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Last Friday, I witnessed one of the most shameful robberies in my 26 years of watching mixed martial arts. At Invicta FC 44, Jessica Correa Delboni swept all five rounds against champion Alesha Zappitella. She successfully defended every single Zappitella takedown attempt and beat her up on the feet with superior striking in all five stanzas. It was about as convincing as a win gets at atomweight, where knockouts are rare. There isn't any dispute about this, as a trip to MMA Decisions shows that 100% of fans and media scored the fight in the challenger’s favor. Furthermore, well over 80% scored it either 50-45 or 49-46 for Delboni, the only question being whether Zappitella could charitably be given a single round. Three people, however, disagreed: the cageside judges. Even David Sutherland's card, 48-47 Delboni, is shameful, but the 48-47 scores in favor of Zappitella turned in by Kevin Champion and Steven Graham were downright criminal.
Too often, when talking about robberies, one notes the injustice and stops there. But let's go further. What are the consequences of this decision for everyone involved?
For Delboni, it's a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Not only was she robbed of a victory she rightly deserved and given an unmerited loss on her record, but it severely harms her career. There isn't much money or stability at 105 pounds, a division which doesn't exist in either the Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bellator MMA. Becoming Invicta FC champion could have led to bigger fights and more paydays, possibly facing the top atomweights in Rizin Fighting Federation. Now all that is gone and it's unclear whether she will even be brought back to the organization. Not that anyone would blame her for declining after her experience with the judges. There is a very real human cost to robberies for men and women that put their heart, soul and body on the line in a fight, and it's what makes them so appalling and necessary to call out.
Another consequence is that this travesty should thoroughly kill the idea that open scoring in any way minimizes or prevents bad decisions. Open scoring was in effect here and it certainly didn't stop any of the judges. The commentary team was initially baffled when two of three judges gave the first round to Zappitella and dumbstruck when all three gave the second to her, with Megan Anderson even outright stating she disagreed. However, by the end of the fight, they had largely condoned or rationalized the results, stating that it was “really close” and not mentioning any disagreement when Zappitella was announced as the winner. Now, very likely they were being polite and tactful towards both the ringside judges and Zappitella, but this is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Robberies must be called out and denounced in as loud and forceful a manner as one can, because not only do they harm careers and livelihoods, but their taint threatens the entire organization and even the very sport itself.
If this last point seems overdramatic, consider the sport of boxing. Many die-hard fans, myself included, largely tuned out after a seemingly never-ending series of robberies in which the heavily favored, “money” pugilist, no matter how badly he or she was beaten or even dominated in the ring, would reliably win the decision. In a vacuum, none of the individual robberies was enough to cause fans to stop watching. But once a critical mass was reached, they left. Personally, despite how much I love boxing, I find it impossible to seriously care about any fight results, and I can't imagine ever buying a pay-per-view or a ticket, both of which I've gladly done for MMA. There are millions like me.
Bad judges’ decisions happen in every organization. It's the duty of the commentators and the promoter to denounce it and try to keep it from happening again. For as much as I've criticized Dana White, he is generally good in this regard, calling out bad decisions at post-fight press conferences, and UFC commentators regularly express strong disagreement with a verdict, even if they regrettably never go the full fire-and-brimstone Teddy Atlas route. And while the UFC is still plagued by its fair share of bad scorecards, my feeling is that judging has overall slightly improved over the years.
By not condemning or even questioning the disgusting decision, Invicta instead gives the impression that they are fine with it. And if that's the case, why should anyone ever get excited or invested in any championship fight in that organization ever again? That's yet another consequence, and it is only amplified by the fact that both of the judges who scored Friday’s fight for Zappitella are Kansas City locals and a regular presence at Invicta events.
And while it wasn't a headliner in either the UFC or Bellator, it was a title fight for, at worst, the second most prestigious belt in its weight class worldwide. A judges’ robbery in such a fight absolutely hurts the entire sport. Anyone who saw it is unlikely to ever forget it when thinking about mixed martial arts as a whole. There is an association, however slight, between the disgrace and a wonderful, proud sport, an association which is at risk of becoming stronger with each new robbery. Hopefully, the caretakers of MMA recognize the potential danger here and avoid the same pitfall that has largely killed boxing, because Delboni-Zappitella was as bad as anything I've ever seen.