What’s the matter with Kansas? That’s the question many athletic commissions are asking with the state’s embrace of real time scoring in both boxing and Mixed Martial Arts.
It’s not Kansas that has things backwards — it’s everyone else.
The idea of encouraging open-scoring in combat sports is taboo among a lot of the old-timers. It’s why it took an outsider like Adam Roorbach, the Executive Director of the Kansas Athletic Commission, to push the optional concept of open scoring for fights. A new generation of fighters, most notably UFC star Max Holloway, have long been proponents of giving fighters and their corners more real-time information during fights. Plenty of fans have also wished real time scoring was in place in order to understand how some of the sport’s more questionable decisions were tabulated.
Given how fast Mixed Martial Arts has modernized as a sport, it’s surprising to some how slow and resistant governmental regulators are to changing the way they operate and manage events. Why the resistance? For many regulators, and attorneys working alongside them, boxing remains the top combat sports priority and hostility to open-scoring is much stronger in those precincts than in MMA circles.
There are also much stronger, and more powerful, forces than just athletic commissions who oppose real-time scoring. These forces have the potential to be the kingmakers as to whether or not the concept is fully adopted in the United States.
The standard arguments against real-time scoring
There are two boilerplate arguments that are often voiced—strongly—from veteran referees, judges and promoters against real-time scoring of fights.
First, the conventional wisdom is that fighters who know they are ahead on the score cards will coast for the rest of the fight.
Second, there is a great sensitivity that real-time scoring will expose the judges to outside influence from fighters, trainers, or most specifically relatives and backers who are in the audience. The most comparable example, relayed by industry insiders, was tennis and the sheer amount of abuse that officials receive for controversial, but nonetheless subjective, decisions. Tennis is also a sport infamous for gambling scandals.
In combat sports the concern that judges might be influenced by third-parties is intensified because judges in this arena aren’t paid a large amount of money to work fights worth millions of dollars. Therefore, some say, they might be more susceptible to bribery, extortion, gambling or manipulate behavior. (See: Tim Donaghy.) These concerns remain strongest in boxing circles. And as long as the powers-that-be view boxing as of higher importance, the less likely we are going to see changes in the way any fights are scored.
The arguments for real-time scoring
The biggest cheerleaders and cautiously optimistic backers of open scoring? MMA fighters.
During a fight announcers are constantly heard criticizing what a corner is (or is not) telling their fighter to do in the next round. It’s human nature, especially for fans, to get angry when they know the corner is either lying to their fighter or completely oblivious to what strategy needs to be implemented.
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.
This is a sport, not the SATs or a written test at the DMV. Athletes are risking their personal and professional lives in the ring or the cage. A win on the score cards means gainful employment. A loss could mean a substantial pay cut or termination.
When the Kansas Athletic Commission implemented the option of real-time scoring, they crafted a unique system of producing results. An athletic inspector gathers up scores from two judges and the third judge gives their score to Executive Director Adam Roorbach. The scores are tabulated on Google Docs and then displayed to the corners of each fighter. However, none of the names of the judges are presented with the scores. The tablet displays the scores and the corners can adjust the strategy advice they give to fighters. After the next round starts, those scores are displayed on the television broadcast. Promoters can choose to air the scores on televisions in the building.
What is key to this optional system is that the real-time scoring is not read out loud to the fans in the arena by a ring announcer. The idea is to provide more transparency to the combatants without creating the peer pressure that could outright spook or unduly influence the judges scoring the fights. It’s a balancing test.
The application of real-time scoring in Kansas for MMA fights has proven to be positive — so far. The system has been in effect for six months and, even with a smallish sample size due to an ongoing global pandemic, the results have been good. 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.
It is not lost on those inside the fight business that, regrettably, it is often the non-fighters who are the biggest critics of real-time scoring.
The biggest roadblocks to open-scoring implementation
There are a lot of powerful forces in combat sports opposed to real-time scoring. Many of these forces are not ill-intentioned. However, they are protective of their careers and are ironically risk-adverse in an industry that is risky on an ultra-hazardous level. Achieving success in combat sports is often a long shot, which means those who do accomplish fame and fortune are the least likely to change the playbook.
Who exactly are the decision makers most hostile towards open scoring in combat sports? It’s a unique, if not curious mix of individuals — many of whom are regulating a sport that they aren’t actually part of.
Dana White’s biggest sales pitch for the UFC is that he gives fans the fights they want to see and that those fights are not mismatches. His sales pitch often resonates with the common customer because there’s a grain of truth to it.
In boxing, promoters are always booking showcase fights. You invest a lot of money into top prospects who are under long-term contracts. The club scene was already dying in boxing and now the coronavirus pandemic has wiped out many more gyms and promoters. This means the bigger promoters are absorbing more of the responsibility in building up new prospects, thus increasing the pressure to book fights where the delineation between the A-side and B-side is stark.
It’s easy to see which promoters like to book one-sided fights the most. You can often guess which fights will end up being 118-110 to 120-108 contests without even blinking. They make for boring snooze-fests.
But 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.
The irony is that open-scoring could actually help sell controversial score cards better. Imagine the A-side fighter thinking they are winning round by round only to find out they’ve won half the rounds. If the fighter’s corner elects not to know real-time scoring, fans at home would go crazy knowing what the actual scores are and would call their friends, go on social media, and yell at the TV to vent. And if the A-side actually knew the real-time score? There would be less incentive to coast to a decision and more of an emphasis to take some risks in order to finish a fight.
But therein lies the problem — real-time scoring would expose incompetence and that would put people’s jobs in jeopardy.
Combat sports judges — primarily in boxing — are very sensitive about open scoring. In a showcase fight where fans at home may score all 12 rounds for the A-side, the judges at ringside may only be scoring 7 rounds for the A-side and it almost always inevitably leads to the television commentators ranting and raving about how terrible the judging is.
