New rules have been set in place to increase fighter safety
After claiming the highest medal tally at the IMMAF world championships back in July, the amateur MMA practitioners from the Republic of Ireland put on another solid showing in Prague at the weekend by claiming three medals—two silvers and one bronze—at the European Open.
Following the tragic death of Joao Carvalho after his professional bout at TEF 1 in April, Irish safety standards for MMA have become among the highest in the world. To safeguard the amateur sport, the Irish amateur governing body, IMMAA, have arranged that all bouts would be contested under the rules of the world governing body, IMMAF.
Initially, the change to the amateur rule set got a mixed reception. Fighters were concerned that the addition of shin guards and rash guards could affect the simulation of a real contest. However, with IMMAA pushing for the government regulation of the sport, adopting the IMMAF’s rules set was a necessary step towards the legitimization of MMA in Ireland.
Dave Fogarty, Lee Hammond, and Alexander O’Sullivan are three of the most highly touted prospects on the Irish scene and following their appearances on the podium in Prague, they were full of praise for the nation’s new amateur rules.
Image: The Irish representatives at the European Open
Fogarty, who took silver over the weekend at the European championships and at the world championships in July, believes the experiences the IMMAF tournaments can give amateurs are unparalleled.
"The IMMAF tournaments are invaluable for gaining experience,” said Fogarty. "I had my first fight when they began their events, and in one year I have had ten fights because of that tournament format. I fought three different opponents in England, then the US and now the Czech Republic."
"You can’t get that type of experience on the regional circuit. This week I fought a guy with a jiu-jitsu base, another guy with a striking base and one more who has been training in MMA his whole life. That might have taken me six months to a year to do back home."
"For me, IMMAF is one of the best things to happen to amateur MMA in a long time. I can see it turning into something like boxing where you have multiple world champions at amateur joining the pro scene. I have no interest in going pro until I’m a world champion."
Hammond echoed the sentiments of Fogarty and insisted that the new tournament style that the IMMAF has brought to the table will see amateurs competing for a lot more, which can only help when they take the step up to the professional ranks.
Image: Alex O'Sullivan, Lee Hammond, Dave Fogarty
"To fight five times in five days is amazing," stated Hammond. "That’s a year’s worth of fights in five days. As well as that, I fought five different styles, five different kinds of bodies and competitors from five different nations. You can’t get that kind of experience anywhere else."
"Records mean nothing at the amateur level, it’s all about the experience. My goal is to get between 30 and 40 fights so I know that I have been tested everywhere and that my skill set is functional against every different style. These IMMAF tournaments are the best way to do that."
"We’ve seen a lot of amateurs in a rush to go pro, but I think you should only take that step up when you’ve had a lot of amateur experience."
Irish Amateur Rules
In particular, the addition of shin pads to the Irish amateur rules was criticized as it was claimed that the safety gear would obstruct certain grappling techniques. Both Hammond and Fogarty are well known for incorporating techniques that are reliant on the use of their legs, but they completely understand why shin pads are necessary for the amateur sport.
"The people who say the shin guards shouldn’t be there have obviously never done these kinds of competitions," Fogarty said.
"I saw hundreds of people leaving messages saying that they would never fight under the IMMAF rules when IMMAA introduced them, but they had never fought under them anyway. To do the IMMAF tournaments you need those shin pads."
"Ideally, I would fight without the shin pads because it’s easier for me to lock my legs for triangle chokes and other techniques, but you wouldn’t make it through the competition if you weren’t wearing them."
"Lee Hammond had five fights last week, I had three and even with the shin pads, I have bruised feet and shins. For that many fights in such a short time, you need them. Your legs just wouldn’t be able to take it if you didn’t wear them."
Image: Fogarty, O'Sullivan and Hammond with their medals
Hammond, who was immortalized by becoming the first person to pull off the elaborate berimbolo technique in MMA competition last October, doesn’t have any trouble with the additional safety gear whatsoever.
"I really don’t see a difference with the shin pads," explained Hammond.
"The shin pads are there to prevent you from hurting yourself from shin on shin connections. Honestly, I think if you’re complaining about shin pads hindering your technique, your technique probably isn’t where it should be. Everyone is wearing the shin pads so there is an equal playing field."
"When people complained about it, I think that was just their reaction to the change. That was a very regimented tournament, it’s what I imagine the Olympics to be like, and I don’t see how anyone could say that the rules have taken away from the sport."
