Who am I to judge?

Mark Butcher
23/10/2016 12:50pm

One of the curiosities of the fight game is how so many people evidently educated in the sport of boxing can tally radically differing scorecards after viewing the same 12 rounds of action.

A series of perplexing official scores have caused consternation this year with Bulgarian judge Ventsislav Nikolov’s 120-107 card for Josh Warrington - in a competitive, no knockdown encounter against Hisashi Amagasa - greeted with genuine bewilderment.

The history of boxing is littered with contentious decisions and therein lies an element of its appeal – a sense of raging injustice intensifies the bitter rivalries that define the sport.

There is also a perverse pleasure in bemoaning the wrongs of the past. The great ‘robberies’ earn an immortality all of their own with Pernell Whitaker’s visible fleecings against Jose Luis Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez arguably remembered more than his masterclasses.

Social media outcry often blames hometown bias or even corruption, but a frustratingly subjective scoring system and a wider confusion on exactly how fights are scored appear the principal culprits.

After attending the 2014 WBC Convention judging seminar in Las Vegas, I learned that official scoring methods are far different than the commonly perceived guidelines fans have picked up through TV commentaries over the years. For instance, each round is scored individually, in its own right, as a separate mini-fight – with what has happened before or after a session having no relevance.

Hubert Minn, Chairman of the WBC Ring Officials Committee, conducted the Vegas seminar and is a refreshingly progressive voice on the art of judging. With fellow judge Barry Lindeman, the creator of the ‘3D theory’, Minn has developed a system that seeks to demystify scoring criteria for ringside officials. This theory has recently been approved as a scoring guideline for WBC title fights.

The ‘Three Ds’ are Damage (the effect a punch has, defined as a knockdown, staggering an opponent, snapping the head back or landing significant body blows that obviously slow an opponent down), Domination (an overwhelming advantage in terms of punches landed, repeatedly initiating exchanges during the bout or regularly landing the last punch in an exchange) and Deflection (the ability to evade punches in order for a fighter to block, move himself into position then attack).

“When you look at our traditional scoring criteria it’s very ambiguous,” Minn told Boxing Monthly over the phone from his home in Honolulu. “It’s been the same for many years. There is variation, at times, from different organisations but no real consistency worldwide that says this is how you score. What Barry came up with was a simple definition based on what he had heard from trainers and fighters. ‘Get out there and damage him! Hurt him!’ So he used ‘damage’ as the first criteria instead of having words that indicate an effective shot as a clean punch where knuckles are used to hit the scoring areas.

“The reality is that every judge lives to do a fight. Judges want fights. The problem is are they qualified?” Minn told BM. “I believe we have to review qualifications very carefully when someone applies and, if accepted, they should also be evaluated on a yearly basis. I try to call fights the way I see them and, as Chairman of the WBC Ring Officials, it’s incumbent on me to reflect fairness and integrity.

“For my first fight, I went to Korea, which is my grandfather’s ancestral home, and I was lobbied heavily. Can you imagine? ‘I know your mother and I know your family.’ And it was hard because it was my first fight. But I had a great mentor, Chuck Hassett, who told me, ‘They are always going to want to lobby you, just call the fight the way it is and you’ll be okay.’

“Do the best judges get up there? I don’t know. I know with the WBC we’ve rated our judges, but the application of that is really important,” added Minn, who is also the Chairman of Ring Officials for the Oriental Pacific Boxing Federation and North American Boxing Federation. “I sometimes wonder what would happen if you had one international organisation that all ring officials had to join and promoters selected from there. There is no such organisation currently.

“I’ve worked a lot of fights all over the world and in some places it’s not the same safe environment as the USA. Things are going on that make you think, ‘holy smokes!’ It’s like the wild, wild west. We did a fight in a cockpit at 1am in the morning. When the cornerman reached over the rope, his shirt went up and I saw the handle of a .45 in his back pocket. I told my pal, the referee, ‘He’s packing!’ And the referee said, ‘Don’t worry so am I!’ “

Perceived injustices are often fuelled by misleading and sometimes hysterical TV commentary. The reality is a number of fights are perilously close and extremely difficult to score yet habitually labelled ‘robberies’. Evidently, partisan fans are not best suited to judge fights. Even in the media section at ringside, a poor or obscured view can make scoring a fight properly an arduous task.

“There is one influence where judges just bite their tongue. Colour commentators,” said Minn. “We have a segment in our seminars where we discuss concentration and the difference between a passive viewer vs an active viewer. Like fans, commentators can eat popcorn, talk, go to a commercial…where judges are active participants with 100% concentration on the fight at all times. I don’t know how commentators can accurately describe a fight if it’s close when they are really not paying full attention, but then again they don’t bear the consequences or have the pressure we do so when they make personal statements it really hurts and it hurts boxing also. Do they believe that an official wants to call a bad fight?

