‘Legalised GBH for for Neanderthal Morons.’
These are all labels that have been placed on mixed martial arts (MMA), a sport that has been rapidly gaining popularity in this country in recent years.
We can’t have people just coming out of nowhere, getting into a cage and bating the head off one another – that’s not how it works… I don’t think people understand that until they come here and see it and see how much people love it.
These are not the words of a seasoned fighter like the two-title-winning Irish champion Conor McGregor, they came from 17-year-old Tallaght boy Kian Tate who takes MMA classes and trains at Straight Blast Gym’s newest facility in his neighbourhood.
He was one of 46 teenagers at a class taught by former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Paddy Holohan.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie at his gym this week, he insists that the safety of his fighters is the number one priority.
“Even as a fighter against another fighter, it’s never really your idea to hurt the guy,” he says.
“Now maybe to sell the fight or whatever [you act like that], but at the end of it you have this certain bond with your partner, your opponent, that you’ll never get from something else.”
At his Monday afternoon class, with what he refers to as his “chimps” (children aged 7 to 9), he makes all of the children sit down on the mat so he can emphasise his point.
“Make sure your partner’s going to be alright and that nobody gets hurt, that’s the most important thing,” he tells them.
Criticism of the sport was particularly strong after the death of Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho in April last year. He was critically injured at an MMA event in Dublin. Writing in The Guardian in the aftermath of Carcalho’s death, CEO of the UK brain injury non-profit Headway Peter McCabe said:
When the objective is to render opponents senseless by kicking and punching them in the head, it is no surprise when someone is seriously hurt and sustains fatal neurological damage.
For the young people who train weekly at SBG Tallaght, comments like these are a cause of frustration.
“People from the outside think it’s so dangerous. It’s kind of annoying where we’re coming from. We understand all the regulations and if it’s not sanctioned it is going to be dangerous,” Tate says.
He has been training in MMA for less than a year but his face lights up when he talks about it.
“I love every part of it, I can’t get enough. I train with the adults as well, I’m down here every day except Fridays. You learn so much.”
“People talk about it being really rough, but when you train in it you know it isn’t,” adds 15-year-old Jamie McCarthy who is also in the class.
He makes reference to a recent Premier League match during which Hull City midfielder Ryan Mason fractured his skull in a clash with a Chelsea defender: “He got injured but they’re not trying to put a ban on football.”
Fifteen-year-old Emma Yeats was looking for a new hobby that would challenge her when she heard about SBG Tallaght. She said before she started classes, no one in her family even thought about MMA.
“I was the one to introduce it to my house and my mam doesn’t like it at all, and neither does my dad. They’re still really supportive – my mam came to my first Jujitsu fight – so it’s not like they don’t approve, I think they’d just prefer I was doing something like football,” she said.
‘It can be easy to misinterpret it’
Holohan believes MMA is an easy target and describes many of the comments about it as “ill-informed”.
“If you don’t know what’s going on, you don’t understand the levels of respect that go on and the grassroots of it coming all the way up, it can be easy to misinterpret it,” he explains.
Not to attack the sport of boxing, I know a good bit about boxing, but if you look at Bernard Dunne, he fought for his world title and he was basically knocked out and then stood back up. I read his book and I remember reading about that moment and he was saying he didn’t really know what was going on so he got back up off the canvass and then he’s going back in to fight. In MMA, if you came close to anything like that and the ref is qualified and seeing that, the fight is over – stopped straight away.
The Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA), headed up by McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh, has been meeting with Sport Ireland in recent months to lobby for proper regulation of the sport.
The body was established in March last year and although it has no legal powers, Kavanagh told TheJournal.ie that “the vast majority” of active MMA clubs are now a part of the association.
“As a group, we’ve done things like we have an insurance policy that all clubs can avail of that’s specifically for MMA. We are also going through the process so we can do garda vetting for coaches of juniors and vulnerable adults,” he continued.
The problem now, he said, is that without recognition of the sport and the official regulations that would follow, “anybody can run an MMA event on a Saturday night and the could run it to whatever standard they see fit”.
‘I feel much calmer’
At amateur level, out of the spotlight and without promoters or pay-per-view figures, the young people who train in MMA speak openly about the positive changes they have seen in themselves since they started.
Kian Tate laughs as he recalls his “hothead” tendencies before he became involved in mixed martial arts. “I used to always get myself into little scraps, and I started watching UFC when I was about 12 and loved it. Since I started this I feel much calmer, it’s a good way to release stress or whatever.
I was never proper fighting with my ma and da, but there were silly things we’d argue about and it’s not like that really anymore. I still have focus on school and all but I think about this all the time, I just love it.
“Before, your ma would threaten to take your Playstation off you if you were acting up, now they’re threatening not to let you go training,” 15-year-old Jamie McCarthy jokes.
“The amount of kids here that have come in shy and literally this has changed their well-being, I think. A lot of teachers, the parent-teacher meetings have just gone and they came back and said: ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it’,” Holohan says.
If you look at society today, kids communicate through headphones and computer games and texts and stuff like that. It’s very rare that you will see a group of kids actually just in a group without a ball, without any other accessories, just kinda playing and contacting with each other, you know?
“We do a lot to do with self-respect and honour and bravery and a lot of words are thrown around loosely these days so I make sure the kids understand what these words mean and when you do things that go against you, what you lose,” he adds.
That process is beginning at a young age for Holohan’s ‘chimps’.
Cian Warren is just nine years old and in conversation TheJournal.ie after his class, he speaks about having dreams for his future and wanting to achieve them.
What does he like about Conor McGregor? That the Irish fighter “never gives up”.
The kids all look up to McGregor, he is their idol (“an inspiration”, according to 17-year-old Tate).
And it’s not just the fame, the suits, the lifestyle.
“We all know that with money comes hard work,” 16-year-old Sarah Carney begins.
“He wouldn’t have got where he was without working hard, you don’t just wake up one day great at it.”
McGregor, who spent years out of the spotlight training while he collected the dole, has influenced and inspired them, according to 15-year-old McCarthy: “Look at the ages the others before us were when they started. We’re still young, so we’re years ahead. Imagine what we could do.”
Video by Nicky Ryan