The Tragedy of MMA: What the death of Joao Carvalho must make us see

A tragedy has recently rocked the world of modern mixed martial arts. Joao Carvalho suffered a technical knockout at the hands of Charlie Ward, a teammate of the more well known Connor Mcgregor. The 28 year old Carvalho suffered brain injuries and was rushed to hospital, but later died. In a statement Carvalho’s coach said:

The incident has already divided groups on social media, some calling the death a tragic accident, and others baying for MMA to face stricter rules or even an outright ban.

My personal opinions on MMA are divided. On the one hand, I think that the advent of the sport has been a good thing for the martial arts world. It has acted effectively as a litmus test for poor quality martial arts teaching and techniques and has rooted out many of the so called “mcdojos” that sprung up in the wake of the martial arts boom in the 70’s and 80’s. Moreover, MMA has broken down much of the inter school rivalry and, in many cases, outright fascism that used to be commonplace. Many schools would not let you train in other styles of martial arts, considering it a form of disloyalty. Thanks to MMA, martial arts culture is now a much more open, honest and objective community than it once was.

That said, not everything that MMA has brought with is has been pretty, this being just the latest (in my opinion inevitable) tragedy that has come about as a result. One of the first things that went out of the door with mixed martial arts was humility. Now that’s not to say that there are no instances of good sportsmanship in mixed martial arts, simply that that those instances of MMA fighters making objectionable comments and moves completely overshadows them. To blame this on MMA, however, would be a mistake. The actual problem lies with the fight promoters, the people who set up and pay out for mixed martial arts events, the most well known of these, of course, being the UFC. The problem lies in the way these fight promoters present the matches, as personality contests and grudge matches. Did any of you watch wrestling as a kid? the fake stuff? it’s the same idea, creating a narrative with good guys and bad guys that get’s the audience invested in the character’s journeys. However, because the fighters get paid better when they win, many go out of their way to be as brutal and violent in the octagon as possible. It is in their financial interest, and also the interest of the sponsors but neither of those are in fact the true driving force. No the driving force is the fans, the people who go and bay for blood at these fights. It’s actually quite a terrifying transformation to see, as civilized grown men and women scream for blood or for one fighter to permanently injure or even kill another.

Well the crowd’s wish has finally been fulfilled and a young man has tragically lost his life. Fight promoters will claim this is a tragic but isolated incident, but it is more than that. It is indicative of the kind of emotions that you allow people to express when you put them in the MMA situation, dark, violent and terrifyingly uninhibited.

Now am I saying that mixed martial arts should be banned? or that the number of legitimate techniques should be reduced for safety? no, I don’t. The people who get up into the Octagon do so of their own free will, knowing exactly what they are getting in to. It is the job of fight promoters to ensure this, and in the case of Joao Carvalho both fighters were experienced martial artists who knew what the score was. I think that on top of that, MMA can be good fun, and equips people with some fantastic martial arts skills. What has to change is the mentality of the consumers. If we start viewing fighters with the respect they deserve as human beings, and stop buying in to the story and the trash talking and all the rest of it, doesn’t the whole affair become a lot more civilised? In many other sports the bad behavior commonly exhibited by MMA fighters would be punished with fines and suspensions, but bad behavior is encouraged by MMA fight promoters for their own financial gain. What kind of role models or public figures are grown adults that engage in petty disputes, pushing matches and frankly puerile and unnecessarily aggressive behavior both inside and outside the octagon.

So the next time you walk in to an MMA gym, or face your opponent across the octagon or even sit down to watch a fight, remember that mixed martial artists are people. They are not superhumans, or above the rules of common decency and respect. Nor do they deserve to be treated as gladiators to be pushed to greater acts of violence for your pleasure. They have families, wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers all of which they want to see again at the end of the day. Unfortunately this is something that Joao Carvalho will never be able to do again. Our thoughts are with his family and friends, and while we hope that this does not kill the sport that he enjoyed, we hope also that it makes people re-assess what is important in sports, sportsmanship and the people that we hold up as role models.



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