How Kansas and Invicta FC brought the idea of open scoring in MMA to life


KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Standing in the corner between the fourth and fifth rounds of the Invicta FC Phoenix Series 3 main event on March 6, Abel Briceno thought his fighter, Lisa Verzosa, was in good shape to win the vacant bantamweight title. Then he saw the score.

Julija Stoliarenko was up 39-36 and 39-37 on two cards; Verzosa led 39-37 on the third.

Open scoring was being implemented for the first time in MMA in the United States and as Briceno looked at a black tablet held by an inspector behind his fighter, he went from assuming they could continue their current strategy to knowing things needed to change.

“You have to go for the kill,” Briceno said to Verzosa. “You are down, and the only way to get this win is if we get the kill.”

Had Briceno not seen the score, he admits he wouldn’t have said that. Instead, he probably would have told Verzosa they were in control of the fight.

“I actually knew that in the last round I had to pick it up,” Verzosa said.

Although Verzosa understood the challenge, she couldn’t find a finish and lost by split decision.

Stoliarenko, the new champion, was annoyed by the split decision — judging remains judging — but the Kansas athletic commission had achieved its goal. On a quiet night in Kansas in front of a couple hundred fans, a blueprint was established. Open scoring had become a reality.

THE IDEA HAD been talked about for years, but was greenlit by the commission 24 hours before it would become a topic of national conversation. There were multiple controversial decisions at UFC 247 on Feb. 8, including in the main event between Jon Jones and Dominick Reyes.

At the end of Invicta 39, the day before UFC 247, Invicta promoter Shannon Knapp and Kansas athletic commission executive director Adam Roorbach had discussed whether to allow fighters to know the score during a fight. Knapp wanted to be the first to do it in professional MMA.

Some boxing events organized by the WBC have tested this concept, primarily in Asia. Under those guidelines, scores are released after the fourth and eighth rounds, then when the fight ends.

Roorbach had a different approach in mind, and a month to prepare, figure logistics and convince his bosses at the Kansas Department of Commerce to take a chance on what could become MMA innovation. Roorbach’s bosses approved the limited expenditures for the equipment — two Samsung tablets and a WiFi hotspot — to make it happen.

Knapp had stipulations. She didn’t want the scores announced via public address, she wanted a streamlined process to try and avoid human error, and she didn’t want to place a hindrance on the fighters or corners. If a team didn’t want to know the score, it didn’t have to.

Fighters came out in support. Megan Anderson, a former Invicta fighter now in the UFC who provided analysis on Friday night’s card, was all for it.

“This is at least a step in the right direction because this at least takes some control back to the athlete,” Anderson said. “Personally, as a competitor, I would want to know. Going into that third round, if it’s super close, I would want to know. Because if I need to change my game plan or I need to come out and really push the action — look for a Hail Mary because I’m down two rounds — I would want to know, and that’s the competitor in me.”

A DAY BEFORE the event, Roorbach repeated a message over and over: “This is not to fix bad judging. This is not for anything like that,” Roorbach said to a collection of fighters and coaches. “You guys literally have your careers and lives on the line here, you deserve to know the score. No one’s been able to give me a really good reason why you shouldn’t know the score.”

As he said this in a nondescript room at the Hyatt Place by Kansas City’s airport, hands shot up. There were questions.

  • Would the scoring system be the same? Yes.

  • When would the trainers see the scores? Scores would be held behind the fighters, but in clear view of the corners between rounds.

  • What discourages fighters who are up from running? They would be at risk of a 10-8 round, but in theory, nothing.

  • Would the public know? Yes, but only after the next round began since scores would be included as part of the televised broadcast, which was also streamed inside the venue.

  • Would the fighters know outside of the information given to them from their corners? No, that was a promotional decision to, as Knapp explained, “protect the athlete’s interest if they had no interest in knowing.”

Judges would be seated so they couldn’t easily see the other scores. They would get a feed of the fight without graphics, so likely would not be influenced by their peer’s decisions.

