For years, British boxing fans smugly said: “If one of our boys goes over to Italy or Germany, they have to score a knockout to earn a draw!” Incompetent officiating was something that happened overseas. This long-held view has been so completely eroded over recent years that the opposite is now the case. The perception is that if you want a fair shake at things you do not want to be the away or unfashionable fighter on a British bill. There are too many examples to list at this point, but the latest one was Zelfa Barrett’s decision win over Kiko Martinez on Saturday night.
Some people had Barrett winning based on his boxing, some had Martinez taking it on aggression, yet the common consensus was that it was a close fight. Then Steve Gray and Bob Williams turned in improbable scores of 118-111 to Howard Foster’s more rational 116-113. These scores did not tell the tale of the contest, not in the slightest, and it is happening on a regular basis now. Denying that there isn’t an issue is not a good look.
Unfortunately, it is one Robert Smith, the Board’s General Secretary, has been rocking for a few years. It is becoming a long-running joke, one that has a bitter punchline for the likes of Martinez. When Eddie Hearn is criticising the judging despite the fact his fighter won you either know “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” or he is embarrassed by the bias, conscious or unconscious, on display and the reaction to it.
There is always going to be unconscious bias. The other problem is that people hide behind the “Scoring is subjective” shield. Scoring can be subjective. However, there are scoring rules and criteria. Art is subjective. It also has certain rules and forms. If it did not have them you wouldn’t be able to assess works of art. Sure, someone without any real artistic talent might throw paint at a wall, put a frame a metre away from it and say, “This is modern art.” It isn’t. It is just paint on a wall.
Writing in The Critique of Pure Judgement Königsberg’s Immanual Kant explained the notions of the beautiful and the sublime. The philosopher outlined a criteria of judging art and why it stirs something deep within us. He also warns that this makes it hard to be objective about it.
Art has form. Once we learn how to look at it and appreciate it, we can enjoy, understand and interpret it. However, that is not an objective way of looking at it. Kant wrote that in order to establish objectivity when it comes to assessing art, we have to put aside our personal taste or sense of gratification.
‘Everyone must allow that a judgement on the beautiful which is tinged with the slightest interest, is very partial and not a pure judgement of taste,’ he wrote, adding: ‘One must not be in the least prepossessed…but must preserve complete indifference on this respect, in order to play the part of judge in matters of the same.’
Scoring is the same. There are differences of interpretation. There are also rules and form, and an objective perspective can be formed, so a disconnect as wide as the one we saw at the weekend is damaging for the sport.
In his book Boxing, Bertrand Job wrote that: ‘[The] rules and provisions are “only” the notes: like the notes on a sheet music, they have to be interpreted. And the interpretation of rules is always a wonderful opportunity for a dispute in the world of martial arts.’
Job goes on to list the ways that decisions can fall in favour of the house fighter: ‘[A]n early stoppage, an intentional foul that gets overlooked and, ‘As far as the scoring is concerned: well that was just plain madness!’ He also made the fair point that boxing’s reputation for corruption and calamity precedes itself: ‘The difference between these complaints and those made in other sports is that prizefighting has fanned the flames of suspicion and mistrust more than any other sport…And it happens just often enough to discredit the decision-makers in this sport almost as a single body.’
The quotes above come from a section called ‘The Unbiased Officials: Caught In The Crossfire Of Criticism’. The first part of this chapter of the book, which deals with both governing bodies and scoring rules, is titled: Supervision, Insight, Overview. Those three things are desperately needed in British boxing right now.
We have supervision via the Board. I personally don’t see any insight as officials are closed off to us and we definitely don’t get an overview as it is a closed shop. You have to try to piece things together yourself bit-by-bit and with insights provided from those on the inside.
For example, in the BBBoC’s Rulebook when it comes to scoring you get the following entry:
‘3:31 Points will be awarded:-
For “attack” — direct clean hits with the knuckle part of the glove of either hand to any part of the front or side of the head or body above the belt.
The “belt” is defined as an imaginary line drawn across the body from the top of the hip bones.
For “defence” — guarding, slipping, ducking, or getting away from an attack. Where contestants are otherwise equal the majority of points will be given to the one who does most leading off or displays the better style.’
Even the definition of the beltline is abstract and often abused to the point where the belt protects parts of the body that should be exposed to scoring punches. Earlier on in the document, section 3.29, it states that: ‘The Referee shall award a maximum of ten points at the end of each round to the better man and a proportionate number to the other contestant. If he considers the round was even he will then award the maximum number to each contestants.’
There are a few problems here. Firstly, the criteria is vague. You should be able to split a pair of fighters and award a 10-9 round. Ideally, you should be able to issue 10-8 rounds if a fighter is dominant, and the ‘proportionate number’ phrase points to this as a solution rather than awarding even rounds if you think a round is too close to call.
If you awarded, say five 10-10s in a 10-rounder then there are only five rounds up in the air so you could win by the tightest of margins while not winning as many rounds as you drew. Another problem is that the regulations only state that a close round should go to the one who does, ‘most leading off or displays the better style.’
This is where subjectivity kicks in and opens the door to bias. What if you prefer a certain style of boxing? Does that mean a close round goes to the ‘better style’, which could simply be the one you favour, especially if you are a former pro and fought a certain way or, again, enjoy a certain style.
