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Dana White opposes open scoring: It leads to ‘bad third rounds’ and ruins ‘anticipation’

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Why are people so afraid of giving fighters and coaches more information they can use to win fights?

UFC 251 Usman v Masvidal: Weigh-Ins Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

While there’s been trial runs and increased calls for open scoring in mixed martial arts, one of the most powerful people in the sport is completely against it. UFC President Dana White brought up one of the old arguments against it, saying it could lead to boring rounds, with fighters trying to coast.

“If a guy knows that he’s up two rounds and you’re a professional fighter, you can absolutely stay away from a guy for an entire round and make the fight completely horrible,” White said on an ESPN+ virtual Q&A (transcript by MMA Junkie). “If you already know you’ve got two rounds in the bag, guarantee if you saw your score up there, all (you) have to do is stay away from this guy for the next five minutes. That makes for a lot of bad third rounds.”

He also thinks it ruins the “anticipation” for the reveal of the scorecards.

“When we do the fights, I have an idea of who I think won or lost or whatever, but when I’m standing there with the belt, I don’t know what Bruce Buffer is going to say,” White said. “He doesn’t tell me anything. The judges tell him, the commission do their thing, they tell him, and I’m standing there waiting to hear too, so I’m just as blown away as the fans are. And I agree with you: It completely takes away the anticipation of who won the fight.”

In the past year, open scoring has been implemented in Kansas City and it has produced very promising results so far, although in an admittedly still relatively small sample size. In a previous piece with Bloody Elbow, Zach Arnold took an in-depth look at open scoring discussed the current developments:

In promotions like Invicta FC and LFA, fighters who have been up at least two points on at least two of the scorecards have almost always won the third and final round of the fight.

In Mixed Martial Arts, there are simply too many variables to make coasting a dangerous tactic for fighters in the final rounds of a fight. It’s why MMA is more conducive and open to experimentation on judging whereas the attitude in boxing remains recalcitrant.

Steven Graham, a judge in Kansas who passed Big John McCarthy’s COMMAND referee course, is also an active fighter. His unique background is a factor in why he is such a major proponent of real-time scoring.

“It doesn’t change how I do my job,” Mr. Graham said in a phone interview with Bloody Elbow. He noted that real-time scoring isn’t meant to fix bad judging, but to give fighters as much information as possible to win a fight.

UPDATE: The Kansas Athletic Commission has since sent specific statistics in response to this story, saying “fighters up two points heading into the final round have WON the final round 73% (14/19) at a higher rate than before Open Scoring (62% - 16/26).”

“Milking the clock” has been a typical tactic in most sports, but the opposite spectrum has also brought some interesting counter strategies for the athletes behind on points. While White argues that it might lead to more coasting, knowing the scores and finding a way to win in crunch time has actually produced countless iconic and dramatic moments in other sports — including almost every other combat sport.

In MMA specifically, knowing the real time scores could also set up and help technical coaching evolve to new heights as well. Arnold makes his case:

In combat sports, the game within the game presents the most fascinating of chess matches. Knowing how a judge is scoring a fight in real-time adds even more potential for high level strategy on the part of both fighter and their corners.

Regulators require fighters to “intelligently defend themselves” in order to prevent a referee stoppage, yet these same regulators seem adverse to fighters having knowledge that could help them fight intelligently.

While White has often lambasted bad judging and repeatedly said his “never leave it in the hands of the judges” line, he is more than happy to leave things as it is.

“Its never going to be perfect,” White said. “There are always going to be fights that absolutely drive you insane and piss you off, blow your bets, there will always be all these other things that go with the fight business. At the end of the day, watching the fight and waiting for the results are fun.”

In his feature, Arnold discussed several hindrances to open scoring being finally implemented. This list of roadblocks includes judges, athletic commissions and their legal teams, casinos, and interestingly enough, promoters using a similar reasoning to White.

“Where is the drama in one-sided showcase fights? There is a perverse incentive for promoters pushing showcase bouts to have controversial score cards. People in the business will protest loudly, but continue to go along with the status quo because they’re just fine with the system as it is.

The current game is simple: promoters and their television partners will often have their own version of round-by-round open scoring (unofficial scorecards) in an attempt to sell honesty to fans only to be foiled by those pesky athletic commission judges who don’t know what they’re watching.

That’s the major marketing hook for showcase bouts”.

While it would sound absurd to ask the NBA, NFL or just about any other sports organization to hide their scores until after the game to build “anticipation” and dissuade teams from “coasting,” somehow boxing and MMA still repeatedly push these old arguments.

At the end of the day, are we trying to improve the sport by demanding accountability, exposing incompetence, and giving fighters proper information, or are we keeping its worst aspects because controversial reveals are “fun”?