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Score loser: An exploration of out-of-whack scorecards

20
Jan

Debatable decisions aren’t just a part of boxing. They’re one of the best parts of boxing. After all, it’s a sign of excellent matchmaking and very often an entertaining fight when both competitors are able to make a reasonable argument that they won.

No, debatable decisions are not a problem plaguing boxing. But indefensible scorecards are, as we were reminded several times in last year.

Alongside positive trends such as the best possible fights being made and a relative scarcity of unworthy fights being peddled on pay-per-view, the defining negative trend of last year was the borderline-inconceivable scorecards that judges handed in with disturbing regularity.

Not every fan will agree with every decision handed down in a sport like boxing, with subjective elements to judging. It’s the same in figure skating or gymnastics. The fight community has come to accept that. Consider Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez I. One judge scored it 113-113, one scored it 115-110 for Pacquiao and the third had it 115-110 for Marquez, and still it wasn’t viewed as a particularly controversial decision. All three scores were justifiable depending on what stood out to any individual judge.



But there are limits to what is acceptable even in a subjective endeavor, and two scorecards in particular in last year left boxing observers in disbelief.

First, on Aug. 22 in Houston, Texas, judge Gale Van Hoy scored the first Juan Diaz-Paulie Malignaggi fight 118-110 for the local fighter, Diaz, even though almost everyone else believed it was too close to call. Then, on Dec. 5 in Atlantic City, N.J., in another fight that seemed to be a toss-up after 12 rounds, judge Pierre Benoist saw Paul Williams a 119-110 winner over Sergio Martinez.

There were other scorecards that stopped just short of outrageous. In Eddie Chambers’ fairly comprehensive win over Alexander Dimitrenko, Chambers won by eight points on one card and five on another, but judge Paul Thomas somehow scored it 113-113. And two judges, Alan Davis and Benoit Roussel, raised eyebrows by scoring Ali Funeka-Joan Guzman a 114-114 draw even though most observers believed Funeka won as many as eight or nine rounds.

Those scores toed the line of inconceivability. Van Hoy’s card and Benoist’s card stepped over that line.

“I’ve watched the fight since, and I did see two rounds I could have easily given to Paulie,” Van Hoy told RingTV.com last week. “The rounds that I could have given him were 10 and 11. If I’d done that, I would have scored it 116-112, the same as [judge David Sutherland].

“The criticism I’ve taken has certainly bothered me. Honest to God, I’ve never had that before. I’ve done 50 or 60 world title fights, and I’ve never been criticized like that. I feel real bad about those two rounds, and if I ever see Paulie again, I’ll tell him that. But then again, Paulie should be happy I scored those rounds the way I did, because he wouldn’t have gotten a rematch with Diaz if it hadn’t been for me.”

That favorable ironic twist for Malignaggi, however, doesn’t undo the reality that Van Hoy had a bad night at the office. Dickie Cole, the head of the Texas State Athletic Commission, stands by Van Hoy in general but admits he disagreed with his scoring of the fight.

“Just like a good fighter can have a bad night, a good judge can have a bad night,” Cole said. “I didn’t agree with all the rounds he scored in that fight. I thought it was a real close fight. But I have to admit, I wasn’t concentrating like a judge, I wasn’t scoring it. Van Hoy’s honest, there’s no doubt about his honesty. He’s been my friend a long time, and I know he would never throw anybody under the bus.”

Cole might’ve felt it necessary to vouch for Van Hoy’s honesty in part because the veteran Texas judge scored widely for the Houston fighter in Houston. There was a suspicion of bias amongst many observers, particularly from Malignaggi, who predicted before the fight that he wouldn’t get a fair shake in his opponent’s hometown.

The notion that Benoist entered the Williams-Martinez fight with a possible agenda hasn’t really been floated. There was no local fighter at Boardwalk Hall that night, no obvious reason to suspect favoritism. But that doesn’t make his score any less controversial. It just means that most people are branding him incompetent rather than a mix of that word and corrupt.

“I believe Pierre had a bad day, and I believe you won’t see another bad day from him,” said New Jersey State Athletic Control Board Director Aaron Davis. “I was surprised by his scorecard. I didn’t see the fight going the way he did. If you look at Pierre Benoist’s record on BoxRec[.com], he’s been a good judge for a long time. From his history, this would probably be the only time that he’s had a questionable card. So for people to jump on the bandwagon and say that he’s too old or he’s corrupt in any way, believe me, we do a background check on everyone, and he’s about as square as could be.”

Davis casually brought up two very important words: too old. Benoist is in his 80s. Van Hoy is 75. Whether those numbers and the numbers on their scorecards might be connected in any way is a matter of opinion.

