How to End Controversial Boxing Decisions
“You can’t go by what the computer says,” veteran trainer and TV color man Teddy Atlas bellowed after the thrilling and highly disputed middleweight championship fight between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin on Sept. 15, won in a razor-close decision by Alvarez. “Those are human beings in the ring, not machines. You can’t go by the numbers.”
Boxing is the last sport where people say, “The numbers don’t count.” The last sport where they fail to grasp that the numbers reflect what’s happening in front of their eyes.
It's time to change this.
Marquess of Queensberry Rules
John L. Sullivan and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett fought the first heavyweight championship bout under the Marquess of Queensberry rules in 1892.
The Queensberry guidelines instituted several key changes, including three-minute rounds and the technical knockout, but the biggest change was requiring the fighters to wear gloves. This move was not, as commonly thought, for humanitarian purposes to protect the fighters. It was to protect their hands and make them more of a weapon.
Boxing became a much more civilized sport under Queensberry, but since then, no one has ever been quite sure how a fight that does not end in a knockout should be judged.
A Matter of Opinion
The first Alvarez-Golovkin fight on Sept. 16, 2017, ended in a controversial split draw. In the wake of the uproar over this second fight, I thought of a passage my father often quoted from “Joe Williams TV Boxing Book,” published in 1954:
“Whether scoring by rounds [the winner of a round gets a point] or the Ten Point Must rule [the winner is awarded at least 10 points for taking a round, the loser gets 9 unless something extreme happens such as a knockdown, in which the loser gets just 8], the plain truth is that one system is about as good as another. Vastly more important than the system is the competence and honesty of the men who interpret it."
“There has never been and never will be devised a system by which satisfactory fight decisions can be reached. The matter of who wins or loses in a ring contest not terminated by a knockout must always come down to opinion. And no system is going to make an incompetent official competent, or a dishonest official honest, whether he scores by rounds, by points, or by promptings from the spiritual world.”
Criteria for Scoring a Fight
So how is a judge supposed to evaluate two boxers’ performance against each other? Here are the criteria that judges are supposed to use in scoring fights:
— Clean punching
— Effective aggressiveness
— Ring generalship
The wording may vary with locale, but essentially these are the guidelines used by judges in all states, including Nevada, site of Golovkin-Alvarez II.
Let’s take them one at a time.
“Clean” means two things: not below the belt or in the back of the head (rabbit punches) and not deflected by arms and shoulders.
This is the one guideline that I can say unequivocally makes sense.
Some committee must have come up with this one.
Obviously, aggressiveness should be effective, or what use is it?
No one would score for ineffective aggression.
Isn’t effective aggression part of clean punching?
This is the silliest standard ever dreamed up for scoring a fight.
What in the hell is ring generalship?
Did you ever see a fight where one guy was scoring all the big punches, but you thought the other guy was ahead because he had better “ring generalship”?
If ever there was a phrase in boxing invented to start sour, unwinnable arguments, it’s “ring generalship.”
Isn’t landing the better punches enough of an indication of ring generalship?
I’d be the last one to argue that defense isn’t vitally important in boxing.
The first thing I was told years ago when I got in the ring with a Philadelphia Police Athletic League instructor was “defend yourself at all times.”
Defense is half of boxing, but how do you score it? You can’t.
Or you simply measure it this way: The guy who hits the other guy with the most hard, clean punches is the better defensive fighter because he didn’t get hit with as many hard, clean punches.
Where's the Objectivity?
Effective aggressiveness, ring generalship and defense are — or should all be seen as — means to an end, which is landing the most hard, clean punches.
The reason we have bad decisions is fuzzy thinking about exactly what a fight is supposed to be.
What should be obvious is that judging fights should be based as much as possible on objective fact.
Which leads to this: Why is there resistance to the CompuBox punch stats?
Numbers Don't Lie
One old-time boxing writer told me that he thought punch stats were “too subjective” to judge a fight.
Too subjective? Aren’t “effective aggression” and “ring generalship” pure subjectivity?
Whether or not the numbers are 100 percent accurate, they’re the closest thing to objectivity that exists in boxing — except for a knockout, of course.
Punch stats do not lie, and smart scorers like HBO’s Harold Lederman — consistently, I think, the best scorer around — uses the CompuBox numbers to validate his judgement.
Why shouldn’t everyone else?
CompuBox wasn’t designed to replace the scorers’ judgement but to aid it.
The system was developed in 1984-85 by three men, two of them from the now-defunct Sports Information Data Base (SIDB).
Its first use in a professional fight was in 1985, the Livingstone Bramble-Ray Mancini rematch.
CompuBox was designed to count every punch thrown and every punch landed to calculate, as closely as possible, the number of punches that land cleanly and with power.
Here’s how it works: Two operators are at ring side. Each watches a fighter and keys in jab connect, jab miss, power punch connect, and power punch miss. The numbers are accumulated in real time.
Scoring Alvarez-Golovkin II
What makes the debate over the second Alvarez-Golovkin fight especially interesting is, first, the split-draw barn burner a year ago and, second, for once, the judges’ decision seems to correlate with the objective stats from CompuBox.
Golovkin landed more punches (234 to Alvarez’s 202), while Alvarez connected at a slightly higher percentage (32 percent to 27 percent). Golovkin was far more successful at jabbing, landing twice as many as Alvarez, 118- 59.
In the category of power punching, though, Alvarez led, 143-116 (39 percent to 35 percent). The legendary trainer Eddie Futch (Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes) once told me that he thought it took two good stiff jabs to equal one average solid shot to the head or body.
