ARENA Vale Tudo was Ireland’s first ever mixed martial arts event. Held in Moyross Community Centre and put on by Limerick man and Pankration Kickboxing head coach, Dermot McGrath, in September 1999 the first five champions across five weight divisions were crowned in Ireland.
Already a black belt in karate and plying his trade as a coach in Pankration (previously Black Sun Martial Arts), after purchasing UFC 2 from HMV McGrath knew that MMA, or Vale Tudo as it was commonly referred to at the time, was the future of combat sports.
Taking the techniques he saw utilized in UFC and using them in training, McGrath further explored variations of the sport including Japanese shoot fighting – contests with predetermined results that showcased similar grappling techniques that could be used effectively in live sparring.
“So we had trained with a lot of these techniques from catch wrestling, shoot fighting and obviously UFC, but by 1999 there were still no opportunities to compete in Ireland,” explained McGrath.
“We decided to run this tournament which probably would’ve been the same as some of the old C-Class rules fights from the early Irish scene. There would be 8-ounce gloves, shin pads and mats on the floor.
“There were no headshots on the ground, no knees and no elbows. We called it amateur Vale Tudo. That became the first ARENA event and because it was the first event of it’s kind in the country we didn’t want anything too severe to happen.
“Some of the contestants knew nothing about the techniques their opponents would be bringing to the table – they were basically testing their martial art. Some of the guys had no ground work at all, once they were taken down they had no idea what was going on.
“We didn’t use elbows, and knees were only allowed to the body, because we didn’t want people to get too badly hurt the first time we tried it out.”
McGrath also felt that the event should be competed without spectators. Given that it was the first event that would pit different martial arts styles against one another, the Limerick coach wanted to test the waters first before bringing in an audience.
“We all had seen UFC 1 and Gerard Gordeau kicking Teila Tuli’s tooth out and we didn’t want that happening in front of an Irish crowd the first time around. So I figured we’d see how it went. The only spectators that were there were from the clubs, and there was probably somewhere around 50 people in the hall as well as the competitors.”
With no concise record of the event in place, McGrath recalled there being 12 or 13 different contestants on the day, including a man commonly referred to as ‘The Godfather of Irish MMA’, John Kavanagh.
The other contestants were made up from various different gyms including Dave Joyce’s Muay Thai club in Galway, Waza Kai Ju Jitsu and McGrath’s Pankration Kickboxing, who all were vying for titles across five weight divisions.
“John won both of his matches by armbar inside the first couple of minutes to win the -70kg division, so he was the first Irish lightweight champion. He beat Dave Joyce in one of the fights, he made it look pretty easy.
“I remember John brought a lot of his students down and one of them was actually videoing the show. When I originally advertised the event, I think it was probably in Irish Fighter or something like that, he was the first entry that I received.”
Kavanagh discussed the event in the lead up to July 19’s UFC Dublin. Having competed two times previously in the UK before the event, the SBG head coach remembered going into the ARENA tournament as a man with a target on his back.
“I had a name going in because I had fought once or twice in England, that made me a veteran,” Kavanagh told UFC magazine. “We had to leave fairly swiftly after it too because our (bus) started to get hit by rocks.”
Then a Pankration Kickboxing proponent Darren Whelan, a recent European BJJ champion who now is a student under Fergal Quinlan at BJJ Revolution, claimed victory in the first ever MMA fight in Ireland by armbar at the Moyross event in 1999.
After the first tournament went quite well behind closed doors, McGrath went on to put on two more events. The second ARENA event was held in Limerick again, but this time in St John’s Pavilion in March 2000, and third took place the following June.
“We did three events in total. We stopped after the third one because it wasn’t that well supported,” said McGrath. “I booked it in the summer time, the June bank holiday weekend and I didn’t take that into consideration at the time.
“The second event was probably the biggest one. We had a lot of fighters competing at the event and we had a huge crowd packed into St John’s Pavilion to watch it. So again, it was in Limerick but for the second one the fights took place in a boxing ring.
“It was sold out, but the problem at the time was that no one understood the ground game. A lot of the other martial artists that came to the event thought that as soon as it hit the ground, the fight would be stood up.
