How often do you get to stand with a sheaf of paper in your hand that you know will ignite a firestorm?
Michael Buffer certainly must have had a moments pause when he was handed the judges scores and prepared to read them to the more than 14,000 unsuspecting fans crowded into the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for the Manny Pacquiao - Timothy Bradley pay-per-view dust-up.
One wonders if just for a moment Buffer didn’t consider growling, “Let’s get ready to GRRRUUUUMMMBBLLLLE!” then, flatly “They gave it to Bradley,” before dropping the microphone and ducking through the ropes in quick but orderly fashion, out of the ring, vanishing into the night.
Such a sequence would hardly have made the final moments of the evening much more calamitous than what they actually were: a strange, unexpected, sporting injustice that will be a robbery milestone in a sport filled with heist jobs, stick-up men and thievery.
For first time viewers and fair weather fans, the shakedown was like getting the muzzle of a gun shoved in your face on a sunny day -- sudden, shocking, outrageous.
For boxing’s longtime lovers and media mavens, this ripoff ruckus was just one more in a long line of ridiculous, but sadly commonplace judgements foisted upon the fighters and audience.
If to the uninitiated this was like a daring midday hold-up, diehard fight fans are all to used to getting mugged in the seedy streets of boxing and having to hand over a wad of cash just to pass through.
So just who were the perps this time? Judges Duane Ford and C.J. Ross, who scored the bout for Bradley, appear to be the prime suspects.
Ford explained, “I thought Bradley gave Pacquiao a boxing lesson.”
So comprehensive was Bradley’s tutoring of student Pacquiao that Ford awarded the bout to Bradley by a single point.
Duane Ford was later to inform us that “If this were ‘American Idol’, without a doubt, Manny Pacquiao would have won.”
Indeed he has a point. If those millions of eyes that watched the fight at home and surrounding the ring were allowed to call in a vote on who they had seen win the fight, Manny Pacquiao would have won by a landslide.
Not because of the Filipino’s star power as Ford tried to intimate, but rather because even a novice spectator of the sport could reasonably see who had won the night, the rounds, the fight.
While many were quick to proclaim the death of boxing after this spectacle created by Ford and Ross’ scorecards, the truth is that the sport will probably thrive off the controversy for a time.
Boxing is a tough sport. It survives.
But perhaps the time is right for more than just “enduring.”
Maybe it’s time to innovate.
Imagine if you went to buy a new computer tomorrow and when you got to the store to choose your next machine, you found only a hulking plastic cased behemoth of the 80s with green pixelated text on a huge tube monitor with an ironically little dark screen.
An assortment of floppy disks are nearby. The only possible ray of sunshine in this dreary picture is that one disk says “Oregon Trail” on it.
Would you be satisfied with that computer and how it would function alongside today's technology?
“To create something that’s genuinely new, you must start again. And... with great intent, you disconnect from the past” -- words this week from Jony Ive, the design master for Apple, as he described the process for designing the latest computer from the worlds most admired company.
The sport of boxing needs the courage to “start again.”
With that thought in mind, forgetting all that has come before; how could the sport’s judging be reinvented to function in a sane way?
The first factor to acknowledge is this: It’s all about expectations and consistency.
In lieu of a knockout, the most definitive victory in all of sports, what indicators do we have of who is getting the better of a fight, and how do we measure those indications?
The number of punches landed and the apparent power of each are of course the two most valuable pieces of information to know in deciding who is doling out more punishment.
Other tangential evidence like, cuts, blood, bruising and swelling provide vital evidence to gauge damage. Even a fighter’s balance and hand position can offer bits of information that help to show how the fighter is doing at any given time in a fight.
And then finally we have behaviors. Does the fighter look confident, are they being aggressive or defensive, are they smiling every time they eat a punch with false bravado or banging their gloves together in frustration?
These are the disparate elements that, when pulled together, paint a subjective picture of how a round went. These clues are all the evidence any judge will have to decide the outcome of a fight that won’t end itself.
Knowing that this is what there is to be worked with and observed, lets be honest -- there isn’t any way to judge other than to watch and form an opinion. And that’s always going to be fraught with error.
We are human.
But whatever the criteria for judging, it must be adhered to by all judges and weighted properly by each, too.
So if we can’t exactly change how a fight would be judged, maybe we can look at the ways a judge ascribes meaning to what they see.
Is the 10 point must system the best option for scoring a fight? As it stands, you must award one fighter 10 points each round and the other generally will get 9. If a fighter gets knocked down in a round, they lose an additional point and it becomes 10-8.
More liberal use of the points system may be one solution to some scoring issues. 10-9 rounds are the equivalent of a yes or no answer.
Yes you won that round, here’s 10 points. No, you lost, it’s a 9.
A fighter who dominates a round will often get the same amount of credit as one who just edges the next.
