Adam Hunter got some fascinating results when he applies new scoring models to some contentious decisions. We republish his article free to read here
BARELY a fortnight on from the controversy that surrounded Jermell Charlo vs Brian Castaño, the WBC has announced a suggestion for changing the way professional boxing is scored. The ‘Quantitative and Qualitative’ – or ‘Q&Q’ – system seeks to address the confusingly wide or artificially narrow scores created by ’10-point-must’.
After reading their announcement, I looked back at my own scorecard for Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Teófimo López from October 2020: a bizarre 114-114 draw that looked and felt wrong. For me, López had won the first half of the fight comfortably, with Loma sharpening up later to steal close rounds that counted for the same points. That was the night of Lewis Ritson vs Miguel Vázquez, and soon came Zelfa Barrett vs Kiko Martínez, and a frenzied debate on how to score a boxing fight.
But what would the results of contentious fights actually have been if scored in a different way?
The search for a new system:
To investigate, I built a spreadsheet model that allows us to re-run real fights and compare the outcomes under any number of new hypothetical scoring systems. In Boxing News, editor Matt Christie suggested using more latitude in the 10-point system — perhaps scoring close rounds 10-9, down to 10-5 for a “shellacking” — and argued that scoring more debatable rounds level might reduce “misleading totals”. And readers had their say, with Roy Brand proposing the fighters share 10 points, 5-5 for an even round, 6-4 where the round is close, all the way to 10-0 for absolute domination with knockdowns. The WBC’s proposed ‘Q&Q’ includes rounds awarded at one of four levels: ‘Close’, ‘Moderate’ and ‘Decisive’, all scored 10-9, or ‘Extremely Decisive’, where one boxer is ‘significantly outperformed… and staggered’ ‘, scored 10-8. Each acknowledges that judging is subjective, and if a fight is close the score should be too. The question is: are the right fights close and contentious, and what does ‘right’ mean?
I programmed three systems at first: the familiar ’10-point-must’; the WBC’s new ‘Q&Q’, and Roy Brand’s ‘Share-of-10’ (rounds scored anywhere from 5-5 to 10-0).
For fun, I also tested several round-by-round systems that turn three judges’ assessments into one score. These included: ‘Unanimous’ (one point awarded only if all three judges agree the round winner), and ‘Majority’ (where the point is awarded if at least two judges agree).
To check the model worked, I entered my card for Loma vs López. Each new system gave the win to López; hardly surprising when I had been seeking to correct my draw. But analysis of the official scorecards for close and contentious fights – Deontay Wilder vs Tyson Fury 1, Canelo Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin 1 and 2, and Josh Taylor vs Jose Ramírez – produced some interesting results.
A note: It is impossible to know how the judges saw each round beyond knowing their chosen winner. I watched the fights using the combined scores and my best common sense to make the call.
A fight that had everything – Wilder vs Fury 1:
On Saturday, December 1, 2018, we saw the extraordinary comeback of the “Gypsy King” climax in a split decision draw in Los Angeles. After 12 back-and-forth rounds, two knockdowns, and Fury’s apparent resurrection moments from the final bell, the judges disagreed: Phil Edwards saw it a draw 113-113, Alejandro Rochin gave it to Wilder 115-111 (the knockdowns widening the winning margin), and Robert Tapper went for Fury 112-114 (clear enough for the Brit, even having been down twice). The only note on the official card read, simply, ‘Close rounds’.
In the model, the ‘Q&Q’ and ‘Share-of-10’ systems both give Fury a close split-decision win. Fury’s clearer rounds count for more than Wilder’s closer ones, and each knockdown becomes less of a factor. Rochin’s card still favors Wilder, but the margin goes from four rounds to the equivalent of just one close round.
These systems narrow the card that favored Wilder, widen Fury’s advantage, and turn the drawn card in the Englishman’s favour; They permit a losing fighter to ‘lose better’ and stay in touch, and a winning one to dominate and stretch a lead.
The three men at ringside agreed on only six rounds, playing havoc with my round-by-round systems. The score is 3-3 in unanimous rounds, and Wilder wins with the knockdowns. But where a simple majority is needed, Fury takes it eight rounds to four.
