By Caoilte de Barra
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) has fought a long battle for sport recognition and the mandate to legally regulate MMA in the Republic of Ireland. On 18 May, the issue was raised with Minister for Sport, Jack Chambers, in the Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s House of Representatives) by spokesperson for sport Chris Andrews and Ruairí Ó Murchú, of political party Sinn Féin.
Irish MMA made global news headlines in 2016 with the tragic death of Portuguese MMA competitor, João Carvalho, on an ungoverned event in a landscape where compliance to safety measures lay unregulated. Following competing calls in the media for MMA to be banned or regulated in the aftermath, commitments were made by government ministers to ensuring the regulation of the sport in line with recommendations made by the Coroner’s Court (that investigated the tragedy). Since then, IMMAA has become the sport’s de facto governing body in Ireland, with local authorities and venues requiring promoters to adhere to its flagship safety standards and ministers’ notably placing the onus for MMA’s governance on IMMAA in the media. Despite this, and the meticulous body of work carried out by IMMAA to meet Sport Ireland requirements, formal recognition has eluded the organisation within the bureaucratic process.
Sinn Féin ministers, Chris Andrews and Ruairí Ó Murchú, emphasised to the Dáil Éireann the need for a clear pathway for MMA to become recognised under Sport Ireland, in light of its popularity, and appealed to the sports minister to back IMMAA’s application.
“Mixed Martial Arts has grown immensely over the last decade,” said Andrews. “The participation in IMMA is very diverse. If you walk into any MMA club you will see a diverse mix of people ranging from young office workers, construction workers, young and old. Along with that we see a mix of nationalities training side-by-side.”
Andrews cited the positive, long term impact that amateur MMA can have in young peoples’ lives as demonstrated through IMMAA’s coaching and youth programmes that “provide help and support for young people caught up in antisocial activity, and help them out of that particular path.”
The Minister further commended IMMAA’s governance work, highlighting their achievements and readiness for formal recognition. He exposed comments about MMA that had been made by party representatives responsible for the sport recognition process, questioning their integrity. He cited “snobbery” and the pervasiveness of the “old boys club” as the main obstructions to MMA being recognised nationally as a sport and called for urgent intervention:
“IMMAA has introduced safety standards for amateur athletes involved in MMA to an exceptionally high standard, higher than any other contact sport under the remit of Sport Ireland. IMMAA have consistently represented Ireland at an international level. At the 2018 amatuer MMA world championships Ireland came second on the medals table, amateur athletes deserve proper recognition.”
“There is currently no clear path for IMMAA to become recognised as an NGB (National Governing Body) despite their best efforts. There is an urgent need for intervention to ensure that there is equal treatment granted in the application process of IMMAA in their quest of NGB status and that the recommendations of the Coroner’s Court are implemented. I think that really is vital.”
“While I welcome the development of this working group on this issue, I really do feel that the process is being used to block recognition of IMMAA as an NGB under Sport Ireland. It will only be through meaningful engagement that we will see IMMAA progress into this status. I really and truly believe that there is a snobbery and the “old boys club” will not let MMA be recognised in this country.” [Transcript courtesy of Severe MMA]
Chris Andrews TD on Twitter: “Looking for recognition of IMMAA as recognised body under Sport Ireland. There needs to be a clear path for MMA Raised this in the Dail with the Minister. @IMMAAOnline @John_Kavanagh https://t.co/nwgupQU28P” / Twitter
Initial application and roadblocks
Following the issue being raised in the Dáil, IMMAA Chairman Tim Murphy spoke with immaf.org to detail the recent backstory:
“We were told IMMAA could not get recognition directly from Sport Ireland and [as a martial arts discipline] that we would have to apply through the Irish Martial Arts Commission. We were pushed down that pathway and we applied last year to IMAC but were rejected. We expected that we were going to be rejected because, as had been discussed beforehand, IMMAF do not yet have international recognition from GAISF and that is one of their requirements.”
However, IMMAA had been given no other option but to apply and, as long as their application had been outstanding, they risked the accusation that they were not complying with process.
The next step for IMMAA was to appeal the decision, for which all the required documents and information were provided. Following the IMAC AGM, IMMAA were informed that their appeal had also been rejected on the grounds that international body IMMAF still lacked sport recognition status under GAISF. It is of note, however, that IMAC is formed of eight subgroups representing different martial arts and fifty per cent of these are not either recognised at the international level.
“In the meantime,” said Tim, “we related to Sport Ireland that although we had been given the impression that we were on a pathway to progress our recognition, in reality nothing was happening. Sport Ireland responded that we needed to reach out again to IMAC as that is the only pathway and we need to try to build a relationship with them.”
Regardless, IMMAA have continued to build on their application despite being blocked until international recognition is achieved by IMMAF. As part of this effort, in January, IMMAA attempted to obtain documents to aid their application but were left waiting two months for a response. Communication difficulties have continued, including in obtaining any response to a request for dialogue to progress matters.
“It seems like maybe it’s just a quirk in the governance system but it doesn’t seem appropriate to me. It also doesn’t seem appropriate to have people involved in other martial arts have the main say on whether MMA gets recognised in this country or not.”
The difficulties faced in trying to achieve recognition for MMA led IMMAA to reach out again to government representatives to raise awareness on this issue.
“Just to give a broader picture, we’ve done an awful lot of work. If you see all the work Liam-Og Griffin and Andy Ryan have done with the amateur team, all our work around safeguarding and child protection and all the important things that are required for sports… We’ve done so much good work and it doesn’t get any great recognition.”
“Since we’re not making much headway on the official route, we’ve gone to politicians and anyone who will listen to us, really, and explain how we’re not getting a fair shake here. I think there’s a veneer of good governance and people can talk about the process but there’s very little happening. We’re banging our heads against walls and not getting anywhere. It’s disappointing, so we reached out to a Dáil (government) committee on this and to various politicians.
“It was great to see the issue get some attention in the Dáil. We’re not looking for anything unreasonable and I don’t think the criticisms of our sport are fair in many ways. We are very grateful to Chris and Ruairí for taking the time to meet with us and listen to our story. They have been trying to help us, so that has been fantastic and we’ll see where it goes.”
“The [governmental] Working Group that was put in place [to address the issue of governance for MMA] a few years ago has been reconvened again on the back of our recent push and is due to start again next month. I’m not a politically-minded person but what I would just like, and I hope we will get, is straight-talking from people. If they do not want to recognise the sport then they should have the courage to say it plainly and make their argument plainly. I just hope it doesn’t continue down the line where people pretend that they are willing to play along but nothing actually happens.”
The Working Group is to consist of two consultants, representatives from IMMAA and two from IMAC. A six-month timeline has been set for the consultation to be concluded within. The IMMAA board feels positively about its developments and achievements in governance that it can now present to the reconvened group, alongside its successes in international competitions.