The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

On The Crapness of Judging

Or: Kill ‘Em All And Let God Show Them How It’s Done.

As per the comments on the post below, I think the judging in the Abner Mares vs. Yonnhy Perez fight this past Saturday raises some issues about modern judging. Or, more precisely, it’s as good a point as any to begin talking about some truly endemic problems which seem to crop up on the majority of cards these days. It should be said off the top, I do not consider the majority draw card in that fight a robbery as such; I would define a robbery as an incident of judging malfeasance so suspect that the most obvious explanation is corruption, and not mere garden-variety incompetence. That’s why a robbery is a robbery.

I do not, however, believe that the real issues with modern judging are the robberies. Robberies are godawful; they are also rare, and by the very fact of their obvious awfulness they tend not to do much harm- people recognize that the loser didn’t really lose, the winner didn’t really win, and thus for the most part rough justice is done in the court of public opinion- and thus marketability and future fighter pay. No, the bigger issue isn’t the occasional disaster, it’s the constant drip-drip-drip of utter uselessness which the boxing and MMA industries, and their fanbases, have accustomed themselves to over the years. Our collective expectations are so rock-bottom that all we ask from our judges is to not be robbers, as though that were the reasonable standard to hold professionals to. That is the first charge I lay at the feet of modern judging: they’ve accustomed themselves and their sports to the sort of performances which would get a UFC fighter cut, a boxer removed from HBO and Showtime, a referee banished to small shows, and a promoter put out of business. They’re the only figures in the game allowed to get away with not knowing their business individually and collectively.

It bears repeating, since it is often forgotten: these people are judges, and they are professionals. They are expected to judge at a professional level. I reiterate this because this, currently, is not the level of expectation they are expected to meet. Any fool off of the street can tell you who won a 119-109 fight, or who won an MMA battle like, say, Quarry/Starnes; but we have judges who are paid and screened for competence, in theory, because we want people with the knowledge and experience to consistently judge the difference between a 116-112, a 115-113, a 114-114, and a 113-115. I believe a professional judge should be able to get these calls correct 80% of the time, and be able, willing and eager to explain their reasoning via television interview or press release in all close fights with championship implications. That is not an unreasonable standard for people who want to make a living as pivotal figures in a business which lives and dies by its public image, but if it were instituted tomorrow it would constitute a revolution in the ways judges and their role in the sport is handled.

Right now we have judges for major shows and major fights who get perhaps 40% of these calls correct and are wholly immune to any form of review process in public; in theory some commissions review them privately, but everyone knows that’s a joke. Cecil Peoples still gets work despite inventing his own rules about which strikes count. Doug Crosby still gets work despite trolling internet forums to pick fights with fans. Doug Fisher of The Ring has had stories for years of the aged boxing judges of Las Vegas, one of whom had eyesight so bad he needed help to figure out what he was putting in his coffee at breakfast in the media room, yet was still allowed to judge PPV-level fights. The gulf between what should be the minimum acceptable standard and the reality of judging right now has never been wider, and I as a fan am tired of making excuses for this. I dispute entirely the idea that only robberies are deserving of protest; more than anything it’s the slow steady drip of officially sanctioned stupidity which embitters fans and damages the sport. With the occasional robbery people boo and complain and pay for the rematch as they did with Holyfield and Lewis; but when they learn over time to anticipate and assume that judges are going to fuck up the majority of close calls, they lose respect for the integrity of the sport and willingness to believe in it as legitimate competition. Much as with the NBA, the conviction has begun to sink in among fight fans that the whole system is rigged, and once that assumption becomes widespread it’s almost impossible to get rid of. Boxing has reached an odd place where the big fights have never been bigger, but below the giangatic event level the sport has rarely been so rickety and ill-supported. Bad judging is one of the many driving forces behind that, and one of the easiest to address if the will is there.

