Keith Cooper talks Battle Arena, Shane Ross and that night in September……

The Battle of the Boyne is still an emotive historical talking point on this island, nearly 320 years after it’s original enactment, when the forces of Prince William of Orange defeated the forces of King James II in 1690. I suppose if I had enough coffee coursing through my veins I could draw up a neat analogy between those events and some of the strange goings on in Irish MMA over the last couple of years. But alas I’m shit out of Nescafe.

However, one of the many criticisms leveled at King James II by historians was that after defeat he soon left the scene of battle and fled immediately to exile in France, leaving the remaining Irish forces to muddle on alone for another year. Their final capitulation marked by the signing of the Treaty of Limerick in 1691.

When the modern day Battle of the Boyne erupted in 2018, namely the Battle Arena MMA debacle, which burst into the mainstream media last September, I couldn’t help but think of the physical location of where these events were unfolding. Trim and Navan. Two towns that share the River Boyne in common and connotations of that ancient grievance.

While Keith Cooper of Battle Arena (Ireland) bears no resemblance in attitude to King James II,  he must’ve at times, in the last 6 months, felt the easier option would have been to beat a hasty retreat when the forces mounted against him and his MMA promotion seemed huge, all knowing and all powerful. But as I have said Keith Cooper is no King James and this tale is no ordinary battle. So with that in mind let us begin……..

At 3:53 pm on September 29th 2018, Keith Cooper stood in an ante-room of the Claremont Stadium in Navan and received the news from a member of the Stadium committee. In 7 minutes time Battle Arena’s first MMA bout of the evening was scheduled to take place a few yards away.

” Sorry Keith – We are pulling the plug on this event”

The verdict brought to an end one of the most tumultuous weeks in the history of domestic Irish MMA.

Keith Cooper runs Coopers MMA and Jiu-jitsu Brotherhood in Navan. He is also the face of Battle Arena (Ireland) and this week he spoke to me about the events leading up to this decision. The reason we are talking about this subject is because Battle Arena are back in Ireland this May and this time it is going to take a hell of alot more than a statement from Minister of Sport Shane Ross to shut them down.

Gerry O’Neill: When did you first have an inkling that there was a problem with the event in September?

Keith Cooper:  For me anyway it was the Tuesday before the event. The weekend before the event somebody had contacted Ken Smullen in the department of Sport and informed him that there was going to be an event taking place the following weekend and basically that it was unsanctioned and it wasn’t safe. Then off the back of that a call was made to GAA headquarters and on Monday afternoon, they contacted Trim GAA club (where the event was originally scheduled to take place). Then what happened was a member of Trim GAA club emailed me in a panic on Tuesday.

Trim had been sent a copy of their GAA public Liability insurance,  basically saying that there was no combat sports of ANY type allowed to take place on GAA grounds. We had already sent on our Insurance policy showing them that Trim GAA and the GAA were indemnified for the event

 

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Gerry O’Neill: On any GAA grounds or just their GAA grounds?

Keith Cooper:  On ANY GAA grounds. So they have a group policy as far as I am aware, which is funny enough the same company that I have my public liability insurance with for my club. Two weeks before my event was to take place there was an event in a GAA hall up in Dublin. A kickboxing show. Two weeks after the event that I had there was an MMA show again in a GAA hall

Gerry O’Neill:  OK look. Let’s call a spade a spade here. Other MMA promotions have successfully held events in GAA clubs,  Cage Legacy have held events in GAA halls before and since then. So this sounds like a bullshity excuse you were given by the club.

Keith Cooper: Yeah, Cage Legacy were on a few weeks later I think. Look I don’t want to cause trouble for any other promotions we are all just trying to run safe events and give people shows to fight on. But anyway that was on the Tuesday. On Wednesday I went over to Trim GAA and spoke to the head of the committee.

Gerry O’Neill: I can only assume that the Trim Committee members are only people you did the deal with for the hall and the guy you were dealing with was an ordinary guy(s) and all this MMA stuff was new to him.

Keith Cooper: Yeah like, he’s telling me on one hand, leading up to the event he was really looking forward to it and then when the thing started going a bit mad he is getting panicky and I’m trying to explain to this man in his 50’s who traditionally knows nothing about combat sports in general. So ya know.

Gerry O’Neill: So I am assuming that he got this insurance policy or whatever section of this Insurance policy relevant to GAA Clubs and combat sports, sent to him by somebody in GAA Headquarters.

Keith Cooper: Yes he was sent it by GAA Headquarters and what annoys me is that the first paragraph of the e-mail says we have been informed that his an unsanctioned event and an unsafe event yada, yada,yada….

Gerry O’Neill: And that in itself is not true because the event was sanctioned and following an ISKA ruleset isn’t that right?

Keith Cooper: Exactly. Listen if you want to get into the nitpicking of it. No event in Ireland is sanctioned (MMA) by any governing body. Because there is none. Do you know what I mean.