Think of all the first rounds you’ve seen. How many times has nothing much happened? Neither man distinguishes themselves, yet one must get 10, and usually the other will get 9. Under the current system, those early feeling out rounds where only a handful of punches land hold just as much weight as a furious final round where one man is stunned, clearly losing the stanza, but hangs on until the final bell.
The system, or at least the way it is used, really limits the depth of opinion that can occur.
What would happen to scoring if a single knockdown was worth two points? Or even three?
That would allow for breathing room in scoring the vast majority of other rounds with more precision.
Pacquaio was seemingly able to hurt Bradley with straight right hands several times throughout their fight, but those defining punches ended up not being worth any more than the minor punches Bradley landed to eek out a round or two with.
If knockdowns are higher valued at two or three points a piece then a round where someone is stunned, or cut, or generally dominated but stays on their feet could also be worth more, too.
Opening up the point system would be one way to get a more precise judgement on who is winning the fight.
Here’s a thought... why do we need 10 points at all, if we never use them? When’s the last time you heard someone score a round 10-3? Ever seen a fight where someone got knocked down six times in one round? No? Then probably never.
Maybe the day of the 10 point must system has passed.
What if we scored rounds on a three point scale? You win the round, you get one, two or three points depending on how effusive your mastery over the other man was. The other man is awarded none.
For every time you knock the opponent down, you get an extra point.
Think of the flexibility. You dominate and you knockdown your opponent, you get four points. You just edge the guy, but score a flash knockdown. Two points for the round.
How about this scenario: You’re winning the round, but you get dropped in a flash. In a 10 point must system all the work you’d done before that blip of a knockdown gets discounted.
With a 3 point scale, you’d still get credit for it, and your opponent would get credit for putting you on your seat.
The specifics of any point system can be argued, but the take away is that giving judges more flexibility within the scoring system, whatever scoring system that is, would allow for more comprehensive and accurate judging.
Another question: Is timeliness more important than correctness?
If instant reply were implemented even in a small capacity, what problems could it solve?
Certainly in the case of headbutts, low blows and other snap decisions a referee is forced to make in the moment it would allow for a second look to confirm that the right ruling had been made.
Simply having another official tasked to review any calls made by the referee via replay during the minute between rounds would eliminate much of the controversy that arises from mishandled point deductions, fouls and injuries.
Having the review period occur between rounds would also keep the process unobtrusive to the flow of the action, something other professional sports struggle with in their implementation of replays.
If giving the men and women tasked to make vital judgements some better tools and systems to do their job is part of the solution, the other part is, who exactly are those people tabbed to make the calls and how many should there be?
Three judges, as witnessed in the Pacquiao-Bradley bout, were not enough to provide an accurate view of what occurred in the fight. Not when two of them seemed to be so far off from the majority of viewpoints on what had occurred.
A consensus of more opinions would seem to be a possible solution. Any judge can have an off night. If coincidence should happen, perhaps even two might have trouble the same night. If three are off... well, the stars must be aligned, or you’re fighting in Texas.
One option that has been floated before would be to add two more judges. Five sets of eyes scoring the bout, and at the end of the fight, you toss out the two most disparate results.
Meaning, if one judge scored all the close rounds for one fighter, and another judge scored all the close rounds for the other creating a big swing in scoring between them, those two cards would be jettisoned and the three that were more in line with one another would be the deciding scores.
The theory here being that someone’s gotta be able to score the fight right... so let the consensus rule.
Ultimately, though, you could have a whole cadre of judges and if they aren’t up to the job it won’t matter how many of their opinions you get...
Duane Ford’s first professional judging assignment came on a 15 round Alexis Arguello fight in 1978.
Almost exactly one month later, Manny Pacquiao was born.
Mr. Ford is 74 years old.
According to demographic statistics, those between the age of 15-64 years of age are regarded as “working age population.”
Why isn’t there a retirement age for boxing judges? Or if not a specific age, what tests should be implemented to make sure that a judge still has the proper visual and mental acuity to accurately judge a fast paced and frenetic sport like boxing?
The fighters are putting themselves on the line, physically, mentally, emotionally... the very least they should be able to expect is a competent and fair judge to assess their performance.
Aside from age, by no means the determining factor in many judging situations, there is simply the issue of quality.
Judge C.J. Ross sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from long tenured Duane Ford. Ross has sat in judgement on just 20 world title bouts.
What accomplishments by judges allow them to proceed to scoring title fights? Who chooses which judges go where, and why are certain judges chosen over others?
In such a long career as Ford’s, any judge would be bound to have a few notable missteps.
Duane Ford was among the judges who controversially saw Shane Mosley as deserving a victory in yet another controversial welterweight bout over Oscar De La Hoya in their second meeting by a score of 115-113. In a parallel to Pacquiao-Bradley, De La Hoya seemed to hold a strong statistical edge in what was ultimately deemed a losing effort.