“I was refereeing on the night as well as doing the promotion. People were shouting ‘stand them up ref’, throughout the bouts – there was a huge prejudice against it.
“Other instructors even had a problem with me training people to fight on the ground. They told me that it would ‘take away from the art side of it’. I still don’t know what that means! They’d say ‘there are no mats on the street’ and stuff like that.
“To make things easier we explained all the rules at the start of the event when it was starting, just for the benefit of the spectators. The ‘stand them up’ stuff is still around today, so it was no real surprise in hindsight.
“While it’s more of a lack of understanding now, I think back then the other martial arts were a bit threatened by it. The same people who were annoyed about it back then are doing grappling training now.
“Another thing about the second event was that people were expecting to see the head-butts and the elbows and knees that they saw in the first UFC events. They wanted to see the violent side of it with bareknuckles and everything else.”
Although ARENA’s third event didn’t attract the numbers that the second show did, in the end it was McGrath’s coaching responsibilities that got in the way of him continuing the groundbreaking promotion.
“After the third one it kind of wasn’t worth continuing anyway, but I was just getting my own gym off the ground at the time and I was trying to turn my passion into a profession.
“The events were kind of standing in the way of me making a decent living, so something had to give. After that a lot of people started to put on shows so there wasn’t the need for the ARENA shows that made us do it in the first place.
“Only when I think about it now, with how big the Irish MMA scene is, do I realize how crazy it was that they were the first events. It was really exciting and we were just doing it for the love of the sport, just for the experience of it.
“We didn’t care if we made money off it, the goal was to break even. We just wanted to see it get off the ground. It was quite an experience,” he remembered.
Having been a full time martial arts coach since his early twenties, McGrath could only see himself returning to the promotional side of the sport if he had a lot of his own team from Pankration Kickboxing wanting to compete.
Unbeaten atomweight Catherine Costigan, perhaps the most famous student of McGrath’s, was instrumental in the running of the ARENA shows even back then. Given the small window of time MMA athletes have to make their mark on the sport, McGrath is focusing on the career of ‘The Alpha Female’, before he thinks about doing anything else outside of coaching.
“Right now I’ve got other things to do. I would only do another event in Limerick if I had a load of people from my gym competing. If they needed a show to compete on I think that’s the only way it could happen.
“BattleZone were thinking of putting one on in Limerick for a while. Last year they were looking at putting on one with Catherine headlining against some girl from the Ukraine. That never came to fruition but I’m sure it would’ve been a great event.
“I’m kind of too busy at the moment to go back and put on shows. I’ve got a lot going on with the business and then Catherine’s career is all go at the moment – the time just isn’t there to put on a show.”
Finally McGrath commented on how he sees the Irish scene continuing to grow due to the current success of the Irish fighters under the UFC banner.
“I can see it exponentially growing over the next few years,” insisted McGrath. “I think this sport is unique – boxing had it’s time. I know the UFC has its problems, but still, if you’re the UFC champion, you’re the best guy in the world.
“All the promotion, the marketing, the packaging – it’s all part of it. You’ve been to the shows, it’s like a factory production line the way it’s put on – it’s beautiful to watch these shows.
“One guy comes out to some music, then the next guy comes in and then a fight happens. All the screens light up with the images and as soon as the fight is over the loser goes out of the cage and the interviewer comes in, does what he has to do and then the next fight is on.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s very tough to do that sort of thing so well. I think with these types of things in place, it can only get bigger.
“You know, my mother saw Conor McGregor on the Late Late Show, and that’s when you know things have changed quite a bit. When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier the first time, a reporter came all the way from Israel to see it. Someone asked him – ‘why are you coming all the way here from Israel to cover this fight?’
“The reporter said, ‘My 90 year old grandmother asked me who was going to win – Ali or Frazier. When she was asking me who was going to win in a boxing match I knew it was important.’
“I think MMA is going through a similar thing. Everyone knows about this now because of Conor and them guys and I think it’s going to just keep growing.”
Thanks to Daniel Leahy for the newspaper picture scans
You can check out previous editions of “Foundations” of Irish MMA here