The agony and the ecstasy: How to judge a boxing bout

It’s one of those awful questions that comes up, especially after a close and controversial bout. Sometimes it’s unnecessary to really go into any detail… rounds are so obviously one-sided that it is absolutely clear who won or bouts are so clearly dominated by one boxer that it doesn’t matter whether a judge views it as a whitewash or gives the loser a sympathy round or two.

But sometimes it’s not so obvious.

I should first note two things. First, a bout being close on the scorecards doesn’t necessarily mean that the rounds that made up the bout were close. A score of 115-113 is (assuming no point deductions or knockdowns) is as close as a 12 round bout can be without being a draw… but all it means is that one boxer won 7 rounds and the other five. Each of those rounds could be very one sided.

Likewise one boxer winning a vast number of rounds doesn’t mean that the rounds themselves were necessarily one-sided. If for 12 rounds the two boxers competed on a pretty even basis but in each round one boxer has had an edge then he should win all 12 of those rounds. “Sympathy” rounds as mentioned above shouldn’t exist; a boxer shouldn’t be awarded a round because it was close and he hasn’t won any previous rounds. Each round has to be scored in isolation, separately to the rest of the bout. A boxer cannot win a round merely because he did better than he did in previous rounds and conversely a boxer cannot lose a round simply because he was less impressive than he had been previously; a boxer has to win the round in and of itself.

But how do you judge who wins a round?

Boxing isn’t an objective sport in the way football (both “normal” and American), tennis, basketball, rugby etc where doing something gives a definitive “point”. There may be areas for interpretation but at the end of the day the winner of a rugby match is the one who has the most points. There is no interpretation in the actual result… a team does not win by scoring less points but being “more stylish”. To take football/soccer as an example over recent years there has been a trend to praise teams that have a high possession and passing accuracy stats… but despite that praise if a team has more goals to its credit it is the winner regardless of its own passing accuracy and possession.

Professional boxing is entirely subjective. In the absence of a stoppage victory it is up to the judges to determine who wins. There are no simple criteria to rely on. People may rely on punch statistics supplied by CompuBox or the like but there are huge issues with this. The first is accuracy… and I must say I’m generally unimpressed with the results… and secondly the fact that while punch stats may be illustrative of who won a bout they do not determine it in and of themselves. Nothing frustrates me more then when people hang their entire argument on who won a round on the punch stats they are presented with (Harold Lederman is especially guilty of this).

So in the absence of objective criteria, how do you judge who wins a round?

One of the problems is that its hard to find a set of codified rules governing exactly what makes up the judging criteria. To give an example of the issue look at the British Boxing Board of Control. Their “Rules of Boxing” merely states:

    1. 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.

Now, all of that makes sense but the issue is it’s vague and up to interpretation. Perhaps this is a good thing but, having witnessed some of the decisions I have (and you can see a whole post on one of them here) it seems far too vague.

Part of this is that boxing was never originally intended to be judged. Ancient Olympic boxing contests continued until a boxer was knocked out or surrendered. Similar limitations applied to the London Prize Ring Rules, the first attempt to codify the rules of boxing. Under the 1853 revisions the only form of judging occurred when spectators entered the ring or the ropes/stakes (remembering that in those days bouts rarely occurred in what we would now consider a “boxing ring”) were moved. In that case the referee would award the win to who “in his honest opinion shall have the best of the contest”. That’s it… no more guidance or indication of quite how the referee should come to this opinion. This vagueness has been one of the defining aspects of the rules of boxing.

That said there have been some attempts to give a more uniform approach. The most detailed one is by the Association of Boxing Commissions (“ABC”), the governing body for boxing in the US. With so many high profile bouts occurring in the US under its jurisdiction it also happens to be by far the most important one to have a good knowledge of.

There are two documents I shall be referring to extensively; the Regulatory Guidelines (“the Regulations”) and the Official Certification Program for Judges & Referees (“the Program”). Both of these are well worth a read for anyone interested in any of the rules governing boxing in the US and I highly recommend them.

A quick word on how they interact. The Regulations are in essence the rules of boxing. They dictate everything from weigh in procedures to equipment to the referees duties. The Program is additional guidance in how referees and judges should fulfil their duties under the Regulations. If there is any conflict then the Regulations take precedence but those Regulations should be interpreted in light of the Program.

So what does it say?

