Sunday 26 January 2020

Below-the-belt comments are hurting 'warrior' sport

An autopsy would give some much-needed answers in the unfair debate on cage fighting, writes Joe Corcoran

‘Every man or woman who steps into the cage for an MMA fight has at least some knowledge of how to deal with strikes on the ground’ Pic: Mark Rebilas/Sportsfile
‘Every man or woman who steps into the cage for an MMA fight has at least some knowledge of how to deal with strikes on the ground’ Pic: Mark Rebilas/Sportsfile

Joe Corcoran

For most of us, though we might not admit it, a tragedy like the death of Portuguese Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Joao "Rafeiro" Carvalho following a welterweight bout in the National Stadium, is intensely frightening.

He was 28 years old, seemingly in peak physical fitness, pursuing the sport he loved across the globe with dreams, one would imagine, of one day reaching the top of the game. Then he died. This was not supposed to happen. How could it have happened? This question demands an answer. We need an answer so we can stop being frightened, so we can go back to living in a world where young men don't just die chasing their dreams.

We demand answers so badly that we sometimes allow our fear to be magnified by people just as clueless as ourselves, but who, because they shout loudly enough and because they have a target that's easy to get behind without giving it too much thought, seem as though they may really know what they're talking about.

Carvalho's body has yet to undergo a full medical autopsy; the gardai have yet to launch an investigation into the events surrounding his death. Nonetheless, the Irish media must spew broad-brush theories, lest it experience the slightest lull in online traffic.

In a piece published in the Irish Times on Tuesday, and which subsequently appeared in The Guardian after garnering significant attention and controversy, Johnny Watterson painted the death of Carvalho as the inevitable outcome of a fundamentally thuggish and barbaric sport. The Irish Times continued his sentiment in its Wednesday editorial, calling for a wider debate to take place about the ethical legitimacy of the country's fastest growing sport.

Its reasoning for taking such a stance? The fact that fighters are allowed to hit their opponents after they have knocked them onto the ground. This, of course, is what happened to Carvalho in Dublin.

Some of the reaction across the media displayed a misunderstanding of the disciplines of the sport. Grappling, and specifically Brazilian jiu jitsu, is a system of fighting that's very prevalent in MMA.

BJJ, as it is known, is an art of primarily ground-based fighting, whereby one competitor usually ends up fighting off their back with their opponent on top of them, both looking to wrestle for positional advantages and ultimately submit the other to some variation of a limb lock or choke.

Though BJJ normally doesn't incorporate striking in and of itself, it is nonetheless designed to take advantage of the style of attack witnessed last weekend, especially as it is adapted for use in MMA.

Every man or woman who steps into the cage for an MMA fight possesses at least some knowledge of how to deal with strikes on the ground.

For many fighters, BJJ can be a weapon, the threat of which will lead their opponent to do everything possible to avoid winding up on top of them, regardless of how tired or hurt they may be. There are thousands of examples of fighters in similar positions to Carvalho's when the fight-ending flurry began, who, after taking a few blows will implement an intelligent defence, earn a position of advantage over their opponent, and finish the fight themselves from there.

The referee must give a fighter the chance to work out of positions like the one Carvalho found himself in on Saturday. Much has been made of the nine unanswered blows a "helpless" Carvalho took before the fight was stopped, but in reality the stoppage took all of five seconds to occur, and though by the end of that time it was clear Carvalho had no recourse for improving his position, during the flurry he was at the very least making some effort to shield himself from the blows.

The stoppage itself was not a bad one, no matter how it might have appeared to some commentators.

At worst the kinds of pieces that were written last week are an insult not only to Carvalho and his friends and family, but to everybody who has worked to legitimise the sport of MMA globally for over 20 years.

The suggestion as made by Watterson that MMA "allows" for deaths like Carvalho's is categorically untrue. Every rule upon which the sport is based is there specifically to prevent deaths from occurring. This should be be obvious. The fact that the rules are designed to prevent death is what makes it a sport in the first place. It's what makes any sport a sport.

One of the most inane points regularly made in debates such as these is that, if you took away the rules and officiation from an MMA fight, the end game scenario would be one in which you have to kill your opponent. But this can be said of any sport.

Rules removed, there would be no better way to guarantee you score more goals than the opposing team in a football match than by putting their players out of action. An injured man can't hit a hole in one or run the 100 metres in under 10 seconds either.

At its core all sport is a metaphor for war, without the life and death stakes. It allows us to exercise our warrior instincts in a controlled environment.

One might argue that MMA flies too close to the sun in this respect, but then one must also say the same of sports such as boxing, Formula One racing, base-jumping and American football, all of which have produced more deaths than the five which have occurred in the history of sanctioned MMA bouts.

If there is an answer to the question of Carvalho's death, and it is not simply an incredible piece of bad luck, then every other sanctioned MMA bout to have occurred outside of those five is testament to the fact that it does not lie in the failure of the sport to be sufficiently safe.

This is why an autopsy and investigation are so important. We need our answer. Primarily for our own sense of closure, but also to stop some using the tragedy to frame the conversation about MMA in this country in a way that benefits nobody.

Joe Corcoran is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blue belt

Sunday Independent

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