Newstalk.com speaks to George Sallfeldt, founder of the Swedish Mixed Martial Arts Federation, about regulation and the long path of recognition in Sweden
"An athlete's career must be built on safety and reasonable risk-taking"
Late on Saturday night, Conor McGregor left the Octagon in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, bloodied, battered, but victorious. He had come through one of the fights of the year against Nate Diaz - perhaps one of the most iconic fights in the promotion's history - and got redemption for his defeat to the Stockton fighter in March.
"Doubt me now," he shouted backstage as he hobbled through the arena on crutches. He appeared in front of the media and quelled speculation that he had broken his foot during the fight: "My shin, I kicked his knee about 40 times and it’s f**king, it’s hurting me. That’s it, just my shin. Everything else is good."
He was told to go to the hospital by UFC President Dana White and has since been given a six month suspension from the UFC due to the condition he was left in after what many described as a 'war' between the pair.
Fighter safety is of huge importance to the UFC and they must operate within the confines of the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) while hosting their landmark events in Vegas.
Here in Ireland, Mixed Martial Arts communities are still continuing to lobby the Sport Council of Ireland to recognize them as a sport. This, however, has proven difficult. There has been opposition from some organisations - the Irish Martial Arts Commission described the sport as "pornographic, sadistic and voyeuristic to its core" - and the sport itself is to the distaste of a chunk of the Irish public.
Calls for regulation of the sport in Ireland came earlier this year when Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho died as a result of the damage he sustained in a fight against Charlie Ward in Dublin. The process appears to be ongoing, but there are calls for improved safety conditions and regulations in Ireland and that they should be made compulsory for anyone hosting an MMA event.
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 assessment".
For events to gain approval they must have "appropriately qualified cageside medics and paramedics". Here in Ireland, the Irish Amateur Pankration Association (IAPA) has evolved into the IMMAA (Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association) which oversees MMA activity but have no official power to enforce that promotions carry such safety precautions.
Both Diaz and McGregor were left bloodied from their welterweight main event at UFC 202 on Saturday night. Image: ©INPHO/Tom Hogan
The road to regulation can be long and fraught, as George Sallfeldt knows all too well. George is the founder of the Swedish Mixed Martial Federation and has charted the rise and regulation of one of the world's fastest growing sports.
"There was a ban on pro boxing in Sweden for a long time, it was put in place in the ‘50s and in the ‘90s it was starting to be questioned because there was no ban on kick-boxing which was a big thing then," he tells Newstalk.com. "It was sold under the name K1 and there was a lot of it on Eurosport at the time.
"There was also a lot of these competitions here locally in Sweden. There was a ban on pro boxing, but you had pro thai boxing, or pro K1. The government said they wanted to do an investigation if there should be an extended ban to include these other sports and MMA was another part of it.
"There was quite a lengthy process and a thorough investigation and it basically concluded that the reason behind the ban on pro boxing was that it was promoting violence in society. There was really no evidence for that.
"So, this investigation concluded that all these combat sports - that included combat in striking or kicking to the head - should be allowed but should be regulated. That was then ruled upon and became a law and they put in place something called the Governmental Martial Arts Delegation. This gave permission to national federations in Sweden to arrange matches in thai boxing, kick boxing, MMA, boxing and so on and providing they uphold safety measures.
"These sports are also connected to the confederation of sport, which is the organisation in Sweden that look after all sporting activity. That was nine years ago. At the time there was a huge debate about MMA in Sweden and it was portrayed as everything from human cockfighting - from people who didn’t like it - to perfectly safe to the people that liked it."
George explains that the move came as a result of the move to fact based regulation, rather than what he described as "what you like" decision making.
"They began looking into the actual outcome of the sport and look into it when it’s seriously regulated by outside bodies that are not connected to the sport commercially. So, independent physicians, nonprofit federations controlled everything that had everything to do with the sports. Whereas the commercial side of the sport like the promoters and the shows around it controlled it, [the independent bodies] didn’t have a say in how it was run practically.
"We’ve lived with this set-up for many years and it’s been very successful from the amateur level all the way up to the UFC. They come here and they’re totally controlled by the Swedish MMA Federation. They use Swedish MMA referees, doctors and judges.
"Having this set-up all the way from the amateurs up to the pros has been very successful. The level of injuries is documented is low."
