The Myths and Realities of Boxing’s Tilted Canvas

Sports is full of popular clichés, but it doesn’t make them true. Does defense really win football games? In combination with offense and special teams, sure. Did one team want it more than the other? Maybe, but superior execution usually goes beyond something as simple as superior desire.

One of boxing’s oldest clichés1 is Does the challenger have to take the title from the champion? Like the rest of these, it’s a myth bred of an innate human desire for easy explanation and justification. Does the challenger really have to convincingly beat up the champion to win? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. The only thing certain with boxing outcomes is that a knockout removes all conjecture from the equation. Beyond that, a fight is supposed to be scored purely on the basis of what happens between the ropes, even if we suspect at times that other factors, innocent or nefarious, are at play.

When Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton completed their trilogy at Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976, the challenger outfought the champion,2 but the three judges declared otherwise by margins of one, one, and two points. The challenger did not manhandle the champion, and the title did not change hands, so the cliché found application. That doesn’t make it true, however. And you don’t need to look far to find contrary evidence: Two years later, Norton defended a heavyweight belt against Larry Holmes and lost a split decision that could easily have gone his way.

There is no rule, written or unwritten, that a champion is to receive an advantage in a title fight. There also is no rule that the local fighter is to receive an advantage or that the bigger star is to receive an advantage or that the scores at the end of the fight are to make no sense whatsoever, but these are all things that happen sometimes. Boxing matches are scored by humans making subjective interpretations that can vary based on a vast collection of personal preferences. To date, nobody has conceived a way to score a fight using purely quantitative measures. It’s not a basketball game; it’s a slam dunk contest. We all know that a shot from behind the arc is worth three points, but we don’t all agree on how many points a tomahawk 360 with the jersey pulled over the eyes is worth. So boxing decisions occasionally stink. And “you have to take the title from the champion” has endured because sometimes they stink in one particular direction and viewers need to believe things like that happen for a reason.

I spoke recently with Steve Weisfeld, who was widely perceived as one of the best judges in the sport for most of his 22-year run before he gave up his apron seat in 2013 for one a few feet away as a ringside scorer for HBO. “It’s a fallacy,” Weisfeld says of the notion that the challenger comes into a title fight with a handicap. “I haven’t met one judge who told me that he or she thinks that. There have been bad decisions throughout history. But most decisions are the correct decisions. Most boxing judges, I believe, are very, very good. Sometimes a judge does not apply the scoring criteria correctly, and sometimes a judge lacks concentration. But just because the media says a decision is bad, that doesn’t make it so. It’s like a lot of things in life; if you do something well, people don’t tell you, ‘Oh, Steve, that was a great decision!’ They’ll only say something when they disagree with you.”

Weisfeld learned that lesson on November 22, 1997, when he worked the most controversial fight of his career. It involved a contemporary of Ali and Norton’s from the heavyweight golden age of the 1970s, George Foreman, who was back at it two decades later as a grenade-throwing grandpa. In what would be his final fight, defending lineal3 heavyweight champion Foreman dropped a majority decision to Shannon Briggs in a verdict widely regarded as one of the most outrageous in boxing history.

HBO’s unofficial scorer, Harold Lederman — one of the judges who ruled for Ali over Norton in 1976, incidentally — saw Foreman winning eight of 12 rounds. Broadcast partners Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Roy Jones all believed that Foreman (a ringside colleague of theirs when he wasn’t actively fighting, for what that’s worth) had prevailed as well. It is unsurprising, consequently, that much of the HBO audience was convinced it had witnessed a Foreman victory. The perception, and therefore the accepted reality, is that Foreman got robbed.

Weisfeld didn’t think so. He scored 10 of the 12 rounds exactly the same as Lederman. But by swinging a mere two rounds to Briggs, he arrived at a 114-114 scorecard. I was ringside that night as well, and I scored it 115-114 for Briggs. But I was just a 22-year-old novice boxing writer, so what did I know? I knew about as much as the respected veteran scribe sitting near me who also had it in Briggs’s favor by a point, or the one in the next row who scored it a draw like Weisfeld. That doesn’t mean we were right and the HBO crew (and the rest of the world) was wrong; it just illustrates that there are often multiple ways to see the same fight. And it reminds us that it’s possible for the challenger to get the benefit of the doubt against the champion, no matter what the cliché says.

In fact, Briggs’s win over Foreman might have been a case of judges, either consciously or subconsciously, bending over backward not to favor the fighter you would expect them to. The 1990s version of Foreman had already won two highly controversial decisions: one against Alex Stewart in which he most definitely didn’t look like the winner, and one against Axel Schulz. So maybe there was some overcompensation going on. In hindsight, that seems like the best explanation for the most head-scratching decision since Briggs-Foreman: Timothy Bradley Jr.’s 2012 win over Manny Pacquiao that spawned its share of conspiracy-theory articles. Pacquiao was coming off an undeserved decision in his third fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. Maybe the judges were trying so hard not to show him favoritism that they showed it to the guy he was outboxing.

Or maybe the problem lies, as Weisfeld alluded, with the fact that there isn’t a universally agreed upon method of applying the scoring criteria. Look at the junior welterweight fight in June between Chris Algieri and Ruslan Provodnikov. One judge had it a lopsided 117-109 for Provodnikov, who scored two knockdowns in the opening round and remained the aggressor throughout. The other two judges both saw it 114-112 for Algieri, who spent the last 11 rounds mixing survival instincts with an offense that annoyed his opponent. “There’s no magical mathematical formula that says that four jabs or five jabs equals one hard punch,” Weisfeld laments. “You just have to do what you feel is right based upon your experience and based upon what’s fair to the fighters.” You’re judging the punches you perceive to land, the power you perceive those punches to have, and the supposed evidence of that power reflected in how the punches appear to affect the other man. Then you’re trying to figure out how to weight those different elements. And if you’re human, you’re probably being slightly swayed by the sheer volume of punches thrown.

Controversial decisions are one of the primary factors limiting boxing’s fan base,4 and they will never be eliminated. Boxing has tried open scoring on numerous occasions, often as a knee-jerk reaction to a particularly high-profile robbery. Unfortunately, revealing the judges’ scores throughout the fight doesn’t change the quality of the scores; it merely removes the drama when they’re revealed at the end. In Olympic boxing, they tried computerized scoring. It didn’t improve the judging, and it sideswiped all entertainment value. If your problem is with the 10-point system, you should know there’s been a one-point system, a five-point system, a 20-point system, and a system in which half-points are awarded. None of those has worked any better. Some have suggested using more than three judges, and while a larger sample size would produce a more representative result, there is a certain point at which (a) it becomes cost-ineffective, and (b) you run out of room to seat judges. It’s also logical to suggest that boxing needs to weed out bad judges, but you’re doubling the gray area when relying upon a commissioner’s ability to judge the judges.

Ali–Norton III was not the norm; it doesn’t represent standard practice in boxing. But it does represent a wide spectrum of the problems with the way boxing determines winners. That decision emerged from some combination of subtle favoritism toward the champion, subtle favoritism toward the ticket-seller, questionable application of the scoring criteria, and lapses in concentration from the judges, and as a result, Norton was denied the crowning moment of his career. Boxing is the undisputed champion of frustrating its fans the instant the action stops. And that’s a title I can’t imagine another sport challenging for any time soon.

Filed Under: Boxing, Ken Norton, 30 For 30, 30 for 30 Shorts, Muhammad Ali