Why are boxing scores kept secret during the match?


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Dear Straight Dope: No one knows the answer to this question. But you will, of course. Please help. Boxing is the only sport I know of in which the score of the match, DURING the match, is kept SECRET from:

  1. the referee
  2. the participants
  3. the audience

Why? In football, baseball, tennis, you name it, the score is always right up there on the scoreboard. The players even adjust their strategy according to the score. But boxers must GUESS if they need to go for that knockout in a late round. As I write you, I suddenly have an inspiration. Is it necessary to keep the judges scores secret from EACH OTHER? Is that it? Thank you, great Cecil, for your help. Larry Stevens

SDStaff Ian replies:

Why? Because, you huge wuss, the only way a real man wins a boxing match is to beat up the other guy until he can’t stand up anymore. For a very long time, this was literally true. Prize fighting was simply hitting, biting, gouging, anything short of the use of weapons until the other guy gave up. The first rules were pub rules, and were put in place to lower the chances of a boxer getting killed. For instance, when a boxer was knocked down, his opponent had to stop hitting him. Each knockdown was called a ’round.’ However, this rule was soon exploited by boxers taking a knee as soon as they got tired, at their leisure, and ending the round so they could catch their breath.

In 1743, Jack Broughton, the English champion, drew up a set of rules that became at least moderately accepted. Chief among these was the addition of “two Umpires, who shall absolutely decide all Disputes that may arise about the Battle.” These disputes were not about who won or lost, which was still determined only by giving up, or a boxer not being able to return to the fight within 30 seconds of being knocked down, but about the new foul calls Broughton introduced, namely whether a boxer had “hit his Adversary when he is down or seize him by the ham, the breeches, or any part below the waist.” You know, protect life first, the family jewels second.

The Broughton Rules were superseded by the London Prize Rules in 1838, but really these were only modifications and standardizations, such as ring dimensions, giving a boxer a little more time to “come up to scratch” at the beginning of the round, and making it the responsibility of the judges to determine if a man was truly knocked down to end a round, or if he had just taken a knee to gain his wind, which was considered a foul. Still, knockouts and crying uncle were the only ways, short of being kicked out by the judges, of losing a fight.

In 1867, the London Amateur Athletic Club drew up a new set of rules, including mandating boxers to wear gloves, limiting rounds to three minutes, disallowing any contact besides punches (i.e., wrestling holds), and declaring a boxer who could not stand within ten seconds of a knockdown the loser of the contest. The LAAC got their rules endorsed by John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry. These rules eventually won out over the London Prize Rules for a couple of reasons, among them the celebrity endorsement by the Marquess, the appeal to the audience of the increased fight pace, and the use of gloves, which reduced the risk that a boxer would die in the ring.

The boxing community was slow to adopt a uniform set of rules. In 1889, John L. Sullivan defended the heavyweight title by KOing Jake Kilrain in 75 rounds under bare-knuckle rules, Ike Weir fought Frank Murphy to an 80 round draw in a featherweight tiltle fight, and Chappie Moran won a 10-round decision over Tommy Kelly for the first bantamweight title. Sullivan, weary from his fight, declared that, from then on, “The Marquess of Queensbury Rules must govern [my fights], as I want fighting, not foot-racing.” In 1890, London’s Pelican Club, the quasi-official governing body of the boxing world, adopted rules similar to Queensberry’s, with the modification that a fight could last no longer than 20 rounds, for the first time codifying the emerging practice of having the judges score fights in which there was no obvious winner. Significantly, the Moran-Kelly fight was in Brooklyn, under New York laws which prohibited fights longer than 10 rounds, necessitating judges to determine a winner if neither fighter was knocked out. Eventually, this came to be thought of as an acceptable arrangement by other governing bodies of boxing, again, because boxers were more likely to survive the fights. From 1911-1920, New York fights, and pretty much all American fights, were fought under the “Frawley Law,” which not only restricted fights to ten rounds, but prohibited decisions on points. This was done to combat the corruption and bribery which were emerging among judges and referrees allegedly influenced by gamblers. At this point, bettors decided that, in no decision fights, they would use the opinion of agreed-upon newspaper columnists (!) to determine who won the fight, and therefore the bet. No possibility of corruption there, I’m sure.

By 1920, when the no-decision law was repealed, it was evident that America, and the rest of the world, was taking their lead from New York, and the NY State Athletic Commission became the governing body of boxing worldwide. They established and stabilized 8 weight classes, and implemented the 10-point system (which they found preferable to the British system of the round’s winner getting 5 points, the loser getting 4 3/4 or 4 1/2). The

three judge system was thought best, to at least fend off bribery, and yes, they were isolated from each other, in order to see the fight from different viewpoints, and also to prevent influence of one overbearing judge who might be bribed. There may also have been a lingering feeling that announcing the scores during the match would incline some boxers to try to win on points, rather than go for the knockout, which of course is what bloodthirsty spectators such as you and me have paid good money to see.

So the short answer to your question is, boxing scores are kept secret to ward off death and corruption. Today we have crystals for this, and they’re just about as effective.

SDStaff Ian, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.