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December 30, 2016

Five Myths About Judging Fights

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on on December 22nd, 2016:

In the aftermath of the unanimous decision for Andre Ward over Sergey Kovalev, a lot of attention has been focused on the scorecards turned in by the 3 ringside judges, with the usual barbs being tossed around on social media about “corrupt officials” and a so-called “robbery”. While the decision was certainly a controversial one and everyone is entitled to their opinion, there’s several scoring clichés that could do with a healthy dose of reality. Here are five of the most common to be aware of:

  1. “You have to take the belt from the champion”

This is a favourite slogan of commentators, trainers, promoters and fans posing under the guise of being “traditionalists”. It seems to be wheeled out by boxing wise guys every time a champion loses his title by close, ugly or boring decision (see the recent Kovalev-Ward fallout as a prime example). The basic idea is that the challenger needs to conclusively “rip” the belt from the champion; just scraping by is never enough. How exactly this bias against the challenger finds its way onto the actual scorecards is not fully explained, rather it’s just assumed that close fights should always be scored in favour of the champ.

In fact, judges are supposed to score each stanza on its own merits: both contestants begin every round on zero, with the winner being awarded 10 points and the loser 9 or less. Points are allocated based solely on the action that occurs during those 3 minutes, and at the end of the fight the round scores are totalled to find the overall winner. At no time are the judges instructed to award extra points to the belt holder for simply being the belt holder. So, where does the challenger’s disadvantage in the scoring come from then? As my American friends would say, “You do the math.”

  1. “My opinion can’t be wrong because scoring is, like, totally subjective”

Of course, debating close fights and rounds is all part of the fun of being a boxing fan, but we can only take the subjectivity of scoring so far. There might not be a “correct” or “incorrect” answer in the strictest sense about who won a given round, but it doesn’t follow that any old interpretation can be justified. Judges don’t get to just submit any score they like without consequence or without understanding how it relates to the scoring criteria – and neither, therefore, should you.

In practice, boxing commissions train judges to apply the criteria as best they can in a consistent manner. If a judge submits a horribly skewed card or is frequently at odds with their colleagues in the scoring, this serves as a fairly reliable indicator that they aren’t doing a good job of it. In theory, they’ll then be brought before the commission in order to justify their scores and may be required to undergo further training, or possibly even be suspended altogether (though this probably doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should do).

In other words, if you want to justify a decent scorecard, screaming, “it’s my SUBJECTIVE OPINION!” on Twitter doesn’t really help, unfortunately (yep – even with the caps lock on).

  1. “Of course my guy won – he was the one making the fight!”

In football you can’t win if you don’t score a goal, and likewise in boxing you can’t win if you don’t throw a punch (despite the myth you might have heard about Willie Pep winning a round without doing so). That being said, you shouldn’t be awarding rounds (or a fight) to someone just because he’s the one on the attack and throwing more punches. Aggressive fighters might be more exciting to watch, but judges aren’t scoring on excitement, they’re scoring on effectiveness. For example, the Association of Boxing Commissions’ Official Certification Program for Judges and Referees state that:

“Determination should not be mistaken for aggressiveness when one boxer continuously moves forward boring in on the opponent regardless of the number of punches being received. If an attack is not effective, the boxer cannot receive credit for it.

So while you might think that watching a Floyd Mayweather or Guillermo Rigondeaux fight is an excellent cure for insomnia, sorry – you don’t get to score rounds against them just because the other guy was chasing them all over the ring swinging at fresh air.

  1. “It was a close fight; it should never have been scored so widely”

Two guys fight their hearts out for 12 competitive rounds; they hug at the bell after shedding blood sweat and tears; it has to be close on the cards, right? The winner is announced, and it’s a wide or unanimous decision. Cue a sea of incredulous screwed faces and rants about how the judges “must’ve been watching a different fight”.