Take Your Pick
Both CompuBox and the judges agreed that the Alvarez-Golovkin II fight was close.
The site MMA Decisions reported that of 19 media members who posted their scores, 10 gave it to Golokin, eight judged it a draw and one agreed with the judges that Alvarez won.
So, to borrow a line from the star of another sport, Satchel Paige, when you watch the replay of this fight, you pay your money and you takes your choice.
In honor of Alvarez-Golovkin II, here are three of the most controversial decisions in boxing history. You can watch all of them on YouTube.
Joe Louis vs. Jersey Joe Walcott I
When: Dec. 5, 1947
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
There’s an old adage in boxing that you must beat the champion decisively to win a decision.
Joe Louis, who had been the heavyweight champ since 1937 and was already a beloved legend, proved the truth of that saying.
Jersey Joe Walcott, at that point in his career regarded no better than a journeyman, knocked the champion down twice and seemed to be so far ahead on points after 12 rounds that his corner told him to lay off the last three, jabbing and circling Louis.
Twenty-one of 32 boxing writers at ringside thought Walcott had won. Louis thought so, too, and he tried to leave the ring before the decision was announced.
But Louis was awarded a split decision, with only referee Ruby Goldstein scoring it for Jersey Joe. The other two judges, however, may only have been doing what they thought they were supposed to do: At the time, there was no system for awarding extra points for knockdowns, and even though no decisive punches were landed in Rounds 13-15, Louis was given credit for “aggressiveness.”
Judge for yourself.
It’s interesting, though irrelevant, to point out that seven months later, Louis won the rematch with a 11th-round knockout.
Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler
When: April 6, 1987
Where: Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas
This was one of the most publicized and debated fights in ring history.
Sugar Ray Leonard, who hadn’t fought in three years, was coming out of retirement to fight a middleweight champion regarded as one of the best of all time. Leonard was naturally lighter — he had spent most of his career to that point fighting as a light and welterweight — but at 30, he was also two years younger than Marvelous Marvin Hagler (by the way, that is his legal name), so it made sense that Hagler was a 4-to-1 underdog.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was at the fight, covering it for the Village Voice, and bet heavily against those odds. I sweated as the scoring was announced, though Don Rickles, who was in the next seat, assured me that Leonard would get the decision. He did, but it was a split decision: for Leonard, 118-110 (and though I bet on Sugar Ray, I thought this scoring was a bit unfair) and 115-113 (which still seems about right to me). For Hagler, 115-113.
One reason why the fight was so controversial was that Leonard took Hagler’s title while mostly fighting in retreat. Hagler was clearly the aggressor. But Marvelous had no one but himself to blame. In exchange for a bigger share of the purse, he agreed to Leonard’s demands for a larger ring, which gave Leonard more room to move, and larger 12-ounce gloves (rather than 8- or 10-ounce gloves), which took away some of his power.
This was one of the first fights where punch stats from CompuBox became a point of discussion. Leonard landed 306 total punches to Hagler’s 291 and with a better percentage, 49 percent to 37 percent. Leonard also led in power punches: 258 of 490 (53 percent) to Hagler’s 213 of 581 (37 percent).
Hagler supporters countered with the argument that “Yes, but Marvin’s punches were harder.” That’s almost certainly true, since Hagler was naturally bigger and had a harder punch, but there’s no objective way to measure power.
CompuBox showed that Leonard landed many more clean punches. This is a great fight to watch.
Judge for yourself.
Manny Pacquiao vs. Jeff Horn
When: July 2, 2017
Where: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane, Australia
In boxing, you often hear the phrase “hometown decision” used to justify bad scoring in a fight. In this case, we had a home continent decision — a kangaroo court, if you will.
Manny Pacquiao has been the victim of more screwy decisions than any other fighter this century.
In this fight for the WBO welterweight belt, HBO’s veteran scorer Harold Lederman had it for Pacquiao, 10 rounds to 2. I scored it for Manny 9 rounds to 3. The punch stats bore out what the naked eye could see: Pacquiao whipped Aussie butt:
The CompuBox scorers saw Manny landing 182 total punches to Horn’s 92.
Fifty-nine of the punches Manny landed were jabs. Horn hit with just 19 jabs. That’s 30.6 percent to 9.6 percent.
Manny connected on 32 percent of his punches while Horn only connected on 15 percent. (Though, to be honest, I’ve never been quite convinced that percentage of punches landed is an important stat, or at least more important than just number of punches landed.)
But what about, the skeptic may well ask, the power of those punches? It’s true that the computer can’t calculate how hard a punch is. This is why “power punches” — that is, hooks and crosses to the head and body with some weight behind them — are important. Well, the power punches landed were also in Pacquiao’s favor: 123 to Horn’s 73. Again, Manny’s accuracy was better, 32 percent to 17 percent.
Horn bettered Pacquiao in just one area: punches thrown, 625 to 573.
But if Horn connected with something solid on 90 fewer punches, what were the judges rewarding him for? Swinging hard and missing?
Horn not only was awarded the fight but the decision was unanimous. Many screamed corruption, and for good reason. Stephen A. Smith’s reaction was typical, calling it a robbery.
Horn didn’t hold the WBO welterweight belt long. In his next fight, he was “disarmed and clinically dismantled” in a fight that ended in a ninth-round TKO.
Watch highlights with the sound down, so you don’t have to listen to commentators Teddy Atlas and Tim Bradley (who won a hugely controversial split decision over Pacquiao five years earlier) blather about Horn’s “will and aggressiveness.”
Judge for yourself.