Van Hoy said of his age, as you’d expect him to, “I think I’m a better judge now than I’ve ever been.”

And to a man, the commissioners interviewed for this article agreed that age is at worst a minor concern for them. That includes Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

“I don’t think age is an issue,” Kizer said. “Don’t get me wrong, age can be a factor, especially with referees. I’ve had referees who’ve come to me and retired saying, ‘Keith, I just can’t do it anymore.’ But all judges have to pass physicals every year regardless of their age, they all have to do eye exams every year. So age is definitely not a factor as far as what judges we’ll use. Everyone just has to be fit to work.”

So the next time you accuse a judge of being blind, remember that his vision has been tested and is in fact adequate enough to read an eye chart.

Whether that judge has been blinded by ego, however, might be another story. Retired judge Chuck Giampa believes overconfidence is common among many judges and prevents them from sharpening their tools and being the best officials they can be.

“No matter how long you’ve been a judge, you just can’t rest on your laurels,” Giampa said. “You don’t get away from the basics: mental and physical preparation before a fight and your total concentration during the fight. A judge’s mind can drift, and you have to have your ego in check to realize that you’re screwing up or that you’re losing concentration and then have the work ethic to do something about it.

“I have one scorecard from my career that I regret. It was Sugarboy Malinga and Nigel Benn in England and it was a split decision that I was on the wrong side of. I got blasted, and rightly so. What happened was, my mother had passed away that year, and we had a lawsuit going against the doctor for wrongful death, and I got a call about it the day before the fight and my mind was just not on the fight. I remember there were two rounds that I just had no focus, and if I’d scored those rounds correctly, it would have been a unanimous decision for Malinga.

“So you can have bad nights. The most difficult fight for a judge is always the next fight after he screwed up. It’s like getting a driving violation – you get one, and it’s not that bad, but you don’t want two in a row. So you have to admit you screwed up and learn from it, and a lot of judges won’t do that.”

Not to pick on Cole and Van Hoy, both of whom admit to a certain level of dissatisfaction with the scorecard Van Hoy turned in for Diaz-Malignaggi, but neither will take full responsibility for that abominable 118-110 score. Both Cole and Van Hoy pointed a finger at the HBO commentary crew, specifically unofficial scorer Harold Lederman and his 115-113 card in favor of Malignaggi, for exacerbating the controversy.

“Who I feel wronged by is Harold Lederman,” Van Hoy said. “See, they can criticize you, but you can’t say nothing back. And Harold Lederman, that’s why they call him ‘Wrong Way Harold.’ They called him ‘Wrong Way Harold,’ the promoters did, when he was a judge. He’s never had one right in his life. And he was very vicious about my scorecard for no reason.”

“I have a lot of respect for ol’ Harold Lederman, but he’s a showman,” Cole said. “He creates a controversy when there is no controversy. I’m not saying Harold’s not honest. He’s devoted, he’s honest. But sometimes he gets carried away with what he thinks. You have to open up a can of worms, and you open up the can of worms and look at it, and there really are no worms in there. It’s what’s manifested in somebody’s mind. One guy’s opinion vs. another.”

Cole raised an interesting related point, saying that the worst kind of judge of all is a trainer because trainers tend to judge a fighter based not only on what he’s doing, but also on what they think he should be doing.

One thing you have to say in Lederman’s favor is that he concentrates on the fights just the way a judge would. For boxing broadcasts on most networks other than HBO, the color commentator keeps the unofficial TV scorecard, and it’s hard for him to pay proper attention to scoring when he’s simultaneously trying to produce compelling conversation.

One such double-dutied commentator, ESPN’s Teddy Atlas, shined a light on another type of scoring controversy just this past weekend on Friday Night Fights. At the end of the Juan Carlos Burgos-Juan Carlos Martinez fight, which ended in a 12th-round stoppage for Burgos, Atlas noted angrily that judge Tony Garcia had the fight scored 95-95 through 10 rounds despite Burgos arguably sweeping every round.

The point here is not to excoriate Garcia; many rounds were close and, again, Atlas is not focusing the way a judge should while he watches the fights. Rather, the point is to note how a bad score all too often gets swept under the rug because the fight ended in a knockout.

“Sometimes a bad score slips through the cracks,” Kizer noted. “Maybe it ends in a knockout, or maybe a guy screws up but the right guy still wins, so people say, ‘Well, the right guy won.’ But to me, scores like that are just as big a cause for concern as scores that do swing the outcome.”

In other words, we’ll never solve the problems associated with scoring boxing matches if we look only at the final result.

***

Tomorrow, in the second part of this two-part article, we’ll look beyond the causes and explore the possible solutions that might help cut down on the out-of-whack scorecards that reflect so poorly upon our sport.

Eric Raskin can be reached at [email protected]

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