Peter Carroll: Like it or not, Ireland's MMA community have to play ball with Safe MMA

After comments on regulation from Shane Ross, Ireland's MMA community is once again in the spotlight

UFC, MMA, Dublin

Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Irish mixed martial arts was in a very dark place following the tragic death of João Carvalho last April.

Carvalho’s passing came a few days after he competed at TEF 1 at the National Stadium, where he lost by third-round TKO to Charlie Ward. On the announcement of his death, the Minister for Sport at the time, Michael Ring, lambasted MMA and you could feel the public’s perception of the sport changing just months after the highs of Conor McGregor’s undisputed title win over Jose Aldo.

Dan Healy was the only doctor that defended the sport after the death of Carvalho. Instead of completely severing ties with the MMA community, he endeavoured to make it one of the safest places to compete in the sport in the world through his work with Safe MMA Ireland, which was founded in 2013.

Safe MMA Ireland act as the medical advisory board to IMMAA, the governing body for amateur Irish MMA in the country. The association will also look to become the governing body of the professional sport should they gain recognition from Sport Ireland.

In May, Healy recommended that all professional competitors in Ireland must be scanned annually, and that was quickly brought into effect by IMMAA. The rules of the amateur sport were also amended to fall in line with those of the world governing body, IMMAF, which was met by some initial backlash from the community before things settled down again.

Safe MMA Ireland’s most recent recommendation has caused quite a stir amongst the community. Based on the data from the first testing group of professionals, Healy believes that all amateur competitors should undergo a one-off brain scan before they compete to determine whether they have any pre-existing issues.

Pockets of the community attacked the decision, questioning the process that they used to vote for the trial, and the additional cost of the scans.

Healy invited the entire Irish MMA community to his lecture on the effects of CTE on athletes on Friday at the Royal College of Surgeons and some his Safe MMA Ireland team—Aisling Daly, Tim Murphy and Rodney Moore—to the front of the room to field all questions on the new scans.

Daly began by explaining that Safe MMA Ireland would not change their recommendation on amateur scans, even if the trial run did encounter some problems.

“I personally don’t see any situation occurring with the trial run that wouldn’t allow the scans to be passed through because of our findings with the first batch of professional fighters,” said Daly.

“For me, the trial is more about seeing how fighters and coaches deal with the added expense and how promoters feel about it.”

Although it will be up to IMMAA to make the one-off scans mandatory for MMA’s amateurs, Daly highlighted how it would not be in the association’s interest to refuse to take Safe MMA Ireland’s recommendation. 

“IMMAA would be leaving itself open to a lot of criticism if they did not take our recommendations on board," Daly added. "We all have the same goals. We all recognize that MMA is under fire in this country, particularly after João Carvalho’s death.

“We don’t want our safety standards to just scrape us by the regulation threshold, we want to go above and beyond to show how well we safeguard competitors in the Republic of Ireland.

“I don’t see IMMAA ever not taking our recommendation, because that will lead to problems with the government further down the line.”

Many forecast that passing the one-off amateur scans would be the beginning of even more changes to the regulations. Healy believes that these scans could be the last “big change” that is made, provided that the coroner does not make a recommendation based on the inquest into Carvalho’s death, the results of which are expected in the coming months.

“I don’t envisage [us changing to annual scans for amateurs],” Healy said. “The only thing that might change it is the results of the upcoming inquest, which should be available in a couple of months’ time.

“One of the roles of the coroner is to make recommendations. If the coroner suggest that they want additional safety measures put in place, it would be very hard for Safe MMA Ireland not to offer that to fighters. Legally, it would be difficult not to take the coroner’s recommendation on board.”

To his credit, Dylan Sheehan of Samson MMA openly criticised IMMAA’s choice to trial scans, underlining how cost would alienate some competitors. While there were many contrarians to the scans on social media threads, only Sheehan and his teammate Kieran O’Brien showed up to voice their concerns on potential change to the regulations.

However, both John Kavanagh and Tim Murphy suggested lowering amateur competitors’ club fees to help them pay for medicals. Glen Ellis, founder of Code Blue, the official medical event support team to IMMAA, claimed that he was working on gaining another low rate for scans, such as the €150 deal Healy struck with Bon Secours. A proposed fee of €160 would allow the surplus €10 to be put towards helping a less fortunate fighter gain clearance.

“There has never been a fighter that hasn’t competed because they couldn’t afford their registration fee," Healy noted. "Now, we do have an admin person that is very good at badgering fighters after the fact, but that has never been a reason for someone not competing.”

There were some questions as to whether fighters could gain clearance from doctors outside of the Republic in Ireland before competing in the country. Healy has no problem with that, once fighters provide Safe MMA Ireland with all the relevant documentation to support their clearance.

“We do need to get properly translated versions of the doctor’s reports, which has not happened in the past,” he said. “The bloods must come from a recognized laboratory, because there have been examples of fabrications in the past.”

While a lot of people are speaking out about IMMAA taking Healy’s recommendation up, Healy himself highlighted that Safe MMA Ireland do not represent the Irish MMA community.

“This might not be popular, but we are not a democracy. We can’t make our decisions based on asking 100 people from the Irish MMA community how they feel.

“We have to go on the medical evidence. We are not here to represent MMA. We are here to set the safety standard that we feel is achievable, and that could have the biggest impact on safeguarding the competitors in the sport.”

With IMMAA poised to make the amateur scans mandatory, Healy explained why there was no deliberation period given for his recommendation. 

"What would you do if you had data and evidence, and you decided with a group of people that this was the right thing to do? Would you have a quasi-Safe MMA event? Is that what people expect from medical professionals?

"We haven’t made this decision lightly. There is also a background to this. This wasn’t brought in four years ago because it wasn’t pragmatic. We couldn’t have done it then, it wouldn’t have been achievable. This is probably the last major change that we will have to do.

"After that, people can say what they want about how barbaric the sport is. When they say things like that you can ask them if there is any other contact sport in the world that is run more safely than MMA."

Healy’s name had been dragged through the dirt in the lead up to the open forum, and I couldn’t help but respect his ability to field all questions on his polarizing recommendation. His love for combat sports was revealed through his CTE lecture, which showed a much younger version of the neurologist working with combat sports athletes of various ages and various degrees of brain injury over the years.

After the question session, Healy told me that he always worked pro bono with boxers over the years, something which he has continued to do with Ireland’s MMA charges. Despite the opposition suggesting that his push for amateur scans was a money racket, he is adamant that he won’t make a cent from safeguarding the sport of MMA, nor will the Safe MMA Ireland team.

Online commenters claimed that Healy had been “chased out” of rugby and boxing, but his role as an IRFU doctor directly contradicts that. As for his ties with boxing, Healy was invited to become a doctor for the High Performance Unit, but declined the offer.

Now, he may be the most important figure in Ireland’s push for the regulation of MMA. The government won’t play ball with the sport without a physician like Healy being involved, and without him, there is likely no other doctor that would take on the burden of safeguarding the sport.

Each time he signs off on a fighter to compete, he is putting his name on the line. For him to stand by MMA, he needs a certain level of safety to be established.

The choice is to take his expert advice or risk MMA never gaining government recognition. It may take another five years that to happen but when it does, the sport could receive funding that could go toward helping competitors pay their medical fees.

Everyone is allowed to feel how they want about the additional fees that will be added should mandatory one-off scans for amateurs be written into the regulations, but the Irish MMA community need to realise that Dan Healy is here to help, not to exploit them.