Understanding what went wrong at the most controversial boxing match of the year
The arguments about scoring boxing matches on TV are exactly as old as the broadcasting of fights on TV. When I came of age watching Muhammad Ali on television, my father would quote to me from the Bible, Joe Williams TV Boxing Book, which was published in 1954.
"TV," wrote Williams, who was thought by many of his peers to be the most knowledgeable writer on the fight game, "does not give a complete picture of the fight. Instead, in certain circumstances, TV tends to distort and confuse. One of TV's most serious deficiencies is its lack of dimensional depth, which makes it impossible to measure the true force of a blow ... Very often one blow may seem to be no more destructive than another."
That was certainly true when Williams wrote it, less true in the 1960s and 1970s, and absolutely not true today with high-definition TV and multiple camera angles. In fact, having written about fights after watching from both ringside and reviewing them on the small screen. I can testify that the only time the ringside viewer has the advantage is when the action is happening directly in front of where he is seated, and not always then.
One famous passage, however, from Williams' book rings true nearly 60 years later. Regarding the various methods of scoring a fight, he said:
The plain truth is that one system is about as good as another. Vastly more important than the system is the competence and honesty of the men who interpret it. There never has been and never will be devised a system by which completely satisfactory fight decisions can be reached. The matter of who wins or loses in a ring contest not terminated by a knockout must always come down to opinion. And no system is going to make an incompetent official competent, or a dishonest official honest, whether he scores by rounds, by points, or by promptings form the spiritual world.
It isn't possible for us to say whether the three men who scored last Saturday night's Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley championship fight were incompetent and dishonest. That is, I couldn't judge their competence until I saw their judgments on other fights. I can say without hesitating that I've never seen any scoring for a fight that seemed more dishonest.
I didn't even know how atrocious their scoring was until about an hour later; assuming that Pacquiao, the defending champion, had won the 12-round by 10 or possible 11 rounds, I flipped over at the closing bell to watch the highlights of the final playoff game between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. When the phone rang and a friend of mine told me in disbelief that two judges had scored it 115-113—in other words 7 rounds to 5 with none even, my jaw dropped. You mean, I asked, that two judges thought Pacquiao only won by two rounds? No, he said in what has proved to be the most astonishing sports news of the year, it means two judges thought Bradley won by two rounds.
First, let's be clear. To write off Bradley's split-decision victory to a bad decision is to miss the point entirely. God knows there have always been bad decisions in boxing history—the first Joe Louis-Jersey Joe Wolcott fight in 1947 (which has recently been making the rounds on ESPN Classic), in which Louis was awarded a split decision despite hitting the canvas twice, is certainly one. Another is the second Oscar de la Hoya-Shane Mosley fight in 2003, in which Oscar stole Mosley's lunch money and then had it stolen back by the officials' seeing-eye dogs—I thank the late great Bert Sugar for inventing that gag.
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What happened last Saturday night, though, wasn't in the same quadrant of the galaxy as those decisions.
First, some numbers: ESPN.com's Dan Rafael, probably the best boxing beat writer around—and I'd say that even if he didn't score the fight the same way I did on seeing it a second time—saw it 119-109 for Pacquiao. That's using the 2 point "must" system, which means that unless one fighter scores a knockdown, has an otherwise exceptionally good three minutes, or has a point deducted by the ref on a foul, he gets 10 points for winning a round and his opponent gets nine points for losing it.
HBO's unofficial judge, Harold Lederman, probably the best astute scorer in boxing, also had it 119-109.
I'm going to put this to you in the simplest, clearest language I can: There is no way Dan Rafael, Harold Lederman, and I can see a man as winning a fight 11 rounds to 1 when he actually lost.
The CompuBox numbers, which calculate the number of punches thrown and landed, back us up, showing that Pacquiao landed more punches than Bradley in at least 10 rounds. Manny connected on 253 of 751 punches thrown (that's 34 percent accuracy) while Bradley landed just 115 of 839 (19 percent). Many of those punches by both men were jabs, which certainly count for something in the scoring but are not supposed to count as much as the so-called "power shots," i.e. punches thrown with what the late legendary trainer Angelo Dundee called "mean intent," i.e. punches thrown with weight behind them. Pacquiao landed 82 more of those than Bradley.
A lot of purists have a genuine prejudice against CompuBox scoring; simply landing a punch, they'll tell you, doesn't meant that it was harder than any other punch. Or, stated another way, one punch from, say, Rocky Marciano could negate several dozen thrown by somebody else. That's fine, but there is only one Rocky Marciano to a century, and the vast majority of fighters at any weight don't punch like he did.