A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How do they score boxing?

August 24, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

My boyfriend and I cannot figure out the way they score boxing. Can you please explain?

SDStaff Ian replies:

F, one thing men love to do is explain sports to women, so I'd be honored, although I'll avoid discussing what this says about your boyfriend. Essentially, judges are supposed to tally the number of punches they see each fighter land (above the waist, on the front or sides of the body or head, with the knuckle of the glove only). In each round the fighter who lands more punches is awarded 10 points. This is referred to as the Ten Point Must System.

The other fighter typically receives 9 points, although if he is greatly outboxed, or knocked down, he may receive only 8. In the event that a fight goes the distance, each judge's decision is a simple matter of summing the points they awarded to the fighters for each round. Awarding even rounds (as opposed to 9-9 rounds which occur when the leading fighter is penalized a point for a foul) is discouraged, since, as Harry Mullan writes in the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing, "It is barely conceivable that, in three minutes of sustained action, one man did not land at least a few more punches than the other, or show a wider range of skill."

It's this "wider range of skill" concept, however, that muddles the issue. Judges, at their discretion, can award a round to a fighter who may have landed fewer punches, if they deem that his punches were harder, that he was substantially more effective in his defense, that he was more accurate, more aggressive, or more anything else that the judge deems important. Las Vegas judges in particular are notorious for coming up with decisions that seem to fly in the face of the opinion of sportswriters, TV announcers, and other spectators.

A particularly effective technique through history has been boxers throwing a flurry of punches late in a round, leaving the judges with a last impression of controlling the round, even if their opponents landed more punches overall. In the Olympics, the judges actually record the number of punches electronically, and judges can be called into question for recording, or not recording, a quantity of punches significantly different from the other judges. In fact, in order for a punch to count on a boxer's tally, three of the five (yeah, five; this is yet another difference between amateur and professional boxing) judges must score a hit within one second of each other. This system was implemented in hopes of eliminating some of the more subjective elements of scoring, although many have protested that ANY contact is often ruled a punch, even a light tickle with the gloves, and that this system rewards light but quick punching over strength and power.

There is an argument that the only person close enough to the action to clearly determine which fighter has won is the referee, and in Great Britain in some instances the ref does in fact score the fight. Others maintain that the judges should watch the fight on television, since the camera can offer glimpses of the action that a ringside seat with a fixed perspective cannot. My feeling is, if they're gonna put the judges in front of a TV screen, let them pay for it like everyone else.

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