Peter Carroll: Amidst concerns from Irish MMA community, IMMAA will test amateur brain scans in 2017

Peter Carroll speaks to Barry Oglesby, Sport Ireland Liaison Officer for IMMAA, about

UFC, MMA

Image: Pete Byrne PA Wire/PA Images

There is no doubt that since IMMAA and Safe MMA Ireland have brought in mandatory scans for professional fighters competing in the Republic of Ireland earlier this year, the country has become one of the safest places to compete in MMA throughout the world.

Based on the finding of Safe MMA Ireland, the organization that recommends what safety criteria IMMA should impose on their athletes, the data collected from the first sample group of pro fighters has pushed them to recommend a one off MRI/MRA brain scan for amateur competitors to determine whether they have pre-existing brain issues.

Since Safe MMA Ireland have recommended scans for amateurs, several clubs that are members of IMMAA have come forward and claimed that they will have their amateurs scanned in 2017.

Earlier this week, Safe MMA Ireland secured a special rate of €150 for amateurs who wish to be scanned, which is available at Bon Secours Hospital in Glasnevin, Dublin.

Criticism

Pockets of the Irish MMA community have spoken out since Safe MMA Ireland made the recommendation. Some believe that by implementing scans for amateurs it would imply that the sport is more dangerous than other combat sports like boxing and kickboxing, which do not require scans for amateurs.

Barry Oglesby, Sport Ireland Liaison Officer for IMMAA, acknowledged that there is merit to some of the community’s concerns, but believes that because brain injury is such a high profile issue in sports, the association should do everything in its power to safeguard MMA’s athletes from potential injury.

"There is some merit to what people are saying about MMA being the only amateur combat sport in Ireland that is recommending scans for the athletes, but I think that comes down to perception,” said Oglesby.

"In one sense, you could look at it and say, 'Oh my God, this sport’s amateurs need brain scans', or you could look at it like 'these guys require brain scans, what a great effort to safeguard the sport'.

"Outside of doping, brain injury is the number one issue in world sport. If one of my amateur fighters, or even my children, could get a one-off scan for €150 to identify if they have pre-existing brain issues before competing in the sport, I would take your hand off for it.

"I don’t think this should be just for MMA. If one of my kids were competing in rugby or boxing I would want the exact same scan to be done. I think that would be fantastic.”

Should the amateur scans be made mandatory in the future, Oglesby believes that Irish MMA’s safety standards would become the envy of all other sports in the nation. He also highlighted why it is more logistically possible for MMA to scan its amateurs, rather than other sports that have much more people actively competing on their amateur scenes.

"To be honest, I think a lot of sports will envy the situation we are in, in terms of safety.

"We’re putting ourselves out there with this. We accept that there is head injury potential in our sport in the same way that there is head injury potential in boxing, Taekwondo or karate.

"The difference between us and them is that we have an opportunity to do this now. We have a medical provider that is willing to do it and very reasonable rate and, crucially, we don’t have thousands of people competing in the sport every weekend.

"We only have 25 to 30 fighters competing once a month in the Republic of Ireland. That’s not very many. We can do this, so why not do it?

"If we had a situation like in amateur boxing where there are hundreds of fighters competing every month, I could see a real difficulty in implementing something like this. It would be an incredibly difficult and expensive undertaking.

"We have an incredibly small number of amateur competitors and we have a reasonable price to secure the scans, it makes perfect sense to me to try this out."

IMMAA president, John Kavanagh. Image: ©INPHO/Gary Carr 

Despite the concerns, IMMAA will use Cage Legacy’s February 11 event in Drogheda as a test case for amateur scans, where all amateur competitors are due to be scanned before taking to the cage on the night.

"When something as dramatic as this is introduced there is always going to be people opposing. They have every right to say whatever they want to say about it if they disagree. What’s important is that as an organization we proceed with the amateur scans.

"We’re going to trial this at the Cage Legacy event in February and then we can review the situation. We can look at how smoothly the process was, how practical it was, what kind of expense we’re looking at and we will also come away with some real data on the amateurs.

"At the moment we have no idea what the pass or fail rate will be. We have no idea how smooth the process will be. After Cage Legacy, we will have a better idea at what we’re looking at and we should have a better idea about how to proceed.

"We have to listen to the community, and we’ve recently brought Pavel Tomczyk onto the board to give us some insight as a promoter, and also as a representative of the large Polish contingent we have involved in our community.

"We have to listen to everyone and take their opinions on board, but we also have to show strong leadership. What we also have to accept is that brain injury is a huge issue in sport. Whether it’s an issue for me, you or the man in the street is another thing, but everybody involved in sport is becoming more and more conscious of things like CTE and concussion.

