Thursday 14 December 2017

Could Conor McGregor represent Ireland at the Olympics in the future?

Could Conor McGregor carry the Irish flag at an opening ceremony for the Olympics?
Could Conor McGregor carry the Irish flag at an opening ceremony for the Olympics?

Mark Staniforth

Lutalo Muhammad is convinced mixed martial arts will one day be afforded Olympic status in the wake of Conor McGregor's high-profile bout with Nate Diaz in Las Vegas on Saturday night.

The Great Britain taekwondo star has been steeped in the history of combat sports since an early age and says the surge in interest in MMA is something to be both welcomed and admired.

McGregor's ultimately unsuccessful bid to beat Diaz could come to be seen as a breakthrough moment for a sport which has generated billions yet struggled to establish a foothold in conventional media markets.

Now the sport's ambitious officials have made clear their desire to push for Olympic inclusion within the next decade, with Ultimate Fighting Championship co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta telling the BBC last month: "Where we're going with UFC, eventually we (MMA) will be part of the Olympics."

The startling rise in the popularity of combat sports in general has been underlined by frequent arena sell-outs for world title boxing matches, and events such as Monday's opening of GB Taekwondo's new £2.7m training facility in Manchester.

The 24-year-old Muhammad qualified a quota place for Rio by winning the World Grand Prix finals in Mexico in December, and is now focused on recovering from knee surgery in order to better the bronze medal he won at London 2012.

Given Muhammad's exceptional knowledge of the history of martial arts, it is no surprise that he should be such a passionate advocate of the hybrid MMA, which merges elements of boxing, wrestling, taekwondo and Brazilian ju-jitsu.

Muhammad told Press Association Sport: "I think mixed martial arts is brilliant - it's exciting and entertaining and it seems to make a lot of sense that it will be included in the Olympics one day.

"In the past there would be this tunnel vision where you would always pit one martial art was pitted against another, but with MMA we have begun to realise the purest expression is found in an amalgamation in which you take the best bits from each."

Muhammad, who was at the centre of an Olympic selection storm in 2012 when he was picked over his then GB team-mate and world number one Aaron Cook, is favourite to pip Damon Sansum to the men's -87kg berth in Rio.

A keen fan of boxing and Muhammad Ali in particular, he stressed that while his focus remains solely on the sport to which he was introduced by his father at the age of four, MMA represents an intriguing future alternative.

"I've always considered myself a martial artist first and an athlete second," added Muhammad. "I absolutely love all the martial arts and there are many things I admire about ju-jitsu and boxing that I would love to try.

"I guess you can never say never but right now my goals are very much in taekwondo. My talent is with my legs and my kicking ability and I am convinced that I am going to go to Rio and win that Olympic gold medal."

The National Taekwondo Centre was formally opened by World Taekwondo Federation president Dr Chungwon Choue on Monday at a ceremony involving Olympic champion Jade Jones and world champion Bianca Walkden.

Choue said: "Since London 2012 the Great Britain athletes have continued to do a wonderful job in qualifying for the Games in Rio. This new facility can only serve to help them achieve their goals."

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