Clear margins vs Nicking rounds:
We can see plenty of examples where the ’10-point-must’ system allows fighters to nick close rounds and make a score artificially wide (think Barrett vs Martínez) or close (my unofficial card for Loma vs López). The new systems can do the same. At Canelo vs GGG 1, judge Adalaide Byrd scored the fight 118-110 for the Mexican. Here, GGG would need to nick four rounds back to get a draw on her card. But on the ‘Share-of-10’ system, Canelo’s clearer wins widen this to a margin of nearly eight close rounds. This is an outlier, but in their rematch two judges went for Canelo 115-113, a margin that would see GGG draw by nicking just one round back. Again, the new systems widen the gap, leaving the Kazak needing an extra two or three rounds. Interestingly, Glen Feldman’s 114-114 in the rematch becomes a Canelo win under ‘Share-of-10’, whereas GGG takes it on ‘Q&Q’ where the points difference between judgments is smaller, and two clear rounds for Canelo do not outweigh several narrower wins for GGG.
Under ’10-point-must’, a knockdown is highly contextual, and not always worth one single point. A clear 10-9 for one fighter can become 10-8, doubling the winning margin, but a flash knockdown could also change a round from a 9-10 loss to a 10-8 win: a three-point swing. Under the ‘Q&Q’ and ‘Share-of-10’ systems, dominant wins are already rewarded more generously. So, for a fighter winning a round already, the effect of scoring a knockdown is proportionally much less. Josh Taylor won his unification fight against José Ramírez 114-112 on all cards, a margin of two rounds thanks to the knockdowns. But under the new systems, the margin narrows to the equivalent of just one nicked round: easier for Ramírez to come back from. And we saw the knockdowns were not enough for Wilder to hold on to the draw against Fury when these systems were applied. Here, we must consider how we want to incentivise heavier punching over a ‘hit and don’t get hit’ style. Perhaps judges could recognise a round winner even if they have suffered a flash knockdown, but any system that tried to distinguish between ‘flash’ and ‘meaningful’ knockdowns would only open up more debate.
The judges’ identical score totals for Taylor vs Ramírez mask disagreement that is typical: the three were unanimous in only seven of the 12 rounds. Indeed, across all the fights I analysed, three judges were only united in about half the rounds. With ringside experts agreeing so rarely, systems that award points round by round yield intriguing outcomes. Under my ‘Unanimous’ system, Taylor beats Ramírez four rounds to three (6-3 with the knockdowns). However, the judges were in a majority for Ramírez in seven rounds, with Taylor only fighting back for a draw with the knockdowns. Canelo vs GGG 1 is fascinating here. Adalaide Byrd’s infamous 118-110 for Canelo means GGG simply cannot win under the ‘Unanimous’ system. But all three judges agreed in only six rounds, with GGG taking a 7-5 win under the ‘Majority’ system. The two judges scoring the fight closer had outweighed Byrd favorite Canelo.
A cautionary tale:
Any new system must give us confidence in results, and make the first minute of a fight as valuable to the outcome as the last. Many fights will be close and debated, but perhaps this enriches boxing’s history, provides fuel for promoters to grow the sport, and gives us all something to talk about. We must also avoid adding complexity that could be confusing and turn fans away. We must also ask whether we can accept a majority of judges favoring one fighter in the majority of rounds, yet that fighter still loses, and whether we want fights to remain close on the cards, such that a fighter can always turn a deficit around. Importantly, the sport must consider if it is right to incentivise boxers to seek a damaging knockout just to create a spectacle. Plus, a note of caution from football: Three points for a win was first trialled in 1981, and became standard as late as 1995. Originally proposed to incentivise goal-scoring, it had the opposite effect, making the game more defensive as feared teams losing more than they valued winning. There are now fewer goals and more fouls. Tinkering with the rules can have unintended consequences.
What to do:
The scientist in me believes the answer may lie in a wide-ranging test in the image of mine, running judges’ assessments through several systems on the night and analysing the outcomes. Allowing a few level rounds might avoid skewing results one way or the other, or perhaps the WBC or Roy Brand will put their name to a system adopted across the world as the new standard. I couldn’t resist the urge to revisit Hagler vs Leonard from April 1987, a fight Leonard won on the most controversial of split decisions. Hagler famously never really came to terms with defeat, but in my model, no matter the system, the fight comes out the same way: a clear win for Leonard. Boxing scoring is subjective, and in close fights much of the controversy is inevitable. Some of it, though, we make ourselves.