"Of course, we have had a very recent tragedy in our sport. As a result of that, we have to pay very close attention to what’s happening with brain injury. We believe that this is the best way for amateurs to receive the best level of safety."

Fail Rate in Pro Scans

Safe MMA Ireland cited "data obtained from the first 75 MRI/MRAs in professional fighters, which led to a significant rate of referrals for expert review", as one of the reasons why they recommended brain scans for amateurs. Although the fail rate has not been released to the public, Oglesby thinks that even one failed scan among the first tested pros would give a physician grounds to test amateurs.

"I don’t have the medical knowledge to tell you what a high or low fail rate is, especially against a sample from the general population, so I can’t speak on that.

"There have been approximately 75 scans done in Ireland, so what is high or low in terms of a fail rate? From my limited knowledge, I would say that even one fail is enough for a physician to have concerns. If one fighter is pulled it’s potentially one life saved. If we scanned 200 amateurs tomorrow and one fail came back, that would completely validate the process.

"I don’t think there is a specific threshold you have to reach before you consider scanning."

Due to the amount of fights that have been pulled, there are a lot of questions as to how stringent the Irish testing is compared to the testing in UFC. As Oglesby outlined, one of the contributing factors to fights getting pulled in Ireland is the lack of time to investigate flagged cases, rather than fighters being prohibited from fighting after they have been assessed by Safe MMA Ireland.

"UFC might flag less fighters, but they do their scans a lot further out from fights. Particularly when it comes to fighters coming over to Ireland to compete, they are being scanned for the first time.

"They tend to do all of these medicals within a very short time frame of the event itself. From my understanding of the procedures regarding the brain scans, there are a number of issues that can come up, some of which require further investigation. Once that investigation is done, it can be a case that you are not prohibited from fighting in Ireland.

"If someone is flagged a week out from the event, that is far too little time to be able to complete an investigation. As a result of that, the physician cannot sign off on the fighter, and therefore their fight has to be pulled. Perhaps if we could scan a couple of months before the events, we would see fewer fighters pulled from events.

"I would suggest that fighters have all of their medicals up to date a long way out from when they intend to compete to avoid these situations. At my own club, I tell the professional fighters to get everything done in January of each year so you are covered for the year. If you are getting scanned on a Tuesday for a fight that is happening on a Saturday, you are limiting the chances of you being cleared to compete.

"This is a new era, we’re still only inside the first year of the new testing criteria. Already the process has been smoothed out. I know that BAMMA had a lot more trouble in September than they did this time around with scans. The process will continue to improve and we will all continue to work together to make it better."

Testing Amateur Scans

IMMAA hope that the test case for amateur scans at Cage Legacy on February 11 will reassure some of the community who have concerns about the process, affordability and perception of the recommended criteria.

"There are a number of concerns that have come up when we discussed this, one of which is affordability. €150 is a lot of money to an 18 or 19-year-old. We have fighters who are unemployed and fighters who are saving for houses, so we want to see how these scans will be funded.

"Safe MMA Ireland is recommending that only a single scan is needed, so once this is done it’s out of the way. We want to show that these fighters have got their scans and that it was relatively painless to secure.

"The other issue is perception, which we talked about earlier—will MMA look worse than other combat sports because the amateur fighters are being scanned? For me, being able to out something in place where we pre-screen all of our amateurs would make us the envy of other combat sports."

Oglesby reiterated that IMMAA has the opportunity to bring safety standards to a new level in terms of international MMA, and the contributing factors around the sport that are pushing them towards achieving a superior level of safety than is observed anywhere in the world.

"I really don’t see it as a competition against the rest of the world to see who is the safest. We’re in a unique situation where a number of things have happened.

"Firstly, we had a high-profile tragedy earlier this year. Without pre-empting the results of an inquest or anything like that, it is fairly clear that the death was a result of a brain injury. That’s where we’re coming from.

"The second thing is, concussion and CTE are huge factors in all of sport. People are looking at American football and rugby. They’re also looking at boxing and kickboxing, and of course, MMA.

"The final thing we have is the existence of a new sporting body, IMMAA, being created this year.

"We have the blank slate with IMMAA, the world conversation on CTE and brain injury and we have a high profile tragedy. If you mix those three things together, you have a situation where IMMAA have a blank slate to create one of the safest organizations in world mixed martial arts.

"There is an opportunity to grasp that. If anything comes out of the death earlier this year, it is that we should sit up and take brain injury very seriously."