Houston: What are the judges looking at?

Sam Maxwell’s disputed points win over Akeem Ennis Brown at the weekend was the latest decision to provoke anger and bewilderment online. IBHOF inductee Graham Houston casts his expert eye on that fight and seeks to explain what the judges are looking at in decisions like these, where the aggressor is apparently given the benefit of the doubt.

We’re always going to get debatable decisions and there was another one on the weekend when Sam Maxwell got the unanimous nod over Akeem Ennis Brown to win the British and Commonwealth super-lightweight titles. BT Sport analyst Richie Woodhall had Ennis Brown winning. Carl Frampton, part of the BT Sport expert panel, had Ennis Brown up by five rounds and basically said: “If Maxwell won, then I know nothing about boxing.” Yet three world-class judges all had Maxwell ahead, although one of them by just a single point.

This poses the question: What were the judges looking at here? And what are judges looking at in a fight that’s not easy to score? Let me try to give an answer.

Maxwell was forcing the fight and he landed the harder single blows. Ennis Brown did what he does. He’s tricky and slippery. He makes opponents miss and he pecks away from out of his southpaw stance. He’s unorthodox in the extreme. His style worked well for him until last Saturday.

However, a judge could view Ennis Brown’s style negatively. Maxwell was showing the judges he wanted to win. Ennis Brown fought a spoiling type of fight. In rounds in which clear connections are few, and where a judge could score the round really any way he likes and not be too far off, the boxer doing his best to press the action is almost always likely to find favour. 

We’ve seen it before. Risk-averse styles don’t sit well with the judges. Fights that come to mind: Canelo Alvarez vs Erislandy Lara and Carl Froch vs Andre Dirrell. Close contests, but Canelo and Froch were the boxers going forward, applying pressure and looking to hurt their opponents while Lara and Dirrell gave the impression that they were trying to steal rounds.

Josh Warrington vs Kid Galahad was another case in point. Galahad did some clever boxing but Warrington was pressing the issue. Cautions for holding didn’t help Galahad.

Then we had aggressor John Riel Casimero against artist Guillermo Rigondeaux. Skilled defensive boxing is one thing, but there were times when Rigondeaux seemed to take flight. Casimero wasn’t hitting much but when he landed to the body the blows were heavy. Rigondeaux was, as ever, an elusive target. But even the great Ronnie Shields in Rigo’s corner was concerned that the Cuban craftsman wasn’t throwing enough punches. Ronnie was essentially telling Rigondeaux: “You’re making him miss, but you’ve got to start hitting him!”

Referees and judges I have spoken to have said that if they really struggle to split the boxers in a round they will side with the one who is trying to “make” the fight. (In British amateur boxing circles years ago judges were told to give the advantage to the boxer who does most of the “leading off” when they weren’t sure who had won the round.)

But it can be a struggle for a judge to find a winner in rounds where a case can be made for either man: The one coming forward and making the fight or the one hitting and moving. There was a fight in Russia on June 25 that illustrated this, when Aik Shakhnazaryan got a majority decision over Vage Sarukhanyan in a Russian lightweight title bout between transplanted Armenians. Shakhnazaryan was on the front foot throughout and landed the heavier blows but Sarukhanyan showed some lovely moves, even having his opponent going the wrong way. 

One judge had the bout a draw, the other two went with Shakhnazaryan. At the end of the fight, both men, naturally, thought they’d won: Shakhnazaryan threw his arms aloft, Sarukhanyan got up on the ropes. It was a close call, essentially just one round in it. But the fighter who moved forward relentlessly was the one who got the verdict, and that was Shakhnazaryan.

Now, we’re not talking about fights in which the superior stylist clearly outscores his opponent. I have referenced bouts that weren’t easy to score. In each case it came down to what the judges liked.

Getting back to Saturday’s contest, I thought that Ennis Brown had picked up enough points to edge out Maxwell. But the Maxwell corner was very confident as the bout headed into the later stages. Ennis Brown, to me, had the look of a boxer who felt maybe he could have done more.

And I can’t leave the Lewis Ritson vs Miguel Vazquez fight out of the discussion. I believe the Sky Sports pundits had Vazquez way ahead, but the DAZN team of Nick Halling and ex-champ Alex Arthur saw Ritson winning all the way — and Ritson’s corner was in no doubt that the Newcastle fighter was dominating the crafty Mexican veteran. 

Once again, we had a bout where one man, Ritson, was always advancing and landing the stronger blows, while his opponent was making cute moves and popping out quick but not powerful punches. Despite the pro-Ritson commentary on DAZN I had Vazquez winning, but only one of the three judges agreed with me.

You really do have to hold your breath when a fight goes to the scorecards. Sometimes you agree with the judges, sometimes you don’t. But a decision that truly baffled me came when the Venezuelan Olympic representative Gabriel Maestre got a unanimous decision over towering southpaw Mykal Fox in a WBA Unterim welterweight title bout in Minneapolis on August 7.

Fox scored a knockdown in the second round and, for me, he plainly and simply outboxed the physically stronger and heavier-handed Maestre. 

Granted, Maestre was pursuing Fox around the ring and did have the American boxer under pressure in the later rounds. Even so, Fox was able to pepper Maestre quite nicely to make an argument for winning rounds: It wasn’t as if Fox was moving but not punching in the manner of Rigondeaux against Casimero.

The scoring of the Maestre vs Fox contest came under fire from fans and the boxing industry alike, and the WBA has ordered a rematch, which tells you a lot. For me, this wasn’t a case where at the end of 12 rounds you couldn’t be certain who had won: Fox looked a clear winner. 

This brings to mind the term “effective aggression”. Aggression can be deemed effective if it makes rounds close enough for debate and gives judges a reason to score for the aggressor. Maestre was aggressive but in truth not terribly effective.

And a final thought. When a boxer is in with a frustrating type of opponent, you might hear his trainer reassure him with the damning words: “He doesn’t want to fight!” The judges just might be thinking the same thing.

Main image: Queensberry Promotions.