Monday, November 21, 2016

Opinions and Observations: Kovalev-Ward

However one views Andre Ward's controversial unanimous decision victory over Sergey Kovalev, the fight manifested in a fairly clear "tale of two halves." Kovalev dominated the action early, beating Ward to the punch with jabs and right hands. He knocked Ward down in the second and had his foe hanging on for dear life by the end of the round. There was a clear difference in power between the two fighters. Although that was expected, what was surprising was that Kovalev also out-boxed Ward through most of the fight's first four rounds. 

By the end of the match, it was clear to me that Ward was getting the better of the action in a majority of the fight's final frames. Ward disrupted Kovalev's timing by grappling on the inside and landing single shots, usually jabs, right hands or left hooks that left Kovalev flummoxed in the ring and unable to land the types of definitive blows that he scored with earlier in the bout. 

In my estimation, scoring the match came down to when one started to grasp the tide of the fight turning. Rounds five through seven were very close and the awarding of those frames could vary based on eye of the beholder. Kovalev was still landing solid shots here and there but Ward was successful in neutralizing Kovalev's free-flowing offense and scoring more frequently with his own shots. Now, were Ward's efforts in these rounds enough to win them, or was he simply doing better? That, like much of this fight is up for debate. 

Allow me to take a brief pause from sharing my fight observations to talk about the concept of confirmation bias, which may have played a key role in how one scored Kovalev-Ward. For a quick definition of confirmation bias, let's use this: the tendency to interpret new evidence as a confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. Confirmation bias is a concept familiar to those conversant in psychology, cognitive and social sciences. In recent years, the phrase has increasingly popped up in analytically-minded evaluations of decision making in sports. Baseball front offices and "statheads" in other sports frequently try to combat confirmation bias in order to remove groupthink and to solicit different opinions. 

Confirmation bias holds a significant role in boxing, specifically in the evaluation and judging of fights. Observers hold a theory on how a matchup might play out and until there is significant evidence that negates the original prediction, the initial hypothesis for the fight prevails. In competitive contests, such as Kovalev-Ward, observers make a pick or posit a theory on how the match will unfold. The tendency is to view the ensuing fight action through the prism of the original pick. Essentially, we all want our initial prediction to be right. 

As a red-blooded human being, of course I can be susceptible to confirmation bias, just like anyone else. I predicted that Ward would win the fight after a rough start. I even went so far as to opine that he would be knocked down early in the fight before coming back to win in the second half. Now, did Ward actually do those things on Saturday? He might have. I thought that he did. However, it's not out of the realm of possibility that I tried to place Saturday's fight action into my original narrative. 

I scored the fight 115-112 for Ward, or eight rounds to four, with a point off for the knockdown. I thought that Ward gradually began to take away Kovalev's offensive weapons. In terms of ring generalship, from the fifth round on, I believed that most of those rounds were the types of frames that Ward would want. I didn't see him getting hit with a ton of shots and he did enough on offense to shade almost all of the close rounds on my card. 

My score was among the outer boundaries for those who thought that Ward had been the victor (I predicted that he'd win by 116-111). Now, in most instances where I make a pick and the fight plays out far differently than expected, I'm able to make the necessary observational adjustments in how I perceive the action playing out. I'd like to think that I did that on Saturday. However, I'm also willing to admit that it's possible that confirmation bias may have played a small role in my final scorecard. 

But this article is not a mere apologia for one man's human deficiencies; the door swings both ways. It's also entirely possible that many Kovalev supporters fell victim to confirmation bias as well. Many picked Kovalev to win. And let's also face this truth; Ward is an unpopular figure in many fight circles and corners of the media. His arrogance and aloofness rub people the wrong way. Many boxing fans really wanted Ward to lose, and this level of vitriol went far beyond a simple fight prediction. 

