One of the more storied aspects of professional boxing is how fights are scored. In most other professional sports points are objectively logged and tallied for the most part, and human decision making plays only a small part in the process. Boxing’s parallel to how other sports work is in its knockouts and stoppages. Even when the referee or doctor stops the fight, very rarely is the result truly controversial. However, not every fight can end so definitively, which is why scoring is necessary and it’s where one of boxing’s biggest messes begin.
To understand why professional boxing is scored the way that it is, it is useful to look at the only major alternative model, namely amateur boxing scoring. Depending on the system in place, in an amateur fight three or four judges sit around the boxing ring with electronic scoring devices. There are two buttons, one for each fighter, and the judges are supposed to push the respective buttons whenever they see a punch landed. If all three press the button at roughly the same time, that boxer receives a point.
This system is reasonably objective within its limitations. Amateur scoring favors a stand-up style of straight punching at range, because that is the kind of punching that maximizes visibility at ringside. It also encourages a lot of light punching in volume, since it is very difficult to grind down an opponent with heavy blows in the space of a three-round amateur bout. Finally, despite the supposedly objective virtues of the system, amateur boxing still sees terrible abuses, such as what transpired at the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the infamous 1988 Seoul Robbery experienced by Roy Jones.
In order to account for things like how hard a punch is or the use of clever strategims, professional boxing uses a more subjective scoring system. The trio of judges at ringside are supposed to evaluate each round on the basis of four categories:
- Clean Punching: This is not as simple as the amateur scoring system. First, not all three judges need to agree a punch has even landed, as each can make his or her own assessment as to what was seen. Second, clean punching could be as much about how damaging blows were, as about how many were landed. A fighter who lands three hard hooks to the body could win this category over a fighter who scored ten slapping jabs to the face, or visa versa.
- Effective Aggression: The simplest way to describe this category is to say that a fighter who is both going forward and landing punches is effectively aggressive. Simply going forward all night might be aggressive, but it is not effective unless it leads to putting hurt on the other guy.
- Defense: The sweet science is about hitting the other guy without getting hit. Blocking, slipping, bobbing and moving to make the other guy miss is an important element of the game, although often ignored by judges and casual fans alike.
- Ring Generalship: The heart of ring generalship is who is in control of the action in a given round. If a fighter’s forward momentum is forcing the pace, then that fighter is in control. Likewise, if a fighter’s defense is defusing the pace, then the defensive fighter is in control.
These four categories are subjective by nature, but complicating matters still further is that they are also not equal, and exactly what each category means is open to interpretation.
Let’s say in a fight a counter-puncher uses movement to stymie his swarming opponent, making him miss and landing single, hard blows with regularity. However, the swarmer keeps coming forward and lands more leather. The counter-puncher never achieved a knockdown, but hurt the other guy a few times. The swarmer’s shots never hurt the counter-puncher, but they did leave his face red and puffy. Who won this fight
It depends very much on what the individual judges like to see, and how much they like to see it. Never forget that Willie Pep, the greatest defensive wizard of all time, once won a boxing round without throwing a single punch. A feat like that should be impossible, but not for Pep and the judges he had on that particular night.
The sole exception to this subjectivity is what happens when a knockdown transpires. Unless both fighters were knocked down, the boxer who suffered the knockdown almost always loses the round regardless of whatever else might have happened in that round.
View our recent features on judging in professional boxing: Possible Solutions for Bad Judging & Are Bad Decisions the Result of Incompetence or Corruption?
When the round is over, the judges use the categories and the results of any unusual events in the ring to determine who won and who lost that round. Under the “10-Point Must System,” the winner receives 10 points and the loser 9, denoted as a score of 10-9. Knockdowns are worth a point each, and points deducted by the referee for fouling must be figured into the round’s scoring as well. So, let’s say a puncher knocked down a southpaw boxer. The puncher would win the round with a score of 10, and the loser receives a score of 8 (9 minus a point for suffering the knockdown), which is denoted as a 10-8. If the puncher had a point deducted for rabbit punching in the round, then the score would be 9-8 instead.
Each round is scored individually using this system, and at the end of the fight each judge’s scores are tallied individually. The following results are possible from the scorecards:
- Unanimous Decision (UD): All three judges agree on a winner.
- Split Decision (SD): Two judges pick one fighter as the winner, and the third judge picks the other fighter as the winner.
- Majority Decision (MD): Two judges agree on a winner, while a third judge rules it a Draw.
- Majority Draw (MD): Two judges rule the fight a Draw, while the third has a winner.
- Draw (D): All three judges agree on a Draw or the results are split three ways, with one judge ruling for each fighter and the third calling it a Draw.
- Technical Decision (TD): Sometimes a fight is stopped as a result of an accident. If this occurs after a certain round, which is defined by whatever rules are in force, the scorecards are tallied at that point and a winner declared. That point is usually the 3rd or 4th Round, but it varies depending on the local jurisdiction. If an accident stops a fight before that point, it is declared a No Contest (NC).
What the scoring system used in either professional or amateur boxing demonstrates is that whatever system in use is only as good as the judges who apply it. There will always be some controversy regarding close, hard-to-score fights. However, the stinkers that leave journalists and fight fans outraged are the product of the judges, not the scoring system.
Fight judges are appointed at the local level, and standards vary considerably both within the United States and around the world. Some boxing commissions require professional standards, such as experience judging at the amateur level, demonstrated background in the sport, and/or formal testing. Others simply hand the job out as minor political patronage, so a judge might know less about boxing than the fans in the stands.
Once one becomes a boxing judge, climbing the ladder from judging club fights to national fights or world title bouts by is often a matter of making connections. Experience has something to do with it as well, as no one vaults from judging a few fights at a national guard armory to instantly working HBO-televised events from Madison Square Garden.
However, a very good boxing judge can languish in local promotions, simply because they have no inclination to schmooze the head of their state athletic commission or they annoyed a promoter with a ruling and that promoter insists that said judge will never work one of their events again.
Meanwhile, an inferior judge of the Roland Dakin sort finds himself invited back to judge fight after fight. Remember Larry O’Connell and Eugenia Williams, the judges who bungled the scoring for Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfield I? Both are still judging world championship fights.