Peter Carroll: Government regulation is necessary to stop further tragedies in Irish MMA

MMA journalist Peter Carroll reflects on the death of the Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho in Dublin

Peter Carroll: Government regulation is necessary to stop further tragedies in Irish MMA

Image: Gregory Payan / AP/Press Association Images

The legitimacy of mixed martial arts has been called into question in Ireland following the tragic passing of Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho, who competed at TEF 1 on Saturday night at The National Stadium, Dublin.

Although a thorough medical report is still pending to reveal any insights into the death of Carvalho, proper regulation for the professional sport in Ireland could stop similar tragedies from taking place in the future.

All Irish and UK professional fighters are encouraged to gain SAFE MMA approval before they compete. To gain approval from SAFE MMA, fighters must undergo “blood testing for infectious diseases (e.g. HIV, hepatitis), an annual full medical examination, pre- and post-fight medical assessments,” and for events to gain approval they must have “appropriately qualified cageside medics and paramedics.”

Former UFC middleweight champion, Chris Weidmean, after his title bout with Luke Rockhold last December. Image: John Locher / AP/Press Association Images

In the case of Carvalho, given that the fighter was based in Portugal, none of those criteria were encouraged before he competed on Saturday night.

As SAFE MMA outlines, promoters “carry legal responsibilities for fighters”, and Cesar Silva, the event promoter of TEF, did have a team of seven medics and three doctors present at The National Stadium to take care of the competitors. However, the onus to gain SAFE MMA approval lies with the promoter, and despite having the medical team present, TEF 1 was not SAFE MMA approved.

BattleZone 15, a similar card with both pro fighters and amateur fighters competing, took place on April 2nd in Donaghmede. The event promoter, Andy Ryan, gained SAFE MMA approval as well as having medical service providers Code Blue on hand with a medical staff and on-site trauma room.

Founded in 2014, the Irish Amateur Pankration Association (IAPA) oversees the safety of the amateur sport in Ireland and they require such standards for every amateur event that takes place in Ireland. All amateur fighters recognised by the IAPA are made undergo blood tests and a full medical before competing in the country.

As Minister of State Tourism and Sport Michael Ring pointed out on Off The Ball, MMA is “not a recognised sport” in Ireland. For that reason, the IAPA had to be formed under the constitution of the Irish Amateur Wrestling Association (IAWA), as Pankration is an offshoot of wrestling. However, because of the IAPA’s affiliation with IAWA, they cannot oversee the safety of the professional sport. Their focus is solely on the amateur sport.

Despite Ring claiming that Irish MMA has “never looked for recognition” from the Sports Council, sources from SAFE MMA revealed that they have met with CEO John Treacy to discuss the sport’s regulation in the past.

The most startling declaration from Ring during his interview on Off The Ball was the fact that he admitted that he “did predict something like what happened this week would happen and it did happen”, in relation to the death of Carvalho.

With IAPA’s hands tied due to their involvement solely with the amateur scene, a national government body needs to be formed to oversee the sport. At the moment, SAFE MMA can only be encouraged for fighters and promoters. With a regulating body involved they can make such safeguards mandatory for all professional contests. 

Ring also stated that “people who are participating in this sport are making a lot of money”, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Irish MMA superstar Conor McGregor is the exception to that, but the vast majority of fighters, even those contracted to the UFC, earn little more than a living wage. Even then, their wage is determined by their activity in the sport. It is only in very rare cases that professionals competing outside of one MMA’s big organisations, like Joao Carvalho, can earn a decent living at all.

Conor McGregor strikes Nate Diaz during their bout at UFC 196. Image: Eric Jamison / AP/Press Association Images

It is currently the responsibly of fighters and promoters to gain SAFE MMA approval. The cost of gaining such approval for fighters is £135 (€170) per annum. For promoters to kit their event out with full medical staff and trauma room costs nearly €2000. At present, these are not requirements. With fighters outside of the big shows making such a small amount of money, SAFE MMA clearance can be difficult to afford.

Funding and regulation are desperately needed to ensure that fighters have adequate medical clearance and that promoters have proper medical services at their events. The IAPA have shown their intent to police the sport correctly, but their jurisdiction stops with the amateur sport. They have been forced to set up their own rules and regulations for amateurs, and they desperately need the help of the Sports Council to force safety measures on the professional sport.

By not stepping in, the Sports Council leaves cases like that of Joao Carvalho, or others that may or may not happen in the future, in limbo. The popularity of MMA has seen more and more people get involved with the sport in Ireland, and to ban it would only make for further mishaps in unsanctioned bouts. Therefore, government backing is desperately needed to ensure the safety of professional MMA fighters in Ireland.