Sulaiman’s Extra Judges: An Admirable Idea That Misses The Root Of Scoring Problems

Boxing Scene

March 13 will mark the 25th anniversary of Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden – a fight boxing desperately needed to give its flagship division a singular champion.

It ended, as boxing matches all too often do, with controversy. There was no singular champion. There was no satisfaction for boxing fans. At the conclusion of a relatively uneventful 12 rounds, the majority of which belonged to Lewis in the opinion of nearly everyone, the judges deemed it a split draw.

Two months after that anniversary passes, Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk will become the first pair of heavyweights since Lewis and Holyfield to collectively carry all the recognized belts into the ring and attempt to deliver an undisputed champion. And the last thing boxing needs on the night of May 18 is a scoring controversy like what Lewis-Holyfield I gave us.

Rarely do I, a long-time boxing writer who believes two title claimants in any weight class at any time is one claimant too many, find things to agree on with representatives of alphabet groups. But I am aligned philosophically with Mauricio Sulaiman on this occasion. The WBC president said in an interview with Sky Sports that his top priority going into Fury-Usyk is “to make sure there’s no controversy. We have the biggest fight in 25 years in the heavyweight division. So we have to try to do our best.”

Hear hear.

So what was Sulaiman’s plan? He said his organization “proposed to use five judges or six judges”.

It apparently won’t be happening — there will be three judges scoring Fury-Usyk on May 18, as is the case for any title fight. But Sulaiman’s heart appears in the right place. He wants to lessen the chance of an outrageous decision, and as a general rule, if you increase the sample size, you increase the probability of a “true” result (I will gather a top-secret team of scientists in Los Alamos to sketch out the relevant theorems and proofs on chalkboards for you at a later date, but for now, just trust me on the math),

Sulaiman is hardly the first to suggest additional judges. It’s an idea that’s been floated many times before.

And attached to it are a whole lot of questions…

How much would it actually help, in terms of making the end result of a fight more fitting?

Would it improve outcomes often enough to justify the additional costs?

Where would the extra judges sit? There are but four sides of a boxing ring, and whether we try five judges or Sulaiman’s unusual even-numbered suggestion of six, those numbers are each greater than four.

Would some judges be ringside and others watching elsewhere on monitors?

How would scoring splits be handled? Is an outcome of two scorecards for Fighter A, one for Fighter B, and two even cards a win for Fighter A or a draw?

Might the idea be to throw out the widest card in each direction and end up using only the three scores in the middle, eliminating the “outliers” similar to scoring systems tried in other judged sports like gymnastics and figure skating?

How would boxing’s powers-that-be decide which fights are worthy of extra judges and which aren’t?

Most of those questions are largely rhetorical, but the first one — how much would it help? — is worth addressing.

Lewis-Holyfield I is an example of a fight in which two more judges would likely have made a difference. Eugenia Williams scored 115-113 for Holyfield and Larry O’Connell recorded two even rounds on his way to a 115-115 score. Anecdotally, my recollection as a media member in attendance that night at MSG is that unofficial scorecards favoring Holyfield were impossible to find and unofficial tallies of a draw were extremely rare. So, in the great majority of all alternative timelines that feature a fourth and fifth judge, the scorecards fall 3-1-1 for Lewis and he’s crowned the undisputed champ.

But on the flipside, look at a fight like Devin Haney’s win last May over Vasyl Lomachenko. It was, to my eyes, a bad decision, the sort of wrong we’d seek to get right if we’re adding judges. I won’t invoke the word “robbery”, but I believed Lomachenko had demonstrated clear – if close – pugilistic superiority and I felt no ambiguity over which fighter’s hand should be raised. One online poll in the immediate aftermath found more than four times as many viewers scoring for Lomachenko as for Haney. Admittedly, online polling is far from a controlled experiment. But, suffice to say, the decision was unpopular.

The three judges scored unanimously for Haney – 116-112 and 115-113 twice. That means two additional judges could not possibly have made a bit of difference. Four additional judges could have, but only if all four scored for Lomachenko, which, in a fight this close is a longshot. So, realistically, we’re looking at increasing from three judges to nine or maybe 11 before we’ve increased the sample size enough to get my desired result.

The Nevada-based official Robert Hoyle has judged 822 professional bouts from 2000 to present, according to CompuBox, in addition to refereeing 168 matches beginning in 2010. So he brings a distinct perspective to the issue of boxing’s ongoing problems with scoring.

