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Commentary: Fractional scoring not the answer; there's a better way
The WBA’s proposed fractional scoring system is not the answer to scorecard controversies that often plague boxing, says Lee Groves, who accepts the sport's established 10-point must system but also suggests an alternative.
Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer holds up a NSAC scorecard pointing out what he thought could be a discrepancy after Floyd Mayweather defeated Oscar De La Hoya by split decision. The WBA proposed a fractional scoring system to help do away with such post-fight controversies but Lee Groves thinks the sanctioning body's idea would cause more harm than good.
It's human nature to make simple things more complicated than they need to be. Granted, sometimes the results are positive, like in the case of cell phones. Less than 20 years ago their only function was to help us contact others while on the move but now they are full-blown entertainment centers that can stream movies and TV shows, transmit and receive text messages worldwide and snap on-the-spot photos that otherwise couldn't have been taken. Technology can be a wonderful thing.
As far as the negative consequences of complexity, one look at the U.S. Tax Code will do.
At its core, boxing remains a simple sport. Inside the ring two athletes trade punches and blend skills to determine who is better, at least for that night. Administratively, however, boxing has become incomprehensible. Where once there was one world champion and eight weight classes, there are now 17 divisions, four "major" sanctioning bodies and an assembly line of belts with labels like "super," “diamond,” "silver," "regular," "interim," "youth," etc., all designed to generate maximum income but resulting in maximum confusion.
One recent move by the World Boxing Association has threatened to muddy the waters in another area of the sport – the scoring of fights. For decades the 10-point must system has been the gold standard in title bouts, but on Aug. 18 in Callao, Peru, the WBA experimented with "fractional scoring" during its interim junior flyweight title fight between titleholder Alberto Rossel of Peru and Colombian challenger Karluis Diaz. The bout went the distance, with Rossel capturing a decision by scores of 117½-113½, 117½-111½ and 117½-111½.
According to reports, the WBA intends to expand the experiment to NABA, PABA and European title fights. Moreover, worldwide use of the half-point system is scheduled to be discussed at the WBA's annual convention, which will be held from Oct. 28 to Nov. 3 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The idea of fractional scoring is not new. A few decades ago Great Britain utilized a system in which quarter-points were used, and several national jurisdictions – mostly in Central and South America, currently use the half-point method in non-title fights as well as for bouts involving regional belts. But never before has fractional scoring been mandated worldwide – and it should never be.
Reason one: It adds another layer of subjectivity to an already subjective process. The theory behind the WBA's move is to lessen the possibility of controversial decisions, but by bringing in half-points it forces judges to split hairs even more finely. Each judge must determine the difference between a half-point margin as opposed to a full point, and because every judge interprets a fight differently standardization would be virtually impossible. Therefore, what would probably happen is that what formerly was a 10-9 round would become a 10-9½ round while a borderline 10-8 would revert to 10-9. Instead of expanding the scoring system, it would further contract it.
Reason two: The math is already tough enough when whole numbers are involved, so why introduce fractions? One of the gripes surrounding the 10-point must is the possibility for fuzzy math and while it is rare it has happened:
* One of the more notorious scoring errors occurred after the Sept. 15, 2000 rematch between then-WBC lightweight titlist Jose Luis Castillo and ex-champ Stevie Johnston in Johnston's hometown of Denver. Inside the ring Johnston was declared the new champion via majority decision but several minutes later it was discovered that Ken Morita's card was added incorrectly. Morita's original score of 115-114 for Johnston (which matched Daniel Van de Wiele's score) was changed to 114-114, and since the new score duplicated the one submitted by John Keane, Johnston's majority decision victory was converted into a majority draw that allowed Castillo to retain the title. Castillo didn't receive the news of the result-changing error until Johnston arrived in his dressing room to return the belt, a scene captured by TV cameras.
* The classic first war between In Jin Chi and Michael Brodie for the vacant WBC featherweight title in October 2003 was originally deemed a majority decision for Chi following nearly 10 minutes of checking and re-checking scorecards, a process that included input from WBC president Jose Sulaiman. But, like Castillo-Johnston II, a math mistake transformed the result from a Chi win to a majority draw. Hubert Minn's originally announced score of 113-112 for Chi was re-added as 113-113, nullifying Chi's in-ring moment of triumph. Still needing to fill the vacancy created by Erik Morales' move up to 130, a rematch was staged six months later. Chi prevailed by seventh round knockout, effectively ending Brodie's stay at world-class level.
* Yet another math mishap changed the result – but not the winner – of the "Brawl in Montreal" between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. Angelo Potelli's 148-147 card for Duran was originally announced as 147-147, which only delayed the Panamanian's celebration for a few moments. Thus, the majority decision for Duran was changed to a unanimous one. The fact that Potelli scored 10 rounds even is another problem entirely.
