Two topics that get a lot of discussion in the mixed martial arts world are fighter safety and open scoring. After watching Brian Ortega go five rounds with Alexander Volkanovski in the main event of UFC 266, it’s worth talking about both those things — together.
At the end of the third round of the UFC featherweight title fight, Ortega spent the first 10-plus seconds of the between round break on his back trying to get air into his lungs. When his team got to him, they helped him to his stool and then went to work on getting him ready to go back out and face the 145-pound UFC champion for another five minutes.
Ortega’s right eye was swelling badly. He had absorbed 61 significant strikes in the third stanza and another 68 combined significant strikes in the first two rounds. During the break, referee Herb Dean called the cageside physician in to observe and speak to Ortega. It did not go well.
The first thing the doctor did was hold one finger up to the side of Ortega’s right eye. Ortega seemed unaware of what the doctor was doing. When the doctor asked Ortega to follow his finger with his eyes, Ortega seemed to fail that test. The doctor then told Dean that Ortega said he can see.
When asked to walk toward the doctor, a standard request made of boxers after a standing eight count, Ortega was unsteady. His gait was wobbly and his expression confused.
Dean then asked Ortega if he could see. The fighter replied he could. Dean followed that and asked Ortega how many fingers he was holding up (while not covering his good eye). Ortega seemed to answer, but then his attention drifted toward the doctor who stood next to Dean. The referee then grabbed Ortega by the chin to get his attention and held up one finger. Ortega answered that question correctly. Dean and the doctor decided at that point he was good enough to fight.
It was almost as if they were waiting for that answer and Ortega eventually getting things right was justification enough for him to fight on. In my opinion, the moment Ortega failed to follow the doctor’s finger or exhibited an unsteady gait, the fight should have been waved off.
It did not look, to me, as if the officials had Ortega’s best interest — his immediate and future health — in mind when they allowed him to fight past the third round. Now what about Ortega’s corner?
We know Ortega is tough. We know Ortega might be one of the toughest fighters in the UFC. We know he will not quit — ever. The Max Holloway fight was proof of that. Ortega, unlike Nick Diaz, who seemed to have a “live to fight another day” attitude in his UFC 266 fight against Robbie Lawler, is not at a point in his career where he’s going to think past the immediate moment. With that, Ortega’s corner could have thrown in the towel— they didn’t.
By the end of the third round, Ortega was down 30-27. He needed two big rounds or a stoppage to get the win. Would open scoring have helped Ortega’s team to decide to wave off the fight?
Volkanovski dominated the fourth round. He landed 35 significant strikes on 58 attempts and scored 2:33 of control time. Ortega’s offense amounted to six landed significant strikes on 15 attempts and a submission attempt that was not as close as the chances he had in the third stanza.
Two of the judges gave that round to the champion at 10-9. The other scored it for Volkanovski with 10-8. Heading into the final stanza, Ortega needed a miracle. Yes, those miracles do come in MMA, but people win the lottery as well. What Ortega’s corner did by sending him out in the fifth round was akin to spending their last $100 on lottery tickets. Sure, there was a chance he would win, but the odds were astronomically against it.
Ortega did not get the finish. Instead, he absorbed 50 significant strikes that would have — and should have — been avoided.
Dean and the doctor failed Ortega at the end of the third round. Ortega’s team failed him at the conclusion of the fourth stanza. Open scoring might not have helped Ortega’s corner in stopping the fight, but at least it would have let them know the folly of letting it continue.
If open scoring ever gets adopted, perhaps fighter safety is one thing that will benefit. If the score is there and the fighter looks spent and damaged, perhaps the knowledge of the score will help — or even pressure — the corner into calling the fight and keeping the fighter from sustaining needless damage.
There are sports with “mercy rules,” maybe the sport where bodies and brains are damaged in the pursuit of victory could use some help toward mercy.