Eoghan Corry: We now have to make a call on whether this is a sport or not
Published 16/04/2016 | 02:30
The tragic death of Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho puts us in the ring as a nation.
We have now to make a call on whether mixed martial arts is a sport or not. Ireland is in an ambiguous position on this.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) is not recognised as a sport by our civil servants, although many of its constituent sports are.
This has put our entire sporting culture in a quandary because of one man. But in the annual Sportsman of the Year black tie jamboree, the question must be asked - should Conor McGregor be considered a sportsman?
For can you call what he does, so successfully, a sport?
Finding an answer to this question is important. Not just for McGregor, and the army of fighters, male and female, who aspire to emulate his considerable achievements, but for us as a society.
Conor McGregor's exploits have made Ireland one of the success stories of MMA, as the hybrid sport attempts to break free of its cage-fighting past.
That makes things complicated. Project McGregor has been a carefully managed exercise, some might say manipulated.
The McGregor phenomenon has largely been achieved through careful management, most spectacularly at media level.
Jim Gavin, Martin and Michael O'Neill and Joe Schmidt would love to have the uncritical coverage (cheerleading?)that McGregor has enjoyed in mainstream media.
This is important because MMA is a commercial operation, not a sport in the sense we have understood in the 200 years that such things have evolved.
The 90-odd sports practised in Ireland are usually run from the bottom up, with clubs and county boards and a small army of parents driving 11-year-olds to distant fixtures every Saturday and Sunday morning.
Boxing has its critics, but it comes with a network of clubs and schoolboys who don gloves and a strategy to build up aerobic exercise among young people. It is regulated closely and supervised.
The major MMA organisation, the UFC, is run by Dana White from his Las Vegas sandpit, with a focus, rigour and efficiency that would bring a blush to Bernie Ecclestone, the egotistical father of Formula One. The UFC not only controls fighters' careers, but also takes the rights to their names and likenesses in perpetuity.
White is doing what boxing used to do before it fell apart, dividing into competing constituent bodies and petty squabbling over who owns what title. One commercial body, the UFC, controls and matches the fighters, programmes the events and signs the media deals, most famously a $700m deal with Fox.
Fighters probably earn less than they would in a more competitive environment, but everyone knows who the champion is.
Dublin has been an important outpost of White's empire. That is why our reaction to last week's tragic events matters.
To understand MMA, it is important to go to the place where MMA is based, Las Vegas. From the heart of the Nevada desert, White runs UFC for the Fertitta family, the founders of Station Casinos, and cousins of the owners of Landry's, who also own the Golden Nugget.
The Fertittas gambled on the number of Americans who are prepared to pay $55 to watch top fights on pay-per-view TV.
Lorenzo Fertitta once claimed that UFC is the world's most valuable sporting franchise.
Big ticket entertainment is the lifeblood of Vegas. MMA slots in behind Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil. And Las Vegas likes MMA because it brings in more gamblers than boxing used to.
American Republican senator John McCain once called MMA "human cockfighting". Adherents are quick to call foul. Despite the surfeit of blood at events, minor lacerations are more common than serious head injuries.
A Johns Hopkins study, oft cited in the battle to have MMA legalised state-by-state across America, showed that 3pc of matches ended in a concussion, a similar rate to other combat sports. Ring fatalities have led to radical self reform in boxing. MMA faces even bigger challenges because of its controversial past.
Eoghan Corry is the author of more than 40 books on Irish and world sports.
Who's who in Mixed Martial Arts
IAPA: The Irish Amateur Pankration Association is the closest thing to a governing body the unregulated sport of MMA has in Ireland. It is an affiliate of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, but is not recognised by Sport Ireland.
IAPA president John Kavanagh also coaches MMA superstar Conor McGregor.
The body has been seeking to standardise regulations for Irish contests, but says it has no legal powers to enforce these in pro bouts.
UFC: Ultimate Fighting Championship is the biggest and best known MMA promotion company and has staged several events in Ireland.
TEF: Total Extreme Fighting is a new promotion company, run by Brazilian Cesar Silva. The fight night it organised, after which Joao Carvalho died, was its first event.