Roorbach’s plan was discussed one more time. After the round an inspector would collect the scores from two judges. The third judge, sitting next to Roorbach, would hand it to him. The inspector then delivers the scores to Roorbach, who inputs the data onto the Google spreadsheet. When he does, those populate to tablets held by two inspectors standing outside the cage, behind each fighter. The inspector then turns the tablet to show the corner person — but not the fighter — the score.

Before the group separates, one last warning comes from Roorbach: No matter what, don’t go after any judges about the scores.

ROORBACH ARRIVED AT the venue at 2:15 p.m. Friday and began to test one last time. He typed scores into his computer, saw it pop up on the tablets and breathed a little easier.

Kelly Clayton and Kay Hansen, two fighters on the card, arrived for a walkthrough. Former UFC champion Max Holloway, who has long encouraged the initiative, showed up to support a commission taking a chance on change.

“It’s so crazy, you know,” Holloway said. “You hear all the time, ‘What is the judge thinking?’ … Or what is the [fighter] thinking, why is he not pushing? And I just think and support this because it is a step in the right direction.”

Holloway and his team would watch the event cageside. If this is going to grow beyond Kansas, the outspoken Holloway could be a reason why. However, Holloway’s boss, UFC president Dana White, hasn’t supported the idea just yet.

Bellator MMA is keeping an open mind.

“At this time, there is not enough existing evidence to determine the impact – for better or worse – that open scoring could potentially have on MMA judging,” the organization said in a statement to ESPN’s Marc Raimondi. “However, we would have no issue working with an athletic commission that chose to implement open scoring, given that this is a matter overseen by the regulatory bodies of the sport.

ROORBACK USED THE early, one-round tournament fights to run his final test. He timed his inspector getting around the cage and collecting scores, each time clocking in between 30 and 35 seconds after the horn.

At 9:01 p.m., minutes before Hansen and Liana Ferreira Pirosin stepped into the cage to be the first-ever openly scored MMA bout in the United States, Roorbach finally stopped making adjustments.

He watched Hansen and Pirosin throughout the first round. With 1:30 left, he started saying, “no whammies, no whammies.” For his system to be implemented — for history to happen — he needed a fight to get to the second round. He invoked Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man,” in the final seconds.

The horn sounded. The team went into action. He received the scores, entered all three into the computer, 10-9 favor of Hansen, and was relieved when he didn’t receive a “problem” signal from either inspector holding the tablets.

By the second fight, his crew worked seamlessly. They showed scores to the corners a little more than 30 seconds after a round was completed. The judges, as desired, couldn’t see the scores on the projectors. It’s unclear how many fans saw it because of how quickly the scores flashed on the televised broadcast.

Little signs showed his experiment worked. The tone of the chatter from the corners was different. Coaches explained the reality of the fight clearly: “Three minutes to finish,” if behind, or, “one minute of discipline,” if they were ahead. The knowledge changed the approach in the fight.

THE TEAM REGROUPED after the card for a largely positive post-mortem.

There were no significant glitches, just a short, secondslong delay in one of the scores reaching one tablet, noticed by no one other than Roorbach.

All teams had opted in to know the score, and the fighters seemed pleased. Roorbach is planning to offer open scoring in a bare knuckle boxing event in Wichita to keep momentum going.

If there was one criticism, it was figuring out what information corners desired. Some wanted cumulative total, which was provided during Friday’s Invicta card. Both Holloway and Briceno separately suggested they would want to know only the just-completed round. Let them decide if they want to do the math.

In their eyes, it would be easier to tell a fighter what is working or what to change based on an in-the-moment score rather than a bout-long one. It’s also easier to control information and figure how to make up ground.

“I would like to see the individual rounds rather than collective,” Briceno said. “Maybe having the option of choosing per team would be the way to go.”

Roorbach processed the criticism. He knows he’ll have another chance.

While preparing for his drive home to Topeka, a smile crept across Roorbach’s face.

“From a commission standpoint, from my standpoint, it went well,” Roorbach said. “The technology worked. Getting the information to the fighters worked. Judges’ scores are what they are.

“We said all along, this isn’t meant to fix any kind of judging. This is just to get the information to the fighters, and universally the fighters were incredibly pleased with what they had.”

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