Sunday 25 September 2016

Corporate denial and outlaw culture offer open invitation to tragedy

thecouch@independent.ie

Tommy Conlon

Published 17/04/2016 | 17:00

Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho. Photo: Dave Fogarty
Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho. Photo: Dave Fogarty

It was not inevitable that an MMA fatality would occur in Dublin, but it was an absolute certainty that it would occur somewhere and soon. This is perhaps the most painful aspect of the tragedy: the feeling deep in one's bones that it was imminent, inevitable, as predictable as night following day.

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Anyone with even a passing interest in professional boxing will know its dangers. They will know it has a long history of death in the ring. So when a new combat sport comes along that permits a much wider spectrum of physical punishment, they know what's going to happen. They can read the runes. And when they issued warnings, stated their concerns, it amounted in effect to the famous title of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel - a chronicle of a death foretold.

Because when one man in a ring can kill another by standing up and trading blows with 12oz boxing gloves, they can surely do it when one man is pinned to the floor and the other is allowed to punch the exposed face over and over. And, when the punches aren't extracting the maximum toll, they can resort to the use of elbows and forearms for the same purpose.

They can surely do it, too, with kicks to the head, with knees to the head and punches to the head from a standing position. Or with a variety of choke holds that cut off the oxygen supply long enough to force a surrender.

Boxing with all its traditional and time-honoured boundaries cannot prevent fatalities, or catastrophic brain damage. Therefore mixed martial arts, with its radical permissiveness, is simply an open and ongoing invitation to tragedy.

Its promoters and pioneers seemed not to factor in the lessons from pro boxing when formulating its own rules. They seemed to forget, or ignore, that boxing's rules and regulations had been accumulated and enforced over a century of sometimes terrible trial and error.

In fact, for its promoters, one of MMA's main selling points is that it isn't boxing. It is punk rock to pugilism's boring prog rock. It is quick, violent and dangerous. It's got action and it's got blood. It is combat sport with a short attention span. This would be fine if it were a video game for the virtual reality generation. But the blood is real, the protagonists flesh-and-bone humans.

MMA is guilty of fatal hubris. It looked at boxing and thought it could shirk all that responsibility, all those tiresome rules and regulations. It thought it could have a free-for-all in the ring and get away with it. That all the dangers could be magicked away by corporate denial and wishful thinking, the way they routinely delete the blood from the canvas with a few wipes of a towel.

It remains a sullen irony that the Carvalho-Ward bout did not showcase MMA at its most unbridled. The Portuguese, after all, wasn't even on his back when the final deluge of punches arrived. He was merely down on all fours, evidently dazed by blows he'd taken standing before his legs went. So Charlie Ward couldn't climb on top of him and pin Carvalho's arms down with his knees, for an unobstructed passage to his face. Instead he had to hunker down beside Carvalho and launch the punches side-on, driving them right-handed into the face and head. Carvalho seemingly was unable to cover up or protect himself.

It has obviously been a shattering week for his family. It has clearly been a distressing week for Ward and his family also. There's no doubt they are devastated too by this turn of events.

Fighters in combat sports, it seems, cannot envisage the consequences of their choices: they won't get badly hurt, and they won't badly damage their opponent either. And even if they can envisage the perils, they probably think it will always happen to someone else anyway.

It is the job of MMA's governing bodies, promoters, coaches, television partners and corporate sponsors to make it a much safer sport. Ideally, it would have withered on the vine years ago. But it's too late now. The train has left the station. Talk of banning it is redundant.

What's hard to stomach is that the MMA community seems to revel in its outlaw status. There appears to be a mob pride in its machismo, a collective denial about its danger, an unabashed pleasure in the blood spilled.

The referee in this case said he did nothing wrong. "If you watch the fight you see clearly there was no reason to stop (it) earlier," Mariusz Domasat told the Irish Daily Star. "Everyone who has any idea about MMA knows the fight was stopped at the exact proper time." But this is the core issue: the rules he was obliged to observe are patently inadequate. The referee isn't to blame; the entire culture has produced this dreadful outcome.

The number of MMA-related deaths varies according to the criteria used in the auditing. One website estimates that 13 people have died since 2007. In the case of Joao Carvalho, 28, the damage may have been done before the repeated strikes on the floor. He had taken two if not three heavy punches that visibly buckled his legs before he sank down along the fencing to the canvas.

He had 50 years of life ahead of him, and 48 hours to live.

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