Going first to the regulations:

Scoring criteria

The scoring shall be done on a TEN POINT must system.  Judges are to score each round using the following scoring criteria:

1.         Clean punching (power versus quantity).

2.         Effective aggressiveness.

3.         Ring generalship.

4.         Defense.

General guidelines for the “10 Point Must System”

Judges should avoid scoring a round even. (Complete concentration and application of the scoring criteria will allow Judges to pick the winner of each round.)  

So what can we conclude from this?

First, rounds are unlikely to ever be even. It’s often tempting to give close rounds as even but it is something we should generally resist. There will almost always be something you can look at to split the two.

Secondly… and perhaps key… there is no indication that any of the four scoring criteria (clean punching, effective aggressiveness, ring generalship, defence) should be given more weight than the other. In discussions on this I often see people only ever refer to punching and when aspects such as defence and ring generalship are pointed out to them they counter that clean punching and/or effective aggression should be given more credit. Yet there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. When the ABC codified the rules of MMA (which they also have jurisdiction over) they explicitly noted that certain aspects of the scoring criteria were more important than others. They have done no such thing for boxing. Ring generalship is just as important as clean punching. This is something that must be kept in mind. Whatever your personal opinions on what should be given more credit the Regulations state they should be even.

But it does little good to simply list the scoring criteria without defining them. After all, what does it mean to show effective aggression? What does it mean to show ring generalship?

Here the Program gives us some guidance. First on clean punching:


Every judge should be aware of the scoring zone. The method for establishing the scoring zone starts at the top center of the head, with an imaginary line continuing down the sides of the head through the ears, down to and including the shoulders to the naval and hipbones. Caution should be taken in using the beltline, due to boxers keeping the trunks high above the navel. Any punch delivered outside of the scoring zone should not be considered when scoring the bout.

The test to measure the awarding of points for “offensive boxing” should be the number of direct, clean punches delivered with the knuckle part of the closed glove on any part of the scoring zone of the opponent’s body above the belt line. The judges should also consider the effect of blows received versus the number of punches delivered. Punches that are blocked or deflected should not be considered in tabulating your score. Blocked or deflected punches that land foul are not to be considered fouls in the awarding of points at the end of the round.

In most cases the arms are considered defensive weapons. However, judges must take into consideration the shoulders of a boxer as being in the scoring zone.

In many ways this seems self-obvious. Clean punching is based off landing punches and consideration should be placed both on how many land but also the effect of them (a reason why punch stat figures which take no account of the effect of a punch are a poor way to score a bout). However a key part that people often forget is this (emphasis mine):

Punches that are blocked or deflected should not be considered in tabulating your score.

Blocked is apparent enough; a boxer clearly shouldn’t get credit for punching the other boxers gloves. But more than that deflected punches also don’t constitute clean punching. If a boxer throws a punch, the other boxer deflects it but it still lands it doesn’t count. If a boxer throws a hook and the defending boxer partially deflects it but it still hits him in the chin it doesn’t count. If a boxer punches to the body, the defending boxer tucks his elbows and the punch glances off them to still land on the ribs it doesn’t count. This is something you always have to keep in mind… and yet another reason why punch stats (which don’t appear to exclude deflected punches) shouldn’t be used as an argument for who won a round or bout.

With regards to effective aggression the Program says this:

Determination should not be mistaken for aggressiveness when one boxer continuously moves forward boring in on the opponent regardless of the number of punches being received. If an attack is not effective, the boxer cannot receive credit for it. In order for the boxer to be effective in their aggressiveness, he or she must force the action and set the tempo of the bout through forward movement. The boxer must score punches while blocking and avoiding the opponents counter punching. An aggressive boxer who continues boring in and getting hit from every angle should not be awarded points based on aggressiveness.

So simply coming forward throwing punches isn’t effective aggressiveness, especially if the boxer is getting hit in return. A fighter has to come forward, land punches, set the tempo and avoid getting picked off. Personally I disagree with the requirement to come forwards… I think that a boxer can be effectively aggressive boxing on the back foot. However I understand that to accurately score bouts I cannot allow my personal biases to replace the actual scoring criteria. Only a boxer who comes forward can be rewarded for effective aggressiveness.

One thing that I thought would go without saying is that for me “effective” means getting the best results for the least effort. All other things being equal if one boxer throws 100 punches and lands 10 and the other throws 30 and lands 10 I’d argue that the second boxer has been far more effective; he has thrown less but landed the same, being more effective than the opponent with his aggression. I’d stress that this isn’t a case of me judging the round retrospectively by punch stats… it’s by what occurs during the round.

