ASK any Irish parent to name the sport they fear most, the one sport they would never allow their child to take up, and chances are they’ll say MMA.
Images of prone men being pummeled into submission, dragged away, semi-conscious, from the blood-stained canvas as their conqueror parades to a baying audience, have sent out a firm message to the mothers and fathers of the coming generation: This is a bloodsport, a violent free-for-all where thugs inflict damage on one another, and enjoy it.
That’s the narrative, that’s what we’ve been led to believe, and the tragic death of Joao Carvalho in Dublin in April merely reinforced that belief.
But far away from the rarified atmosphere of a Las Vegas UFC event, far away even, from the National Stadium in Dublin where Carvalho’s death shone an unwelcome light upon the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, exists an environment where scores of Irish people, young and old, male and female, regularly partake in MMA.
In this arena, no-one is pummeled, no blood is spilled, and no-one gets hurt. This is a safe, friendly setting, a place where martial arts’ enthusiasts meet to practise the sport they love. Some have aspirations of one day sampling that Vegas atmosphere but for most, MMA is a pastime, a passion, a way to unwind after a hard day’s work.
Run by Ger Healey, Limerick’s Sharkbait gym is as welcoming to new arrivals as it is to those who have been going there since it first opened its doors three years ago. And although it may have already produced fighters good enough to compete on the world stage, for Ger the focus will always be on educating and teaching those newcomers.
He is, however, aware of how uniquely daunting it is for those entering an MMA gym for the first time: “When new guys walk in – I know they’re apprehensive – there’s no-one going to bully you, that’s clearly stated. If I feel there’s intimidation going on, they’re gone, out the door.”
In addition to this no-nonsense attitude towards bullying comes a strict adherence to a set of rules and regulations designed to ensure maximum safety for all those enter the gym.
“The sparring we do here, it’s very restrictive, exceptionally restrictive,” says Ger.
Head-guards are worn, sessions are monitored, the emphasis is on safety; on learning the various techniques which go towards making up a sport consisting of far more than the head-strikes causing such consternation throughout the nation.
Thus far, this safety-first policy has served Ger well, “I’ve been involved in MMA for twelve years now and I’ve only seen two major injuries within everyone that’s trained with us. That would be something’s been broken.”
One of the most accomplished fighters to emerge from the Sharkbait gym is Thomas Moore from Dooradoyle.
Having spent four years being trained by Ger, the 23 year-old Computer Systems student is spending the summer at the Tristar gym in Canada, one of North America’s most renowned MMA centres. Thomas has ambitions of one day turning professional, and of gracing the same octagon as his countryman, Conor McGregor, but is realistic enough to know that should his dreams fail to materialise, he will need something to fall back on. With that in mind, he will return to Limerick in September to complete his studies.
For now though, his focus remains firmly fixed on MMA, a sport which he admits is “inherently violent”, but one which he believes has been unfairly portrayed in the Irish media.
“A fine line needs to be drawn between violence and danger, in my opinion. A sport can be violent, and yet be less dangerous than a sport that is less violent. This can be easily quantified by comparing injury rates across sports,” he says.
Thomas appreciates the challenge he and others face in changing the public’s perception of MMA and, in particular, of convincing parents that their children can safely participate in the sport.
“I would say to parents that MMA is nothing more than an amalgamation of all the martial arts they would have been practising otherwise. If that didn’t convince them, I would challenge them to critically analyse other popular contact sports and to explain why they are any less dangerous.”
A mother’s hardest, but best, decision
FIONA Ryan from Fedamore has analysed every single facet of MMA with all the fervour of a protective mother.
Three years ago her then 14-year old, son, Adam, announced that he wished to take up MMA. Fiona’s reaction was an understandable one: “Oh God, no. Straight up, no, no, no.”
But when, a year later, Adam’s interest hadn’t waned, and with the realisation that this wasn’t just a passing phase, Fiona decided to investigate the sport for herself. She researched MMA in great depth, contacted several local gyms and talked to those in the know. Ger Healey had, in her words, “the best credentials” of all those she spoke to, and so, despite it going against all of her maternal instincts, she allowed Adam to attend the Sharkbait gym.
Choosing the right gym and, in particular, the right people, was of paramount importance to Fiona; because not only was her son just 15 years old, he was also autistic.
Like a lot of children with autism, Adam had struggled socially. He’d found it difficult to interact with his peers, to make friends. He was a shy child who spent most of his time indoors watching television, or on his PlayStation. His concentration levels were poor which, in turn, affected his schoolwork. He was overweight and lacked confidence.
Since taking up MMA, he has undergone a rapid transformation.
“He’s much more confident,” says Fiona, who solely attributes the changes in her son to his time spent at the Sharkbait gym.
“He’s a lot more into fitness, health, diet. It’s given him a completely different outlook. It gives him something to focus on.”
This has had a knock-on effect in all aspects of Adam’s life.
“It helped deplete his stress levels when he was doing his Junior Cert,” says Fiona. Adam went on to get honours in every subject. He now has a wide circle of friends and plays other sports at school, but his main focus remains on MMA. He has been attending the Sharkbait gym for two years now and trains three days a week, but would go seven days “if he was allowed.”
Adam has a summer placement lined up in Planet Health and Fitness on the Childers Road, the first step towards what he hopes will be a career in fitness instruction.
But his dream remains a career in Mixed Martial Arts.
“Maybe I’ll be in the UFC some day, might get that big, or I might help Ger to train a fella, who knows?” he says.
Fiona fully supports her son’s ambitions, indeed so strong are her convictions she has even encouraged other mothers to let their children take up the sport.
“One asked me my opinion and I told her that I’d had these preconceptions it was like animals going in and beating the heads off one another, and it’s not, if you watch it, it’s an art, the techniques are unbelievable.” Fiona readily admits that allowing Adam to join an MMA gym was the “hardest decision of her life,” but now, having witnessed the benefits first-hand, she can also say that it was one of the best.