For many years I was an occasional boxing fan.  I always enjoyed watching the fights, but I was put off by the fact that I couldn’t understand the scoring system.  In a fight not obviously settled by a knockout I would often have no idea which fighter had won, or even how to begin deciding.   Commentators weren’t much help: they would say vague and contradictory things like “judges like a fighter who keeps moving forward”, or “fighter X may have won the round with that last-minute flurry”, or they’d refer to a fighter “scoring points” with individual punches.

None of this was all that surprising.  Like most armchair fans, I don’t understand all the rules of sports that I watch, and I have long since given up expecting commentators to know any more than I do.  But this wasn’t just about knowing what constitutes a particular example of foul play, or understanding the nuances of strategy.  This was a question about the very aim of the exercise.  If I was to watch the fights more regularly I had to get to grips with this issue: how does a fighter win?  What counts as winning a boxing match?

I decided to do some research, i.e., to Google it and glance casually at the first four or five results before losing interest.  Here, however, this usually reliable technique wasn’t enough.  I didn’t learn much more than what I already knew, viz., that the aim was to “win rounds” by “outboxing” your opponent, and that the winner of a round gets 10 points and the loser 9 or fewer, depending how much he loses by (the so-called “10 Point Must System”).  What I didn’t know, and wanted to learn, was what that meant.

So I dug deeper.  When I finally found something more detailed, what I found was genuinely baffling.

Most writers[1] list four key criteria for judging a boxing match.  They are these:

  1. effective aggressiveness
  2. clean punching
  3. ring generalship
  4. defense

What is “effective aggressiveness”?  One writer[2] says this: “Essentially, judges are supposed to tally the number of punches they see each fighter land (above the waist, on the front or sides of the body or head, with the knuckle of the glove only). In each round the fighter who lands more punches is awarded 10 points.”  But it is obviously not enough to judge only the number of punches.  One fighter might land lots of weak, ineffectual punches, and the other a small number of powerful, effective ones, leaving his opponent staggered.  In a real fight the latter would clearly be “winning” the fight.  So we also have to evaluate punches for how powerful and clean they are, that is, for quality, as well as quantity, by looking for “blows that are delivered upon an opponent that are easily discernable [sic], that inflict perceptible damage, and that land without any unanticipated difficulty or interference.[3]

But there’s more to “effective aggressiveness” than this.  There’s strategy too.  So, “advancing with too much caution or hesitancy, and looking to land one big shot instead of punching in combinations are all symptoms of a rather ineffective strategy, and one that judges are unlikely to reward . . . a hostile behavior must also be accompanied by an intention to achieve a desired result.[4]”  Or, more simply, “the boxer who gets off first, who controls the action while scoring good clean punches is on his way to winning.[5]

Clear so far?  Not to me.  First of all, we now have a mind-boggling seven criteria for deciding which fighter is winning, i.e., which fighter is . . .

  1. Landing a greater number of punches?
  2. Landing more effective punches?
  3. Landing cleaner punches?
  4. Landing more powerful punches?
  5. Evidencing a superior strategy?
  6. Taking the lead?
  7. Controlling the action?

That’s a lot to think about.  It seems even more daunting if we think a bit further about the kinds of sports that are marked by judges.  Ice skaters, divers and gymnasts, for example, perform prepared routines consisting of moves known to the judges in advance, and what’s more they perform individually or in synchronized pairs.  Boxers, by contrast, move around unpredictably and spontaneously, and are competing with one another, so they have to be judged separately but simultaneously: indeed, one fighter’s performance can only be judged by reference to that of the other, because all the criteria above are relative.  You can’t tell who is landing more, or more powerful, or cleaner punches, or who is taking the lead and controlling the action, without evaluating both fighters at once.  No wonder Harold Lederman has a head the size of a prize watermelon.

What’s more, I think there are particular problems with some of these criteria.  Firstly, what does it mean to decide who is landing the more effective punches?  After all, the effect of a punch depends both on the punch and on the punchee.  What if one fighter has an especially tough chin, but lets every punch through?  Even if his defense is hopeless, his opponent’s punches, even powerful ones, might be ineffective.  Should he be credited for having a thick skull?  Secondly, how do we evaluate who is controlling the action, except by reference to the quantity and quality of punches being landed?  And thirdly, who cares about a fighter’s clever strategy if he is getting his clock cleaned?

So there’s an overwhelming volume of unpredictable and poorly defined things to think about.  But there’s a bigger issue even than that.  We hear that “the aggressor who takes the lead, gets off first, scores clean punches both in quantity and with quality, regardless of the direction he is moving, should win the round.[6]”  Once again, this is obvious, and once again it is completely unhelpful.  Of course, if one fighter is dominating the other according to all the parameters, he is winning.  The problem arises when one guy is taking the lead and getting off first, but the other guy is landing a greater number of punches.  Or when the guy getting off first is landing a greater number of punches, but the other guy is landing cleaner and more powerful and effective blows.  Or when one guy is landing blows which are cleaner but less powerful and is taking the lead while his opponent is landing a greater number of punches, and controlling the action.  What do you do then?  Even if we could clarify the meaning of all the considerations listed above, and even if we could find judges with heads like beachballs who were capable of tracking them in real time, there is no system for ranking or weighting them, and therefore no real system of scoring at all.

So much for “effective aggressiveness” and “clean punching”.  What of “ring generalship”?  Let’s look at a definition.

