Paul Cowzer on IMMAA ” I was told I can be a silent dissenter or I can Leave “

I have been meaning to chat with Paul Cowzer about Rush Fight Academy for quite a while. Anyone that follows the former IMMAA chairman on Facebook will know that he is quite outspoken in his views about the state of Irish MMA. His club is one of 15 or 16 Irish MMA clubs involved with the breakaway Irish MMA association IAMMAA. True to form, after a two hour conversation he comes across as a vocal straight shooter. He is the only man in Irish MMA to have led the charge in two different Irish MMA associations. Worth talking to in other words.

After I put down the phone I was reminded of an old family tale. A neighbour in our village tells the story about a piece of advice my uncle gave her after she married into the locality. The compliment I can pay Mr Cowzer is that he probably would have ignored it.

This uncle spent most of my childhood living with us. At different stages of his later life, mental health professionals would label his ailments with an increasing array of fancy medical terms. Paranoid schizophrenia was one that stuck for a while. Lithium became one of the questionable staples of his mental health diet into old age. In 1980’s Ireland the description of him would’ve been ‘He’s not all there’

People like him could be accommodated in a community back then in a way they probably can’t now. There wasn’t such a demand to diagnose the odd. Lack of money meant most communities made a little elbow room for people like him to breathe. I like to think that he figured out early, that it was the rest of the world that “wasn’t quite all there ” and got busy keeping his mouth shut. Any way back to the story.

At the time, in the late 70’s, when the couple got married, it was quite often the custom that a procession of visiting parties would drop in on a newlyweds home, with particular emphasis on welcoming the new bride to the town-land. My uncle kept with tradition and dropped into the house one evening after all the jobs on the farm were tidied up. Not being a big talker, I’m sure there were lots of long silences and plumes of blue smoke from his unfiltered Sweet Afton cigarettes. It wasn’t often that one wasn’t welded in his hand like a disfigured sixth finger. As they polished off a pot of strong tea, the lady of the house jokingly asked my Uncle if he had any advice for her in her new village.

“ You’ll need to learn how to tell the odd lie around here to get on”

With that he made one of his abrupt exits. 35 years later at his funeral she recalled it as a great piece of wisdom about the place she now called home.

Not bad advice for those seeking to get on in most walks of Irish life or Irish MMA. The paradox though is that dancing around the truth leads to questionable change. Paul Cowzer isn’t a dancer or one to keep quiet because as the saying goes nothing ever changes when nothing ever changes.

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He is not afraid to stand up to authority when he feels there is an injustice. Whether that is in MMA or in life. In 2016 Paul would have briefly hit the national headlines for making a stand against the introduction of water charges and water meters. Again no-one agreed with water charges but how many of us were prepared to stand-out against them and risk the ire of the powers that be? – This is not a subject we even talked about but it tallies with the theme of our conversation.

Paul grew up around Dublin in Darndale. A working class community where soccer and boxing were the sports of choice. Paul excelled at both. As a boxer he was a featherweight and a sometime lightweight. He was successful and was an Irish squad member on more than one occasion. A broken kneecap put paid to his soccer activities and the recovery process from that saw him make some changes in his physical pursuits.

” I broke my kneecap and packed in the soccer. When I recovered from that I went straight into MMA. I just wanted to do something different”

What was the MMA world in Ireland like at that time?

” It was small but there was a lot of competition. I was looking for a club for a long time and my cousin, Niamh Mooney who did a bit of boxing with me in Darndale, she was up in Shika in the handball alleys of Croke Park at the time. It was kinda funny actually I was telling her I wanted to get into the UFC stuff and she said we are doing that, MMA, and I kinda thought it was a Karate thing she was doing. I went up to give it a go and it was the real deal. Neil Seery was in the club and I was nearly sparring with him from day one. Shika are still going by the way”

From these seeds Cowzer started to make his way. Totally loved it and had a thirst to learn as much as he could from whoever he could. He would have done Jiu-Jitsu under Andy Ryan up in SBG Northside as it was at the time. Andy didn’t do private lessons so he recalls that himself and another guy would have gone to get private lessons from John Kavanagh in Jiu-Jitsu. Today Paul is purple belt in that particular department.