“I think it’s phenomenal what Mauricio is trying to do to improve and change boxing,” Hoyle began. “A lot of people in boxing are traditionalists or purists. They’re old school, and they don’t want to make changes. I don’t know why.

“But in my opinion as an official, there are other problems that need to be addressed before we talk about adding judges. The root of the issue is in the scoring system and in the training of judges.”

Hoyle believes that the pool of judges as a whole is not trained well enough and consistently enough. “You can have a hundred judges sitting there,” he said, “but if they all have the same training we’re getting right now, it’s still going to be the same result.”

And Hoyle would like to see those judges trained to use the 10-point-must system differently. He advocates strongly for more liberal use of the available points.

“We have to have more flexibility with scoring of the rounds,” Hoyle said. “I mean, you get a round that’s so close and you’re scoring it 10-9, and then the next round, a guy is beating an opponent handily to where you could close both eyes and get the right winner, and that round is also going to be scored 10-9. That doesn’t make sense.”

Indeed, if judges were encouraged to make easy-to-score rounds 10-8 and difficult-to-score rounds 10-9, along with wider margins when knockdowns enter the equation, the end result would be more likely to line up with that gut feeling we often have at the end of the bout that one boxer did more damage than the other. 

While Hoyle is not opposed to at least testing out the additional-judges approach and perhaps developing a study of its effectiveness, he does have quite a few practical questions.

He wonders first, given the limited space at ringside, whether a six-judge plan might involve three judges on the ring apron and three in a separate room judging off of monitors.

“I will tell you this – judging a fight ringside and judging a fight in a room are polar opposites,” he said. “Whoever’s sitting in that room, there’s no sweat in their seat. That seat is not getting hot for them, like it is for the guys that are sitting ringside. I call it the hot seat. When I’m judging a fight, my seat heats up, especially if it’s a close fight — my body is completely connected to that fight. If I’m sitting in a room, I might be isolated, wearing headphones or however they do it, but you don’t have the same pressure.

“And then if you’re watching camera angles, oh my goodness, you’re probably getting the best views of the fight. And that may push people to think, ‘OK, they need to put judges in a room and score off the cameras’. Well, then again, the camera can be biased. And, if you have six judges, you can still have a draw fight. The three in a room can all go with Fighter B, and the guys outside can all go with Fighter A, and then what do you have?”

Hoyle’s point about the different — and perhaps better — views off of monitors overlaps with what veteran boxing photographer Ed Mulholland brought up recently on the podcast I host with Kieran Mulvaney. Mulholland shoots MMA as well, and noted that those judges are cage-side and have monitors they can glance at. It’s more essential in MMA because a judge’s vantage point may prove worthless when two fighters are grappling on the mat on the far side of the octagon — but it still represents the sort of possible helping hand that boxing regulators should at least consider lending to their ringside judges.

One sub-idea Hoyle is not a fan of is the possibility of throwing out the “outlier” scores. In this scenario — which may or may not be what Sulaiman had in mind — there are five scorecards and the widest one in each direction is tossed aside, leaving the three cards in the middle. This could render a card like Adelaide Byrd’s infamous 118-110 in the first Saul “Canelo” Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin fight irrelevant, but there are also potential negative implications.

“That is horrible for your career as a judge, I would think,” Hoyle said of having your score thrown out. “And I have seen fights where that odd judge, the one whose score was out of line with the others, well, in the opinion of other officials and commissions, he was the one that was correct!”

That’s a salient point: A scorecard being an outlier, whether it’s for a single round or a full fight, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sometimes two of the three judges are off the mark. That’s precisely why we’re in the mess we’re in.

And that’s precisely why Sulaiman and others are still brainstorming ways to fix judging in 2024 — 25 years after Lewis-Holyfield I, 31 years after Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Chavez, 48 years after Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton III, and 77 years after Joe Louis-”Jersey” Joe Walcott I.

One thing we can all agree on – we don’t want Fury-Usyk added to that list.

*

I asked Hoyle which he found more stressful – refereeing a big fight or judging a fight that’s difficult to score. I was fairly confident his answer would be the former because a referee has boxers’ lives in his hands, but I absolutely loved the way he phrased his answer: “I have to put it on the referee. There’s just one referee, and he has the largest responsibility in the fight – the safety. 

“But I will say this: if it’s a 12-round fight, the referee has the hot potato for 12 rounds, and if it gets all the way to the end of that 12th round, he now takes that hot potato and cuts it up into three pieces and passes it out to the judges. He’s done, and he’s like, ‘OK, these guys are safe? You guys got the hot potato now.’”

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