Saturday 21 July 2018

Vincent Hogan: 'Dream of a better life' would have been a long-shot for Joao Carvalho

Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho (R), in the ring with Charlie Ward, before tragic death of the father of two Photo: Dave Fogarty
Portuguese MMA fighter Joao Carvalho (R), in the ring with Charlie Ward, before tragic death of the father of two Photo: Dave Fogarty
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Who was he then, what kind of man did that multiple of nicknames convey? In death, Joao Carvalho was bigger news than he ever threatened to be alive.

We took ownership of him without knowing him, using his tragedy as a soap-box for squalling arguments about the morality of what it is that cage-fighters do. In our world, it was just another wretched news story, demanding critical scrutiny.

But in a house somewhere on the outskirts of Lisbon, it was an exploding bomb.

Portugal's biggest daily newspaper, Correio da Manha, seemed no more familiar with Joao than we were. Their coverage of his death ran under a headline 'Lutador levou nove murros na cabeca', roughly translated as 'Fighter took nine blows to the head.' Of comments carried directly underneath the story, one word kept recurring.

"Vergonha, vergonha, vergonha . . ." raged one reader, repeating it more than 20 times. "Shame, shame, shame. . ."

But the line that most jarred, one carried in a front page sub-heading, stretched to just eight words. It read "leaves two children, ages seven and 12".

So we know that he was a father, a son, maybe a husband. We are told that his nicknames ran from 'Rafeiro' to 'Shaggy Dog' to 'The Mongrel' to the rather more peaceable 'Tweety'.

And we understand that he fought for the Nobrega team in Lisbon of which, it is probably fair to say, there are no budding UFC superstars.

Conor McGregor. Photo: Getty

Last Saturday's was Joao's third fight, his second defeat. All six Nobrega fighters have defeats on their records, most of them more than one. The "dream of a better life" that Conor McGregor referred to in his statement on Carvalho's death probably already looked a long-shot to those fighting out of the Nobrega gym.

So you can't help but wonder what was in Joao Carvalho's thoughts during those wretchedly bleak seconds as he slumped under the compound of Charlie Ward's unchallenged punches? The video is about as depressing a thing as you will access on the internet.

When the punishment ends, he sits up briefly, staring blankly out at the celebrating throng (children among them), before rolling gently down onto his back. At that moment, did he really see the cage as any kind of express lane to riches?

Was he troubled that he had disappointed people? Did he have an inkling that this was in any way different?

It has been made abundantly clear since that the organisers, Total Extreme Fighting, believe they fulfilled all medical obligations by having three doctors, a paramedic team and ambulance on site.

By any audit, that is a substantial presence and there seems no question that the care afforded to Joao once he took ill was anything but exemplary.

But you do have to ask what was going through those doctors' minds as they watched him, on hands and knees, take punches to the side of his head that it would have been evident from the Hubble telescope he was not in a position to defend against.

Did they not feel like firefighters being held behind a rope as the arsonist walked by with a petrol can?

I get it that Joao Carvalho was probably doing something that he loved. I also get that he would attribute zero blame to Ward. The one fight that Joao won, against Hugo Peixoto, ended pretty much the same way, a helpless opponent on the canvas, getting pounded until the referee stepped in.

So Charlie Ward did nothing that Joao Carvalho himself wouldn't have done in similar circumstances.

I get too that young men particularly can see something intoxicating in MMA, in the naked bravura of fighters from hard, inner-city gyms strutting like roosters into battle. I have a son who will stay up into the early hours to watch McGregor.

I can see why it engages some concept of national pride that one of 'us' might cause such a stir internationally. I can readily understand people getting goosebumps at the sheer theatre of his entrance, at the vast MGM in Las Vegas reverberating to Sinead O'Connor singing The Foggy Dew.

UFC in general and McGregor specifically are phenomenal marketing success stories, so much so a ban has just been lifted in New York State, apparently because of - among other things - the "economic upside".

Jose Aldo faces off against Conor McGregor

But there are regular rumblings about lesser-known fighters being treated poorly, rumblings that are met with routine hostility. When ESPN's Outside the Lines broadcast an exposé of poor fighter pay, UFC president Dana White described it as "a piece of trash".

The consensus of White and the UFC owners seems to be that any criticism of their product is somehow disingenuous and agenda-driven.

But if you can't see something repugnant in the image of a fallen, defenceless fighter being punched repeatedly to raucous, uninhibited approval, then I suggest your concept of a civilised society is hopelessly skewed.

True, professional boxing has had blood on its hands too over the years, as has motorcycle road racing, cross-country eventing and National Hunt. The issue of concussion is convulsing rugby right now, just as it has done American Football.

I, personally, competed in a sport - rallying - that carried pretty plain health risks (anything requiring the open display of competitor blood groups tends to concentrate the mind) and has been known to take the lives of drivers, co-drivers and spectators alike.

This isn't about turning the collar up against danger in sport. It is about questioning the open promotion of vicious instinct.

John Kavanagh. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Some months ago in an interview on TV3, John Kavanagh - Ward's coach and president of the Irish Amateur Pankration Association (a body now distancing itself from Saturday's show) - rejected any use of the word 'violence' in relation to MMA.

He dealt calmly with largely hostile questioning, but did pointedly concede in relation to concussion worries: "Trust me, that keeps me up at night."

With good reason too, you suspect. Read through the death certificates of lives lost in the cage and certain expressions are likely to keep repeating.

Like Sam Vasquez "complications of blunt trauma to the head. . ."

Like Michael Kirkham "subarachnoid hemorrhage of the brain. . ."

Like Booto Guylain "complications relating to swelling of the brain. . ."

This week's noise has largely been about the non-regulation of professional MMA fights in this country.

But what would regulation have done for Joao Carvalho? Put in writing an obligation to have thorough medical support in attendance when there is nothing to suggest that wasn't already there? Demand drug testing?

Despite MMA not being recognised as a sport by the Irish Sports Council, it still conducts tests of fighters on behalf of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Bigger gloves maybe?

Boxing adopted padded gloves not to protect the fighters' heads - as many mistakenly believe - but to protect their hands.


MMA doesn't need regulation half as much as it needs the onset of some intelligent self-awareness here. It needs to listen to the neurologists who have long been red-flagging the kind of spectacle that unfolded in Dublin's National Stadium last weekend and the all-too obvious threat of a palpably helpless opponent being struck repeatedly on the head.

Yesterday's Corrieo da Manha focused on the fact that Joao Carvalho had, naturally, signed a waiver of third party responsibility for what might happen him in the cage. No doubt, he understood the risks he was embracing, albeit scarcely imagining that those risks would return him to his family in a coffin.

A number of funds have been set up by Irish fans to support his family and I understand that the IAPA is covering the cost of returning his body to Portugal.

But will that be a conscience salved? Truly?

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport