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April 13, 2014

Pacquiao-Bradley I Scoring Re-Visited: Heist or Hyperbole?

by Matt O'Brien

On Saturday night, boxing will see the rematch of one of the most highly contentious decisions in recent memory. Although Timothy Bradley relieved Manny Pacquiao of his WBO title via split decision almost two years ago, it has been called a “terrible, bogus decision” (Jim Lampley), “a crime” (Harold Lederman), a “stain on boxing” (Lennox Lewis), one of “the worst decisions in boxing history” (Dan Rafael), “a highway robbery” (Jeff Mayweather), and the result of “incompetent or corrupt officials” (Teddy Atlas).

HBO’s “unofficial official” judge, Harold Lederman, had Pacquiao winning the fight 119-109, or eleven rounds to one.’s Dan Rafael had it by the same margin. The Ring Magazine’s editor, Michael Rosenthal, had Pacquiao winning by 118-110, or 10-2 in rounds. In fact, of fifty-five media writers listed on Wikipedia having scored the fight, fifty-two of them went for Pacquiao.

CompuBox punch statistics seemed to support the majority of the media and the HBO broadcasting crew: they showed Pacquiao landing a total of 253 to Bradley’s 159 punches during the fight, out-landing him in ten of the twelve rounds fought. This included 190 “power punches” to Bradley’s 108, as well as a much higher total connect rate of punches thrown (34% for the Pacman to 19% for Bradley).

Following the HBO/media led outcry after the fight, the World Boxing Organization set up an investigation into the scoring, assigning five experienced judges to watch the bout and score every round. Judges do not, of course, have the luxury of scoring the fight as one whole, homogenous entity, and it is therefore the individual round tallies that tell the true story of the scoring of a fight. Consequently, by comparing each of the five investigative judges’ scorecards for the twelve individual rounds with the original three judges, in this way it becomes much clearer to see if a judge is doing a “poor” job of scoring, because they will typically be in a minority when selecting the winner of any given round. In a normal fight, a judge will only be in a minority of two-to-one when disagreeing with their colleagues; in the context of this investigation, however, they could potentially be in a minority of seven-to-one – a far stronger indicator that they had not selected the correct winner.

If this occurs with any amount of frequency throughout the fight, it is safe to conclude that he or she is doing a pretty terrible job. On the flip side, if a judge frequently agrees with the majority of the other judges, we can safely conclude that they are doing a fairly decent job of scoring the fight. Assuming this is true, where one or more judges score a fighter the winner of a round, it seems reasonable that at the very least, a case could be made for this fighter winning the round. Whereas, when there is unanimous agreement among the judges, this can fairly be called a decisive round in that boxer’s favour: no reasonable case can even be made for the opponent winning.

Interestingly, of the combined panel of eight judges scoring the fight (three at ringside plus the five independent judges assigned to investigate) they only unanimously agreed on two rounds that Manny Pacquiao won (rounds three and six) and on one round that Bradley won (round ten). Put differently: eight experienced, world-class judges could not agree on nine of the twelve rounds scored, and at least one judge thought that Bradley did enough to win (i.e. a “case could be made for him”) in ten of the twelve rounds scored. Taking out the original three judges from the analysis for a moment (because they might be “bad”), we still find only five rounds that the investigative panel unanimously scored as winning rounds for Pacquiao – less than half of the fight. This is at odds with the notion that Pacquiao dominated the majority of the rounds in any kind of decisive fashion.

Is there any reason to be so cynical and take out the original three judges from our analysis though – i.e., did any of them turn in a card that was “regularly at odds with the majority of the panel”? The evidence says no.

Taking the scape-goat, C. J Ross as an example (she scored the fight 115-113 or 7-5 in rounds for Bradley), there was not a single round in the fight where she was completely isolated in her opinion of the scoring: in twelve of the twelve rounds scored, at least one of the other seven judges agreed with her assessment. In fact, in eight of the twelve rounds scored C. J Ross had at least three of the five investigative judges agreeing with her, and at least one of them agreeing with her in eleven out of twelve rounds. According to the investigation, she was therefore part of the majority opinion of the panel most of the time in her scoring. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from this is that she did not (at least on this night) forward a card anywhere near as terrible as has been suggested in the time since.

As for the other judges – Duane Ford and Jerry Roth, respectively – we see a similar story. Jerry Roth did not find himself being isolated in his scoring for a single round during the fight, and compared against the whole panel of seven other judges (under the incredible presumption that the original judges were, after all, doing an honest job) Roth’s assessment constituted the majority opinion of the group in every round except round eleven, which was evenly divided among the eight officials. It’s safe to say, therefore, that Jerry Roth had a pretty good day at the office. It also seems to be a strong indicator that his card was the most reliable reading of the fight as a whole (he had Pacquiao winning 115-113, or 7-5 in rounds).

Ironically it was Duane Ford – lauded as the “dean of boxing judges” by Harold Lederman just half an hour before the fight – who actually found himself in the minority opinion more often than any of his colleagues (he also scored the fight 115-113 or 7-5 in rounds, but for Bradley). He still found that at least one other judge from the total group of seven agreed with him on ten occasions throughout the fight though – a strong indication that even where he was in the minority, a case could at least be made for his reading of the round.