I point this out mainly due to one man… the previously mentioned Harold Lederman. Lederman is a former boxing judge who currently holds a privileged place as HBO’s unofficial judge. Suffice to say I disagree with Lederman’s reasoning for how he judges bouts almost entirely. Being on HBO he generally gets brought on to give his scorecard just after HBO’s punchstat numbers are renounced and Lederman tends to preface his card by relying on those numbers, which as above I do not like to begin with.

One incident in particular sticks in my mind. During Round 9 of Pacquiao vs Marquez 3 Harold gave the round to Pacquiao. He tried to preface this by saying that Pac had landed more punches but realised that the compubox stats were the same for punches landed. He argued that as they had landed the same number of punches had been landed the pair were equal in clean punching (and as above that’s not how clean punching should be scored) but then argued that as Pac had thrown more punches, he had shown more effective aggression and so should take the round. To me that is utterly counter intuitive. As above, everything else being equal isn’t it common sense that the boxer who throws less punches but lands the same amount is being more effective with their aggression?

So where does that leave ring generalship and defence?

Neither the Regulations nor the Program give any additional information on what these constitute so I take a common sense approach.

Ring generalship is the ability to control the ring; the dictate where and how the bout takes place and prevent the opponent from doing the same. If a boxer wants to get to the inside and manages it he should be credited for ring generalship and likewise for one who wants to box on the outside and manages that. A boxer who manages to prevent an opponent from getting to the inside should be credited. A boxer who deliberately pins an opponent in the corner should be credited for doing so. However ring generalship is not just these obvious moves. It’s also the little things… using footwork to keep opponents off balance, keep opponents walking into a boxer’s power hand, a combination of head and foot movement to stop an opponent following up with a single punch. Combine these together and this is ring generalship.

Some of these attributes also blend into defence. Defence is what it says on the tin. If boxing is the art of hitting without getting hit then defence is the “not getting hit” aspect of that. The most obvious things are head movement, blocking and the like but it should also include control of range, footwork and other details that perhaps slip the eye.

One more consideration. Again from the Program:

As a professional boxing judge, your analytical skill is to recognize and acknowledge any advantage one participant is having over the other. At any given point of a round, you must know who is winning. At the conclusion of the round, the contestant who has won the round, no matter how minute the margin, is entitled to that round. The difference might have been a single jab, or a defensive move, yet it was still enough to give that boxer the edge.

A total of three (3) minutes of concentration must be used in determining the winner of a round. Judges should avoid any inclination to watch a particular contestant. Total concentration on one contestant could result in a judge’s failure to see scoring tactics by the other participant. Judges are advised to direct their gaze midway between the two contestants, causing the judge to see and note the actions of both contestants.

A judge should not only know what a 10/9 round is, but know the degree a boxer is winning the 10/9 round. Either a boxer won a close 10/9 round, a moderate 10/9 round, or a decisive 10/9 round. Extreme decisive may push the score to a 10/8 score depending on the judgment of the judge.

Mentally, a judge MUST know which contestant is winning the round at any given point. You should know the score of the round, and the score should immediately be written on the scorecard at the end of the round.

The result of these is an unfortunate conclusion. Judging boxing isn’t actually that fun, especially live. It takes effort, it takes concentration. You have to put aside your personal biases and you have to put away your very enjoyment of the fight. You cannot lose yourself in the fight, cannot enjoy it in the way you would as a fan. Accurately scoring a fight live means you lose the chance to enjoy the bout. Think about all about the magic moments you’ve sat through and watched as a boxing fan. If you want to accurately score a bout at the time you lose that. You’re watching it almost as a job, with an analytical rather than emotional mind. It’s hard work. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. I actually dislike doing it.

But if you want to judge boxing it’s what you have to do.

So, to conclude:

  • There are four equal scoring criteria; clean punching, effective aggression, defence and ring generalship.

  • None of these are more important than any other.

  • Clean punching” requires the blows to be clean (i.e not blocked or deflected) and credit should be given not just to the number of clean punches but the effect of them.

  • Effective aggression” is not just mindlessly coming forward and throwing a lot of punches. It has to be effective… punches have to land and a boxer still has to defend well.

  • Punch statistics such as CompuBox are not a good basis to judge a bout. Simply looking at the number of punches thrown and the number which land (land in general instead of landing cleanly) does not determine who wins a bout

  • Judging accurately and fairly is hard work… and not that fun.


2 thoughts on “The agony and the ecstasy: How to judge a boxing bout

  1. Pingback: Solving the Problem: What went wrong for Broner and how can he fix it? | Slip the Jab

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