Until they change rules, MMA will never rise beyond level of grotesque spectacle
Published 13/04/2016 | 02:30
Since the astonishing rise of Conor McGregor from ordinary beginnings to the single biggest name in his chosen field, MMA has become the most controversial sport in this country.
To the uninitiated, the average bout can look like nothing more than a brutal scrap outside a chipper at closing time. To the sport's many devotees, however, it is a sublime synthesis of a variety of martial arts and is a testament to the training, discipline and skill levels of the competitors.
But any calls for more understanding of the intricacies of the sport must fall on deaf ears following the death of the Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho yesterday.
Mr Carvalho died in Beaumont Hospital following his Saturday night bout with Irish fighter Charlie Ward, dealing a shock to a sport which has consistently struggled to gain mainstream acceptance around the world.
It is worth noting that MMA does not receive any government funding in Ireland as it is not recognised by the Irish Sports Council.
Mr Carvalho had been battling for his life after he suffered a technical knockout at the Total Extreme Fighting event held at the National Stadium. It was a brutal encounter which many of those in attendance, including the UFC's biggest name, Conor McGregor, felt should have been halted.
In a cage-side interview given after the fight ended, McGregor told Connect TV that: "It was a hell of a fight. Carvalho took some big shots . . . I thought it should have maybe been stopped sooner."
The tragic events of Saturday night come shortly after Chris Eubank Junior's opponent in a British Middleweight title fight, Nick Blackwell, was placed into an induced coma for a week to allow swelling on his brain to subside. That was a fight so one-sided that Eubank's own father intervened to instruct his son to concentrate on making body shots rather than punches to the head of his visibly dazed opponent.
Both scenarios are similar in the sense that aficionados of boxing and MMA will argue that the fights should have been stopped sooner, although that will come as scant consolation to Carvalho's family, nor indeed Blackwell, who has survived but will never box again.
Those who see no sense in grown men beating each other senseless will say such bouts should never take place at all. But at least in boxing the rules are rigid and normally a fight is stopped before damage is done.
It is perfectly understandable that the rise of McGregor - and the surge in popularity of MMA in this country as a direct result - comes as a cause of concern for many parents who are worried about their children taking up the sport.
But in an increasingly risk-averse society, parents would be forgiven for worrying about their children taking part in any contact sport at all. Even a sport like rugby is in the spotlight because of the fears of concussion on developing bodies; boxing also faces a sustained assault from medical professionals who want to see it banned outright, and even football too sees growing calls for a ban on heading the ball, following the news that former footballers face a disproportionately high risk of developing Alzheimer's in later life.
All of these concerns need to be investigated, but the thrill of sport always comes with an acceptable level of risk. And there's the rub. MMA can be a tough sport to defend. Many people who watched McGregor's nasty, brutal and extremely short encounter with Jose Aldo were extremely shocked to see the Irish man rain down so many punches on a prone and obviously unconscious opponent.
While the technical perfection of McGregor's knockout blow was admirable, the next few seconds of sustained pummelling left a bitter taste.
Perhaps that is the biggest single argument against MMA and it is one which the organisers are simply going to have to fix if they truly want acceptance as a respected sport.
Unlike boxing, where the ref will give a dazed fighter a count, once a man goes down to the floor in MMA, his opponent will then do his best to make sure he stays down - frequently through repeated use of elbow strikes on an undefended head and face.
This extreme element of brutality both attracts and disgusts people. It is also what led to what happened on Saturday night.
Proponents will argue that in an era when young men are increasingly told that virtually every expression of maleness is wrong or dangerous or socially unacceptable, MMA offers a multi-disciplined opportunity to expend their adrenaline through what is, essentially, unarmed combat.
And a growing number of young women have also taken up the sport, but it remains, and will probably always remain, a primarily male pursuit where young men test themselves and their opponent in a raw and unadorned way.
Devotees of the sport will always mention the sheer physical courage it takes to get into a ring (or Octagon) and while that may be something the critics dismiss, or even despise, there is an undeniable human need to push yourself to your limits and few people will deny that MMA is an unbelievably punishing pursuit which requires immense dedication.
Given the way the cultural and medical winds are blowing, it's possible that boxing will be banned in our lifetime and even rugby will become unrecognisable.
In such an atmosphere, it is almost impossible to make a case defending MMA.
And the simple truth remains that until they change the rule allowing repeated head strikes on a prone opponent, MMA will never rise beyond the level of the grotesque spectacle.