Fighters are our modern-day gladiators. One by one they walk out to the roar of the crowd and step into ring— all-too willing to put their lives on the line — to test their skill, will and determination. On many nights, the two combatants go at it until the final bell— leaving the fate of the bout in the hands of the judges. The anticipation follows. At times, the electricity is so thick you can cut it with a knife— it’s what makes boxing so special. Then finally: The decision, and all-too often, the letdown— call it the “Battle After the Bell.”
“Bad decisions” have almost become synonymous with boxing. Some of the more egregious decisions have even evoked cries of “a fix.” Far too often the judges’ scorecards have left fans scratching their heads asking, “what were they watching?”
Pat Lamparelli is a former amateur and professional judge in Nevada, who got his start in the 1980’s. He dismissed any conspiracy theory talk but isn’t shy about pointing the blame, “A lot of the people that are judges right now, should not be judges— they are ruining the sport of boxing and that’s because they’re not educated on what to see and what to judge.”
No doubt, you could hear those familiar cries of frustration last weekend. Former Featherweight World Champion Nicholas Walters took on Jason Sosa in Verona, New York. It was a tough and entertaining fight— with both guys landing some good shots— but in the end there seemed to be no doubt Walters won most, if not all, of the rounds. Lets just say there appeared to be little to no anticipation to the final outcome. Then came “The Official Decision.” The judges scored it a majority draw. In fact, two of them had it a draw and the third had Sosa winning 96-94. This reporter scored it 99-91 in favor of Walters. The CompuBox numbers showed Walters landed more than 110 more punches and landed at more than double the percentage rate.
Another case of bad judging came on a much bigger stage: The Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight in Las Vegas in June of 2012. Nearly everyone, including pugilistic pundits, fair-weather boxing fans and everyone in between, had it an easy victory for the Filipino star. But Bradley was awarded the majority decision. Two of the judges had Bradley winning 115-113, the other had it 115-113 for Pacquiao. The nearly universal outcry over the scorecards was deafening afterwards— in fact you still hear the cries of “robbery” more than three years later.
So why do we see this kind of robbery over and over again? Is it incompetence by the judges? A lack of training for the judges? Corruption tied to the “powers that be” in the sport of boxing? Or, maybe, it just boils down to the fact that scoring is subjective— a case of the old adage: “eye of the beholder.”
Lamparelli says in his day prospective amateur judges were given written tests and they practiced scoring fights alongside the official judges of fights. If trainees showed consistent competence in scoring then they would get referred to judge a fight. The testing never focused on the four criteria for scoring a boxing match, “They should have had classes to judge.” As for the pros, Pat says, “The Nevada Boxing Commission picks a number of judges for a fight— the promoters and the camps for the fighters can contest any of the names thrown into the pool.“ From there the three judges are picked.
Former WBC Featherweight Champion, Kevin Kelley, currently moonlights as a color commentator for HBO. He has a different take about the onus of the blame behind controversial decisions. “I feel the difference in judging live events is the angles— where the judges are sitting. They can miss some of the action depending on where they are sitting— that’s why I’m in favor of having monitors for the judges ringside.”
There’s another side to the controversy over scorecards in boxing. Case in point: the Miguel Cotto-Canelo Alvarez fight in Las Vegas in November. Alvarez won a unanimous decision— the judges scored it— 119-109, 118-110 and 117-111. The fight was compelling, competitive and entertaining but for most people it appeared to be a clear victory for the Mexican superstar. Just minutes after the fight, some of the journalists in the media room at the Mandalay Bay seemed perplexed. Several of them had it much closer — some had it a draw or, at best, a razor-thin decision for Canelo.
All this begs the question—do people know the four criteria for judging a boxing match? Boxing analyst James “Smitty” Smith has asked this very question for decades, “There is a lack of understanding of the criteria for scoring a fight— most people I ask can’t name them.” As for the judges, “Most just don’t have enough boxing experience and they aren’t held accountable for poor scoring after the fight.”
So lets break it down. The four criteria for judging are “clean punching”, “effective aggression”, “ring generalship” and “defense.” “Clean” punches are punches that land on the face, side of the head, and the front and side of the torso. “Effective Aggression” is when a boxer consistently and successfully moves forward in a controlled manner. “Ring Generalship” refers to the fighter who controls the pace and style of the bout. Boxers also receive credit for “Defense” when they skillfully incorporate defensive maneuvers.
Amateur and professional trainer Steve Rowlands thinks a lot of things come into play when it comes to controversial decisions, “Watching fights live and watching them on TV are different— the commentary of the announcers can influence how people score. It can also depend on what style a judge likes— some can prefer fighters who are more aggressive while others can like a different style.” Rowlands added another wrinkle to the story, “You can rig a fight without actually get paid-off.” He claims it is not coincidence that some fighters have consistently been awarded close decisions, “I noticed the same American judges and referees were being asked to work fights years ago— especially in Europe— and lets just say they know where their bread is buttered.”
Think about it— fans watch football, baseball and hockey, and at any time they know the “official” score. It’s right there on the scoreboard. Not so in boxing. It is a sport where the fan doesn’t know the score until the end— whether by knockout or decision. Here’s some food for thought: some people might argue that the time waiting for the judges’ decision—and whether they, the fan, feels the decision is “just”— is all part of the drama and lure of boxing.
“The sweet science” could very well be the most subjective of all the major sports and that’s not going to change. Fans and judges often see what they see— whether watching live or on a TV in the comfort of their home. What can be changed is “proper training”— educating the viewer on what to look for and what not to look for when it comes to properly scoring a fight. Smitty says, “It’s one thing to know the four criteria and it’s another to know what it means and how to apply it.” Don’t we owe it to our gladiators for an equally courageous and just outcome!
Boxing Fight Night Correspondent