“Like with C.J. Ross [in the Floyd Mayweather-Canelo Alvarez fight – which Ross controversially called a draw]. I called her afterwards and said, ‘Look, I may not agree with your score but you don’t deserve what’s going on. You’ve been a great judge all these years and you got one fight on national TV and they make it into a big thing.’ She ended up quitting and that’s hard. I just wanted to tell her, ‘I’m in your corner. I’m here to support you.’ In times like that, officials need some support. Colour commentators can ruin a judge’s career with the comments that they make. Maybe some judges deserve it, but still I would like to see these commentators sitting in the judge’s chair and score a tough fight. And let me evaluate their scores.

“98-99% of the world don’t know the process of how to score a fight,” he continued. “I’m not talking about he won the round 10-9; the actual process that goes through scoring the round. How are you judging it? What’s your theory? Are you counting punches, etc? The WBC utilises and promotes the ‘Mental Computer’ process. When I train officials, they are not only going to have to tell me the score but whether it was close, decisive or an extreme round and then they also have to give me the criteria on what they scored it on. If you can tell me those things you are a lot more educated official, you can see things deeper. We show judges the whole round and break it down into sequence. If judges don’t see that movement [the little momentum shifts] they are not going to understand. Remember, boxing is the most difficult sport to score.”

Judges are acutely aware of the criticism they receive. The advent of social media has certainly made their job more testing than ever before. Every scorecard is now subjected to extra scrutiny. “When we have controversial decisions, I usually get a call from [WBC President] Mauricio [Sulaiman] to review the fight. We’ve set up a review committee with some of the best judges in the world,” Minn told BM. “I got called to review the [August 2015 Kerry Hope-Poomarase Yoohanngoh] fight because it was so controversial. We sent it out to eight judges and all eight came back in agreement. We just score the fight, but we don’t make the recommendations. We just say what we saw [as a result, a hotly disputed draw was amended to a Hope victory].

“I believe we need to have an evaluation system that’s based on criteria such as dress, teamwork, ethics and scoring and so, by the end of the year after all these fights, you can view the average. The evaluation system will help judges improve. In my seminars, I get so many people with different experiences in boxing that we may need another class called ‘boxing 101’ because we’ve got a lot of beginners who are up there working with hall of fame judges.

“I started off my last seminar with a picture of a ring official reading a newspaper while the fight was going on!” exclaimed Minn. “The guy was even talking to a corner while the fight was taking place. Later on he opens up a newspaper. I was pissed! This was so disrespectful to the fighters, the WBC, to other officials. How can a judge have the arrogance to read a newspaper while a fight is going on?

“Social media has really ripped officials in terms of ethics so I tell them you are only the gravy, you are not the main meal. Stay away from the fighters. Don’t be taking pictures with them before the fight. Just say you do a fight and it’s controversial, ‘Look he took a picture with the fighter!’ How does that help your credibility? It’s something that’s becoming more and more serious and is starting to feature in our seminars.”

Boxing’s subjective scoring system lends itself to much of the confusion. The 10-point must system makes no differentiation between close and clear ’10-9’ rounds and remains the key factor in judging controversies. The flaw is the system ultimately.

“In 2001 in Japan, boxing agent Don Majeski stated that the scoring system should be changed and had the data to back his claim. He was crucified by officials,” recalled Minn. “In 2009, I took a survey at one of our WBC seminars. ‘What do you think of our scoring system?’ Almost 100% thought we needed to change it. What is wrong with 10-9 close, 10-8 decisive, 10-7 extreme? At least it makes a little more sense. We’ve talked about it and recommended it. They still haven’t implemented it. The scoring system is one of the major problems in boxing. It’s inaccurate and doesn’t really show the value of the fight.

“I highly recommend that we should be exploring and appointing judges in teams like the NFL, baseball or basketball. I work fights with certain judges and we will have very little variation. We’re basically seeing the same fight. But you may have two very experienced judges and a new judge when this may be a tough fight. To me, you should know your officials and this may bring consistency and reduce variation in scoring. All officials have to understand that they’ve got to self-improve and boxing has to offer them classes and opportunities to get better.”

Certain decisions will always frustrate fans and media while fighters are still able to lace gloves. But the way judges view and score fights is more nuanced than most of us believe. Much of the time, we’re looking at different things. Theirs is the opinion that matters, of course.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2016 issue of Boxing Monthly.