It May Be Time to Eliminate Olympic Boxing

I’m pretty passionate about the fight game (you can read my weekly boxing notes on Fridays here at The Sporting Blog), and I’m more than familiar with the role the Olympics has played in launching the careers of some of the biggest fighters of all time -- Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya, not to mention a certain young loudmouth from Louisville named Cassius Clay.

So it pains me to have to venture forth with this piece. But I have no choice but to call it as I see it, and admit that Olympic boxing is a disaster. Such a disaster, in fact, that they might as well get rid of it. As sport, it’s highly dubious to the point of being near ridiculous.

If you’ve been watching the tournament in Beijing, then you know what I’m talking about. I live in the Bay Area, a sort of pretend boxing paradise -- in other words, there are lots of Mexicans around for me to interact with about the sweet science, which as a fight fan gives me the happy illusion of what it might be like to live in a world where everyone saw Cotto/Margarito, where who Oscar De La Hoya fights next is more important than anything that could ever happen with Brett Favre, where, in short, boxing is the only real sport and everything else is glorified tidily winks.

I’ve been talking to a lot of my local Mexican aficionados and I’ve been getting a unanimous response on the topic of the boxing in Beijing, a response that boils down to… what is this crap?

The scoring is the problem, of course, and to be fair, the scoring in boxing always has been a problem at the Games. The new David Maraniss book about the Rome Olympics goes into some detail on a few possibly Cold War-influenced rob-jobs dating back to 1960. Most infamously, Roy Jones lost to a South Korean in the light heavyweight final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a decision so bad that it changed Olympic boxing ever afterwards:

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The shameless robbing of Jones (Roy refused to accept his silver medal in Seoul) played a big role in the move to completely change how Olympic fights are scored. In an effort to approach some measure of objectivity, the scoring ever since has been based on the idea of counting effective punches. That concept, in and of itself, is flawed to begin with as a way of evaluating a fight, and it becomes even more precarious in execution.

The system has evolved through various incarnations to where it is today. Five judges score the fights holding two buttons, one for each fighter. Whenever they feel a clean blow has been landed (a clean blow being one in which the white of the glove makes significant contact with the front of the opponent’s head or mid-section), they press the button for the fighter who landed the punch. But a point is registered only if three of the five judges all press the same button within the space of a single second, an idea that is oriented towards preventing one biased judge from unduly affecting the outcome.

I have to admit I did not watch a lot of boxing at the Athens Olympics. I was in Athens working at the Games, but boxing wasn’t my beat, so I saw very little of the tournament except for Andre Ward’s gold-medal bout. I did watch quite a bit of boxing live at the Sydney Olympics, however. Then there was no transparent scoring, so even being in the arena, one could not necessarily tell who was winning. And though I recall some shockers when the scores were announced, the winners on points, more often than not, were the fighters I would have judged to have won if I were using the ten-point-must system.

That hasn’t been the case in Beijing. Watching the fights with the transparent scores, seeing the point-totals accumulate (or more often not accumulate), one frequently has the sense that the scores bear next to no relationship to what actually is transpiring in the ring. A perfect example of this phenomenon was an early round match between China’s Zhang Xiaoping and Mourad Sahraoui of Tunisia, a bout that ended with a score of 3-1 (eight minutes of fighting – four punches landed), in favor of Zhang. To my eyes, at least 10 worthy scoring blows were landed in the second round alone, most of them by the ultimate loser, Sahraoui.

Then again, as Maraniss makes clear in Rome 1960, a little home-cooking is far from unprecedented at the Olympics. It’s not the crookedness of the judging that bothers me, because crooked judging has been a fact of the Games since they began anew in 1896. Almost every major Olympic sport that involves judging has borne at least one notable scandal. In the immortal words of Tony Soprano, it is what it is.

What bothers me with the state of Olympic boxing today is that even when the judges are trying to get it right, they’re getting it wrong. The system is irreparably flawed. Because punches equal points, and because a punch has to convince three men to simultaneously press the punch button (essentially scoring the judges’ Gameboy skills as much as anything else), the only punches that dependably are being rewarded with points are big power shots to the head. Jabs, the centerpiece of the modern fighter’s arsenal, are being entirely ignored in Beijing, no matter how stiff or head-snapping they may be. Likewise with body shots. “Kill the body and the head will die” goes the old boxing maxim. But not in the Olympics. There, it’s “ignore the body, don’t waste your time.”

As one might expect, fighters, being clever and adaptable sorts who want above all else to win, are catching on and altering their approaches to meet the reward-system. And so, what we are seeing in Beijing more often than not boils down to a textbook example of bad boxing. Fighters eschew almost all of the tried-and-true dictums of the sweet science and instead load up with wide, frantic shots at each other’s heads, one at a time (because combinations are rendered useless by the system), in the hope of producing whatever magical alchemy is required to actually summon a point from the judges.

If you think I’m overstating the case, take it from CNBC analyst Teddy Atlas, who in his trademark pull-no-punches style, said this right before going on air with last Thursday’s boxing coverage:

⇥⇥“It is not enough to say that some of the scoring here over the last few days has been outrageous. It is going beyond that. It's as though they are trying to destroy boxing in the Olympics. Far too many shots aren't even registering. It has become almost physically painful to watch fighters going for what they believe is the chance of their lifetimes, and then seeing the ridiculous results of their efforts flashing up on the TV screen.”

I feel his pain, and I know that his outrage is as much a defense of the sport itself as it is a defense of the fighters who are being robbed. Imagine if in Olympic basketball, you could only score points if you dunked, or if in Olympic baseball, you only got a run if you hit a home run. Would anyone ever stand for such a bastardization of those sports? Of course not. But this is essentially what’s happened to boxing, and people are acting as if nothing is wrong. As a true fan, I say if this is the best the IOC can do then, well, to turn to Tony Soprano again, fuhgeddaboudit. Better no Olympic boxing at all than this pale imitation of the sport to which, as former Olympic champion George Foreman once put it, “other sports aspire.”

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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