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Another week, another controversy in British boxing

British boxing
Dave Thompson
British boxing returns in 2021 and is swiftly followed by more officiating controversies

BOXING is back and so is the unmistakeable stench of controversy. Inside Wembley Arena on Saturday night, three judges scored a bout differently to everyone else, then, in the main event, one of those judges became the referee who was accused of allowing a fight to continue for too long.

So here we go. Instead of championing the return of boxing to Britain – and that’s what I’d prefer to do, believe me – we yet again start Boxing News by highlighting what appears, on the surface, a problem with the standard of officiating in this country.

Spanish veteran Kiko Martinez cut a forlorn figure as his tremendous effort against the favoured Zelfa Barrett was rewarded with a unanimous decision defeat. The general consensus was that Martinez won the fight. Our on-site reporter liked Martinez by 115-113. One can also argue that Barrett nicked it after 12. A draw would have been fair enough as well. But two scores of 118-111 in Barrett’s favour from Steve Gray and Bob Williams alongside a third British tally against the Spaniard, 116-113 by Howard Foster, differed greatly from widespread opinion.

“That was a very, very close fight. I thought 118-111 was absolutely disgusting for Martinez,” show promoter Eddie Hearn said in the immediate aftermath. “We have some fantastic officials but 118-111 doesn’t do anyone any favours. After all that effort Martinez may as well have boxed on the backfoot and had an easy night.

“How are we going to bring in foreign fighters to this country when they get zero credit for their performance?”

It’s true: Britain is not widely regarded as an honest fight country. But is that really fair? Contentious scorecards are nothing new but, in the age of social media and with our events being broadcast all over the planet, the stink from ‘bad’ decisions is far reaching. The smell seems to be getting worse in the Covid era, too.

For the sake of balance, it’s only right to point out that these kind of decisions are less common than justice being served. They do not occur in every fight, they do not occur at every event, as much as that might appear to be the case.

Even so, they occur frequently enough to suggest the scoring system, and the perception of it, needs to be addressed. Hearn promised to give Martinez a rematch. Likewise Barrett, who was classy in the extreme. Rematches are costly and long-winded solutions, however.

One problem has always been what a judge ‘likes’. Yet it’s grossly unfair on a boxer who is not rewarded for their industry purely because their style of fighting, however effective it might be, does not appeal to a certain official on a certain night. Perhaps we need to know exactly what the judges do ‘like’ beforehand or, better still, be more confident that all judges are following the same guidelines (interesting to note that in the Barrett-Martinez bout, the three judges only agreed on five rounds).

But that’s only one point of view and arguably an elitist one. There is always the presumption that the fans – those who watch at home – are in the right and the judges – those at ringside and trained to judge a fight – are in the wrong. The truth might be that everyone, the fans, journalists, commentators and even the officials, would benefit from a broader understanding of how fights are scored and, more pertinently, why. Is it time, given that this problem isn’t going to go away any time soon, that there is a licensed official on the commentary team? One who can perhaps inform the viewers of things we might not be seeing?

Whatever the solution, it might not be as black and white as right and wrong, however. There’s certainly plenty to consider.

Due to the private nature of scoring, boxers can go through 12 hard rounds before they realise their tactics were not deemed effective by the judges and therefore were not able to change their approach during the fight.

It is often argued that the drama of boxing is heightened by that wait for the scorecards after a close fight. But when that wait is followed by almighty controversy, then by suggestions of corruption and incompetence, it triggers drama of the worst kind. Open scoring has been trialled in other countries, predominantly by the WBC, and is a divisive system. Many who are against it believe, with solid reasoning, that it could incite the wrong reaction from the crowd, trigger a boring bout if one fighter is a long way ahead or encourage a judge to go against their own opinion if they suddenly realise their scoring is different to the rest. But the fighters would know whether they’re ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ and be given the chance to try and do something about it.