 

This a good place to take a break in the conversation and point out that ISKA is not a bunch of idle teenagers making up an MMA ruleset to follow, in between marathon sessions on their Play Stations.

They’re on the go since the mid 1980’s and are represented in over 50 countries. One of the founding US Directors of ISKA was none other than current Bellator Supremo Scott Coker. For any of you in the know about current Irish MMA politics, you may no doubt notice a delicious irony in that fact.

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Owen Doyle is the Irish representative to ISKA and they are 100% behind Battle Arena’s event in May as they were last September, although this fact was conveniently overlooked in the press coverage at the time.


 

Gerry O’Neill: Can I take it that on your promotional stuff this time round you are going to have mention of ISKA on it?

Keith Cooper: Oh Yeah, listen Owen Doyle said get your official poster out to me and I will actually put that up on the official ISKA website and that will be worldwide

Gerry O’Neill:  So Let’s go back to the week in question in September. Look I suppose I can kind of get the GAA mindset. Something along the lines of……Oh There’s trouble here., wasn’t expecting it and Don’t want to get involved in it…kind of thing”

Keith Cooper: Well luckily we managed to secure another location in Navan fairly quickly – Claremont Stadium. We were happy enough with that. To be honest with you I was delighted it was going to stay local. It was gonna be in Navan. You know my club is in Navan.

Everything was going good. We managed to get the location secured and got the cage and everything in place the night before. The whole shooting match, everything was going grand and then literally it started on the Saturday at 11am. Shit started flying. I got a phone call from the woman that I had been dealing with in Claremont stadium.

Gerry O’Neill: What did she say?

Keith Cooper: She said Listen, just to give you the heads up, my phone is on fire!. I’m after getting phone calls from reporters, from committee members, somebody from Athletics Ireland or something. Everyone going mad. What’s going on here. Why is this event going ahead in Claremont?. In fairness she said to them

” These people have come down and paid a deposit. they showed me the Insurance policy that has been changed to indemnify Claremont Stadium”

She had done a bit of research on Battle Arena and seen they had done 50 odd shows successfully.

Gerry O’Neill: So listen had Shane Ross ( Irish Minister for Sport) given that public statement against the event at this point?

Keith Cooper: Yeah…Shane Ross had given a statement and it had come out on the Thursday or Friday – I can’t remember which. This is what people don’t realise, the first I knew about the statement that Shane Ross had made was when I got a phone call at home from this random woman from some newspaper. She asked me did I have anything to say about the statement Shane Ross had made. And I was like “What Statement?” and she was like ” Has nobody been in contact with you”

I had heard nothing. So then we were due to start the first fight at 4 o’clock on the Saturday. So then at 7 minutes to four after spending a good…oh man…4 hours of back and forth with Claremont Stadium and the committee.  Insurance, Doctors and Medical personnel , safety procedures, the Head of Battle Arena UK, James Price,  was there as well explaining everything they had questions about. This is what he does for a living. It is not as if we were just chancing our arm doing a show. Like what more do you want. After all that they said ” No we are pulling the plug”  7 minutes before the fights were due to start.

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Gerry O’Neill: What was your reaction?

Keith Cooper:  ah sure…..I was then standing in the front office and there was a lady on the phone and she was talking with someone from Athletics Ireland I think. And she was talking with one of the other committee members and she says to him. Athletics Ireland are saying absolutely we are not allowed to let this event go forward.

Gerry O’Neill: What the hell does any of this have to do with Athletics Ireland?

Keith Cooper: I said the same thing! what the fuck has it got to do with Atheltics Ireland?

Gerry O’Neill: What is Claremont Stadium, Is it like a basketball arena or something?

Keith Cooper: No it’s a community facility but Athletics Ireland use it for like track meets. There are about 70 or 80 different  sports and community groups that rent this place out. So it is a big Community facility. The problem was that they were after having serious financial difficulties over the last couple of years and they were due to be getting funding from the Sports Council. So this was probably the problem with them. They were probably afraid that they wouldn’t get the funding if this went ahead.

Gerry O’Neill: Aaahhhhh…..an Irish solution to an Irish problem….Were they told that?

Keith Cooper: This is the thing. They weren’t. But the attitude was that Shane Ross holds the purse strings and If we piss him off he could cut our funding. So I said really?. You read a statement that he released last night on a subject that you don’t know anything about with all due respect and I paid a deposit to hold an event. Everything is here medics, ambulances, cuts teams, fighters. People are starting to arrive at the door to come in and watch the event and your gonna pull the plug on my show with 7 minutes to go because you “might” get in trouble with Shane Ross. Go out and talk to everyone that is here and explain it to them. We have done everything we can.

” No We Can’t” was the reply.


 

Given the phone calls, e-mails and general Internet chatter that took place all day in the lead up to this decision I was struggling to comprehend how no organisation or Shane Ross himself had not been in touch with either Keith or James directly.

