IMMAA is focused on building MMA at a grass roots level in Ireland

Regulation, garda vetting and grading system very important for IMMAA

After the tragic death of Joao Carvalho at TEF 1 last month, the IAPA and the IMMAF have been working towards getting mixed martial arts regulated in Ireland.

At one stage the regulation of the sport looked unlikely, but since then meetings between the IAPA, who have recently changed their name to IMMAA (Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association), IMMAF and Sport Ireland have helped the situation considerably.

All parties believe that the sport will become regulated, with IMMAA as the governing body, within three to five years.

Initially, there were some concerns within the Irish scene as events began to get pulled around the Republic. World Cage Fighting Championship pulled an event that was due to take place in Airside the weekend after TEF 1 and Quest Fighting Championships also cancelled an event, which was due to take place on June 11 in Galway.

According to Andy Ryan, vice president of IMMAA, following the passing of Carvalho after he competed in TEF 1, events were recommended to brought to a halt as an investigation into the death took place and all parties looked towards gaining regulation for MMA in Ireland. Yet, with no regulation in place, IAPA had no final decision on the events being cancelled.

“There was a show due to take place the week after TEF 1, the event that Joao Carvalho competed at before he tragically passed away, and we fully supported that show up until his death,” explained Ryan.

“When that happened, we were involved in a criminal investigation. His death made us take a close look at the sport and we felt it was only right that we held off on shows in light of what had happened. The promoter could have still put the show on the week after TEF 1, but IAPA would not have provided them with referees and judges. There was an investigation taking place and we were still answering questions to help with the Garda at that stage.

“At the same time, we were in touch international mixed martial arts federation, IMMAF, and they told us that we should hold off on any shows. They said they would look to sit down with the government to work towards regulating the sport.

“We weren’t stopping the events from taking place, but we could not allow any fighters or clubs associated with the IAPA to compete at the events with so much going on. We have to fall in line with our governing body, IMMAF.

“If someone wants to put on a show tomorrow all we can do is pull our support from it. In three to five years time IMMAA will get that stamp from Sport Ireland (to regulate the sport) and only then will we be able to stop an event from taking place.”

Following on from BAMMA’s postponement of their June event to September 10 in the 3 Arena, the European promotion has pledged to scan every fighter that competes at the Dublin event. Ryan stated that once professional fighters are scanned annually they can compete as much as they want.

“BAMMA have decided to update their medical procedures following the death of Joao Carvalho. They will have the same level of medical clearance that UFC have from now on. They will scan all of their fighters and that will carry across to their shows in England as well.

“Their event was set for early June and it didn’t give them enough time to get 40 fighters scanned when Carvalho passed away. That’s the only reason why that event was postponed. That event will take place on September 10th.

“As the promoter of Battlezone, I will still put professional bouts on them cards. At the very top of the sport, with UFC and now BAMMA, fighters need to be scanned annually. Once they have that done they compete as much as they want in that year, with the big shows like BAMMA and at the regional shows.”

Ryan pointed out that because there is no governing body in place at the moment, pro fights can still take place with fighters who have not got the proper medical clearance that is advised. However, IMMAA will not support such events.

“At the moment, people can do what they want. There are no laws put in place, but IMMAA will not support any of those events. Again, the officials and fighters associated with us would not be able to have anything to do with those shows.

“We are being advised by Professor Dan Healy (neurologist), Safe MMA, IMMAF and the government. They want to see proper, reputable shows with a structure. That structure will make sure that fighters go through a series of checks before they compete. The safety of the fighters is our main concern and it always has been.”

There will inevitably be some professionals in Ireland that do not compete at BAMMA or UFC, and Ryan underlined that fighters in that situation would have to seek out their own medical clearance to be able to compete on IMMAA supported shows.

“When Neil Seery got signed for the UFC he had to pay for all of his medicals to gain clearance to fight for them. He was in the hospital for three days getting all of the tests done. UFC didn’t pay for it. He paid for it because it’s his job. If you’re a taxi man in this country the government don’t pay for your car and your license. Like every other profession, it’s a fighter’s responsibility to have all their paperwork done.”

One of the most significant milestones for IMMAA came last week when they introduced a new rule set for amateur bouts contested in the Republic of Ireland. The reaction to the new rules was quite polarizing given the introduction of shin guards and rash guards for competitors, among other things. IMMAA have also brought in a ‘same day weight in’ rule in the hopes of stopping the amateur athletes from undergoing rigorous weight cuts.

"I get the feeling that some people feel like we’re trying to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes,” said Ryan on the new amateur rule set. “We’ve got a different situation than they have with MMA in Northern Ireland. Sport Ireland need to see us doing something constructive. They need to see us working with a world body. That’s what we’re doing. We have to make sure our structure falls in line with what IMMAF want to do.”

Ryan insists that there needs to be a clear distinction between the amateur and pro levels of the sport. IMMAA have followed the rule set that the amateur IMMAF world championships are contested under, which Ryan believes emphasizes the sport of MMA.