The reaction is honest enough, but it’s not necessarily accurate, for the simple reason that judges award points on a round-by-round basis – they don’t submit a score for the contest as a whole entity. And since the 10-point must system does not differentiate between rounds that are “nicked” and those that are decisively taken, often this can create a gulf between the judges’ final tallies and our overall perception of a fight. As per the Association of Boxing Commissions’ guidelines:

“At the conclusion of the round, the contestant who has won the round, no matter how minute the margin, is entitled to that round.  The difference might have been a single jab, or a defensive move, yet it was still enough to give that boxer the edge.”

Consequently, if one boxer “edges” several rounds he gets all the credit for them, even when this produces scorecards much wider than we intuitively feel should be the case. Consider again the recent Kovalev-Ward fight: Ward won the last 6 rounds on all 3 judges’ cards, except the final round where a single judge went with Kovalev. “NO WAY Ward dominated the second half of the fight like that!” went the Twitterverse outcry. Of course, he didn’t need to “dominate” the fight in order to “dominate” the scoring: he just needed to do enough to edge each round. Perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so incredulous or surprised that they were scored as an effective whitewash after all, then.

  1. “Judges are all corrupt and/or incompetent”

You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s so blindingly obvious that the officials in boxing are all rotten to the core that only a poor, naïve soul like myself could think otherwise. Here’s a crazy idea though: most judges are not actually on the payroll of some unscrupulous, mafia-type figures lurking in boxing’s dark shadows, and in fact the vast majority of them do an honest, decent job.

Think about it: we live in a world of smart phones, spy cameras and electronic bank trails. The boxing swamp is brimming with pesky, prying journalists, bloodthirsty, litigious lawyers and spiteful, disgruntled promoters. Any one of them (and a host more people like them) would pounce at the slightest sniff of a conspiracy.

So, if so many judges out there are on the take, you have to wonder: why aren’t there any undercover, “fake Sheikh” sting operations in the news? Where are all the secret recordings of clandestine meetings and brown envelopes stuffed full of cash being passed under the table? How come there are no pictures of boxing judges driving around in a Ferrari or sunning it up in Hawaii after that “outrageous” card they turned in once on a Don King show? In all the years of dodgy decisions, why hasn’t anyone gone on to snitch to the tabloids to earn themselves a quick buck? The only sensible conclusion is that we don’t have the concrete evidence because the corruption simply isn’t the endemic problem it is made out to be in the aftermath of a high profile controversy.

“Well, what about Pac-Bradley I?” I hear you cry. Isn’t that all the proof we need that judges are all crooked? Not exactly, no. Aside from the fact that the decision was nowhere near as scandalous as originally made out, we also have to remember that “bad” decisions like this one are, statistically, a tiny drop in the ocean compared with the number of perfectly reasonable, unspectacular ones that go largely unnoticed week in, week out. Unfortunately, “Another Reasonable Boxing Decision” just doesn’t make for a very catchy headline, whereas reports of the latest “robbery” make for easy click-bait and get splashed all over the news. The bigger the event, the more the story is magnified, and the more ingrained the notion of boxing as a bent sport becomes.

Closing Thoughts…

It’s easy to assume the worst about the anonymous faces delivering a verdict we don’t like, especially if we are emotionally invested in the outcome of a contest. In 2016, it’s easier still to scream obscenities at them from behind a keyboard. It’s important to remember though that judges have spent countless hours training and practicing their job, and they sit just a few feet from the ring with their sole focus on scoring the action in front of them. They aren’t at Dave’s house shouting at the TV after knocking back a few Budweisers, arguing about the ball game earlier that day while scribbling their score on the back of some rolling paper.

Of course, even honest judges are going to have a bad day at the office from time to time, and there may even be a very significant minority of genuinely corrupt ones out there somewhere. But concluding that the vast majority of them frequently and deliberately defraud the sport ought to require a lot more evidence than pointing to a few closely contested rounds, and regurgitating old, flawed scoring clichés to call the integrity of the officials into question every time there is a mildly controversial decision also doesn’t do the image or long-term health of boxing any favours.

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