Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In defence of MMA and other nasty sports

For fight fans in Ireland, this week should have been the celebration of a UFC promotion but instead there's been an unedifying spat between fans and a radio station.

As a former fighter, it's hard for me to accept some people just don’t understand the ecstasy of winning an organised sporting fight. For them there’s no difference between smashing a beer bottle on someone’s head and winning a title belt. It’s all violence innit?

We do need to talk about risks in sport - concussion in rugby or NFL, ‘handbags’ in GAA** or uneven match-ups in combat sports.

However, on Monday when victorious MMA fighter Cathal Pendred went on national radio at TodayFM, he was clearly expecting a fun interview. He’d won the biggest fight of his career at UFC Fight Night Dublin, and in Ireland we love sporting success. Usually.

Pendred was struggling financially before the fight, a fight he almost lost. But he found what Thai trainers call ‘Jai Suu’ or fighting heart. He battled back. Job done. Bills paid. Great story. 

The interview started with Pendred explaining his relatively unknown sport. Then presenter Ray D'Arcy talked about 'unbridled violence' and there was this: 

“You're a bright guy. How do you feel about people paying money, rich people sponsoring the sport etc, to watch you and another man fight to the point of, not injury but you’ve got a black eye and your nose looks like you fell off a bike at speed.”

There’s the germ of a serious social discussion here - so many boxers are from difficult backgrounds and fighting is their escape. Is that right? I’ve seen too many Thai fighters change their lives in the ring to say it’s not. Are they often exploited because of their lack of education? Yes. Should we talk about this? Yes, definitely.

That wasn't the aim here. Pendred handled it very well, even cracking jokes when one listener recommended an MMA book to D'Arcy. There were no fireworks.

Unfortunately the online reaction hasn’t been restrained or respectful. Some keyboard warriors have played right into the manic stereotypes with derogatory (even defamatory) comments about the presenter.

I was saddened by the interview to be honest.

In Ireland rugby, GAA and soccer dominate sports pages and programmes. Golf has had a look in this week thanks to Rory McElroy, but in general it’s all about the conformity of the team.

This was a chance to celebrate an Irish victory on the national airwaves. And in a country facing rising rates of obesity and alcoholism, this was a chance to celebrate a sporting role model. A chance missed.

The only silver lining was how other media outlets jumped on the controversy (like I'm doing) and offered more air to fighters like Pendred and stablemate Conor McGregor. 

LISTEN to the interview here, it starts at about 36 mins in.

** for American readers - that's when two teams whale on each other instead of the ball! All in good fun apparently...

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