It will tell you something about MMA competition at the time, that in the first year of competing Paul fought 6 times. 6 times in Ireland. Not likely to happen today.

Paul was and is a personal trainer and had a studio where he trained clients and it was here that his first moves as an MMA coach came.

” I used to use the studio to train some lads in what I was learning. Technically that was the beginning of Rush Fight Academy, it was just like a gathering of lads training and figuring stuff out. But that’s how MMA was at the time (2007) because there were no clubs really”

Paul fought on for a few more years and his last fight saw him crowned the BattleZone Featherweight champion. Through these years he was making great strides as a coach. He would have been voted coach of the year a couple of times back around 2012 or 2013. The fighters in the gym were fighting regularly and competitively. Rush Fight Academy would have been right up there as one of the top MMA gyms in Ireland. I have spoken to many different coaches at this stage and they all would be agreed that this period was the golden period for domestic Irish MMA.

” I would have had 10 to 15 regular active fighters. We were set up to be a fight club, not to be a fitness center that people came to stay fit. I think today a lot of gyms want it that way now (fitness /activity centers) Coz they get more members and a can make more money. So they get a 100 lads in, they all think they are doing MMA but their not really “

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Paul runs a successful boxing club as well and keeps the two separate. His teen MMA kids don’t do boxing and vice versa. It is in this area, that he feels, that the authority figures really put the squeeze on. He is actively involved in organising teen MMA Inter club events where his kids can get a taste of a competitive action in a safe, supervised environment.

” I will go back a little bit to explain this. A few of the lads, the powers that be, that like to control things in MMA here they basically put a block on Teen MMA in my opinion. So my club and team that I was telling you about that was one of the top teams just started to disintegrate over night. It went from loads of teens training regularly to one or two who grew into adulthood and stayed on. There were some of them lads that if they had kept at it would be total beasts today”

I assumed that this decision might have had something to do with the death of the professional Joao Carvalho. Cowzer says no that it was well before that tragic incident. Why then the scourge of teens through lack of competition?

Paul’s opinion is unsurprisingly blunt

” I believe that certain people involved in the running of Irish MMA don’t look at MMA as a positive thing like I and others do. They view it more like prize-fighting than they do as a good sport that we should encourage youngsters to get into”

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Paul’s successes in the cage, but probably more pertinently outside the cage as a coach, saw him more actively involved with how the sport should run in Ireland. When MMA started to get organised with the establishment of the Irish Mixed Martial Arts Association (IMMAA) Cowzer not only was part of the board he became it’s chairman.

” In most cases the board was pretty smooth we agreed on most issues. The first time that something came up that wasn’t smooth, It was plain to see to me, in my opinion, that the board was laid out so that it was always gonna work whatever way John (Kavanagh) wanted. The board was essentially SBG or ex SBG members”

GON : OK. Is it fair to say that the first time something wasn’t smooth was around the brain scans from your point of you?

” Yeah that was it. Other than that we all pretty much agreed on everything. So obviously there was back and forward on the subject. People think I left the board because of scans. I didn’t leave because of the scans I left because I felt there was no democracy as far as the scans go. I wanted to tell the clubs what was going on. They didn’t want me to tell the clubs what was going on”

GON: What was going on?

” Well they were gonna push the scans in without consultation. So I was like this isn’t right. I still don’t think it was right. I felt the clubs should know and be able to say No this is wrong or Yes this is right. I was then told “Look you can be a silent dissenter or you can leave” So in other words I could tell them privately in the group I was against it but couldn’t publicly say I was against it”

GON: You don’t have to tell me a name but did someone from within the Board of IMMAA say that to you

“Yeah”

GON: If this had gone out to the clubs and come back to the board and the board had taken a vote and your side of the argument had lost the vote. What would have happened then. Would you have accepted it?