“Ring generalship applies to the fighter who uses skills beyond his punching power to control the action in the ring. He is thinking. He is strategizing while he is fighting, utilizing cleverness, agility, and feinting to keep his opponent off guard. By using footwork and movement, he forces his opponent out of his fight plan. Using subtle tactics, he sets up his opponent for effective combinations. He causes an aggressive fighter to look awkward. He may even cause a boxer to get into a slugfest. He minimizes his opponent’s strengths by controlling the action to suit his own skills.[7]

But I thought we covered “strategy”, “controlling the action” and “effectiveness” under “effective aggressiveness”.  And again, I don’t understand how we evaluate “strategy” or “ring generalship” except by seeing whether it allows a fighter to land a greater number of more powerful punches (or “more effective” punches, if we can decide what that means).  So this seems like a pretty useless criterion.

Something similar goes for “defense”.  So:

“Good defense is averting punches by blocking, bobbing and weaving, good footwork, and lateral movement. These are assets possessed by the skilled fighter. In close rounds, when neither fighter has an edge offensively, good defense could well be the deciding factor.[8]

Again, the two fighters are performing simultaneously and are fighting each other, so you cannot evaluate one without reference to the other.  Offense and defense are therefore two sides of the same coin, and so if neither fighter has an edge offensively it is hard to see how one can have an edge defensively.

Of course, this is by no means the end of the story.  There are lots of other issues around scoring boxing matches which fans get very exercised about.  Here are a few:

Hometown decisions.  I’m sure I don’t need to explain this one.

“Champion’s decisions”.  For some reason there is often a feeling that you can’t take someone’s title off him without beating him “decisively”, rather than just beating him.  This idea obviously makes no sense[9], but titleholders often say it and judges sometimes appear to be influenced by it.

Promoters influencing judges.  Since boxing completely lacks any kind of credible organizing and legislative body, the appointment of judges is decided by promoters, who also cover judges’ expenses.  These can run pretty high if the judges stay in, say, a decent hotel in Vegas with a better-than-average winelist.  It isn’t hard to imagine that such judges might be more amenable to delivering a result the promoter prefers.

Treatment of fouls.  Different referees treat fouls differently, sometimes in the context of a single fight.  Further, since the only penalty available to the referee is the deduction of a point, and almost all rounds are won by a single point (i.e., by 10-9), the decision to penalize a foul effectively cancels out an entire successful round.  The sanction being so extreme, most fouls are simply ignored, or met with no greater sanction than a meaningless “warning”.  Absurdly, the effect of this is that the rules favour dirty fighters.

Elimination of even rounds.  I always wondered why judges don’t score more rounds even, especially early in the fight before the relative skill or superior conditioning of one or other fighter starts to tell.  But it turns out the reason is simple: they are told not to.  So, we read, “even in a closely contested round, there will always be cues to help you reward the round to the most deserving fighter.  Therefore, if you can avoid scoring a round even, it is often best to do so.[10]”  Or, more bluntly, “Judges should avoid scoring a round even.[11]”  This is just bizarre: it means judges really ought to score the fight wrongly, by looking for a reason to award a round otherwise thought even.

This is a particular problem in light of the next issue, namely:

10-9 covers too wide a range.  In the words of one expert, “[a] round where the winner of the round maintains anywhere from a close margin to a definite margin will end up 10-9.[12]”  So round one might be almost (or, in light of the injunction against scoring rounds even, perhaps exactly) even, but the judges give it to fighter A.  The second round is won by a “definite” margin by fighter B.  And now the judges have the fight even, although almost no one watching the fight would agree.  This being so, I submit that a round is probably too long a period to serve as the unit of scoring.

Treatment of knockdowns.  Everyone knows that if a fighter scores a knockdown, the round has to be scored 10-8.  Well, everyone knows wrong: one fighter can totally dominate a round then get hit by a single firm but not decisive punch, and it would be totally absurd for him to lose the round by two whole points (remember that this means he could win two other entire rounds by a “definite margin” and still be only level).  Judges don’t have to score such rounds 10-8, but they always do, because it’s much easier to do, and much easier to justify, in part because, well, that’s what everyone always does.  The problem is magnified by the fact that, absurdly, it is up to the referee to decide whether a genuine knockdown has been scored, and the judges have to score accordingly regardless of whether they think the fighter was really floored.  It could easily happen that a judge thinks fighter A wins the round easily, slipped to the canvas halfway through, but then feels he has to score the round 10-8 to fighter B.

It is a shame to have to say it, but we could go on.  The scoring of boxing matches is an utter travesty, because the whole system is idiotic to the point of incoherence.  More depressing still, this travesty is obviously deliberate: the vaguer the criteria of success, the easier it is for interested parties to influence the outcome, whether to favour a particular fighter or simply to set up a lucrative rematch.  And we all know of plenty of examples of absurd results in boxing.

Incredibly, even the so-called experts acknowledge the problem:

“It would be difficult, if not impossible, to actually count the number of hits and misses, evaluate the effect (on both fighters), and still give your undivided attention to the continuing action. Many times, in action-packed fights, a good judge must call on his experience to make an instinctive, spontaneous evaluation of the number and types of punches and their off-setting values against each other and score accordingly.[13]

Which just takes us back to where we started: forget objective criteria, just give the round to the one that “outboxes” the other, whatever that means.

So here’s my proposal for scoring at boxing matches, which seems as good as anyone else’s.  When in doubt about the result of a fight, give the decision to the girl with the biggest tits.

[1] Here I rely on just a few websites, which is of course unfair.  On the other hand, they were the best I could find.  If you know of a better source, please let me know.

[4] http://neutralcorneronline.com/how-to-score-a-fight/.  The presence in this passage of the word “unlikely” is already unsettling.

[9] Though it may be one reason why fighters value otherwise meaningless belts and titles so highly.