Another thing to contemplate is the complexities of the 10-point-must system. Ten points is an awful lot to play with yet a boxer winning a close round will generally be awarded the same advantage as a boxer who clearly had the upper hand. Rather than 10-9 for a clear round, why not 10-8 or 10-7? In the event of a one-sided shellacking, is it time to consider 10-5 rounds rather than the current 10-8? It’s also worth noting that scoring a round level is frowned upon yet very often in a tight fight, even when rounds are too close to call, the need to award them to Fighter A or Fighter B heightens the potential for erroneous – or misleading – totals at the end. That would appear to be the case here: Though many of us had Martinez ahead, it’s only fair to highlight that many rounds we thought he won were close rounds.

Robert Smith of the British Boxing Board of Control told Boxing News on Tuesday morning (February 16) that all three of the judges’ reports from the Barrett-Martinez fight were similar: They recognised the accurate work of Barrett, predominantly from punches through the middle – straight shots and uppercuts – whereas not all of Martinez’s looping hooks were scoring punches, though there was an acknowledgement that plenty were thrown. Many of those punches, the judges say, were hitting the arms of Barrett.

What we must also remember, particularly when chastising the integrity of officials, is what is too often forgotten: The judges’ view is different to everyone else’s and the way they record their scores is different. Now, I’m not saying that a judge – confined to the same position and handing in their score at the end of every round as opposed to keeping a running total – has the best view, or the best system, but it’s unique. In that regard, any analysis (or criticism) of their performance is tricky because we analyse (or criticise) without knowing exactly what they saw and experienced.

We’ve all been guilty, and I include myself in this, of jumping on social media with a snap judgement. When we see that opinion being approved, (retweeted, liked etc) it magically becomes fact. The sway of social media, where the narrative is often to expect the worst when it comes to judging, is certainly something for us all to keep in mind. So too is the human instinct to side with the underdog or the fighter we believe won’t get any favours from officials. That’s not to say everyone who disagrees with the judges is wrong, far from it; there’s merit in the belief that those who watch from home, who have the benefit of replays and various angles, actually have the better view. And it’s important for the Board, when addressing these incidents, to admit they were in the wrong when they clearly were; some absolute howlers have been made in recent years.

The performance of the referee is similarly difficult to review. Foster took some stick for allowing Josh Warrington to continue in the fourth round when it appeared – from the vantage point of the vast majority – that the Leeds man was in no position to do so.

British Boxing Board of Control
Dave Thompson

Smith admitted to BN (see pages 12 and 13) that the referee gave Warrington a chance to continue while knowing of Warrington’s reputation as a world class fighter. “I’m okay, Howard,” Warrington is believed to have told the referee at the point of the fight in question. Foster also reported to Smith that the fighter’s eyes were clear. Between rounds, as the referee expressed concern about a potential injury to Josh’s jaw, the fighter remained cogent at all times, answering any questions clearly and quickly.

The referee will also know that in Warrington’s corner was his father. A man who knows his son better than anyone. Rightly or wrongly, Sean O’Hagan sent his boy out for the fifth round after being convinced that he could defend himself and fight back. If we’re to blame the referee for allowing the fight to continue we must also ask questions of the corner. From the outside looking in, and with the benefit of hindsight not available in the spur of the moment, Warrington should have been rescued at some point between the knockdown in the fourth and the start of the fifth.

Of course, a contentious call by the referee is subjective in cases like this. Had Warrington rebounded to win the fight, Foster’s decision to allow him to continue would have been vindicated. On this occasion, though, it wasn’t. Nor was the decision of his father to allow him to continue. But Warrington, the fighter in the middle of all this, wouldn’t change anything in regard to when the fight was halted.

Foster (and Gray and Williams) are honest men and good officials. It is not the aim of this column to criticise or to make noise just for the sake of making noise. Their job is frankly impossible to execute correctly every time. But they need all the help they can get and they would, I believe, benefit from their decision-making progress being shared more readily so those of us who criticise can at least be given the chance to see things from their point of view.

At the moment the guidelines appear too blurred and therefore the margin for error appears too great. The current system is long overdue, if not an overhaul then a rethink, because the perception of a result and the actual result can differ wildly. That is no longer a unique selling point of boxing, it’s a problem.

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