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Scoring a Fight: Boxing's Enigma Solved

By Larry Tornambe

Are you usually confident that you know the winner of a boxing match that goes to the judges' scorecards? I am sure that you've shouted "what fight were they watching?" I thought it was time we got the skinny on scoring.

To obtain that answer I chatted with Lou Filippo and Harold Lederman. Lou is a well-seasoned judge and referee who was one of the three judges at ringside for Hagler vs. Leonard. If you believe that Marvin Hagler beat Ray Leonard, you agreed with Lou who was also seen as the referee in the Rocky 1 and 2 movies!

Harold Lederman was a boxing judge from 1965 until his recent retirement and is currently HBO's disembodied voice offering unofficial tallies. I asked them both to explain the keys to scoring a fight and why some decisions make us scratch our heads.

First the hard facts for scoring:

There are four equal points that the judges watch for during the fight:

1} Clean Punches
2} Defense
3} Ring Generalship
4} Effective Aggressiveness.

Clean punching and defense are self-explanatory. Ring generalship means being in control of the opponent. For example, being able to get away from the ropes, cutting off the ring against a moving foe (instead of following him around), or dictating the fight's pace. Personally, I like to include counterpunching in this category. To garner the "effective aggressiveness" consideration, a boxer must not only be aggressive with his attack, but he has to be landing clean punches to be "effective". Each aspect is to be considered equally during the scoring process, but Mr. Lederman notices some judges giving "clean punches 95% consideration with the other three points getting only 5% of the attention and that's just wrong." Scoring a round really gets sticky when both fighters are neither aggressive nor landing punches. This may leave one or two keys unclaimed during a stanza. A judge then has to decide if anyone had an edge in the round or if he will begrudgingly record it as an even round. Boxing officials usually believe a round scored even is a "cop out".

Take into account the four aspects a judge seeks, then watch a bout, or picture a scenario. For example, a slugger is charging across the ring but not landing any punches; therefore his aggressiveness is ineffective. If his opponent is using good defense or is moving away from the punches, he is earning "ring generalship", as well as defensive points. When the opponent is scoring with counterpunches, he has earned the clean punching point along with defense and ring generalship. In this scenario, "effective aggressiveness" has not been won by either fighter.

A quick boxer will always catch our eyes with a fast flurry, but did all of those punches land or were some blocked or slipped? Picture the speedster throwing a nine punch combo, but only four punches landed and five punches were blocked, slipped or off target. Many fans will be mesmerized by the quick punches and never notice the other guy picking off a jab, blocking a punch or slightly moving his head ("slipping") to avoid being hit. The speedster is effective with his aggressiveness if his opponent is kept on the defensive. By keeping his foe on the defensive, the quick boxer is controlling the pace; therefore, he'll be considered the ring general. If the opponent avoided a majority of punches he must be awarded the defensive marks. As far as clean punches landed, a judge will have to keep an open mind for the fighter on the defensive. For example, when the flurry finished, if his opponent was able to get inside and land four clean body punches then "clean punching" is even. It is too much to ask a judge to count all the punches, but Mr. Filippo indicates the most important quality of a judge at ringside is concentration. All of this happens in the blink of an eye and a judge has to be watching and listening closely in order to calculate all of this in the final tally for the round.

Each round is scored individually. The "ten-point must" system is the most frequently used: the fighter who wins the round earns ten points; the loser nine points or less. When the round is competitive it is scored 10-9 or even (10-10). In professional boxing, if a boxer is knocked down once it is almost a given that he will lose an extra point and it will be scored 10-8. If he is knocked down twice, the score may be 10-7 against him. In the past, some commissions have urged their judges to score a round 10-8 for a dominant fighter, even if he does not knock his foe to the canvas. If a boxer is winning a round and suddenly suffers a flash knockdown, a case can be made for the round to be scored 10-9, instead of 10-8, in favor of his opponent. It would be difficult for a judge to defend awarding a round to the boxer who has been knocked down or staggered. Occasionally a boxer will be penalized a point because of fouls. If he still wins the round, it'll be scored 9-9 after the point deduction, if he goes on to lose a competitive round the score will be 10-8. Usually a boxer will be warned a couple of times about the fouls before a point will be deducted. The exception is a flagrant, vicious or dangerous foul.

At the end of each round, the judge fills out that round's scorecard, which is collected by the referee and deposited to the executive commissioner at ringside. The commission records each judges' counts on one official scorecard. This card will be read by the ring announcer if the fight goes the distance.

Why are some decisions greeted by twisted faces, scowls and boos? Lou Filippo and Harold Lederman stated that judges are human. Lou says "judges have personal tastes, some like the big puncher and others prefer the slick boxer and mover. "Hagler vs. Leonard is a perfect example of this theory. Harold says the "hometown crowd noise is a factor for some judges." Neither of our interviewees recalled any judges being guilty of not paying attention or eyeing one boxer during a bout. The judges call 'em as they see them, and with each judge on a different side of the ring, they sometimes see things differently. One fallacy was quickly shot down by Lederman: "a champion is not automatically awarded a closely contested round and should not receive any preferential treatment. Officials are taught to look at both boxers equally, regardless of rankings or status."

The observation techniques used by judges are as diverse as the styles of fighters. Some judges look at the round as a whole, while others break down each round into one-minute intervals. But all are focused on the same key points while trying to block out the crowd noise and trying to catch all the subtleties of the sport.

Boxing matches either have an obvious winner, in the case of a knockout; or the bout goes the prescribed distance and the outcome is in the hands of three judges. During a boxing match the fans are not privy to the officials' scorecards, so the winner is not always known at the final bell.

Being an experienced judge along side the ring apron offers a different view than the one on our television set or even a ringside seat. Using the aforementioned keys, I urge you to score the next fight you see. It would be even better to get a friend to score with you. Keep your cards secret until the end of the bout, compare with each other, than with the official judges. It doesn't mean you'll still agree with all the decisions you'll see, but now you know what "fight" the judges are watching. I have now been doing this for over 20 years, and although the judges don't always agree with me, I have been right every time. Enjoy your scoring.

This has appeared in RING SPORTS Magazine and