MMA & Sport Recognition Update: Interview with IMMAF CEO Densign White

What is the current status of IMMAF’s application for sport recognition for MMA?

IMMAF first applied to the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) for recognition of MMA as a sport by the Olympic movement, back in 2016. Progress since then has been fraught with obstructions, about-turns, new demands, delays and lack of transparency. IMMAF meets all known criteria, excepting WADA (World Anti-doping Agency) signatory status – despite being compliant to the WADA Code. We have jumped through every new hoop they have asked us to. Then in 2018, we were told by a GAISF administrator that our application had been lost and we would have to reapply. After much administrative back-and-forth, our second application was formally rejected in March 2019 without adequate explanation, and we reapplied for Observer Status.

At the end of last year, GAISF wrote to its members asking them to formally communicate any objections to MMA being recognised. Although we have had many conversations with GAISF and recognised martial arts’ representatives, and know other martial arts to be obstructing our application, no issues had ever been officially raised by them.

GAISF wrote in January, this year, to inform us that they had received responses from combat sports, who they declined to name, and cited their issue with us as being “non-compatibility” – a term that had not been raised to us before.

Despite the vagueness of this accusation and GAISF’s failure to provide any further definition, we responded in February, as requested, providing an analysis of the differences and similarities between MMA and the other combat sports/ martial arts governed by GAISF Members.

We expressed our surprise at the “compatibility” issue, considering the many similarities in the rules between various recognised sports. For example: Basketball, Netball and Korfball; Tennis and Soft Tennis; Bandy and Ice Hockey among others

Furthermore, Savate, Muay Thai And Kickboxing all consist of striking the opponent with the hands and the legs, all using a boxing style ring as their field of play. Judo, Sambo and Ju-Jitsu (Ne Waza/Groundwork Discipline) are combat sports played with a gi (or kimono) where the objective is to throw, control or submit an opponent (with some differences in the pointing system).  Read my full letter here

[To support our case, we also provided a presentation defining Amateur MMA in the context of martial arts and combat sports recognised by GAISF.]

We have since received a response from GAISF with an attempt to define ‘compatibility’. Apparently, GAISF changed its statutes at some point to replace ‘rivalry’ with non-compatibility’ as grounds for rejecting new member applications. We were not informed of this, though we had already addressed GAISF’s allegation of rivalry by merging with ‘rival’ international governing body for MMA, WMMAA, in 2018. Shockingly, we discovered afterwards that WMMAA had never even applied for membership to GAISF. Now this new criterion clearly gives wider scope for abuse and discrimination without good grounds.

IMMAF was hoping for a decision to made about its Observer Status application at the GAISF Council Meeting during the SportAccord Convention. You were also hoping for the opportunity for meetings with GAISF representatives. Now the Convention has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 epidemic, what do you expect to happen next?

We don’t know when the GAISF Council meeting will happen now, but we can expect further delay in the light of the pandemic. GAISF, no doubt, has a number of other matters on its plate, such as the postponement of the Olympic Games.

What is the current status of IMMAF’s legal case against WADA (World Anti-doping Agency) ?

IMMAF has been seeking WADA Code signatory status for the past 4 years. This would not only protect our athletes from doping but also promote MMA as Code compliant, a requirement of sport recognition. However, WADA has refused our application as it requires the support of GAISF. IMMAF’s only course of action was to challenge this. We went to court earlier this year in Lausanne. The case was postponed in order to give us time to put together our witnesses. WADA asked for the case to be thrown out since the Code is due to be changing in January 2021 to allow WADA to make its own independent decisions about signatory applications, without outside influence from the Olympic or sport movement. This of course will be nice when it happens sometime next year, but there is no guarantee that this will help us.  We are still waiting for them to do what they should have already done 4-years ago.

IMMAF is extremely frustrated by the inconsistency of WADA’s decision-making process on who is accepted as a Code signatory. It has also come to my attention that WADA has accepted 3 different international federations for Taekwondo, a decision which must be influenced by GAISF since according to WADA they cannot currently make such a decision independently. This surely undermines GAISF’s arguments against MMA. While we worked hard to solve the so-called WMMAA rivalry through a merger, we have also seen two federations accepted for Rugby. Why is MMA being treated differently? The whole thing is so full of contradictions.

Meanwhile, MMA has been legalized in France under French Boxing. What is IMMAF’s relationship like with French boxing?

The development of governance of MMA in France is going well, and we are supporting them with formulating a framework for MMA. French Boxing has agreed to align its rules, regulations and standards for MMA with the international standard.

Another surprise from France, has been French Judo’s venture into offering MMA classes in its gyms. This is a dramatic turnaround from its President’s statement that MMA ‘is a haven for jihadists’ and lacks sporting values. What is your take?

Considering Judo’s actions to block acceptance of MMA at every level, this is completely hypocritical. It is also undermining of the decision of the Ministry of Sport to regulate MMA in France under boxing, a role that Judo didn’t even apply for. They have no right to teach MMA, no qualification and should leave MMA to the experts. They should be following the rules and regulations of MMA through French boxing.

So, what are IMMAF’s next steps in its battle for recognition of MMA as a sport?

We will be continuing with our legal action against WADA and will fight to the end for the result we want. Meanwhile, GAISF keep delaying on making a decision, but based on their decision we will decide our next steps.

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