Perhaps bravely, considering the scale of the media backlash from the fight, Ford agreed to go on to Jim Lampley’s Fight Game show in order to face the music in what was likely to be a very public dressing down. Ford was far from an easy target though: he is the man who helped to write the Association of Boxing Commissions official certification program for judges and referees, including the guidelines on how to score a fight. According to Lederman’s description of him prior to the fight, “he teaches all the courses that boxing judges take in Nevada and among the sanctioning bodies, so you can’t get a better recommendation – I don’t think we could get a better judge anywhere”. It was no surprise then that he did such an admirable job of defending his position on the scoring and throwing the ball firmly back at Lampley’s feet:

You wanna keep in mind here that the combined world title fights of the three judges involved in this fight were in excess of three hundred and fifty – they’re not trainees… there’s a misunderstanding I believe in the boxing community that the same criteria that you use for amateurs is used on the professionals – it’s not.

This sounded a lot like a reference to HBO’s emphasis on Compubox punch stats, which do not always provide the most accurate story of the fight. What Compubox does well (we assume) is to provide an objective measure of how many punches are thrown and landed in a boxing match. In terms of professional judging though, this constitutes only one part of a wider scoring philosophy. What Compubox does not do is provide an accurate reflection of all of the criteria that the judges are actually adhering to (which also include effective aggression, defence, and ring general ship). In this sense, it can be a dangerously flawed tool in assessing the winner of a professional fight.

It was Lampley who, somewhat ironically, presented a fine illustration of this during his Fight Game examination of the scoring. He took the time to highlight that in round seven, Compubox showed that Bradley had been out-landed by 27 punches to 11, and then played the round back without the accompanying commentary, inviting viewers to score it themselves. “All three judges scored that round for Bradley. Smoking gun? You decide”, he stated after playing the video. The exercise was certainly intended to provide a smoking gun – but it ended up having the complete opposite effect of what Lampley intended.

First of all, attempting my own count of the punches, I had Bradley landing around 24-25 blows, with Pacquiao landing about 25-26. So while I had about the same number that Compubox counted for Pacquiao, I found more than double the number they counted for Bradley. The lessons that can be drawn from this are (1) “counting punches” is a much harder task than it seems, because on many occasions it is not easy to tell whether a clean punch even landed, or if it grazed the target or was partially blocked; (2) the Compubox punch stats should, at best, be taken with a pinch of salt; and (3) regardless of whether you add or subtract a few punches from each fighter’s punch count, round seven was clearly a close, competitive round with both fighters landing and (crucially) missing many punches. Two out of five judges on the WBO’s investigative panel in fact chose Bradley as the winner (agreeing with the original judges) in this round, while three went with Pacquiao. Which is pretty much the definition of a round that “could have gone either way” – contrary to what Jim Lampley and the Compubox stats suggested.

Ford ended his interview with some politely spoken, yet not so thinly veiled criticism of the HBO team themselves:

And I say Jim that a lot of the things that a boxing judge sees during a round is not translated well across the airwaves, it doesn’t even translate sometimes with what you’re describing happened in the round

It is easy to see what Ford means here. Lampley himself had one of his poorer showings during the Pac-Bradley fight, consistently praising Pacquiao for landing left-hands that missed, and failing to acknowledge many of Bradley’s scoring punches. Here is one rather critical (comical?) analysis of the HBO team’s performance that night (warning: it does not make for kind viewing if you are a Lampley fan).

To take an example that neatly illustrates Ford’s above point, at the conclusion of the fight HBO showed a highlight reel of Pacquiao hitting Bradley repeatedly with left hands. “Manny Pacquiao’s left hand, Emmanuel Steward, dominated this fight”, stated Lampley, conclusively. Manny Steward corrected him, replying that, “after the first few rounds he never could land it consistently, he could land it every once in a while, but usually, most of the time Bradley was moving away from the punches – and he never could land it solidly, after these first two right here”. Lampley then went over to get Harold Lederman’s opinion, who stated that Pacquiao’s left hand “was the determining factor in each and every round”. Both of them were seemingly oblivious to the fact that Steward had just contradicted them by pointing out that the graphic did not, in fact, show Pacquiao landing the left hand with any consistency after the first few rounds. Steward’s astute observation matched almost perfectly with what judge Ford later stated on Lampley’s show, saying, “the first six rounds, clearly Pacquiao was the winner… and then in the later rounds, I thought he tired, his punches were missing a bit.”

What all this amounts to is that Pacquiao-Bradley I was a boxing match containing many close, indecisive rounds where a case could be made for both fighters. The WBO panel set up to investigate the outcome ultimately thought that Pacquiao won the fight, with all five judges unanimously scoring it in his favour – and we should accept their conclusion that he deserved to be the overall winner. However, the wider point in the context of the whole scoring controversy is that they could not agree on exactly how he won the fight: the majority of individual rounds were actually disputed among the judges. It was a similar story all over the internet: almost everyone in the media seemed to agree that Pacquiao deserved to win the fight as a whole, but hardly anyone could agree on exactly which rounds he won beyond dispute, and which ones Bradley “nicked”. These are points that get lost far too frequently among all the hyperbole and HBO hoopla that has been spouted over the two years since the fight.

Far from being a “highway robbery”, all of the evidence actually suggests that the match was a classic example of what we should expect a difficult fight to score to look like – with frequent disputes among the judges and barely any individual rounds unanimously agreed upon. Manny Pacquiao may have been on the end of a wrong decision then – even a controversial, unusual decision – but he was by no means on the end of a corrupt or outrageous decision. More fans, I think, ought to bear that in mind before calling the integrity of the judges or the sport as a whole into question.

This article was published by, April 12, 2014

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