How Judges Score A Boxing Match (And How Manny Pacquiao Got Screwed)

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Manny Pacquiao got beaten by ghosts Saturday night. That's what boxing judges are. They are not necessarily former fighters, or coaches, or other knowledgeable figures. They are not necessarily anything. They are people chosen by opaque and obscure boxing commissions to decide the outcome of fights based on little more than their own feelings, with virtually no guidelines to be measured against, nor penalties for poor performance. The boxers who risk their lives with every fight can be reassured by the knowledge that they may be railroaded by incompetence or corruption at any moment. There's really no way to predict it, nor any real will to fix it. Good system.

Here's how pro boxing judges decide fights: however they want. They use their judgment. Therefore they cannot, technically, be wrong, even when they are clearly wrong. In amateur boxing, judging is a relatively straightforward matter, based on who lands the greater number of punches. (That system creates a different set of problems and is still prone to occasional rigging, but at least the judges' criteria are clear and known to all parties.) Not so in the pros. In the pros, it's all a matter of deep philosophical reasoning. Or possibly just laziness. You never know in advance.


Pro boxing matches are scored round by round. The fighter who wins the round gets 10 points, and the fighter who loses the round gets nine points. Every time a fighter is knocked down, he loses a point—a one-knockdown round, for example, would be scored 10-8. (Sometimes a seriously one-sided round without a knockdown is also scored 10-8, at the judge's discretion.) The ref can also take points away from the fighters as a penalty for holding, low blows, or other rule violations. And there's nothing to stop judges from giving a fighter fewer points just because they think it should be so, although it's frowned upon. At the end of the fight, the points are tallied, and a winner (or a draw) emerges.

So how do they decide who wins the rounds, absent knockdowns? They just decide that shit. There is really no precise standard or rule book. A generally accepted method is: whichever fighter you would not have wanted to be in a given round probably lost the round. Different judges judge this differently. A classic conundrum is a round in which one fighter lands lots of punches that don't do much damage, while the other lands only a few punches, but they're hard and solid. Who wins? Most punches? Hardest punches? This is where the philosophy comes in. It's also why there are three judges instead of one—to correct for any single person's wacky interpretation.


There are other vagaries. Some boxers like to fight backing up. This is a conscious style, with advantages and disadvantages, like any style. Judges, though, tend to interpret this as retreating, and penalize the fighter for it, even though he is doing it by choice. "Ring generalship" is the vague and meaningless phrase cited to justify the judging of rounds based on who is walking in which direction. This is dumb, because it penalizes a legitimate strategic decision for no good reason. Often, judges reward the fighter who throws more punches, without regard for whether or not those punches landed, or did any damage, or did any anything except tire that fighter out and soften him up for the kill. Fighters win rounds because they were "busier," even if they were busy doing something counterproductive. This, too, is dumb, though it can be forgiven somewhat due to the fact that there are few real metrics by which to judge these things.

Differences in philosophy, though, have their limits. When Manny Pacquiao fought Juan Manuel Marquez last November, Pacquiao tended to throw more punches, while Marquez landed harder shots. Most of the rounds were very, very close. In a 12-round fight with, say, eight close rounds, either fighter could win eight rounds to four, and the decision would be within the realm of reason. Pacquiao won. Marquez fans complained. But in truth, a decision for either man would have been fair. Sometimes, when it's genuinely close, it comes down to perfectly reasonable disagreements between perfectly reasonable judges. That's the game.

Sometimes, though, shit is just fucked up. Saturday night, by any possible standard, Pacquiao beat Tim Bradley. How do I know? Pacquiao landed 100 more punches than Bradley, and he landed all the hardest and most damaging punches. By either metric, he won. Bradley won at least two rounds; a generous interpretation could have given him four. Five would have been a stretch. But two of the three judges—Duane Ford and C.J. Ross—gave Bradley the fight, seven rounds to five. (The third judge, Jerry Roth, scored it seven rounds to five for Pacquiao.)

This atrocious decision benefits no one except Manny Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, who may now get to promote an extra Manny Pacquiao fight, earning himself millions of dollars (Pacquiao's contract with Arum was set to expire). In such circumstances it is reasonable to wonder if Bob Arum had a hand in the judging. We will never know, in all likelihood. But, Occam's Razor: When you reflect upon the fact that one would need only to influence two near-unknown judges in order to create a set of events that would reap millions of dollars for a particular party, it is hard not to have strong suspicions.


Though people are wailing that this is the worst judging catastrophe in boxing history, it is not. There are outrageous injustices of this sort in boxing all the time. They just don't happen to involve the world's most popular fighter. Watch boxing long enough, and you'll witness atrocious and outrageous injustices of this sort on a fairly regular basis. Hometown fighters are known to have an advantage over visiting fighters. Champions generally are given an advantage over challengers. (The fact that Pacquiao did not get the customary champion's advantage made his loss all the more shocking.) The fighter with the grander reputation usually has an easier time with the judges than the unknown opponent.

Combine this with a patchwork system of state boxing commissions of wildly varying quality and competence, and you can end up with anything. Judges are not usually made available to the press before or after fights. Some state boxing commissions take it upon themselves to ease out horrible judges; other states don't really care. Mostly, boxing judges are unaccountable. They render judgment, then disappear. The sport itself is left to deal with their failings. Fans keep coming back, because people enjoy watching fights, even if the fight concludes with an injustice. Over time, though, boxing fans are migrating to MMA, which is run like a professional sports league, rather than as an ongoing skirmish between petty little businessmen willing to do anything to protect their fiefdoms. Boxing has more in common with the concert promotion business than with the NFL. It's not even popular enough for the gangsters to waste their time with it, not any more.


Knockout punches are the only fair thing in the entire sport.

Hamilton Nolan writes for Gawker and writes about boxing for places besides Gawker.