“I understand the concern over the rule changes. In the Republic of Ireland, we are dealing with the government now. They want to see a clear distinction between the professional sport, the likes of UFC, and the amateur sport. IMMAF have that clear distinction with the shin guards and the rash guards for their own competitions.

“All of my fighters at Team Ryano, amateurs and professionals, they all train on a daily basis with rash guards and shin guards. There are some guys who have contested ten amateur bouts without shin guards and rash guards and they aren’t too happy with the changes, but all of the fighters that represent the country at the amateur European championships and the World championships have to wear shin guards. The introduction of the rash guards only came in this year, but I don’t see that being such a big shift.

“I think it’s a good thing. It really emphasizes the sport of mixed martial arts. At these big competitions that IMMAF put on, the Worlds and the Europeans, if a fighter wins they have to compete every day. There’s no way that they could do that if they weren’t wearing shin guards.

“The rash guards could be a good thing for the fighters too. I’m sure there will be space for some sponsorships on the rash guards, so that could help some fighters with the expenses that they incur for competition.”

Ryan outlined that IMMAF is looking to roll out Grand Prix events all over the world, which he believes will create career amateurs. As far as he is concerned, there will be no need for a lot of fighters to join the professional ranks once the amateur competition calendar gets rolled out in the future.

“There is no need to go pro now. The common thing was for a person to have three or four amateur fights, and if they won them, they would go pro. Amateurs will be able to compete and become a national champion, and with IMMAF they could become European and world champions.

“IMMAF are also looking at bringing in Grand Prix events all around the world for fighters to compete in. With these events happening all over the world, there is no need to go pro.”

Ryan explained that IMMAF’s goal is to make MMA an Olympic sport. He highlighted that although some fighters in Ireland have professional status, they do not train like professional athletes. For fighters in those circumstances, he believes that the amateur ranks are the best place to compete.

“That’s IMMAF’s goal, they want MMA to be an Olympic sport. There is no point in going pro if you cannot win on the amateur scene. I have a young fighter at my club, Hughie O’Rourke. Hughie is going to the world championships this year. If Hughie loses over there he probably isn’t ready for pro. If he competes regularly next year, gets to the world championships and wins, then it’s time to go pro.

“You can have that experience of travelling all over the world as an amateur now, but these guys still have to go to work on Monday morning. To be a pro and train full time is very hard work.

“A lot of pros in Ireland work every day of the week and they train in the evenings and then they fight in these pro bouts. They’re fighting pro fights but they are not professional athletes. They’re not training for six or seven hours a day and getting paid big fees.

“They’re getting €500 or €300 to do this, they aren’t making the money that they guys are at the very top of the sport are to cover themselves. That kind of money does not allow them to prepare themselves like professional athletes.”

Irish MMA boasts a host of fighters and even a world champion under the biggest MMA banner in the world. While the sport has grown rapidly at the top with the likes of UFC, Ryan is adamant that the grassroots element of the sport has yet to be established.

Over the next five years, IMMAA will look to gain Garda vetting, qualifications and establish a syllabus for their coaches to work from. Ryan claimed that MMA has no direction at the moment, but over the next five years they will look to break new ground to ensure the safety of participants at every level of the sport.

“As we roll this out over the next few months people will get their bearings with it. The process of gaining the regulation of the professional sport with IMMAA looks like it will take about five years.

“I was talking to the CEO and chairman of IMMAF and they told me that unlike any other sport, mixed martial arts was built from the top down. People saw the big UFC shows and then they had to establish the sport themselves for their national MMA communities.

“You go to the government and you try to get the sport recognized, that’s starting at the very bottom step. We started at the top when our fighters went into the UFC, but we still haven’t established what types of standards have to be in place for coaching.

“We need Garda vetting for all of the coaches. We need the coaches to get certificates to prove that they are efficient in the different areas of the sport. We have none of that in place so we have to jump back and create that structure.

“For us, the competition aspect of this is just a tiny little part of it. It’s really about getting all of the clubs regulated. We need to get proper training for coaches and we need to put a grading system in place where people can move from level to level.

“I have my certificates for judo, boxing and wrestling. For me to teach in a judo club, I need that certificate. I would not be allowed to teach a class if I didn’t have that. I also have to be Garda vetted and I need to be insured.

“There’s nothing like that in MMA at the moment. You can just open a gym and teach. You don’t need any sort of qualification. Even when I started to help out in Baldoyle Boxing Gym I needed a qualification. I needed to know how to deal with a guy walking into the gym on his first day. I needed to be able to inform parents about the sport. These things are basic.

“That’s where the Irish MMA scene needs to go. We’re going backward with the help of IMMAF and Sport Ireland to put all of these things in place. We have a UFC champion but we don’t have the sport Garda vetted. The sport isn’t even recognized in Ireland. There is a lot to do.

“In five years time we want to have every club signed up to IMMAA and we want to all coaches to have qualifications. We hope that everyone will be able to go under the same insurance policy. Coaches and fighters should have a syllabus to work off further down the line too.

“There’s no direction in this sport. We’re all using what we’ve picked up from training the different martial arts disciplines over the years to teach. We need that direction moving forward.”