IMMAF on the move – progress report from Ireland

The International MMA Federation has worked diligently since February 2012 to develop the sport of MMA worldwide. Part of that task is securing safe governance and representation of MMA through the foundation of national federations. Earlier this year the first World Championships in Amateur MMA was announced and will take place in Las Vegas July 2014. In a series of interviews we have talked to some of the national federations to hear about their progress this past year and what preparations are made for getting a national team in place to compete in Las Vegas. This week we turn our heads towards Ireland and MMAFI Director Danny Corr.

The Mixed Martial Arts Federation of Ireland (MMAFI) was one of the first national MMA federations to gain full political support when on 13th of March an unprecedented meeting took place between representatives of the MMAFI and the Minister in charge of sport, Carál Ní Chuilín. What happens now? And what does it mean in practical terms for the sport in Ireland?

We were very proud and excited by the fact that Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure agreed to meet us to discuss the future of Amateur MMA in Ireland. However we were encouraged and even surprised that the Minister was so educated and up to date on what our sport is and more importantly what it has to offer. The Minister spoke first hand of her own child’s positive experience within martial arts and how it was a fantastic sport to develop self-confidence, social interaction and more importantly how it was a sport that was blind to race, colour or creed, something the Minister is keen to promote. In practical terms this means that as MMAFI works intensely to build clubs, coach education and grassroots development, knowing that the Minister and her department will give us as much support as required to see this massive job through.

Can you tell us a bit about the journey behind that meeting with the Minister?

The journey was made easier by the fact that the MMAFI were able to gain the support of Belfast City Councillor Stephen Corr. Stephen has an open mind and a great vision for where sports and organisations like ours can become strong community entities. Stephen does not just take the stereotypical view that is often labelled to martial arts and particularly to MMA; he can see the benefit it has on our young people, who can relate to such an exciting sport. As a man who works tirelessly with community groups he knew that our intentions were honourable and as such he helped us engage the highest political support in meeting the Minister. I can tell you that the work in the background is difficult and often very time consuming. The core team consists of a few people who all work full-time, have families and run their own martial arts gyms, and sometimes you wonder is it all worth it. However that thought disappears when you see the amazing unified support there is in Ireland for the MMAFI. I am sure there is no other country who can say that every MMA coach in the country is behind the venture, and we can. Our initial goals were to gain that support; and with the help of some very experienced and well respected coaches and officials that support came quickly. I really would like to name every coach in Ireland here but that would take up the rest of the interview! However I would like to personally thank the Irish MMA community for coming together so easily and genuinely, something other sports and bodies in this country can only dream of.

Since gaining IMMAF membership in June 2012 what have been your other goals over your first year?

Some of our goals in the first year included sourcing out courses and qualifications that will clean up MMA, courses that we can offer to genuine coaches to assist in building a safer sport. The basics are often by-passed in this sport, so as an example we have developed alongside qualified paramedics a unique First Aid for Martial Arts Course. We have already rolled out the first of these courses qualifying some 20 plus individuals and we are about to embark on a second course over the next week to qualify another 20 individuals.  Gaining governing body status from the government is perhaps the most difficult aspect as it is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario but we are well on our way down that road and hope to have all our requirements in place very soon.

How big is MMA in Ireland?

MMA is huge in Ireland and gaining momentum weekly. This is both a blessing and a curse. Of course we want the sport to grow and flourish and we want to see more Conor McGregors and Norman Parkes flourish in the biggest events in the world. However, we want to ensure that MMA at grassroots level is safe, regulated and recognised. At the moment anyone can open a gym without recourse, although we encourage development and if a new or existing club wants to develop we will be there to help. We will provide access to training and development but equally if a club refuses the help or is not acting safely and responsibly then we will have the backing of the Irish MMA community to take appropriate action. Safety is our priority.

How many gyms and promotions are there? 

There are probably upwards of 80-100 gyms at the minute and we are in the process of sanctioning those gyms, through recognition of grades, experience, health and safety etc. Promotions wise we have currently recognised a number of promotions, namely Clan Wars, Battlezone, Chaos and Rumble in Rush. We have also sanctioned the following individuals as MMAFI sanctioned officials: Dave Jones, Peter Lavery, Dec Larkin, Jonny Shiels and Aidan Marron. We have also taken the unique step in sanctioning a Cuts Team for all events in Joe Clifford and his team. All of this will promote safety and a better arena for Irish MMA.

How was your creation and subsequent affiliation with the IMMAF received by the MMA gyms and promotions?

Of course at the start the natural reaction is, “Here we go… another so called governing body just here to make things difficult.” However, over time I hope and believe that feeling has disappeared. Certainly the growing support the body is receiving suggests that. We have still a long, long way to go but I am encouraged that we are well ahead of the game and in a good place to move forward.

What have been some of the biggest challenges and obstacles in the first year?

That’s simple …Time. As I mentioned earlier, none of us are doing this as our sole project. The work put in is in between our commitments of family, work and club. So although we have moved a long way since its inception, getting the time to do everything is the biggest hurdle. However I believe the Irish MMA community recognises that the MMAFI is a necessity now, so the time will be found, for sure. Who needs sleep anyway?!

When you compare your achievements to your original goals for the first year, how do they match-up?

The progress we have seen in a very short space of time is astounding. At the outset I wasn’t even sure that a body like this was going to be accepted, but where we are now is amazing. The support, offers of support and the shear momentum has been fantastic.

Are there any areas in which you had to change direction and what were the causes?

Without a doubt this is a very fluid undertaking and compromise is key. We are all fairly new to this, so we have had to move in different directions throughout the process. Probably the announcement of the World Championships was a game changer for us, but a good game changer and one we have grasped with both hands. However, as you will see we moved very fast and as a result, with the amazing partner Clan Wars, we will be hosting the first ever Ulster Championships on the 24th of November to crown the Ulster Champion in each weight category. These champions will then go on to face the champions from Munster, Leinster and Connacht to crown the first ever Irish Champions. These Champions will form a very strong team for the World Championships in Las Vegas.

What are you working on at the moment and what are your current goals and projects?

All of the above. Our main goal is to get to a stage where a Governing Body is rubber stamped by the sports councils in Ireland and this is no mean task. However no-one can argue with the unified voice of Irish MMA and that is what we have. Our goals include recognising and providing appropriate training to all willing coaches. No-one will be excluded from such training but willingness is key! Holding our first regulated elections for officers is our next goal,  defining roles and responsibilities and developing a new constitution that will be our source of assistance and regulation.