The Professional Boxing Judge
Boxing is a breeding ground for controversy, and no aspect of the sport generates more venom from fans than the perception of poor judging.
When fighters are unable to decide a contest with their fists, the three judges at ringside determine a winner or a draw. Sometimes decisions are clearly poor, as was the case with Roy Jones Jr. in his bid for Olympic gold. Other times decisions in close fights generate reasonable, but often heated, debates. These debates are essentially no different than those arising from a federal court ruling: after-the-fact arguments arise from differences in ideology. In boxing the conflicts arise from fan loyalty to a fighter.
The role of the judge in professional boxing is easy to understand, though often only begrudgingly accepted. Fans look askance at men and women in no condition to take a punch wielding such power over the careers of boxers who have just risked their lives. Judges are occasionally perceived as biased, and their susceptibility to influence by their environment is taken as a given. This popular belief is reinforced time and again when commentators on the most storied networks intimate that, because the crowd is largely for a particular fighter, cheering may skew the judges' scores. One often hears these same commentators suggest that crowd reaction to ineffective, but flashy punches will have a subconscious effect on the judges' assessments.
How much do fans really understand about professional boxing judges? What limits impact a judge's ability to make good decisions? How, in fact, are these decisions made?
Chuck Giampa, retired judge who worked over 3,000 professional fights and more than 100 world title fights around the world points out the most important element in considering these questions: the word 'professional'. Scorekeepers are not professional as a consequence of presiding over pro boxing matches; they are selected to score fights because of their professionalism.
Giampa points out that "a judge must be in as good a shape as a fighter. But judging is more mental." For Giampa the mental preparation for a weekend bout began the preceding Monday. Most important, though, was a stress-free and relaxing day and night before the bout. Even diet must be taken into account to prevent discomfort while working the fight. On the night of the fight, while waiting for his bout, Giampa would refrain from scoring preliminary fights he was watching.
The latter practice is of particular interest, given that many judges are required to judge up to six or seven bouts in an evening. Harold Lederman, unofficial scorer for HBO, has ridiculed this practice for creating fatigue in the judges while requiring the most skilled to expend themselves on relatively insignificant undercard bouts.
Giampa says it is always inadvisable to watch film of the fighters to be judged. A judge can fall into a pattern of anticipation with regard to the fighters, and he may become mentally lazy and fail to see the effect of new adjustments a fighter is making in the current fight. Each fight must be taken separately.
Why are these preparations important? "Total focus" is required while observing the action. The judge must have attention only for the fight (or for the referee on the rare occasions when the referee makes a decision that will affect the scorecards). The referee is always the final arbiter in the case of a foul, a knockdown or the determination of a blow being low and illegal rather than acceptable for scoring.
Crowd noise is no issue, according the Giampa. Judges, in fact, train themselves to ignore the crowd, the corners and commentators who opine loudly on the action. Giampa recalls old-school corner men who would yell, "Great punch! You hurt him!", or something to that effect following an ineffective punch. The intent is to sway the judges' interpretation of the punch, but judges are not hired to swallow a narrative from a fighter's trainer.
Add to this the fact that judges turn in scores after each round. In this way they are allowed to mentally separate one round from the next.
This technique is only part of the equation. The judge must be looking for specific evidence in the fight to make his decisions. For Giampa "effective aggressiveness is 80% of the scoring, while defense is the second thing you look at." It is a fight, after all. He warns that assessing this requires subtlety at times, noting that a counterpuncher may appear to be in retreat while he is laying traps for an opponent. "The ability to disrupt an opponent's game plan" is the definition of ring generalship, another factor to consider, though Giampa notes that this element of scoring is interpreted in many ways.
When assessing the effectiveness of a boxer's attack, Giampa indicates that the punches thrown by the aggressor are far less significant than the reaction of the fighter taking the punch. "Look at the legs, they always give you away. If a fighter immediately holds, this is a sign."
Giampa admonishes that the intensity of punches is often lost in transmission to the television audience, and this can account for some disparity between what fans at home think they are seeing and what judges are ultimately scoring. However, taken as a whole, good judging is in agreement 9 out of 12 times. Having three judges is intended to account for occasional error; if one judge has a particularly bad night, the other two should be able to produce a correct decision.
In describing the ways in which good professional judges do their jobs, Giampa assumes the quality judgment and mental focus that comes with training and experience. Consequently he advises that judges must be brought along slowly, working amateur fights, then four round fights and finally working their way up to ten and twelve round fights. They ultimately take the same path as the fighters with whom they work.
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