Friday, July 15, 2011

On Judging

The controversial scoring of the Paul Williams-Erislandy Lara bout highlighted three arbiters who were unable to correctly judge a high-caliber prizefight using the four universal criteria for judging boxing.  Assuming that there was no criminality with the judging (and frankly there has been no evidence to suggest any impropriety), Williams was able to win the decision because the judges incorrectly applied aspects of the four criteria, which are: clean punching, effective aggressiveness, ring generalship and defense.  This article will examine the Williams-Lara fight through the lens of the four criteria. 

I. Clean Punching

Everybody understands what clean punching is but this criterion is not always the easiest for the judges to apply.  During the Williams-Lara fight, Lara's landed punches were easy to see.  His straight left hands and right hooks hit Williams consistently.  However, the tricky part of judging the match was Williams' offensive output.  Williams fights in an offensive style that features a high work rate, body punching, power shots and many ineffectual jabs.  He will often throw over 80 punches a round and four and five-punch combinations.  He is very active and because he throws so many punches, it's difficult to determine what lands.  With the combination of his odd-angled shots, high volume and lazy punches, it's not easy to score Paul Williams' fights.  He has won three close decisions against Antonio Margarito, Sergio Martinez and Lara; he could have lost all three.

II.  Effective Aggressiveness

Paul Williams creates a serious dilemma for judges regarding the effective aggressiveness criterion.  He outworks his opponents and dictates the pace of his fights with his high output.  He is usually first with his punches.  That so many are thrown with minimal power doesn't seem to faze judges.  In addition, his offensive outbursts often contain a plethora of missed punches.  

Judges often use the effective aggressiveness criterion to reward those fighters who move forward instead of those who land the better punches.  The quality of this forward movement is inconsequential to many judges.  Fighters could stalk their opponents, chase them, throw punches or walk them down; as long as they move forward, many judges will reward them.  Unfortunately, this particular judging proclivity disadvantages counterpunchers.  There are many examples of counterpunchers who can be very active and dominate the action (Floyd Mayweather Jr., Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, etc.).  However, counterpunchers can suffer on the scorecards because they do not get off "first."  If you think about some of the decisions that went against Pernell Whitaker, Hopkins, and James Toney throughout their careers, the difficulty for counterpunchers to consistently win rounds in close fights is apparent. 

Lara was effectively counterpunching Williams all night.  Although Williams pressed the action, much of the effective aggressiveness of the fight came from Lara.  Most likely, more experienced judges would have awarded many of the close rounds to the fighter who was more effective, not just active.

Discerning judges should be able to ferret out effective boxers from those fighters who throw mostly benign punches or punches that often miss their target.  However, the key word in the last sentence was "discerning," and too many jurisdictions have a dearth of quality judges.  New Jersey has many excellent judges – they just happened to have assigned three who were unable to differentiate between "aggressiveness" and "effective aggressiveness."

III.  Ring Generalship

Ring generalship is often the most elusive of the judging criteria to accurately define.  In short, a good working definition of ring generalship is the fighter who is able to impart his style on the overall tenor of the fight.  For instance, Bernard Hopkins has the ability to reduce his opponents' punch output and make them fight at his more deliberate pace.  Brandon Rios turns all his fights into wars.  

Paul Williams excels in ring generalship.  All of his fights are high-action affairs, with him winging punches in the center of the ring.  He keeps his output high and dictates the pace of the fight.  Lara was using movement well and counterpunching when the opportunities were there, but the overall feel of Williams-Lara, from a stylistic standpoint, was a Paul Williams-type fight.

IV.  Defense

Many boxing insiders acknowledge that defense is often the criterion which is the least considered element of the four judging criteria.  This phenomenon is strange since it is usually very obvious in determining which fighters elude shots and which cannot get out of the way.  In the Williams-Lara fight, Lara tagged Williams repeatedly with counter left hands, overhand lefts and right hooks.  Williams' defense was atrocious; he was seemingly hit at will.  Williams did land many shots throughout the fight, but his overall connect percentage was under 20%, an abysmal number for a world-class fighter.  That fact that Williams missed so often should have been positively attributed to Lara.  


Almost all boxing observers had Lara winning at least seven rounds with many awarding him nine or ten.  The discrepancy in this fight between the opinions of the boxing public and the judges' official decision can best be understood in the context that the judges misapplied three of the four boxing criteria.  The judges did not not appropriately reward Lara for his clean punches, effective counters and superior defense.  Williams rightly got credit for his ring generalship, dictating the style and pace of the fight.
Lara landed the cleaner punches as well as the ones that did more damage.  It's clear that the judges were not able to accurately assess Williams' punch output.  Although he threw many more punches than Lara did, the judges did not have the ability to discern which of Williams' punches landed and which missed. 

Williams-Lara reflects a systemic problem throughout boxing.  In many fights, the boxer who throws more punches scores better.  Period.  This is not how judges are supposed to render decisions, but unfortunately, this has become the default position for too many of the sport's arbiters. 

It's debatable how effective Williams' aggression was in the fight.  Yes, he was pressing the action, but how effective was he?  After Lara would land a shot, Williams would return with four, five or six punches.  Many of these did not land, but this approach could have curried favor with the judges.  There could be legitimate differences of opinion in applying effective aggressiveness to the Williams-Lara fight.  Lara was fighting beautifully as a counterpuncher but, as stated previously, many judges seem to favor those who merely punch first.  Lara was not rewarded for effectively countering Williams with his hard, solid shots. 

Also, it's quite clear that the judges did not reward Lara for his superior defense.  Lara found Williams' chin all night, whereas Williams had difficulty in hitting Lara consistently.  The consideration of Lara's defense should have been a key factor in the ultimate determination of which boxer prevailed during each round of the fight. 

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