The popularity in MMA has exploded in Ireland, evident by the huge numbers of Irish fans who travelled to see Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas last July, December and again in March. Image: ©INPHO/Raymond Spencer
Fighter safety has become one of the cornerstones of regulation, but is seen as costly business by smaller promoitions who have to spend money on testing before fights as well as cageside doctors. In Sweden, they take their safety measures incredibly seriously.
"Number one, you’re required by law to do it. You cannot drive a car in Sweden without having a permit, this is the exact same. You cannot arrange an MMA match or a boxing match or a thai boxing match without going through the federation. The federation has the permit to put that on.
"When you talk about the safety, it’s grouped into three parts.
"You have everything that happens before the match. Medical examinations have to happen, so you’ve got blood works to brain scans, essentially anything that has to do with the fighter.
"There’s also out of competition doping testing that is also a big part of it. In table tennis, if a player takes a performance enhancing drug the worst thing that could happen is that they lose the match. Whereas in combat sport you’d have an unfair advantage and cause your opponent serious harm.
"One more element that happens before the event is to ensure you’ve got evenly match athletes. That has to be done by an organisation that’s not commercially involved in the outcome of this match.
If you think about it, if you’re trying to promote a very violent match, where one opponent is considerably less skilled than the other, there’s no doubt it could end very badly for one of the athletes. That’s a very important part for the Swedish Martial Arts Delegation to control that. Perhaps one fighter will have [fought] 60 fights and the other guy has one fight, they will just say no. Weight divisions are not enough.
"During the fight, you must have ambulances at the venue and a certain number of doctors depending on how big the event is. You must have referees who have the competence to stop the bout at the correct time. Medical expertise and equipment has to be right next to where the fight is happening.
Post Fight Protocol and Licensing
"The last part is what happens after the match. We’re looking at suspensions and fighters having to go to a doctor to get a sign off. This is to make sure they’re fit and healthy to train again.
"Again, in Sweden we have what would be similar to a driver's license for fighters. So if you get knocked out, after the bout that license is taken by a federation official and sent to the federation and it will be kept there. If you go and try to compete elsewhere during your suspension time, you will not have that license with you.Further to this, it will also be in the database that you are suspended.
"These safety measures require a lot of resources and energy to uphold and I think for a promoter they would definitely uphold the first two in order to show that they will be serious, but the suspensions are very hard to uphold for them. Essentially once it’s done, the athlete can just go somewhere else and compete. It’s hard for the promoter to stop them, whereas the federation can do this, as they are the only ones who can allow these fights to go ahead.
"No matter what the athlete wants to do, even if they want to go and compete, it won’t happen because the federation won’t allow them. That’s why it’s so important to have these safety measures in place.
"An athlete's career must be built on safety and reasonable risk-taking.
Chris Wiedman was left in pretty bad condition after his middleweight title defence against Luke Rockhold late last year. Image: John Locher / AP/Press Association Images
"Without that people would overstep what is reasonable. This is a tough sport. I think you need to be frank and realise that there are tough elements in this sport, just like there is in other sports. You cannot let the individual choose alone. Most individuals will make the right decisions, but some might not. That’s why you have this infrastructure of safety around the sport."
This may not have overnight implementation. As per the struggle to gain recognition, Sweden similarly had to change public perception in order to speed the process.
"Attitudes toward MMA were very polarised, what you would hear in the media would be very extreme opinions. One side would claim that this was a gladiator sport, others who promoted it as totally safe. When you look at other combat sports this isn’t any more or less dangerous, but it can be dangerous if you don’t handle it in the right way and safer if you do.
"I’ve been trying to follow the debate in Ireland and I think it’s very much the same as in Sweden. It was almost political. One side would paint the other saying some pretty controversial things, but not a lot of it was based in fact, just on their dislike of the sport. You have to respect that people don’t like everything, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a place in society and that it shouldn’t exist if it follows the reasonable risk-taking that other activities in society are doing.
"Once that became evident, that compared to other things that we allow in society, this is a reasonable activity but it has to be handled in the same way as other things that are risky on the same level. When detractors of the sport started to realise this, they started to go quiet."
To this day, regulation in Ireland continues to stall, but with the increased popularity of the sport and there are more people than ever taking part in gyms across the country.