Everyone in boxing has his or her favorite boxers and those that they can't stomach. Should Danny Garcia ever find himself in a close fight again, huge swaths of boxing fans will have him losing because they don't like how he's conducted his career. Ward is a similar figure. So while it's certainly possible that Ward lost the fight on Saturday, let's also consider that many who thought that Kovalev won could've also fallen prey to bits of confirmation bias. 

Thus, what exactly are we left with…some kaleidoscopic view of a fight action, where fans and observers see what they want and discard things that might disrupt their original narrative? In truth, this exact situation is why boxing judging can be very difficult. The human brain essentially relies on stories, narratives and unifying themes to help explain the world. We take shortcuts and make assumptions. It's the boxing judge's responsibility to separate each round and score it individually. What came before shouldn't affect what happens next. Those who score fights try their best to separate previous from current action but everyone has imperfections; storylines are how we process information. 

Often, it's almost a toss of the coin to determine who has won a close round. Was a fighter really hurt? Does this bit of body language indicate mental or physical fatigue? Is the force of a fighter's punches diminishing? Has a particular boxer gained "momentum?" Was the fighter coming forward effective or just aggressive?

Professional judges, even the best ones, can succumb to bias, whether it's a certain style they prefer, the atmosphere of the arena or a limited view of specific exchanges during a fight. They find things that they like in close rounds. And when multiple rounds play out in similar fashion, it's certainly possible that they continue to reward one particular fighter over another; the brain spots familiar patterns, which serves to counteract the notion that each round should be scored as its own independent event. 

The three judges for Kovalev-Ward, Glenn Trowbridge, Burt Clements and John McKaie, are all reputable arbiters in the sport. I won't claim that they are among the top officials in boxing but they aren't in the bottom tier either. They are a representative sampling of the types of judges found at major fights. In my opinion, their 114-113 scores for Ward were all defensible tallies. And it's also my belief that another set of officials could've legitimately arrived at Kovalev as the winner of the fight. That all three judges had the same score doesn't mean there was a consensus as to who won the bout. Press row had Kovalev by about a 3:1 ratio. 

The best we can hope for as boxing fans are that professional judges turn in scorecards that are defendable and legitimate. Their scores won't always conform perfectly to how we might see a fight but as long as there is a legitimate way of arriving at a verdict then that should suffice. In a fight such as Kovalev-Ward, where there were three-to-five swing rounds, it's certainly possible that divergent scorecards could be conceivable. That the three judges turned in identical tallies is immaterial. Ultimately, huge portions of the fight were debatable as to who was doing the better work. 

Controversy drives boxing. It's good for the sport. It keeps fans engaged and helps to enlarge boxing's base. Ultimately, Kovalev-Ward was an excellent, competitive fight, far better than most had anticipated. What we didn't want on Saturday night was another example of illegitimacy for the sport, where we see the umpteenth headline in a newspaper of "Another Black Eye for Boxing." Kovalev-Ward was not that. The ultimate verdict was controversial but not illegitimate. And that's O.K. Controversy sells. I'd practically guarantee that the Kovalev-Ward rematch will do better at the box office and in the pay per view numbers than the first one did. Boxing fans want to see the matchup again and increasing numbers of casual fans will tune into the second fight because it will play a bigger role in the greater sporting world. 

Saturday's fight produced a victor but not a conclusive one. Let's hope we get that in the rematch. It was my pleasure to be out in Las Vegas to witness Saturday's action. It's rare to see a fight between two of the best talents in the sport, let alone a compelling one. Both combatants showed world-class skills and character. I can't wait for the next one. 

But let's also take a moment to remember that we're fallible individuals with biases, some obvious and others less so. Kovalev-Ward was a Rorschach test on many levels. Where there was inconclusivity, so many found ways to make the fight's outcome definitive, perhaps in part to conform to a pre-existing view. Despite the protestations from some fight fans, Kovalev-Ward wasn't conclusive and it's perfectly reasonable to admit this. Perhaps the second one will settle remaining doubt. Then, those who are in interested in chest-puffing can have at it. But until then, let's revel in an excellent fight and hope that Kovalev-Ward helped to move the sport forward. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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