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Should a referee score a fight?

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Simon Euan Smith examines the issue of whether a referee is in the best place to judge a fight

IN his editorial last year, “The Bog of Eternal Stench” (BN October 22), discussing the problems in scoring bouts, Matt Christie wrote: “An eternal debate is the issue of point of view. Who really has the best view?” My mind went back to 1968, when I attended a “Boxing Brains Trust,” chaired by former BN editor Gilbert Odd. From the audience I asked the panel (which included British and Commonwealth bantam champion Alan Rudkin) their views on the relative merits of referee only or referee plus judges. Gilbert had no doubts – the referee moves around the ring, whereas a judge is watching from one fixed position. At the time, major bouts in Britain couldn’t be televised “live,” and Gilbert said: “You go to a fight, then watch it on TV the next night – it’s a different fight.” He was strongly in favour of “referee only.”

For over 100 years, in Britain the referee was sole arbiter – even in world title bouts. Around the early 70s, the EBU adopted the American system – scoring referee plus two ringside judges (though initially they waived this for all-British European title bouts). As time went on, the various world governing bodies insisted on judges being used, wherever a title bout was held – and finally the number of judges was increased to three, with the referee no longer scoring. This also applied to a world body’s “Intercontinental” title bouts and the like. Britain resisted this change for decades but finally capitulated – and now British and Commonwealth title bouts, and certain others, are scored by three ringside judges.

I was reminded of what Gilbert said in January 1999, when I attended a show at Cheshunt. Joint top-liner was a vacant WBO Intercontinental cruiserweight title bout, featuring “house fighter” Garry Delaney. Delaney had two opponents pull out, meaning a substitute had to be found at very short notice – and in came a Yorkshireman called John “Buster” Keeton, who didn’t have a brilliant record but had beaten some good men. But it was definitely “Delaney v A.N. Other” – Delaney was the promoter’s man, and the idea was to get him a belt that could take him on to bigger things. With two Britons fighting, all three judges were British.

As the bout unfolded, we realised that, despite the short notice, Keeton was having one of his good nights – Delaney was coming second-best, all the way through. It went the full 12 rounds, and we ringsiders were convinced we’d got an upset. Then came the announcement of a split decision.

We looked at one another in amazement – what was that about? The first score announced was Dave Parris’, and he had Keeton up by three points. The second judge had Delaney up by one – what fight was he watching, we wondered. So it was all down to the third judge – and he had Keeton ahead, but only by one. So justice was done, and the right man got the verdict (and the belt) – but only Parris turned in anything like a realistic score.

It was only while driving home afterwards that I suddenly realised that I, and the other journalists I’d spoken to, had been sitting the same side of the ring as Parris. Would we have seen it the same from a different side?

I remember interviewing Star referee Sid Nathan in 1975, and his view was the same as Gilbert Odd’s – moving around the ring, the referee gets a much better picture than a static ringside judge. Sid was saddened when the various authorities switched to three judges and a non-scoring referee. “If you’re handling a fight, you should have a say in the scoring of it,” he said.

I’ve covered a number of fights where the three British judges – all competent and experienced referees – have come up with wildly-different cards. Was this because two of them were having an off-night – or because, watching from different sides of the ring, they were seeing different fights?

Here are some examples from 2019 – all from York Hall.

June 21 – Ted Cheeseman drew 12 Kieron Conway, British super-welterweight title. Scores were 115-114 Cheeseman, 116-113 Conway, 114-114. And only two rounds were scored unanimously. What does that suggest?

June 28 – Ryan Walsh w pts 12 Lewis Paulin, British featherweight title. Scores were a lop-sided 117-111 for Walsh, a narrow 115-114 for Walsh, and 115-113 Paulin. How could three experienced judges disagree so widely?

November 30 – Liam Dillon drew 10 Youssef Khoumari, vacant English super-featherweight title. Ian John-Lewis had Dillon in front by a convincing 97-94, but his colleagues came up with a 96-95 for Khoumari and a 95-95 draw. Like Mr John-Lewis, I made Dillon a convincing winner, but I was watching from the same side (in fact I was sitting next to him). Had I been watching from a different side, I could well have seen it differently.

Of course there have been cases where it’s been almost universally agreed that a wrong verdict’s been given – but that happens just as often with judges as when the referee is in sole charge. There may be corruption (though that’s almost impossible to prove) – there’s certainly human error. I know when I’m reporting fights there will be times when I disagree with a verdict – and I have to say so. But I do feel that the referee is by far the best placed to give a decision, and I’m sorry we’ve adopted the system of three scoring judges, for any fights. One thing it certainly hasn’t done is get rid of (or even reduce) controversial decisions.

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