On the other hand, we must bear in mind that the Board are stringent when it comes to appointing their officials. Overseas, you might see a referee or a judge getting a title fight after only 20 or so contests. British referees tend to get into their hundreds before being handed jobs like this. It you hit around 800 contests then you can achieve Star status.
Indeed, some British referees on the small circuit can do over a hundred fights before being given a 10-rounder to cover, even more for a title fight. The much-maligned Terry O’Connor did 426 fights as referee before being handed his first title fight, the Commonwealth British title match between Johnny Armour and Albert Musankabala, so there is clearly a lot of experience being built up. O’Connor began working as a judge regularly the following year, he did six before being handed a title fight, but you can argue he had earned his spurs as a referee and was hundreds of fights in by then.
In comparison, France’s Ammar Sakraoui refereed a minor title bout in only his second fight as third man, a 10-round UBO meeting between Rocky Kaleng and Georges Akuvi. By his 23rd fight he was the referee for Sam Eggington’s contest against Orlando Fiordigiglio, which Eggington won in two. It was for the IBF International light-middleweight title, a fairly decent belt as it gets you on the road to a world title.
At this point, we can ask if the long gestation that O’Connor went through before his first title fight before becoming one of our top refs added a wealth of experience. Conversely, does it mean that our officials are now overconfident as there is no one coming through to replace them due to this long, often five-year or more, process. If they get something wrong, there isn’t anyone snapping at their heels. In this way, it is the exact opposite of the life of a fighter.
Another thing to consider about the continent is that if you have someone like Sakraoui coming in for decent-sized bouts after only a handful of fights does it keep you on your toes and allow the relevant authorities to bin officials if they keep getting it wrong?
The Board’s rigorous criteria for qualifying as an official is outlined in their Rules. The Board also outlines the difference in classes:
‘15.2 There shall be the following grades of licence —
- Class “B” — Referees who have satisfied the Board as to their competence and suitability following application, interview and practical and oral examination to referee a contest not exceeding 24 minutes of actual boxing. A Class “B” Referee who does not, within three years of being granted a licence, satisfy the Referee’s Committee of the Board of his ability to be up-graded to Class “A” may have his licence withdrawn.
- Class “A” — Referees who have satisfied the Board through its Committees as to their competence and suitability to officiate in all contests including contests for Area Championships, but excluding Championships or eliminating contests for Championships of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth Europe, and the World.
- Class “A” Star — Referees who have satisfied the Board through its Committees as to their competence and suitability to officiate in all or any contests.’
As you can see, it is a quite a process, and the pay and expenses allotted accrue incrementally, so it is understandable that British officials want to reach Class “A” Star status, but it is arguable that, like all those British fighters who went 30-0+ only to lose at a higher level, they could be either burned-out, have ingrained prejudices when it comes to scoring or have been rendered completely cynical by the game by that point. Scoring a smaller fight that might be huge for the fighters involved is just another night for the official(s). Because of this system, at the higher-levels, the ones we tend to see on TV, it is the same names reffing or judging the same fighters fight after fight.
It all seems to have got very blasé, even Smith’s comments in recent times have come across as dismissive. Thankfully, he has admitted to Matt Christie of Boxing News that there are issues yet the Board’s practices are so opaque we have no way of even knowing if these issues get addressed or whether things move so quickly everyone just moves on. Leaving fighters like Kiko Martinez well and truly behind.
When you consider the criteria, the applications of it and all the other things that go into scoring you can see why some odd ones get thrown up. However, there must be something behind the fact that too many odd ones are being produced in recent times. You can argue that boxing is cyclical. Germany and Italy were viewed as corrupt a decade or two ago, now it is the turn of the UK.
All things considered, there is only one way to score a fight: objectively. In his autobiography and other writings Malcolm X talks about his experiences of boxing matches, in particular the way the crowd gets dragged into the spectacle. He made sure he did not get drawn in even when Cassius Clay was fighting Sonny Liston.
It is a good point made by an outsider. There is a temptation to get drawn into boxing on every level. It is a haven for obsessives, pedants and people with addictive personalities. You support a fighter. You like a fighter. You favour a fighter, maybe even as an official. Unconscious bias seeps in and once it is in it is hard to get out. You must be devoid of opinion or emotion of any kind.
To return back to Kant: ‘A judgement of taste which is uninfluenced by charm or emotion, (though these may be associated with the delight in the beautiful) and whose determining ground, therefore, is simply finality of form, is a pure judgement of taste.’
The fans can scream, shout and root — let’s be honest here, we’ve even seen it on press row — but officials and others have to be disconnected from the action and not biased by preferences of style. You are there to judge each fight in and of its own merits on a fight-by-fight basis. Perhaps complacency has kicked in. If that is the case, then whatever is rotting away in Denmark will continue to cast a stench over the sport.
The Board needs to do much more, which should be easy as at the moment they seem to be doing absolutely nothing in practical terms, and if they are it is done behind closed doors and without scrutiny. Reports get sent after a show. Do they get acted upon? And if the person who receives them believes there isn’t an issue are they worth the paper they are written on?
A good first step would be to finally allow officials to talk to the cameras post-fight, especially if the decision raises eyebrows. Let us see them as dedicated, hardworking men and women rather than the destroyers of dreams. As it stands right now, the next controversial decision or stoppage is just around the corner. And we are running out of excuses.