Controversial decisions in boxing have long been a common occurrence. The judges, or maybe just one or two of them, will see a fight one way, but the broadcasters and large chunks of fans and media might see the result differently.
Sometimes, there is an honest difference of opinion in a truly close fight. Other times, there are scores widely deemed as outrageous. So what to do about it? There have been various suggestions over the years, including moving to open scoring or adding judges to the panel that — some would think — might improve the outcome of fights that go the distance. So what might work and what might not? Dan Rafael and Steve Kim discuss.
How could boxing optimize open scoring?
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Kim: Absolutely not. I get the argument to have more judges on different sides of the ring, and you’d have more vantage points to score a fight. But the reality is that there is already a shortage of trusted ringside arbiters, so what you’d be doing by adding more judges to a fight, is employing unqualified or incompetent scorers, just to fill out a mandated number.
For the time being, boxing needs to utilize the judges who can be trusted more, and remove those who are consistently dubious.
Should the referee score the fight?
Jack Reiss, right, is one of the best referees in boxing at controlling the action inside the ring. Harry How/Getty Images
Rafael: Referees used to score fights and in some domestic bouts in the United Kingdom, the referee serves as the sole judge. I do not think this is proper.
The referee’s job should be to protect the fighters and enforce the rules. Period. They do not need any other distractions. Over the years I’ve talked to referees about this issue and no referee has ever said anything other than the referee should be concerned with officiating the fight.
Kim: No. The job of the third man in the ring is to make sure the two boxers are following the rules and kept as safe as possible. That’s already a very daunting task, I wouldn’t put any more on their plate. Besides, just because somebody might be an elite referee, there’s no guarantee that he would be a competent scorer.
How far should instant replay go?
Jessie Magdaleno, right, won a technical decision against Rafael Rivera in August after the fight was stopped in the ninth round. Magdaleno suffered a cut due to an accidental elbow from Rivera and couldn’t continue. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Rafael: I think jurisdictions that use replay today generally have it right. You use it to determine whether a knockdown was a punch or a slip, if a cut is from a head butt or a punch, or if a knockout blow was before or after the bell — specific fight-changing moments. I also like that the determinations, when used, are made quickly by a replay official such as what they use in Nevada. They are in contact with the production truck and can easily get a replay during and between a round. It seems to work.
Replay should not interfere with a fight or delay it. It’s one thing for a baseball or football game to be delayed briefly while a replay is reviewed, but in boxing any extra time for an opponent to rest can change the fight. So as long as replay is handled quickly and takes no more than the time between rounds to review something, that is fine. We don’t need any more than what we already have. But it should be used in all states.
Kim: Very simple — it should be used to determine if a knockdown is legitimate, and in the case of cuts, confirming if they were caused by a punch or with an accidental or intentional foul. Low blows could also be reviewed. Just like in other sports, it can be utilized in certain instances, but the danger lies in relying on it to a point where it starts to disrupt the natural flow of action in a fight.
Is there a way to integrate punch stats into the scoring system? How would you do it?
Manny Pacquiao landed more punches but Jeff Horn won the fight by unanimous decision in 2017. ESPN Stats and Information
Rafael: Punch statistics are not meant to be used to score a fight and I would not make it part of any official scoring. What punch stats are is a good general guide to how a fight goes, but in an unofficial manner. It stands to reason that a fighter with a large advantage in punches thrown and landed and a higher connect percentage usually is going to win the fight. But the stats can’t account for how hard a punch is. And they are meaningless if a fighter, for example, lands 50 punches that do no damage and the opponent lands one that knocks out the opponent.
Boxing is simply not a stat-based sport like baseball or basketball. Also, the reality is punch stats are compiled by human beings pushing buttons at ringside and often watching a fight remotely on television. That should not play into the official scoring of a fight. The folks who count the punches are well-trained and do a good job, but they are measuring only quantity and kind of punch, not the quality of a punch.
Kim: I simply wouldn’t do that. I think punch stats can be very useful in reviewing and breaking down a fight, even in helping to break down an upcoming contest, but to actually be part of the scoring system? I don’t think it’s realistic, and to me the biggest issue is that while punch stats can judge the quantity of punches, they don’t really tell you the quality, or effect of them. And this is what professional prizefighting is at its core, compared to the amateur ranks. It’s about the damage inflicted.
For instance, if we have a fight where fighter A is being outlanded by a few punches in every round, but it’s fighter B, who seemingly rattles the cage of his opponent on a consistent basis, and really bangs him up — I’m giving most of those rounds to fighter B.
After all, as the great Sugar Ray Robinson once said, “We’re in the hurt business.”
How would you improve the quality of the judges?
Rafael: Training, training, training. The key to me is that judges need to score fights on criteria that is more specific than it currently is and that fighters are also aware of what the judges are specifically looking for, so there can be no complaints. Right now, the criteria is a bit open-ended and not specific enough: ring generalship; clean, hard punching; effective aggression; defense.
Also, judges need to be held more accountable for universally poor scorecards and be disciplined for really bad ones. I’ve seen judges turn in horrific cards and be back in the seat for a big fight a week later. That is not acceptable. All that said, judging a fight is subjective, so there will always be disagreements, and that is OK. It is what makes the world go ’round. Controversy and boxing will always go hand-in-hand and, frankly, that element is part of the attraction of the sport.
Kim: In my view, there has to be more accountability. For years we’d see the same set of judges at almost every big fight card. The same judges who would sometimes hand in some of the most questionable cards, eventually return to their post. If there is no threat of discipline, what is the impetus for these individuals to actually improve their performance?
Other sports routinely grade officials and based on how they are evaluated, they face removal from their jobs. This rarely, if ever, happens in boxing.
Having consistent seminars and actively recruiting competent and fair-minded people to train as judges (making them earn their way up the ladder, beginning with amateur fights), would create a fresh, new set of judges on a fairly consistent basis.