the activity to even take place. Of course, member federations would like to be independent and recognized in their own right.

“What we’re calling for is regulation by government. It would make the job of our national federations that much easier in controlling those elements that don’t want to be regulated and want to remain outside of any regulation. They don’t want to take part in accredited coaching qualifications or refereeing and judging qualifications, which is what we are trying to put in place.”

In a statement released on Friday, the body backed White's comments stating that the "IMMAF urges governments to support national MMA organisations, such as the Irish Amateur Pankration Association, and make a sincere commitment to putting structures in place that create a consistent and safe environment for all. IMMAF calls for MMA competitions to be regulated by law as they are countries such as the United States and in Sweden, so that best practice can be enforced."

White stated that IMMAF have reached out to members of the governing bodies for sports Ireland this week to look toward regulating MMA.

“We need to look forward and not look backward. This is a tragic situation that shouldn’t happen again", said White. "IMMAF are reaching out the Irish government now. We have already sent a letter to the Irish Sports Minister and Minister Ring this week in which we have asked for a meeting. We need to get to a good place with MMA in Ireland where the sport is regulated by the IAPA.

“We need a recognized body whereby it is illegal to compete or promote MMA outside of the IAPA. That’s what we need to get to. That’s the only way to regulate what’s happening in the sport. We need to push for guidelines so another tragedy like this doesn’t happen. If we don’t get that regulation it’s an accident waiting to happen again.”

Commenting on the IAPA, White insisted that the association has done “phenomenal work” with their policing of the amateur sport.

“The IAPA have done great things to raise the safety and general awareness inside of the sport. The problem is these bodies are working on a voluntary basis. There is no funding and it is for that reason that the sports minsters have to recognize MMA. There is not enough funding for the IAPA. Our job is to support them as much as possible, but that is very difficult if the sport is not recognized. Without funding, it’s difficult for them to move the sport forward.”

Sport Ireland released a statement on Wednesday night outlining the criteria that the IAPA must meet to gain recognition.

The statement read: “Without going into huge detail the applicant should be able to demonstrate that it is a functioning corporate body (M & As, audited accounts, functioning board etc), is affiliated with a relevant international organisation, is operating as the governing authority with rules etc and has clubs and memberships around the country.”

Speaking on Friday, Paul McDermott, Director of High Performance, NGB's & Communications for Sport Ireland said that while a delegation representing MMA had a discussion with Minister Ring and John Treacy, "I wouldn’t describe that as any kind of a formal engagement, but advice was given on what you have to do to be recognized.

“Sport Ireland stand by the statement made earlier this week. As a state agency, we do not recognize mixed martial arts nor have we had any formal engagement from any representative body from mixed martial arts. There is work to be done with the Department of Sport to see what the future holds (for MMA), because that is very important."

As far as IMMAF president Kerrith Brown is concerned, IAPA already meets those standards. He also highlighted that in similar cases in different countries, IMMAF’s lack of recognition from the IOC, SportAccord and WADA has made governments reluctant to recognize MMA.

“They meet those criteria and more", said Brown. "The biggest sports star in the country is Conor McGregor. IAPA are members of IMMAF. They do have high standards when it comes to medical support and care of the athletes.

“They are supported by Professor Dan Healy and he has helped to set the bar very high. The bar is set a lot higher there than in the majority of other places where MMA events are taking place. They are ticking the majority of the boxes.

“The problem they are having, and it’s a problem that a lot of our federations have, is when they asked which international body they belong to they say IMMAF. We are still fighting to get recognition from IOC, from SportAccord and we are trying to become signatories to the WADA code. We tick all the boxes too, but there is still a reluctance to engage with the sport at every level.”

White added: “Everybody is afraid of MMA. It’s not that we aren’t trying to regulate the sport. We are trying. However, every time we try we get a wall put up in front of us. How are we meant to develop a sport, move it forward and make it safe, if we’re not getting support or help from any of these organizations that are supposed to be there to help sports to flourish?

“This is a sport that is growing rapidly. You can’t ban it because all that will do is push it underground. The way to deal with this is to regulate it. That’s what we want. We want it to be illegal to practice MMA unless you are a member of one of our federations.”

In terms of how long they think the regulation process will take, White stated that the government “can make this happen in an instant”.

“It’s up to the politicians and it’s up to the government. They can make this happen in an instant. All they have to do is make the decision to recognize the IAPA and the job is done. They can pass a law that doesn’t allow MMA to take place outside of IAPA’s jurisdiction. That will include professionals too, not just amateur events.

“The Sports Council can allow IAPA to become a sanctioning body. For example, when UFC go to Sweden, the Swedish federation sanctions their events. The same would apply to UFC coming to Ireland if the Sports Council makes the IAPA the sanctioning body.

“If IAPA were the sanctioning body and an event was taking place in Ireland that didn’t meet their requirements, they could stop that event from taking place.”

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