Put down the pitchfork, extinguish the torch, let’s talk to judge Nelson Vazquez
The pitchforks were out, with people holding torches ready to rumble holding them. The fight was over, the decision had been announced, and once again, yet again, we were howling on social media about a scorecard.
This time, it was the Jermell Charlo v Brian Castano fight, and the scorecard turned in by Nelson Vazquez; the Puerto Rican arbiter, who has been judging pro fights since 1987, on July 17 saw Charlo winning at AT&T Center in San Antonio, 117-111.
I didn’t see it that way, and I myself did some howling after the event ended. More than a bit, actually, though I will say in retrospect that I believe the degree of howling came about because of an accumulation of aggravation.
Too many times, for too many years, I’ve seen a fine fight, only to be left fuming and focusing on sub-par judging.
And I’m sick of it….But, it’s entirely possible that ole Nelson Vazquez didn’t and doesn’t deserve the level of scorn that has been thrown at him on social media.
I considered that possibility as I sought to speak to Nelson, to ask him about the card, if he’d watched the fight back, and if he still thought 117-111 Charlo was appropriate.
I found him on Facebook, and knew it was the right Nelson Vazquez, because he’s followed by a bunch of boxing people.
Can I talk to you about the fight, please, I asked. And he answered, he was gracious, he didn’t dodge the request and he didn’t act defensive that I wanted to ask about THAT CARD.
Here, I’ll let you see how he replied to me:
OK, so how can you not kind of like that tone? He’s friendly, respectful-deferential, has a sense of humor about “all this” and solid use of emojis, too, for a man of 68 years.
We chatted back and forth on Facebook messenger some, and that worked, because I do no Spanish and he’s better with Spanish than English. Nelson asked how I scored the fight, and noted that he liked that I’m in Brooklyn, and that he was born in the Bronx, but lives in Puerto Rico.
I watched the fight alone, I told him, sound on, because I like to hear the announcers and find fault with their analysis and Tweet out my critique in a subconscious bid to be seen as superior to these A grade professionals. (Maybe some are B plus, and maybe I sometimes picture myself in their seat, maybe?)
But, I also said, it’s interesting, because while I wasn’t watching as I sometimes do, pretty carefully watching the round, chopping it into thirds, and keeping score that way, I did have Charlo ahead after six or so. And, I continued, I asked on Twitter if anyone else had Charlo ahead at that juncture, as I could see that Twitter was mostly scoring it wide for Castano the first half of the fight.
Now, we can’t do this experiment, but let’s pretend we can. Everyone watches the Jermell Charlo v Brian Castano fight alone, by themself, sound off, don’t look at all at Twitter or other social media apps while judging, and turns in a scorecard after every round.
What do you think would happen? It’s quite possible the scores people turn in would be markedly different than if they were “scoring at home” as they more typically do.
There’d be no influencing by the blow by blow person, or analysts, who these days tend to sort of “take a side” on how a match is playing out, who is performing better, or worse, than expected, etc. (Seriously, go back and watch a fight from “back in the day.” It’s more so a call of what is happening then and there, in that ring, there is far less “opinion” analysis, mind and body reading, as is the norm today.)
So, there would be no influencing from Twitter, which would tell you that a boxing writer who usually has a good handle on what is going on in the ring has a score after six that is not close to what you have. And, tell me, do you think maybe once or twice you changed a score in your head before you posted to Twitter your take on a fight, to make it so you don’t stand out like a biker at a narc rally? Uh oh…don’t want to seem like an outlier. Mmmm, maybe I was distracted during the first ten seconds of the round, coming back from the fridge, and perhaps I missed a great Castano combo, and my scoring for that round should match Doug Fischers’ or whoever. Wow, everyone basically has it 4-1 Castano after five, are my eyes on the blink tonight? Did I get enough sleep last night? Did the perk me up espresso wear off too much? Maybe, maybe not, but I liked the way Charlo was defending on the ropes, I saw him making Castano miss quite often. I maybe thought he’d do better to be off the ropes and use his mobility edge more, but I’m giving him due credit, and saying he did better in the first half of the fight than many others did.
Let’s look at what Nelson’s compatriots said that night; Steve Weisfeld and Tim Cheatham gave the Argentine round one, Nelson saw Charlo winning. All three were on the same page for round two, for Charlo. All three saw Castano winning the third.
Ok, so so far, nothing egregious about that scoring, right?
It was a close round in the first, and Nelson liked what Charlo was doing. In the course of messaging him Tuesday and Wednesday and then speaking to him on Thursday, it became clear to me that Nelson keeps it simple. He will reward the power puncher, or the fighter who landed, in his mind, the harder shots.
Nothing at all wrong with that; but as I told Nelson on the phone, I tend to judge from a different stance, I give more “credit” for ring generalship than most pro judges do. And that’s allowed, by the way, no commission has a strict, by the book criteria for their judges to follow. Robots have not yet been engineered and programmed to judge boxing matches, don’t worry, that will be in play in ten years.
OK, so after six rounds, Nelson saw Jermell Charlo winning four of the rounds, while Weisfeld saw Brian Castano winning four of six, and Cheatham had Castano winning three of six. Yep, tie goes to Charlo, that seemed to be the pattern from Nelson.