 


 

Gerry O’Neill: At this point had Shane Ross not been in touch directly with either you or James?

Keith Cooper: No. No.. We have never spoken to Shane Ross ever. The only person we have spoken to in relation to this whole saga is a fella in the Department of Sports Ken Smullen. In fairness to him he spoke to me for 30 minutes. He explained and admitted that they had no legal power to stop the event. They were informed that it was an unsafe event and then had to take action and notify the GAA that the event was going to be unsafe. Then it’s out of their hands. They don’t have any legal powers to stop it. He kept on saying they have no legal powers to stop it.

Gerry O’Neill: So reading between the lines funding and this reported “safety” issue was the power that was used to apply pressure. Either directly or indirectly?

Keith Cooper: That’s what it was yeah. Again you don’t know whether it was the implied threat of funding being removed or the fact there were tonnes of reporters and different people calling them …that caused them to stop and just go fuck it this is too much trouble.


 

My remaining questions went something like this.

How did it become such a fireball of national attention?. What was the trigger point?. How did all these reporters know that this was happening. How did they know about the change of venue so quickly?

To be fair to Keith he gave me answers! – but we both agreed that naming names at this particular juncture is not useful and at the end of the day opinion based. I think what I can say is that the anomaly of SAFE MMA is at the heart of the answer.

The anomaly being that SAFE MMA in Ireland and SAFE MMA in the UK do not operate under the same safety regulations. The main points of difference are to do with Brain scans. It is safe to say that if Keith Cooper had held his event in Northern Ireland or on the mainland UK the event would have passed off without a hitch and he wouldn’t have been able to get a single mainstream reporter interested in it.

Safe MMA UK would have had no problem sanctioning it because they do not in fact require brain scans for amateurs. For some reason SAFE MMA Ireland seem to have a stranglehold on whether an MMA event can take place in the Republic. Why is this? – your guess is as good as mine given they are not a sanctioning body or a governing body.

Battle Arena are returning in May.  Battle Arena 56. It will be a mixed and fully amateur MMA and kickboxing event. Athletes will be required to go through full medicals and bloods prior to competition. Sports Medics N.I. will be handling all of the medicial side of things, they have a big history of working in this arena. They are 100% on board with the event. This is no small backing. They have assured Keith that they will not bow down to any pressure if an organisation or politician is silly enough to seek to apply it.

There will be two full ambulance crews in place, 3 doctors and a professional cuts team. In other words if you fall ill anywhere in County Meath on the same night you will probably get better and faster medical attention by going to Battle Arena than your local Accident and Emergency department. Just saying.

There is no doubt that Keith Cooper is making sure every i is dotted and every t crossed in the run up to Battle Arena 56. He has already been over to the UK to watch the latest Battle Arena installment, Battle Arena 54 to check out the running of that event and any tips he can apply to his Irish show this time round. He knows that something unforeseen could happen in the lead up but he’s as ready as he can be for it this time round. With that I’ll leave the last word to Keith on the subject.

Keith Cooper: Look if there are any untoward phone calls or emails this time around, I have already gone and sought legal advice. Sat down and spoke to a solicitor over here and he basically said ” Look this is the way it is from your perspective and James’ perspective. This is a business, you are running a business. If somebody is trying to stop you they better have a really good legal argument that is sustainable in court. I will 100% drag their arses up in front of a judge if they don’t and we will start legal proceedings against them and sue them and that’s it.


 

I’m conscious that this piece is quite long, probably the longest I have written to date but fear not we are nearly out of road!!!

One of notable things I have learned about the MMA world in Ireland since I started writing about it, is that the people are honourable and dignified. They have dignity and are worthy of being shown it. Keith is no different and yet many of the shenanigans surrounding this story have a distinct lack of it.

Don’t get me wrong nearly everyone liberally sprinkles the word  ‘Fuck’ into their language ( so do I) and the sport they all love and speak so passionately about is violent. There are many enemies at the gate opposed to MMA in Ireland. Official Ireland to use an Eamon Dunphy term. But whatever side of the current MMA chasm practioners reside in, they are all people I have come to develop a respect and admiration for. I hope Battle Arena 56 goes off smoothly and that any opposition doesn’t come from within the MMA community. There are enough opponents already on the outside to be dealing with.

Thanks to Keith Cooper for taking the time to share his story.

It’s approaching 2:30 am and I am finally at the end of this tale. People sometimes ask how long does it take to write one of these things. The answer in this case is simple. It took me about 75 repeats of a Deacon Blue song. Treat yourself.

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” And I’m telling this story,

           In a far away scene,

                and sipping down raki,

                    and reading Maynard Keynes,

                           and I’m thinking about home,

                                   and all that means,

                                        and a place in the winter,

                                                              for Dignity “

 

 

 

Written by: Gerry O’Neill

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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