Going to the Scorecards- Does Anyone Win?

14.11.03 - By Paul Ruby: I tend to write boxing articles that revolve around boxers of the past, their fights, and the historical significance of those fights. Writing is a science of revision, and I prefer to give myself the time to look back over past events, evaluate them, and discuss their consequences. This allows a writer the opportunity to avoid rushing to quick decisions--to avoid making snap judgments. This is clearly not a luxury afforded to those who judge big-time boxing fights. Judges watch a fight, score it as they see it, and report those scores. The problem that arises, in my opinion, is that there are no consequences for their poor performances or indiscretions. Fighters who cannot score knockouts place the fate of their careers in the hands of judges who have nothing at stake. Controversial decisions are part of boxing, but the issue at hand is that there is very little regulating the need for judges to be fair, honest, and qualified to make decisions that can literally make or break a fighter’s career. In this article, I will discuss the nature of judging, the increased importance placed upon it in the past two decades, and my belief that the manner in which fights are judged must be updated through a discussion of specific fights and judging in general.

Skyrocketing purses have greatly impacted the importance of judging. Fighters no longer fight every six weeks, but instead every six months, and rematches are often very difficult to make. This means that contenders must win every fight in order to secure title shots and reap the financial benefits of those fights. If they cannot win via knockout, they must receive a decision from the judges, or risk the chance it will take years to resurrect their careers. Two contrasting examples illustrate this. Juan Manuel Marquez was (correctly) decisioned by Freddie Norwood fours years ago and is still waiting for the blockbuster fight against another top-tier featherweight like Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barrera that seemed just within his grasp prior to the loss. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sugar Ray Robinson. He fought constantly for over a decade. During the course of his career, he lost 19 times, most often by decision.

Today, there is an expectation of perfection. Casual fans are more impressed by an undefeated record compiled against inferior fighters than a record with a few losses on it compiled while fighting the best competition available. Fighters are hesitant to step up and fight better opposition because they know the risk of a loss outweighs the potential benefit of gaining experience. Fighters are expected to stay perfect in order to be considered great. This increased pressure on the fighters does not, however, equate to increased pressure on judges. Judges today are no more qualified than they were years ago despite the fact that their decisions have a much greater ability to affect a fighter’s career.

I have two main problems with the judging of fights today- qualifications and accountability or, more precisely, a lack of both. Most judges do their jobs well, but too many do not and this is unacceptable considering the significant power they wield. What makes a judge qualified to ascertain the outcome of an important fight? Too often, the answer is simply experience. Just because a child shows up to school every day does not mean he should automatically pass to the next grade. This problem in schools is called ‘social promotion,’ and it is an epidemic in America’s schools. Too often, children are passed from one grade to the next without ever truly exhibiting the skills that would warrant that promotion. The same fundamental problem exists with judging fights in boxing, although it is certainly not as much of a plague to society.

Boxing judges start by judging low-stakes fights in small venues. They continue up the ladder and, after a number of years, are judging big-time fights- in some cases, championship bouts. Very few of the people judging championship fights are under the age of 50. By no means is that an attack on the many capable judges in boxing today, but that trend illustrates that being chosen to judge important fights is too often done by experience rather than merit. I find it truly abhorrent that Melvina Lathan is allowed to continue to judge fights after thinking that Evander Holyfield beat Lennox Lewis in their first meeting. Just this year, she bastardized a close, ebb-and-flow fight between James Toney and Vassily Jirov by scoring it 117-109 for Toney (of course, that includes the point Jirov had deducted for hitting low). This fight is what boxing is all about! It was incredibly tight all along and many rounds were tough to score, but Lathan managed to give them all to James. I believe this underscores what Toney did in the 12th. James knew he had to do something great to give himself the best shot to win. At that point, the fight was too close to call, and James Toney showed more heart than he ever had in his career by knocking the previously undefeated Jirov to the canvas in the final minute of the round. Lathan’s scoring undermines the heart Toney showed and the gritty, determined performance of Jirov. According to her scorecard, Toney won three rounds for every round Jirov won and that simply is not true. That’s the issue at the heart of this problem. She was unqualified to be making important decisions, and there is no accountability when she or any other judge scores a fight in a preposterous manner. After Holyfield/Lewis I, it is my strong belief that she should never again have been allowed to judge another fight of any significance. Judges do not get fired for poor performances; they have an inordinate amount of job security. I can think of no other high-stakes position where there are similarly few repercussions for consistently poor performance. Fighters and fans are forced to continually submit to the poor judging of the same judges time after time. Most judges are capable and competent, but there is no mechanism in place to weed out those who are not.

Poor judging is another aspect of boxing today that begs for oversight from a universally recognized regulatory body. Judges should attain a certain standard of boxing knowledge before being allowed to score fights. They should have their performances reviewed thereby allowing the best judges to score the most significant title- and non-title fights. This is, of course, wishful thinking on my part. The start-up of this body would be very expensive and the benefits of it would not be seen for a number of years. Still, regulation is really the only way to fix the poor quality of judging and judges that exist in boxing today.

Today’s system of judging hurts everyone involved with boxing. It hurts the sport by delegitimizing it when poor decisions become routine. It hurts the fighters because it allows their careers to be greatly impacted by people who are unqualified to have that power, and it hurts boxing fans by forcing them to accept the fact that, too often, the wrong man leaves the ring the victor. The only way to guarantee a win today, it seems, is to score a knockout, and that is a sad thing to say about the state of boxing today.

Controversial decisions are part of boxing, and create a great deal of excitement. Controversy will always have a place in this sport. The point at issue here, though, is not the controversy caused by decisions. It is the people put in a position to create that controversy. A fighter must earn a shot at the title through consistently strong performances just as a working person earns a promotion at his job. Too often, judges in title fights have not earned the right to be there; they have simply waited in line long enough. To take a judge seriously, he or she must be viewed as legitimate. Their knowledge and integrity should not be in question. Without a single body regulating the credentials and credibility of judges, boxing will continue down the path of fan alienation that it recently has started. Fans want to see the close, competitive fights that result in tight, controversial decisions, but they do not want to see those important decisions made by a collective of people who have not earned the right to make them.

Article posted on 14.11.2003

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