You see this formula play out on every other broadcast for certain promoters.
Boxing is a very tough sport to judge but you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to figure out who is dominating a showcase fight.
MMA judging, on the other hand, has improved thanks to some important updates to the Unified Rules and an increase in transparency in scoring thanks to the Herculean efforts of Chris McMaster at MMADecisions.com.
What happens when judges get called in by their commission bosses? If the situation is serious, you’re talking about an administrative review of the license. The judges who smell trouble then face the prospect of having to hire an attorney to defend them at a disciplinary hearing.
When judges get outed as being incompetent or inconsistent, it ultimately reflects on certain individuals who are fighting to maintain political power and job security.
The athletic commissions and their in-house attorneys
Who gets the heat when the blame game starts over judges who get booked for fights? You guessed it: the executive directors who are at-will employees for the athletic commissions they work at.
Theoretically, the bosses are supposed to make sure that judges receiving semi-annual or annual training. Training is only one aspect of who gets booked and why.
There will always be controversy over score cards but judges are infamous for having rabbit ears. Ever attend a post-fight meeting for officials? It can be a crazy therapy session.
“Tons of nervous nellies”, as one top MMA referee put it to me in a recent interview.
If the athletic commission bosses are doing their job properly, why should they be nervous about criticism of judging or any sort of system that provides for more transparency?
Ultimately, the executive directors who oversee athletic commissions are pushed-and-pulled by various political forces over what judges get booked and for what shows. The politicization is much worse for boxing show bookings. You may get a call from the governor’s office or from a fellow athletic commission board member who needs a favor cashed in. You may be facing some sort of lawsuit, with or without merit, and part of the settlement is booking someone you really aren’t all that interested in booking any more as a judge. A promoter may make a specific request about who should get booked. Fighters may formally reject certain individuals from judging fights. The process is messy.
Executive directors don’t want to look bad. They also don’t want to get exposed for regularly booking mismatches as showcase fights. Real-time scoring exposes mismatches — and questionable judging — in a faster manner.
The commissions themselves often become insulated and risk averse because they are afraid of the people up above them — like the in-house attorneys.
Many of the athletic commissions are simply part of gigantic bureaucracies in the state capitols. The California State Athletic Commission, for instance, is under the umbrella of the behemoth known as the Department of Consumer Affairs. Even though the AC has the right to hire its own attorney, it is often DCA attorneys who control the action for important AC decisions. The management of the athletic commissions often lean on the in-house attorneys because they don’t know the law and don’t want to make waves.
It is difficult for the casual fight fan to understand that many of the major athletic commissions are simply political play toys for attorneys, lobbyists, and politicians. In my 25 years of covering combat sports, you wouldn’t believe some of the major political names micromanaging head-scratching commission decisions. Why does this happen? In the case of in-house attorneys working for an agency like Consumer Affairs, these attorneys are looking to be scandal-free and lawsuit-free in order to obtain transfers to other governmental departments, cultivate their retirement pensions, negotiate job offers from lobbyist firms, or achieve the holy grail of all goals; political appointments from the Governor’s office.
A scandal at an athletic commission, especially on judging, is sub-optimal for bureaucratic attorneys looking to keep things quiet while advancing their careers. If a lawsuit or state inquiry is initiated against an athletic commission, it immediately puts the lawyers on notice. Any discovery or interrogation can be a career killer.
None of this has anything to do with actual fighting or the actual scoring of fights on the surface, but it explains why there is such hostility to change. When one domino falls, the rest fall as well.
There is built-in resistance among certain promoters, judges, regulators, and their attorneys to open-scoring for various reasons. Then there is the big elephant in the room.
Casinos: domestic vs. offshore sportsbooks
There is too much risk and not enough downside financial guarantee for the major domestic sportsbooks in the United States to financially support betting on the real-time scoring of fights.
As one veteran boxing manager stated to me on background, domestic casinos don’t like the risk associated with prop bets on fights that have already started. There are corruption concerns. There are significant concerns about risk management. In order for the major legal sportsbooks to take the chance on allowing bets during fights with real-time scoring, they would likely have to switch to a Pari-Mutuel pool betting model like you see in horse racing. Such a shift would neutralize risk but also neutralize profit margins for the sportsbooks.
As long as there are big fights in Las Vegas, the casinos and gaming commission are going to be the main decision maker in regards to what kinds of regulation they approve of. The casinos are the ultimate marriage of the government and monied classes.
For many younger or middle-aged combat sports fans, these concerns sound ancient and out-of-date. A lot of fans growing up in the social media era have been betting on fights with the Costa Rica sportsbooks. While there are limits to how much you can bet during a fight, prop bets are plentiful. Anyone who has ever followed Fight Ghost on Twitter knows what the odds are going into each different round of a fight.
In its own unique way, the online sportsbooks have conditioned a newer generation of fight fans to the concept of open scoring. Given the demographic disparity between boxing and MMA fans, it also stands to reason that there would be a dramatic difference in attitude about real time scoring between the two main drivers of combat sports revenue.
Where things stand
It’s going to take many years before we see major promoters, casinos, and regulators embracing open-scoring of fights. They’ll be kicking and screaming to the finish line, but eventually we’re going to reach the inevitable conclusion that combat sports should be scored like every other sport on the planet.
Once the casinos give their blessings and encourage real-time scoring on fights they are financing, then the promoters will fall in line. The promoters falling in line will push the regulators and their in-house attorneys into going along for the ride and everyone will be better for it.
Hopefully none of us forget the efforts of Adam Roorbach, Sean Wheelock, Steven Graham, and those associated with the Kansas Athletic Commission in pushing forward sorely-needed change to combat sports.