How to Score a Fight Right with Harold Lederman

Jun 1, 2012

By Kieran Mulvaney

There are few sports in which victory can be achieved as suddenly, as shockingly, and as definitively as boxing. One punch can render a man unconscious and another triumphant in the blink of an eye. On the other hand, if a fight lasts the distance and goes to the scorecards, especially if the battle has been a close one, two people sitting within feet of each other can reach entirely different decisions about which boxer deserves to have his hand raised.

Professional boxing is scored by three ringside judges, using what is known as the ‘ten-point must' system. That means that the winner of each round must get 10 points (unless he has a point deducted for a foul such as repeated low blows). The loser gets 9 points - again, unless he is deducted a point for a foul, or for being knocked down. There is theoretically no limit to how many points a boxer can lose from repeated knockdowns - although, notes HBO's ‘unofficial official' Harold Lederman, "There are jurisdictions that say you shouldn't go past 10-6 because then the gap is so wide the other guy can't catch up."

If, when the bout is over, all three judges score in favor of one fighter, he wins a unanimous decision. If one judge scores for Fighter A and the others for Fighter B, B wins a split decision. If two judges score for Fighter A, and the other sees it even, Fighter A wins a majority decision. Theoretically, a fighter could win five rounds clearly, beating up his opponent without knocking him down, but lose the other seven by the narrowest of margins and so, despite appearing to be the dominant boxer, lose a decision. Lederman says that's largely because of many judges' reluctance to score rounds wider than 10-9 without a knockdown, which he says is one element of judging he would like to see changed:

"You see rounds where a guy's hardly doing a darn thing and they score the round 10-9, and the truth of the matter is, it's not fair," he says. "Because what happens is, one guy wins the round really wide and if the judges went to 10-8, it would be the difference in the fight."

While nothing can rid scoring of its inherent subjectivity, Lederman offers a few guidelines on how best to judge a fight and determine the winner:

Keep It Simple

"The truth of the matter is that 99 percent of boxing is scored by who's landing the most, clean punches. If you're watching two kids fighting in the street and you say, ‘This kid beat up the other one,' it's like that in a boxing match. Basically, what you want to know is: Who's hurting the other guy more than the other guy is hurting him? And if you can figure that out, then he gets 10 points and the other guy gets nine. It's that simple. 

"Where it gets complicated is when the rounds are very close and they start talking about the ‘effective aggressor' and the guy with better defense or ‘ring generalship' - another cockamamie term they've thrown into the mix. Basically what it means is, who's putting the other guy in the position he wants to put him into. But really, if you sit there and you concentrate hard enough on what's going on in the ring, you can see who's doing the most damage and who's landing the cleaner, harder punches, and that's who you should give the round to."

Score the rounds, not the fight

"You score each round individually and you have to go in with no preconceived notions. You score a round and then you forget what happened in that round, and you score the next round completely independently. It's the only fair way to do it. You can't think about what might happen in the future or what happened in the past. Each round is an individual entity. Each round is an individual fight."

Don't let the distractions distract you

"You're only human. Every judge who tells you he's going to go to Puerto Rico and not listen to the crowd screaming for the Puerto Rican, he's a liar. And that's all there is to it. You can't block out the crowd noise. But you can't let it affect you. At the same time, some people say when you're watching a fight on TV, you should turn down the volume, so you're not swayed by the commentators. But sometimes the commentators help, there's no doubt about it. I can't see watching a fight with no sound, because it would make it hard to judge how hard the punches are; if you take away the sound, you lose all that."

Remember that watching on TV is not quite the same as ringside

"There are a couple of things about watching the fight on TV. First, it's a one-dimensional view. In other words, if you're watching a fight from ringside, you can see a three-dimensional view, but on TV you only see what the director wants to show you, so there's no question you lose something, even with high-definition TV, which has made it a lot better.

"The best way to do it is just to sit there with a piece of paper and a pencil, and write down rounds one to 12 and underneath each one write a number for each guy and at the end of the fight add it up and see if you came out the same way as the judges. Now, a lot of times the judges will come up with one score and the commentators will come up with another, and you can justify it. Not all fights that commentators say are bad decisions are really bad decisions.

"When I was a ringside judge, my most controversial fight by a mile was the third Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton fight. Three of us voted for Muhammad Ali, but it was very close, and it was decided in the final round. My phone didn't stop ringing for a month. To this day, people ask about it. It's funny. People don't remember the close fights. People remember the controversial ones. If you took the controversy out of boxing, I don't think people would watch it."

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