Golovkin vs Alvarez: How to fix Boxing

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Last Saturday’s fight between Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez and Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin was an absolute classic. The fight consisted of Golovkin pushing forward with his trademark pressure, while Alvarez looked to play the role of the matador to his bull; slipping and parrying punches, staying out of the corners, and looking for opportunities to break Golovkin’s offence and land shots of his own. It was a fine mix of tactical battle with sprinkling’s of a dogfight as both men looked to trade blows to establish control heading into the final stretch.

Unfortunately, nobody is talking about how good the fight was. The boxing scoring criteria are beginning to play a bigger part in boxing than the boxers themselves. In what has become a trope of the boxing world, a great fight was overshadowed by a questionable decision.

At the end of 12 rounds, the judges at ringside ruled the fight a majority draw. Most pundits scoring the fight had Golovkin winning by various margins, and the consensus seems to be that the decision is down to corrupt officials. Certainly the 118-110 scorecard for Canelo suggests that those accusations may not be entirely unfounded. However, this fight provides a good example of a far more systemic problem in the boxing scoring system today. As they currently are understood now, boxing’s scoring criteria are irreconcilable.

Everyone’s a Winner

As of right now, the four main areas for scoring a boxing match are clean punches, effective aggression, ring generalship, and defence. Noted referee Steve Weisfeld has stated in an interview with the website Premier Boxing Champions that he believes that clean punches are the underlying factor that binds all of these criteria together. He also believes that this view is shared by many high-end judges and officials.

“To me, clean punches are the most important aspect [in scoring a fight], and all other factors are tied to that. For example, take the phrase, ‘effective aggression’. How is a boxer effective? He’s effective by landing clean punches. How about ‘defense’? A boxer shows great defense by not getting hit with clean punches. And, finally, the term ‘ring generalship’. A boxer uses the ring to put himself in a position to land clean punches.”

This is a great summary both of how the system should work, but also how it is broken. Clean punches are the means by which you should score a fight. At the end of the day, the sweet science is about hitting the other guy more and harder than he hit you. However, officially there is no hierarchy of importance in the scoring criteria. Despite being the key factor in defining all the other categories, a judge is free to value defense or aggression more highly than clean punches if they so wished. This brings us to Canelo/GGG.

Unstoppable Force, Immovable Object

The fight between Golovkin and Alvarez overall was closely contested. Neither man dominated from pillar to post. Both had moments of success throughout the fight. However, to watch the fight as a whole, Golovkin was the man dictating the exchanges, controlling the ring, throwing his jab, and being aggressive. By itself, this does not win a fight. At the end of the day, if the other guy lands more clean punches than you, you should lose the fight. If you are pressing forward but are getting beaten to the punch every time, you are not being an effective ring general or effectively aggressive. You are simply dictating the rate at which you get hit.

The case for Canelo winning the fight is based on the concept of defense as a scoring criteria. Throughout the bout, Canelo’s famed upper body movement was on full display. He would slip or duck four out of every five punches in a combination, and he was able to keep the number of total significant punches landed close, despite working at a much slower pace than Golovkin. This highlights the irreconcilable nature of boxing’s scoring criteria. In a fight such as this, which matters more, effective aggression/ring generalship, or effective defense?

Aggression VS Defense

If you want to put emphasis on aggression and defense, you run into the problem of them counteracting each other. If a boxer is throwing four punches and landing one, he is using his aggression to be effective. But, the other boxer avoided three punches and got hit with one. You could say his defense was also effective. Which of these takes precedence? If defense is valued more than offence, fighters are essentially being penalized for trying to set up shots. Flashing a 1-2 to raise the opponents guard to open a body shot means that they ‘defend’ two and only take one. If defense is more highly valued than offence, why bother setting up the body shot at all?

In a world where no order is set in the scoring criteria, judges are free to choose for themselves. That in itself should not be a problem. Judging a fight is, after all, a subjective task. However with boxing judges facing numerous charges of corruption, loopholes like these give shady judges the opportunity to justify their calls to those who would scrutinize. In cases such as this, it is entirely possible for judges to score cards however they want and receive no repercussions for it, as the wording of the system currently allows for too wide a breath of opinions to be held by supposed professionals.

Golovkin and Alvarez landed a similar number of significant punches. However, Golovkin threw more and controlled the ring. Alvarez avoided more and landed at a higher percentage. If you are free to stack up the scoring criteria in any order you like, you are giving people the opportunity to say both guys won the same fight.