Although it was the death of Carvalho that brought about the changes to the Irish amateur rules, Fogarty believes that IMMAA taking on IMMAF’s criteria will only help the sport grow in the country.
"The circumstances were unfortunate that led to the rules being adopted in Ireland, but now you can fight as much as you want as an amateur in Ireland once you’re medically cleared to do it."
Dave Fogarty lost a close decision in the IMMAF final. Great fight from @DavidGbd.— Seán Sheehan (@SeanSheehanBA) November 26, 2016
"If we hadn’t restricted the rule set slightly, that might not be possible. It’s a lot less scary for guys getting into the sport now because it almost feels like another day of sparring."
"I think a lot of people will get involved in the sport now because the old amateur format was far too similar to the pro scene. I’d often see fighters backstage in the old days waiting to go out to fight and they would be terrified because they imagined it would be like the UFC. This is a lot less intimidating."
Again, Hammond agreed with his SBG teammate:
"If you’re preparing for the tournaments with the same rule set in amateur competition in Ireland it can only help us. If you’re experiencing the same kind of setup at home as you are the Europeans and the world championships it means it will be far less daunting for athletes when they graduate to that level."
"I honestly think that they could put on a tournament like that in Ireland. Instead of just having one fight, I think we could have an Irish Open where we could all fight multiple times in a week. I think a lot of fighters from different countries would come over here to compete in that because of the level of talent over here."
18-year-old Alex O’Sullivan owns five amateur titles and took a bronze medal home from the European Open last week. The leaving cert student is the only medalist from the tournament that doesn’t fight out of Straight Blast Gym, but he spoke of the unity in the team when they all came together to represent Ireland.
"It felt like a team effort when we’re over there," O’Sullivan said.
"When you aren’t competing you’re supporting the other Irish fighters. Usually, at fight nights in Ireland, the teams will stick to themselves for the most part, but in Prague last week you could feel how important it was for everyone to see Team Ireland doing well."
"With all the other federations that are there, you definitely get that sense that you’re representing your country. You want to see your teammates winning. Bulgaria came away with the biggest medal tally out of all the nations last week, and you could feel everyone itching to get in there with one of them to claim a medal back for Ireland."
With Ireland previously leaving the world championships with the biggest medal tally, O’Sullivan is adamant that the whole team can feel the incentive to get back to the top of the table when the next tournament comes around.
"Colin Meagher lost to a guy that went on to win his division. He was a Bulgarian and we know that Colin has a good chance of getting that medal back at the next IMMAF tournament."
"John Byrne lost to another Bulgarian that went on to win his division. We really feel like both of our guys could’ve got those medals and rest assured they’ll be out to prove that they can the next time they get out there."
"The Swedish had a strong showing too and Dylan Kennedy went out in the first round to the guy that eventually beat Dave Fogarty in the final. Dylan is another guy who definitely could have been in the medals any other week."
"We’re all itching to get back and put ourselves on top of the medal standings again. I feel like we could have won four or five medals if it hadn’t of been for those close decisions against the Bulgarians and the Swedish team, so we definitely have an incentive the next time we compete as a team."
Lee Hammond just won his second match at IMMAF European Championships with a beautiful Armbar. Two wins in two days for himself.— Andrew McGahon (@andrewmcgahon_) November 23, 2016
All three medalists seem to agree that competing at the IMMAF tournaments will help to no end ahead of their pro debuts. As O’Sullivan explained, IMMAF gives the athletes a fantastic platform from which they can build their names.
"IMMAF promote the athletes very well and you really get that feeling that you have a whole country behind you when you compete at their events," said O’Sullivan.
"There are a lot more people tuning in to see your fights when you’re representing Ireland and you get a lot more international fans seeing what you’re about because they’re tuning in to see the fighters from their countries."
Fogarty highlighted that claiming the accolades that are available to athletes through the IMMAF tournaments could lead to more lucrative deals when they are eventually ready to turn pro.
"I think with IMMAF tournaments, amateurs have a better chance to make a name for themselves before they go pro," Fogarty said.
"I want people to already know who I am so I don’t have to get the entry level contracts that most fighters get when they turn pro. I’ll go over to somewhere like Bahrain and get a prominent place on a card as a debuting pro with my IMMAF accomplishments backing me up."