There are more and worse effects of this slow slide. In modern boxing where fighters fight less often and there’s fewer big names competing, more than ever even fairly big name fighters have careers which often go fewer than 10 major fights even if you stretch the definition of major. Let’s pick a name to illustrate- everyone’s favorite new Middleweight Champion, Sergio Martinez. Using the broadest definition of major fight- one that could be shown on BAD, let’s say- Martinez at age 35 has had 5 fights which could qualify: Antonio Margarito (at the time a nothing fight of non-draws), Alex Bunema, Paul Williams, Kermit Cintron, and Kelly Pavlik. The rest of his career has mostly been spent squashing overmatched journeymen; he had one stretch in 2005-2006 in which he actually faced 5 consecutive opponents with losing records. In his major fights, 3 of 5 have gone to the cards. In those decisions, he was screwed once for an unjust draw, lost one close and debatable fight, and won one close and semi-debatable fight. Put another way, he’s been screwed badly on 20% of his major fights so far, and has arguably lost another 20% due to bad judging. Martinez got lucky; he was an undersized guy in a division with a questionable and somewhat foolishly managed champion, his exciting style was acceptable to HBO, and so he got selected for a gift title shot because Pavlik’s handlers thought he would be an easy touch. Most guys don’t get that lucky. Someone like Abner Mares, lacking Martinez’s track record and name, has essentially just had his career stunted: some people were already calling him a disappointment despite being undefeated and only 24 before he’d even had a single high-profile fight; now he has a reputation as a choker in his first major go-round. It’s likely going to take him years to get his career back to where it would be now if Saturday’s judges were any good, and we’ve somehow arrived at a point where a hundred times more is expected from a 24 year old kid in this sport than is expected from those with decades of experience who judge him.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of Saturday’s fights, there’s two particular forms of judging incompetence which are brought to the fore. The first is the complete misunderstanding of footwork. Mares utilized two kinds in Saturday’s fight: movement for the aim of controlling the fight and to set up punches, and complete running. Running sets up no offense, leads to no scoring opportunities, and almost always results in the loss of a round- rightfully so. Mares clearly gave away rounds by running against Perez; the trouble was, the judges showed little to no ability to distinguish the moments of running from the moments of drawing an opponent in to set up shots and force him to re-set and follow at angles which blunt his attack. Mistaking the one for the other is the only way to end up with a 114-114 score, and it speaks to the egregious rising trend in judging to dismiss skill and favor witless forward-march windmill punching. It’s the Toughmanization of the sport, which Las Vegas has been an unfortunate leader in. Secondly, it was abundantly clear the the judges simply did not score or respect Mares’ body punching attack which emptied Perez’s gas tank, doubled him over at times, backed him off in the later rounds and represented the most effective and consistent weapon employed by either man over the length of the fight. This is also a rising trend in the sport and speaks directly to the incompetence which is allowed to fester in the judging ranks. Body punches are harder to judge that head shots- they’re harder to see, harder to judge the impact of, and when they’re a major part of the fight it requires discipline of mind for judges not to underrate a consistent body attack in favor of a few flashy but ultimately minimally damaging head shots. If judges can’t do that, what good are they? What separates them from any random fan in the audience other than their connections? The failure to respect or score body punches is the road that Olympic amateur boxing has gone down, and it’s a large chunk of the changes which have made a joke of what used to be a truly great event and sport. In 15 years the pro ranks may not look as different as we’d like if this trend is allowed to continue.

So what’s the answer? A few measures which might be taken, of varying degrees of plausibility:

– Fire the incompetents. Put in requirements to prove competence through standardized tests and oral examinations at 3 to 5 year intervals.

– Abolition of the current seniority system. It encourages slacking, protects incompetence, puts the judges with the most accumulated bias on the most important fights, and generally inhibits the influx of any new and competent judges into the ranks.

– Actively recruit new judges, and train them together from ground zero to the same specifications. Make talent acquisition in this area a priority, and try to minimize the impressionistic make-up-your-own-rules bullshit which plagues the sport these days.

– Make it a requirement of the job that following any title fight, television fight or PPV fight, judges make themselves available for 30 minutes following the fight to answer all reasonable questions from the press. Additional press time for other fights not falling into one of the previous categories can be ordered at the discretion of the commission in case of controversy. Any judge refusing to comply to be fired on the spot. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

– Mandatory retraining of all officials to educate them about footwork, body punching, and other forgotten arts. A re-emphasis on actually watching which punches land and their effects instead of trying to exclusively infer efficacy from which direction a fighter’s feet are moving.

– Installation of monitors at ringside for all judges for all televised fights.

– Mandatory between-rounds instant replays on those monitors for the judges and the referee of all questionable calls: slip vs. knockdown, headbutt vs. punch for cuts, etc.

– A new decision category called the non-consensus draw. If a fight reaches the cards and all three officials cannot agree that one fighter won by at least two rounds for boxing, the fight is declared a draw. If we’re going to accept that professional quality judges aren’t going to be able to effectively make close distinctions, let’s at least write that into the rules of judging so that we’re not damaging careers for the sake of playing pretend. If we don’t accept that then let’s stop making excuses for people who don’t know their jobs, can’t do them and don’t care to try, and get some people who do.

– And finally, and least likely to be implemented: abolish the 10 point must system. After 12 rounds, have a judge write either a name or the word “draw” on a piece of paper, and hand it in. This system has a huge number of flaws in and of itself, but it has the great virtue of focusing minds on the most basic question at hand: out of these two guys (or gals), who won the fucking fight?

It used to be that that was what judges were judging.


May 24, 2010 - Posted by | Boxing, MMA

1 Comment »

  1. While I agree with most of what you say, I think that the judges that had it 114-114 did a good, professional job. It’s a subjective sport. It’s not an exact science. I agree that a pro judge should be able to tell the difference between the winner and loser of a close fight, sometimes it’s just a matter of opinion. Clean-effective punching, defense, ring generalship are all factored in, but there’s no formula for it.

    And when Dan Rafael writes this, I don’t see the need to make a stink about the decision: “But in the end, the work Perez did through the middle of the fight was enough to earn him (and rightly so) a majority draw.”

    Comment by Tony M | May 24, 2010 | Reply

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