Ironically Top Rank’s Bob Arum, the fight's promoter, demanded a full investigation into the scoring, while both he and De La Hoya threatened to leave boxing at the time.
Arum, now Pacquiao’s promoter, has also called for a full investigation into this latest fight. No word, however, on whether he is willing to leave boxing over this particular travesty.
Ford pops up again on “most controversial decisions” lists with his scoring of the first meeting between Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor for the Arkansan upstart. In particular his score for the 12th round, one in which Hopkins looked to be clearly pulling away from the younger man, went to the Taylor who seemed to be wilting before our very eyes.
That misstep cost Hopkins his middleweight title and ended his record-breaking reign at the top.
There have been other debatable Duane Ford decisions, but what’s perhaps more important than a running list of every judges questionable calls is what systems are in place for review?
Peer critique with a ratings system for judges scorecards would be one method of weeding out consistently shoddy judges.
In response to the general outcry and to Arum’s demand for an investigation, the head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Executive Director Keith Kizer, says he now plans to review the fight with all three of the judges.
He expects them to offer their criteria for judging and to explain their scoring on a round by round basis to him.
All of this sounds like a fine practice, but further transparency would help to quell the uproar surrounding controversial decisions.
Judges must be held accountable for the scores they arrive at. Part of the reason that conspiracy is shouted almost immediately following any close decision is that no one really knows who is putting pen to these scorecards.
It’s much easier to vilify a stranger you’ve never seen before than the guy who’s face you recognize. Maybe it’s awkward to have to explain how you arrived at a score when the crowd is booing your decision.
Maybe it would take some courage.
If you have been judging honestly, then you shouldn’t have anything to fear. Reasonable explanations for your scores should be simple to talk about and even if others don’t agree, at least you’ve made it clear why you ended up where you did.
In truth, I must have watched a 100 fights or more that Duane Ford has judged in his long career. I had no idea what he looked like, until I stumbled upon a picture doing some fact checking for this article.
If there is going to be accountability, that needs to change.
Let's talk about knockouts for a second. You score one, and the entire issue of crummy, caustic, corrupt judging goes away.
How do we get more knockouts? Well, screwing over fighters certainly may do it for some.
Pacquiao has pledged to knock out Bradley should they have a rematch. And in fact some have criticized the the woebegotten fighter for not pressing his advantages when he appeared to hurt Bradley during the bout.
Perhaps some good will come of this if it entices Pacquiao to return as “The Destroyer” he formerly was known as.
But what else could we do to encourage more knockouts -- a change which would help the sport on many levels?
Promoters could help by offering a bonus to any fighter scoring a KO. Whether it be a flat reward or a purse percentage, a wily promoter like Bob Arum could turn this scorecard crap-fest into a flashy fight promotional hook.
Imagine if from now on, any Top Rank fighter that finishes his foe inside the scheduled time limit via punch out gets a sack of cash. Not only would it be a savvy public relations move and a great marketing gimmick, but it would also be a thumb in the eye of “The Man” in the form of Athletic Commissions and judges.
There is nothing more appealing to just about any demographic than opposing authority and saying... you know what, we don’t need you and your corrupt, incompetent judging.
And what if the reward payout actually resulted in fistic urgency and more knockouts? The spoils are obvious; more fans tuning in to see brutality... action fights, creating memorable moments... more conclusive endings... more fighters who want to fight on your promotional cards for the shot at extra earnings.
Money drives everything. Why not make it drive up KO percentages?
And finally, with “starting again” in mind, perhaps the real solution for the sport and its scoring troubles, its splintered championships and scattershot schedule, will come when it falls under one entity to preside over it, like all the other major sports.
If a boxing league seems far fetched, or at least far off at this point in time, there is one other element that may completely remake boxing...
What will likely “save” the sport at some point in the relatively near future is technology.
Imagine a boxing glove with pressure sensitive sensors in it’s lining, able to measure the velocity and impact of every blow. Imagine too, those gloves being trackable by position to record exactly where on the opponents body each shot landed.
Think of perfectly precise punch stats that leave no doubt about who hits harder, who landed more jabs and power shots and which fighters fists connected cleaner to the other.
The data gets live streamed to the punch stat app on your phone and you can track connects in real time as you watch the fight.
That reality is not so far off.
And it will be an interesting dichotomy when the world's oldest and most basic sport is returned to glory by technical innovation that makes it almost impossible to get a decision wrong, when the human will to endure does not allow one man to fall.
In the meantime, perhaps that giant tech company mentioned earlier has one more analogy to consider when it comes to a long flawed system, a compromised sporting history and aging judges.
"Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It clears out the old to make way for the new." So said Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Of course, I’m not suggest we hope anyone die, but making way for some new blood in the judging ranks of the sport wouldn’t be the worst thing to see happen either.
Boxing needs to start again.
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