If these mistakes can happen with the 10-point must, the odds are that it will happen under fractional scoring. Just imagine the longer waits for a decision to be checked, double-checked and triple-checked because of the more complex math. Also, think about the chaos and controversy that would erupt if a math error was made following a marquee pay-per-view fight in which fractional scoring was used. Yes, boxing is a resilient sport but why tempt fate by introducing a more complex scoring method for the biggest and most important fights?
But there are other issues to consider regarding reform.
While the 10-point must is the industry standard, it does have its issues beyond mathematical ones. The most common complaint is that not all 10 points are used. With the three-knockdown rule applying in most fights, the most lopsided a round can get without an automatic stoppage is 10-7. During those rare instances when the three-knockdown rule was waived there have been even more cavernous single-round gaps, most famously the two 10-6 rounds scored in round one of the first Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez fight and round 15 of the first Jorge Paez-Calvin Grove bout – a margin that won Paez the IBF featherweight title by majority decision.
For all its imperfections, the 10-point must has one overarching virtue – its ability to award bonus points based on degree of dominance. Under the rounds system, the industry standard during several "Golden Ages," a fighter earned a single point each round whether he won it narrowly or scored multiple knockdowns. The first fight between Wilfred Benitez and Bruce Curry at Madison Square Garden on November 18, 1977 shone a spotlight on the system's shortcomings, for Benitez won a split decision (5-4, 7-3, 4-5 in rounds) despite suffering two knockdowns in round four and another in round five. New York eventually scrapped the rounds system in favor of the 10-point must, and surely the Benitez-Curry controversy provided some of the fuel behind that change.
If presented the choice of keeping the scoring system the way it is versus instituting fractional scoring, I would vote for the 10-point must every time because it is a better, more established method and is less prone to errors. But if boxing's power brokers are bound and determined to make a change, it should adopt a simpler system that retains the flexibility of the 10-point must without the complicated math.
The following proposal is a modified version of the ascending five-point system employed by California during the 1960s and 1970s. The guidelines are as follows:
* In a round that features no knockdowns or point penalties, the fighter who wins the round will be awarded one point while the losing fighter receives zero.
* If a fighter wins the round and scores one knockdown he will earn a 2-0 score (one point for winning the round and a bonus point for the knockdown).
* If a fighter wins the round and scores two knockdowns, he will be awarded a 3-0 score (one point for winning the round and a bonus point for each of the knockdowns).
* If the round is even, the score line will read 0-0.
* The winner will be the fighter with the most aggregate points at the end of the bout.
Here are guidelines covering more complex situations:
* This is the one departure from the California system: If a fighter is penalized during a round, points will be added to the other fighter's score, not subtracted from the offending fighter's (the California system deducted points from the affected fighter). For example, if one fighter wins the round but is penalized one point for any reason the score line should read 1-1.
* If Fighter A wins the round and scores a knockdown but is penalized one point, let's say for hitting Fighter B when he was down, that round will be scored 2-1 for Fighter A instead of the customary 2-0.
* If a fighter is penalized two points – as Gerry Cooney was in round nine for his low blow against Larry Holmes – then the score would read 3-0 for Holmes if the judges felt "The Easton Assassin" won the rest of the round (one point for Holmes for winning the round, then two more points for the penalties) or 2-1 for Holmes if they felt Cooney won the rest of the round (1-0 for Cooney for winning the round, then two points for Holmes to reflect the penalty).
* If the fighters exchange knockdowns during the course of a round, it should be considered a 0-0 wash unless the judge believes one fighter merits the point based on the weight of the knockdowns (forceful versus flash) or on whatever else happened beyond the knockdowns.
Under this system, the vast majority of rounds will be scored 1-0, so adding up the scorecards in most fights should be a breeze. Plus, if there comes a time when more than three knockdowns in a round are permitted, no changes to this system would be necessary because it can accommodate ever-larger margins if need be. For instance, the first round of the Jack Dempsey-Jess Willard fight would have been scored 8-0 under this system, for Dempsey would have received one point for winning the round and one bonus point for each of the seven knockdowns he scored.
There also wouldn't be any need to drastically alter judges' thinking in regard to scoring rounds as would be the case under fractional scoring. Under this proposal, a 10-9 round under the 10-point must neatly converts into a 1-0 round while a 10-8 round becomes 2-0 and so on.
Finally, the final scores of most fights will be more easily grasped by the masses. A 118-110 score does reflect dominance but a 10-2 score line brings it home even more.
Change is good and complexity can be beneficial but there comes a point where a sport can go overboard. A shift to the half-point system would be a step too far in the wrong direction. If the 10-point is eventually scrapped wouldn't it be better to adopt a scoring method that resolves several long-term problems while avoiding massive systemic changes? If that happens, boxing would take a rare step toward sanity.
Photos / Ethan Miller-Getty Images
Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at email@example.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of "Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics." To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.