Guest Article: A score needs settling in the Olympic ring

Guest writer Andrew Mullinder gets hot under the collar about the peculiarities and weaknesses of scoring in Amateur boxing, suggesting the quest to eradicate the blatant favouritism displayed in Seoul 88 has actually diluted the sport to such an extent it has become little more than a be-gloved version of fencing. As always, Andrew thinks its time somebody did something about it.

A score needs settling in the Olympic ring

By Andrew Mullinder

It is now 20 years since Roy Jones Jr. was so brazenly robbed of Olympic gold in Seoul that it precipitated probably the most important change in the scoring of a boxing match since the referee ceased to be the sole arbiter of bouts.

In fact, the knees of the International Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) mandarins jerked so violently that judging was removed from amateur boxing altogether. The five judges at ringside were reduced to tapping a button when either fighter landed a scoring blow: if three of the five judges press their red buttons within a second, the boxer from the red corner scores a point; whichever fighter scores most points wins. The actual force of the scoring blows, effective aggression, defence and ring generalship are no longer taken into account when boxers wear head guards and vests.

Many would argue that the change in scoring methodology was the logical antidote to the arsenic of subjectivity. What’s worth more, anyway, three jabs or one hard right cross? And what exactly are the parameters for judging ring generalship? Such questions pervade judging, and their answers are not easily ascertained. Subjectivity is therefore as much a part of scoring as not giving straight answers is part of politics, its presence makes controversial results inevitable, even without the brazen favouritism of Seoul.

But, after 16 years of computerised scoring, has it proved a more reasonable way to score boxing? Is it fairer?

First, it is my view that scoring a boxing match based solely on blows landed is like choosing Miss World based on the essential measurements of the contestants. Has a fighter who lands more punches really won a match in which he was chased around the ring in panicked retreat while being shaken each time he was hit? And how can a flicked jab to the forehead be worth the same as a wrecking-ball left hook landed flush to the chin?

The recent last-16 Olympic super heavyweight match between Britain David Price and Russian Islam Timurziev is the only exhibit required to prove this case. Two points to zero behind after the first round, Price put the Russian down with a solid right cross to the chin early in the second. After rising, Timurziev was quickly knocked to the canvass again, at which point the referee stopped the fight, to the great disconsolation of the burly Russian. “Eto ne pravelno” (it’s not right), the Russian commentators decried of the hasty decision. The stoppage may well have been premature, but the scores would have truly been ‘not right’ if Timurziev had been allowed to continue: the Russian would have had two points for his innocuous first round blows, Price the same for his two knockdowns – a patent injustice.

Second, irrespective of the fairness of the system, I am not sure it can work at all. The button pressers miss dozens of scoring blows. During lively exchanges, or when a boxer throws a combination, it is commonplace for only one punch to be scored, while body shots are almost universally missed. Obviously, in the ‘ten points must’ system of professional boxing, punches are missed, mistakes are made and rounds are incorrectly judged, but the new system was brought in to eradicate such problems, and has plainly failed to do so.

Finally, and worst of all, rather than simply instigating a different (and inferior) method of scoring a fight, the new methodology has actually changed the fight itself. Just as the parameters of scoring have been condensed, so the skills required for success have been distilled to the virtually irreducible as boxers concentrate on catching the eyes of the button pressers rather than actually winning rounds. One style has – certainly in the lighter weights – gained predominance over the rest: boxers bounce restlessly on toes across the ring like pond skimming mosquitoes, before darting in to throw an arm punch and scurrying away; hips are no longer turned into punches; body shots are rarely thrown. But just as the 300lb run-stuffing nose tackle is every bit as valuable an NFL commodity as the svelte wide receiver, so I feel that there should be a place in all forms of boxing for the rumbling, body punching brawler.

The amateur code is in danger of becoming as estranged from the professional game as American football is from rugby. But while American football is a wholly new game with its own merits, this form of boxing strikes me as a limp facsimile of the original, the Karate Kid playing Bruce Lee.

If truth be told, I suspect the IABA ‘wimped’ out. Sir Alex Ferguson would not ban tackling simply because Manchester United had suffered a series of red cards due to mistimed challenges: he would tighten discipline and teach better technique. The correct response to the Jones debacle was to improve training for judges, install greater safeguards against corruption, and increase transparency in judge selection and match scoring. Instead, the IABA went for the Russian option: from tsar to communism rather than something sensible in between, leaving the sport lumbered, like Russia, with a system that cannot hope to achieve the fairness or accuracy it strives for, is even more open to abuse, and tends to encourage the production of grape juice where champagne is possible. We can only hope the situation takes less than 70 years to rectify.

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