Aisling Daly explains why she'd like to see a mandatory brain scan for amateur MMA fighters

Irish MMA fighter speaks to Peter Carroll about the issue

Aisling Daly

Aisling Daly ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

There have been massive wholesale changes made to the Irish MMA scene since the tragic passing of Joao Carvalho in April following an MMA bout at TEF 1 at the National Stadium.

With MRI scans and a series of other medicals being made mandatory for professionals in Ireland in May, and new medical clearance criteria and rules being put in place for the amateur sport, there were many detractors as the first steps towards the regulation of MMA were put in place.

Although everything seems to have settled down as the new regulations have slowly and surely become the norm, SAFE MMA made a recommendation last month to the amateur governing body, IMMAA, which calls all amateurs to receive a one-off brain scan before competing.

Cited on the SAFE MMA press release, one of the main reasons that Professor Dan Healy has called for scans for amateurs is based on “Data obtained from the first 75 MRI/MRAs in professional fighters, which led to a significant rate of referrals for expert review.”

A neurologist, Healy was one of the most instrumental figures in bringing in mandatory brain scans for professional fighters and has been commended by the community for his work that safeguards the health of many Irish fighters.

Irish MMA pioneer Aisling Daly is the person who is responsible for bringing the SAFE MMA certification to Ireland.

She explained why she believes that it is about time that amateurs have scans to make sure that there are no immediate dangers for them competing in MMA.

“There’s no difference between an amateur and a professional brain,” explained Daly. “I could be an amateur on a Monday and turn professional on a Friday, but a kick to the head will affect me the same on either day.

“We’ve brought in mandatory annual scans for professionals and now we’re hoping to roll out a single mandatory scan for amateurs. We can’t discriminate with the amateurs. Their brains do not absorb impacts in a different way.”

Daly highlighted that the new scans would be of great importance for identifying pre-existing brain issues that could lead to detrimental problems if not identified.

“The main thing that we want to identify with the scans for amateurs is if there is a pre-existing issue they have with the brain. Honestly, these scans could determine that a person should try not to hit their head off a shelf, never mind compete in MMA.

“Also, when we get that scan we have a baseline for how the fighter looked before they began to compete.

“Even if there are no pre-existing conditions, the scan is still a good thing to have for amateurs. A successful amateur will eventually turn professional and to have that initial scan to compare to the scan you would have before competing at pro in Ireland could prove very important.

“If there were any spots on the brain or the development of ridges, which shows that the brain’s hemispheres are starting to separate, the doctors would be able to tell that they were developed over the last two years.”

Daly knows all too well the problems that come along with rolling out new safety precautions based on her early work with Safe MMA. Even with comparatively low-cost pre-clearances like blood tests, Daly was met by a number of critics who refused to see the sense in parting with the cost for the medicals.

The former NAAFS world champion expects similar things to happen if brain scans are made mandatory for amateurs in Ireland.

“Whenever we bring in any kind of new health standards, it’s never the effort of getting the medical procedure done or people saying that it isn’t worthwhile, the main problem is usually the cost.

“I always tell people that there is a risk that something could happen when they get in to compete that could result in a physical disability. Some kinds of pre-existing issues could lead to that if they aren’t identified. Given them odds, the vast majority of fighters will agree that it’s worth €200 to find out that information. What price can you put on your health, really?

“The cost might seem a lot but it really isn’t that bad. If you’re going to fight you’ll be put through a schedule to make sure you’re at a high level of fitness going into a fight. So if they’re eight weeks out, the fighter could put away $20 a week and nearly have enough to pay for the brain scan. Fighters get sponsors too. Maybe his or her local butcher would give him 50 quid towards the scan.

“The thing is if you really want to fight, you will get this done. It’s not an extortionate amount of money for what you’re getting from it. This is a once off scan, if you have a 20-fight amateur career you’ll never have to have it done again until you turn pro.”

Currently, SAFE MMA are only recommending that amateurs receive scans, but Daly believes the scans will be made mandatory in the future.

“It’s a recommendation at the moment but I can definitely see it becoming mandatory soon. There wasn’t really enough time to make it mandatory across the board when we first came forward with this," she said.

“In Ireland, Safe MMA standards are a lot higher than they are in England and this will push it to an even higher standard. We also have to allow the amateurs to get proper information on the scans and allow them the time to get the scan done too.

“We want Ireland to be the safest place to compete in MMA, and things like this will only help achieve this.”

Some may think that additional criteria are overcautious, but Daly maintained that there is no such thing as being too safe following the death of Carvalho.

“I don’t think we can be overcautious with this sport. We need to have these safety standards and once everybody can fall in line with them we will be right where we need to be.

“With the situation we’re in, there has been a death already linked to this sport in Ireland. The inquest into Joao Carvalho’s death is still ongoing, but there is a very strong possibility that he had a pre-existing condition. If that is the case, then a lot more people will understand the importance of what we’re trying to do here.”

IMMAA publically acknowledged receiving SAFE MMA’s recommendation on their official Facebook page, commenting that the issue was currently “under discussion and review”.

Daly spoke about why there might be some reluctance behind rolling out the mandatory one-off scan for amateurs.

“I think we all understand the importance of doing it, but the reluctance in rolling it out is mostly based on the reaction it will get in the community,” she said.

“Some people believe that the amateurs will not want to pay for this before they compete.

“There is that fear of the unknown too. I’m sure there are a lot of fighters that just don’t want to get the scan done in case something does show up.

“The cost and how it’s going to be received are the main blocks at the moment. It seems as though people think safety standards could end up killing MMA, but I believe the safety standards are by far the most important aspect of the sport that we need to have put in place.”