Scoring boxing is a subjective activity. There will always be room for human error. People will even contest the definition of a ‘clean’ blow. However, the scoring criteria themselves should not be up for debate at the end of every fight. This is still a professional sport. People give up their time, their health, and in some cases their future to pursue careers in boxing. The least we can do is make it clear what game they are playing before they step into the ring. A boxer should not have to depend on having judges who favour their style at ringside in order to win a fight. They shouldn’t have to go into a final round not even knowing if they are up or down because they ‘don’t know how the judges are seeing it’. Even if the system would be open to exploitation, there should still be a system.

Good Defense Is It’s Own Reward

In this writers opinion, defense should be it’s own reward. Having effective defense will play a factor whether it is a scoring criteria or not. If you can avoid your opponents punches and prevent them landing clean shots, you put yourself in a position to win a round while throwing less punches by landing more clean shots than your opponent. However, if you reward avoiding strikes without landing clean punches, you essentially discourage fighters from going on offence. Why would a fighter focus on learning how to throw punches to create openings if they know that their opponent is getting the credit for the exchange based on the amount of punches you missed, without them actually landing a punch?

It takes two willing partners to make a dance off. If boxers are incentivized to focus on avoiding punches in order to score, it removes the incentive to come forward. If nobody leads, nobody loses. But nobody really wins either. Not the fighters, not the sport, and not the fans.

Defense will always be an essential part of boxing: it is how you counter your opponents momentum. It is what separates a boxing match from a bar fight. But it does not need to be rewarded by the judges. The results of good defense should be their own reward. Avoid your opponents blows and putting yourself in a position to land blows of your own. You don’t need defense as a criteria to allow for that in the scoring.

Final Thoughts

The biggest problem in scoring today is clearly the lack of structure in the scoring criteria. There should be a clear hierarchy of which ones should matter most, and which ones should only be given credit when the proceeding criteria’s are judged to be roughly equal. Clean, effective punches are the root of all other scoring criteria, and they should rightfully be given the highest precedence. The rest is up for debate, and whatever side they come down on would change the way boxing is contested in the future.

It is unlikely that anything will be done to fix the systemic problems in boxing today. The athletic commissions appoint the judges and enforce the rule-sets. For them to attempt to implement a solution is to admit that there is a problem. But stranger things have happened.

Recently the world of Mixed Martial Arts was introduced to the newly updated Unified Rules of MMA. This process has been accepted by some commissions, ignored by others. But among many of it’s more well known changes (addressing eye-pokes and the definition of a ‘grounded fighter’), the new rule-set also established a firm hierarchy for the scoring criteria. Clean, damaging blows are the most valuable. Followed by volume of strikes thrown. Followed by aggression and ring generalship.

The definitions are clear and concise, and while they may annoy some fans, they clearly establish the procedure a fighter needs to follow in order to win a round. It rewards fighters who come forward and make solid connections, but does not actively penalise fighters for being defensive. It merely sets in stone what we all know to be true: you can’t win a fight where you get hit more times and harder than the other guy, regardless of how it happens.

The supplementary scoring criteria are there to encourage fighters who bring the fight, because at the end of the day, these are sports people pay to watch. Excitement should be encouraged, but not to the extent of allowing it to overcome the essence of the competition. Hit, and don’t get hit. Both are required to be great, but if you only have one, which is going to ensure the survival of the sport? You can’t win a game of soccer without scoring more goals than the other team. You shouldn’t be able to win a boxing match without landing punches than the opponent.

Judges will still mess up. They will still make bad calls. There will still be shady decisions. But once there is a clear process, you can at least start to objectively call people out for not following the program. If people want to start cleaning up judging, they first have to start holding judges accountable. In order to do that, there needs to be a clear understanding of what is and is not an acceptable way to score a fight. It may not please everyone, but it’s a start.

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Beginning martial arts at a young age, Dave has been studying in either Taekwon-do, Kickboxing or Boxing since before he was a teen. Formerly a writer for lasttimeout.com, he has been obsessed with MMA since the late 2000's, and has been using his fight breakdowns as a way of improving his analytical ability and writing prowess with the goal of providing information to others while furthering his own understanding of the wonderful world of Mixed Martial Arts.

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