[Author: Ben Jose Jose, Convenor, Centre for Sports Law, Economics and Policy, IFIM Law College, India]
MMA has been on a path to portray itself as a legitimate sport around the globe and attract more spectators. Since its introduction, the violent sport has been tweaking regulations to ensure that the general market audience is onboard to watch and enjoy it. As the years have passed, giant organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship have helped in making the sport global. However, there is no denying the fact that even with the exponential growth, the sport still houses numerous legislative problems – be it the lack of certain regulations, or excess of certain other which are unnecessary. Open scorecards have always been a topic for debate in the MMA community and its implementation has become a general need.
The Status Quo
Scoring is an essential part of any sport. Teams put in effort to get points and whoever has the most points wins. Teams are allowed to visibly see these scores to strategize accordingly and win the game. This is the fundamental scoring method and usage in all sports. However, MMA has a different approach. Following boxing, like most of its other rules, MMA has decided to adopt the rule of undisclosed scorecards or commonly knows as hidden scorecards. The UFC hosts a 3-round fight for normal cards and a 5-round fight for main events and title fights. Three Judges score both the formats. Each round is scored out of 10. The end of the fight is scored out of 30 or 50 and the winner is declared either unanimously or split. However, neither the fighters nor anyone else watching these fights are aware of the scores during the round, which is a major problem.
Fighters themselves or coaching corners need to assume if they’ve won or lost a close round and therefore cannot strategize for later rounds. More often than not, corners have a certain bias towards their own fighters and assume that their fighters have won earlier rounds leading to them drawing up a defensive game plan when in reality they should have gotten a finish. In the UFC, if a fighter has lost the first 2 rounds for a 3-round fight, they cannot mathematically win the fight unless the get a finish, which includes a knockout or submission. Fighters who are aware of this lack of success in the early rounds can push themselves to get the finish. But blissful ignorance and overconfidence leads to ‘robbery calls’ and excessive financial losses. Open scoring eliminates this issue by broadcasting each rounds score as soon as they conclude letting everyone know the legitimate score.
The Punch and Counter Punch for Open Scoring
One of the major arguments against Open Scoring is that it does not solve the root problem of bad judging. A bad judge can still give a winning fighter losing rounds, if they are not competent. Bad judging is a problem of all sports and there still isn’t an objective way to decide games. However, a fighter realizing that they’ve lost a fight due to a bad judge at the end of the fight, gives them no opportunity to help themselves. But if an open scoring system were to be introduced, then fighters who can visibly see that bad judges have lost them rounds can take the fight into their own hands and actively seek a finish. Open Scoring gives fighters more power to deal with bad scoring.
Another argument against open scoring is tracing the origin of the reasoning behind hidden scores. Hidden scores originated to increase the suspense of the final winner. The raw emotion of the fighters waiting to hear the final scores and the surprise or relief on their faces resonated with the audience. Therefore, hiding the score cards heightens the drama and increases the entertainment value. This reasoning may seem valid at the forefront but on applications is not viable. The audience watching fights, are engaged in them to support their favourite fighters and hope that they perform the best. Watching one’s favourite athlete being given every opportunity to succeed instantly raises the interest and stakes in fights. Open scoring also allows new audience members to participate and understand judging better. For most casual fans, the score cards read out at the end of fights are simply numbers but open scoring allows fans to visually see and interpret score cards for every round they have witnessed.
A major criticism against open scoring is the idea that fighters who get confirmation that they have already won 2 out of the 3 rounds would start coasting because they are aware of their victory being sealed. They would refuse to engage with their opponent and lead to an overall boring final round. It is the lack of knowledge about whether or not what they’ve done is enough to seal their victory, that forces them to push in the final round. However, this argument can easily be reversed to support the losing fighter. A fighter who can clearly see themselves losing 2 rounds would know for a fact that they need a finish to win the fight and consequently pushing for a finish and forcing their opponent to either defend or engage back. The winning fighter cannot coast because the losing fighter would be pushing on all cylinders, leading to an entertaining round.
MMA strives to be respected and recognised as a legitimate sport, and therefore it is critical to adapt and evolve with the advancing sports world. Undisclosed scoring has been an old tradition. Criticism against open scoring has not only been quashed but the overall utility of the method super seeds the negative discourse around the topic. At it’s a core, a legitimate sport gives every opportunity to its athletes to compete in the best possible environment. Open scoring is shown to have a significant benefit to fans, athletes and the sport as a whole by imbibing the notion of transparency. Traditions, entertainment, and bad judging should not be limiting factors but should instead be used as means to widen the avenue of MMA around the globe. The Author would finally suggest that the UFC must step up and implement a radical rule change like the one of open scoring, to help MMA stand out of the shadow of boxing and cement an independent status in the world of sports.
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