We started to get deeper into what criteria Nelson uses, when he asked for a rain check, a relative was in the hospital, and Nelson wanted to greet them when they returned home. He sent me his “resume,” from BoxRec, and we agreed to pick it back up. “My friend, ready to rumble,” he wrote, with laugh til you cry, a thumb up, a US flag and a boxing glove emoji attached. He also sent a BoxRec link to another fight, the Paul Malignaggi WBA junior welter title defense versus Pablo Cano, who came in over weight and lost the possibility of winning the crown, on Oct. 20, 2012 at Barclays Center.
Paulie got the nod in that one, by split decision, with Nelson and Tom Miller both scoring it 114-113, while Glenn Feldman’s eyes had him giving Cano the W, 118-109. Yep, big divergence there, right? And the outcome indicated to me that Nelson isn’t married to one style–he “rewarded” the volume and ring generalship of the jab-happy Brooklyner over the Mexican boxer who sought to land power rights and dent that chin of the champ.
Back to the latest kerfuffle…
I got Nelson on the phone Thursday, and asked him, why’d he vote like that, 117-111 for Charlo?
“It’s the night of the fight, I’m by myself, no drinking, I completely concentrate on the fight,” he told me. “I concentrate on each round.” And I got his point, he noted that many of us scream about a scorecard after the fact, but the fact is, our attention is not usually fully focused on the bout, is it? I know I myself am sometimes guilty of Tweeting during live action, tsk tsk.
He started going round by round, what he saw, why he scored it the way he did. And he summed it up, yep, in the close rounds, he pretty much gave the benefit of the doubt to the Texan. And, he said, he was well aware of the consternation that formed when the decision was announced. “They try to kill me, 117-111,” he said, tongue a bit in cheek.
OK, I replied, “Have you watched it back? Did you watch a replay, and score it then?”
Indeed he did; Nelson watched the Charlo-Castano fight on Wednesday night, in the comfort and safety of his home, with cohorts Luma and Traviezo. (Luma is a cat, 10 years old, and Traviezo a 16 year old dog. I’ve seen pictures, Nelson sent them, I think after reading a Facebook post I did in which I talked about something that happened to me while walking my dog, Maggie. Here they are, see below:
Nelson sat and re-watched the junior middleweight scrap, and scored it again for Jermell Charlo, this time 115-113.
I asked, tongue in cheek, did he drink an adult beverage while watching the Showtime production? “Never in my life did I drink,” he stated.
At that point, I asked him when he started judging, and what he did for 9 to 5 work. “Forty years, in Puerto Rico, homicide detective,” he said. Wow, OK, you are chill for having done that for 40 years, I noted. He retired from that world in 2011, for the record. (Check out the picture topping the article. That’s Nelson at his desk while he did the law enforcement gig.)
We talked more about the title unification battle, and how people went at him for that score. “It was a very close fight, but the heavier punches (in many rounds) were from Charlo, the 10th, 11th, 12th, the best punches were from Charlo,” he said.
Weisfeld and Cheatham agreed on those rounds, too, same as everyone was on the same page for round 7. CompuBox indicates round 8 was tight, with Castano going 14-48, to 12-58 for the twin. No need to nitpick round nine, the three deciders all saw it for Castano. Round nine prompted a bit of discussion, as Weisfeld (as I did on my viciously unofficial card) went 10-8 for Charlo, because he buzzed Castano, and had him in pretty deep trouble for a decent spell. Judges are for sure “allowed” to call for a 10-8 round, but most only do it when a knockdown is scored. I think that some knockdowns are flash knockdowns, and that fighters sometimes rise and with clear head, solid legs and turn things around real quick. Or, a fighter with a better than average chin, like Castano, doesn’t go down, but is in danger of getting dropped or stopped, for a long-isn spell. Nelson told me he doesn’t agree, and while he thinks very highly of Weisfeld, he scored it for Charlo, 10-9, not 10-8.
We spoke more about non boxing stuff. Nelson lives in San Juan, and I told him I’ve been to Puerto Rico twice, once with my wife, and then again with her and our two daughters. Nelson has two grand-daughters, Emma and Aimy, and, he said, they are the bosses in his house, along with the animals, and his missus, Idalia, also a boxing judge.
So, the caterwauling that got spewed after his 117-111 tally, it doesn’t seem to dent his ego. The animals revere him regardless. And, he said, he’s worked Anthony Joshua (vs. Wladimir Klitschko), and Manny Pacquiao (against Josh Clottey) and Gennadiy Golovkin (versus Kassim Ouma). Nope, he’s never seen the angry posse come at him like this. “I’ve had no problem at all, in 44 years,” he said.
My Three Cents: Plenty people out there will read this, and come away, hey, this Nelson Vazquez actually seems OK. He let the guard down with me, I felt like, and maybe he did so because I went to him after I put down the pitchfork and extinguished the torch, with an agenda, to learn more about why his scorecard was so different than his colleagues. This is the age of “go nuclear” right away, then simmer down, MAYBE, and methodically do some reporting and try to learn in some depth what actually occurred, with a sober mind, clear of mind-controlling bias, only rarely.
I also learned that Nelson had been born in the Bronx, and put up for adoption, and that a couple, his parents, moved with him to Puerto Rico. Oh, and I mentioned to him that a few people are thinking he got a side-check from some shady operator, to induce him to give Charlo the benefit of the doubt. “No way!” he told me. And I believe him, because, c’mon, Luma and Traviezo wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing.
—Michael Woods is a Vice President for the Boxing Writers Association of America. The Brooklyn resident worked for NY Newsday, and ESPN The Magazine before becoming a contributor to RING. He is the publisher of NYFights.com, since 2016.