” I probably would have accepted it at the time but I honestly don’t know now. But the thing is Irish amateur MMA is being fucked over in the last few years compared to other sports. Things have got worse since then”

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It is fair to say that people on Paul’s side of the aisle feel that the organisation of Irish MMA is skewed heavily in favor of SBG and SBG affiliated clubs. The curious thing for me is that when you get down to the nitty gritty of it, Both sides agree far more about things than disagree. I put this to Paul and he agreed that up to the point of the scans it was a more or less a harmonious relationship.

GON: Did you get any Support when you left the board?

” No, No. Not publicly anyway. Loads of clubs supported me privately and I suppose a lot of the clubs that are in IAMMAA now were more public supporting me. At the time a lot of it wasn’t the full on support but more private. A lot of clubs are coming out now though”

I had to smile at the above description. It reminded me of a few articles I had written where my private messages said one thing and the public social media Likes said quite another.

GON: What year are we talking when all this happened; Is it recent?

” Yeah, Yeah it was probably 2017..could have been 2018 I would have to look it up but it’s recent enough for sure”

GON: Tell us how the setting up of IAMMAA came about?

” I and others felt the Irish MMA body should be ran by the clubs and not run by any individual or individuals. Ran Democratic.”

GON: So similiar to like a GAA club where each club sends a representative to the county board. 1 club and 1 vote. Kind of thing?

” Yeah. That’s it. So that was the kind of the thinking. Also to bring control of the running of events back more to the clubs. So that was really the thinking. Also I felt we should be running off safety guidelines from the world governing body. I felt that when I was in IMMAA and I feel it now that I am in IAMMAA “

A little clarification. There are two world governing bodies, if you would like to term them that. One is ISKA and one is IMMAF. Amateur MMA in Ireland as constituted at the moment follows neither. SAFE MMA Ireland set the guidelines for participants here. Anyone that wants to run a show in the Republic needs to follow the safety guidelines they set out. They require brain scans for amateurs.

Any Irish MMA amateur that wants to compete in the IMMAF world championships for example will get all their medical and safety clearances from SAFE MMA Ireland which includes a brain scan. Almost every other country that competed at the most recent IMMAF world championships did not brain scan their amateur athletes.

GON: So basically in your opinion that is a hypocrisy. What is happening here with SAFE MMA. They don’t mind competing in events where 95% of the participants don’t have brain scans?

” Yeah so they care about certain situations. If they care about safety then they should care about the safety of everyone in the arena. Going by that logic it is saying I don’t care if the opposition lad dies as long as my Lad doesn’t die. It is just mental. If they are true about their beliefs they should say we are not doing this IMMAF event because we don’t feel it is safe”

Battle Arena Ireland are returning to Ireland on May 25th in the 1st of a number of events they are planning for 2019 for Irish Amateur MMA. IAMMAA clubs are weighing in heavily behind this event. The event is open to any Irish MMA amateur regardless of club or affiliation. Paul explains:

” So Battle Arena is going to be in Monaghan right. Obviously some clubs won’t go near it because they are not following SAFE MMA Ireland guidelines. Those same people will go right across the border and fight on Akuma, Clan Wars or Cage Warriors, following the exact same safety standards that we will be using”

GON: Just to be clear. ISKA (International Sports Karate Association) is the governing body that you are tracking?

” That’s who we are linked with yes “

GON: So the Battle Arena event happens to follow the ISKA set of safety and medical standards but equally that event meets the standards laid down by IMMAF the other world governing body. So the only people not happy are SAFE MMA IRELAND?

” Yeah. 100%. IMMAF would be happy with our standards. “

Time for a puff on a Sweet Afton. I don’t want to get started on the Lithium.

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