Long before Joao Carvalho expired on Monday night, the vultures were circling.
And as soon as news broke that the 28-year-old Portuguese mixed martial artist had passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a bout in Dublin’s National Stadium on Saturday night, they swooped.
In no time at all, social and mainstream media were filled with the empty-headed squawking of the ignorant and ill-informed – those whose need to be heard is always at its greatest when their expertise is at its most non-existent.
There were radio interviews and hot takes online, using words like “savagery”, “thuggery” and, in one utterly bizarre instance, “legalised killing” – needless to say, that particular article was among the most read.
One Irish radio station headlined their discussion “Death in the Cage,” the minor detail that Carvalho died in hospital some 48 hours later seemingly lost on them.
But then again, what use is knowledge, facts and informed opinion when you can have revulsion, ignorance and hyperbole instead?
Most laughable of all are the sports journalists who question whether or not MMA is a sport at all, a stance so archaic and pathetic at this point that it’s not even worth engaging with.
There are a lot of people who don’t like mixed martial arts. They find the violence, the blood, and in many cases the athletes themselves repulsive.
I get that.
Luckily, no-one is asking them to watch it, and fewer still who actually follow the sport have any interest in hearing the opinions of the uninitiated on it.
And while everyone is entitled to an opinion, no-one is entitled to their own facts.
Though a young and undeniably violent sport, mixed martial arts has so far proved to be no more dangerous than boxing, and it takes its responsibility to the athletes very seriously.
According to credible reports there were three doctors and seven medics at the National Stadium when Carvalho was injured – far more than I have ever seen in many nights spent at amateur boxing nights there in the nineties.
Big organisations such as the UFC regularly bar fighters from fighting for varying lengths of time following an injury, with particular attention paid to concussions.
The UFC – the flagship of organised MMA – also invests in research into head trauma and brain injury, as well as other injury-prevention programs in an effort to better understand what is happening and to protect its athletes.
Given the nature of the sport, the bar for stopping an MMA fight is undeniably set quite high, but it is also very simple – in all serious fighting organisations, the rules state that as soon as one of the combatants cannot “intelligently defend” themselves, the fight is over.
You will see or hear none of this from the vultures who use Carvalho’s death to advance their agenda against a sport they don’t understand and know little or nothing about.
To listen to them, you would think that Carvalho was the latest warrior to enter a graveyard filled to overflowing with the cadavers of young fighters.
Nothing could be further from the truth – does anyone really think that mixed martial arts would be experiencing such explosive growth if its participants were dying like flies?
That there is an enormous element of snobbery in the current wave of criticism should come as no surprise – the hoi polloi have never really understood the attraction of combat sports, the bizarre concoction of violence and chivalry, and what they term the bloodlust of the crowd.
They will tell you the participants are too stupid and too greedy to realise the dangers they are exposing themselves to; but at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, no-one knows more about the risk of fighting than the fighters themselves.
The commentariat reduce the audience to braying simpletons who just want to see blood fly.
That they might be intelligent people who actually understand what it is they are seeing – in contrast to the empty-headed rent-a-quotes that are invited on talk shows or to fill column inches – is a notion easily dismissed.
That the fans actually have a deep respect and appreciation for the participants, for their mentality and technical skill and toughness, is brushed aside in favour of the Colosseum narrative – give the proles blood and gore, it’s all they understand.
I have always been interested in boxing and martial arts, and first became interested in MMA after reading “A Fighter’s Heart” by Sam Sheridan.
The rise of Conor McGregor and the UFC in general in recent years is something that fascinates me, especially given the fact that the UFC was perilously close to bankruptcy on several occasions.
It is undoubtedly a brutal business, but one of the most breathtaking fights I have seen was between Rory McDonald and Robbie Lawler.
It was a bloody, thrilling, enthralling affair where McDonald had the upper hand and might have snatched a victory, but in the end the pain from yet another blow to an already-broken nose finally broke him, and the fight was stopped shortly afterwards.
Despite the fact that he lost, the respect I have for McDonald as a fighter and an athlete following that bout is enormous. He is quite simply one of the toughest men I’ve ever seen.
Nothing teaches you more about the effect of violence than getting punched in the face, and the paradox of fighting, and something often ignored, is that those who learn to fight often have the greatest respect for and awareness of the consequences of their actions.
There is little doubt that boxing and martial arts provide an excellent framework for young people to learn about themselves, in particular kids who might otherwise wind up on the wrong side of the tracks. MMA is no different.
In learning to fight to any competent degree, you also need to learn self-discipline, humility and respect for the craft and your opponent. If you don’t, sooner or later you’re likely to find yourself on the wrong end of a beating.
Paradoxically, by learning the damage one is capable of inflicting with one’s bare hands, many end up realising that, outside of competition, they never want to fight for real,
You don’t like the violence of MMA? Well, tough. There are plenty who do, and besides, the violence is only one part of what is a much more complex and layered sport.
There are plenty of people out there who find the pleated skirt of the tennis club, the creased slacks of the golf course or the rarified air of the Formula 1 pit lane equally provocative and repugnant, discriminating as they do against those who could never hope to afford to indulge in them as fans, let alone participants.
Not so the boxing and MMA gyms that will continue to spring up in the cities and the suburbs.
Fighting is, and always has been, rooted in the experience of the working class and the unemployed, from the National Stadium in Dublin and the dirt-floored Thai boxing rings of Bangkok to the Madison Square Garden and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
It provides the hierarchies, the discipline and the framework that many need to achieve their potential, in most cases without imposing a glass ceiling on them. If you’re good enough, and you work hard enough, you can progress, regardless of your accent or your education.
Despite the stated desire of the empty talking heads, mixed martial arts is not going away, and as such it is badly in need of further comprehensive research and strict regulation.
The death of any young athlete is an enormous tragedy, for his or her family, their friends and their sport.
But it is a profound insult to the memory of Joao Carvalho to suggest that he did not know what he was doing, or that he should not have been doing it.
He chose to be a warrior, he fought bravely and tragically, he paid the ultimate price.
His memory will not be honoured by banning the sport he gave his life for, or by denigrating those who practice or watch it, or by listening to the empty waffle of the dull and ignorant.
Instead, we owe it to him, and the current and coming generations of warriors, to make combat sports as safe as they can possibly be, while still retaining our respect and admiration for the fighter’s heart.