Boxing's Fight for Relevance

It was supposed to be boxing’s big moment. I was hoping Mayweather vs. Pacquiao would start a renaissance and help bring boxing back as a major sport in America. But with the whole world watching, instead of The Fight of the Century, we got a fight that highlighted everything that’s wrong with boxing. You can’t blame Floyd Mayweather, and you can’t blame Manny Pacquiao. They’re all-time greats who were just out there fighting like they always have.

The only one you can blame is boxing itself.

I’ve attended the three biggest fights of the year so far: Deontay Wilder vs. Bermane Stiverne, Wladimir Klitschko vs. Bryant Jennings, and now Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. And you know what I’ve seen?

Not much boxing.

In 36 total rounds, I saw zero knockdowns. I saw a lot of holding and hugging, and a lot of running. I saw three, 12-round unanimous decisions.

What I didn’t see were punches being thrown and landed. No fighter in any of the three fights was ever threatened or even in trouble. I didn’t even see a fighter with a cut or a bruise after the fight. Everyone was just playing defense, trying not to get hit.

The concept of fighting is simple: Hit the other guy and don’t let the other guy hit you. Today, there’s a whole lot of trying not to get hit and not a whole lot of hitting. How can you have a boxing match if guys aren’t throwing and landing punches?

The answer is, you can’t. But that’s what boxing has done to itself with how it’s scoring these fights today and how the action is being evaluated. Fans are expecting engagement, aggression and action, but unfortunately, the system is not set up to promote and support that type of activity anymore. In fact, boxing is not only allowing this less aggressive brand of fighting, it’s supporting it by rewarding less aggressive fighters with decisions.

I don’t blame Mayweather. He might be the smartest fighter alive. The judges today are giving decisions to fighters who use defensive tactics, and he knows that. That’s why he’s now 48-0. He’s boxing according to the way judges are scoring the fights. He plays the system and he wins. That’s just another thing that makes him one of the all-time greats in this sport. But this is what boxing has become, I’m sad to say. There was a time when fighters would get points for being aggressive and engaging the other fighter. There was also a time when fighters would get penalized for hugging and holding, and avoiding the opponent altogether. But that’s just not how boxing is anymore and that’s not how referees call the fights, either.

That’s not to say referees aren’t giving out penalties — they’re just not giving them out as often as they should. Even Klitschko, the world heavyweight champion who hasn’t lost in 11 years, was penalized a full point after multiple warnings for holding against Jennings. And he won that fight. His defensive approach worked. So it’s not just Mayweather using this strategy. It’s an issue spread throughout the sport.

One of the most famous fights in the history of boxing is Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman — the Rumble in the Jungle — where Ali used the rope-a-dope technique to win the fight. Ali sat on the ropes and played defense the entire fight, absorbing body blows and letting Foreman be the aggressor. But he didn’t do it to win a decision (he would have lost if it went to a decision, and he knew that). He did it to weaken the bigger, stronger Foreman so he could knock him out in the later rounds.

That used to be the mentality — boxers went into the ring to fight. They wanted to knock people out. They wanted to take the decision out of the judges hands. Today, instead of boxing for the knockout, fighters are boxing for the decision. Instead of fighting to win, they’re fighting not to lose and they’re getting rewarded for it.

Boxing isn’t broken. Everything that was wrong with Mayweather vs. Pacquiao — which I feel was a good fight, just not The Fight of the Century, as it was hyped — can be fixed with a few simple changes.

First off, we need to change how referees officiate these matches.

Referees need to be more aggressive in enforcing engagement. If referees are told to hand down penalties for holding and not engaging the opponent — including early warnings, taking points away or in extreme cases, disqualifying fighters — guys will engage. That’s how the sport is refereed at the amateur level so why should it be any different at the highest levels? This is the simplest and easiest solution to implement: strictly enforce the rules and hold referees accountable.

Secondly, we need to change how judges are scoring the rounds. There are four things judges look for when scoring a fight:

1. Effective aggression (moving forward and attacking, but also landing punches and avoiding an opponent’s blows)

2. Ring generalship (controlling the action and pace of the fight)

3. Defense

4. Hard and clean punches

After evaluating these four criteria, the judges award a 10 to the fighter who won the round and a 9 to the fighter who lost. Points are deducted for knockdowns, holding, low blows and other penalties as well, but it’s that initial 10-9 scoring that’s the biggest issue.

Judges hand out scores and decide who won the round without giving any breakdown or reasoning for how they arrived at their decision — because they’re not required to. We’re just supposed to take their word for it and live with the decision. They don’t even have access to round-by-round statistics like punches thrown or punches landed. They depend solely on what they can see from their ringside seats. So if a fighter has his back to a judge and he lands a punch, but the judge can’t see it, it won’t be counted in that judge’s scoring of the round.

How can judges accurately score the round under these circumstances? It’s as subjective as any system in sports, and even when a decision gets called into question, the judges are rarely held accountable. The scoring system in boxing would benefit from implementing new technology that would provide the judges with real-time statistics after each round to use in their scoring. Why not give judges any and all information possible to accurately score the round?

Additionally, judges should have to present a scorecard for each round laying out how they scored that round according the the four major criteria. This would ensure that judges are scoring based on all four criteria, not just awarding the round based on one aspect, such as defense. Not only would this make the decisions more transparent, it would also make it easier for judges to give extra points for willingness to engage, and to take away points for lack of aggression and being passive. If fighters know they’ll get points for being aggressive, believe me, guys are going to fight. You’ll see guys step into the ring ready to fight from bell to bell.

Implementing these changes would also open the door for other simple scoring changes. If the goal is to get fighters to be more aggressive — and I believe it is — the scoring system can be weighted to favor aggression. If sixty percent of a fighter’s score came from the “effective aggression” and “hard and clean punches” criteria (thirty percent for each), and the other forty percent was split between “defense” and “ring generalship,” fighters would know they need to be aggressive and land punches to win each round, not just play great defense. This would promote an aggressive and offensive style of fighting — which the sport needs — without taking defense out of the equation.

It’s really that simple. If we get referees more aggressive in enforcing penalties, hold judges more accountable by making their decisions more transparent and change the scoring system to promote aggressive fighting, we’ll get clear winners in each fight and we’ll see a better brand of overall boxing. The kind of boxing we saw in the glory days of myself and Mike Tyson, and before us with fighters like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. We’ll see fans gravitate back to boxing the way they did when it was among America’s most popular sports.

Boxing isn’t dead, it just needs to evolve. Look at all the other major sports in America, particularly football and baseball. Football is constantly evolving, from rules and penalties to the game itself. They’re even looking into getting rid of the extra point — anything to make sure the game doesn’t get stale and remains ever-changing. Baseball is finally getting in on it as well, implementing replay and clock technology to make the games faster and officiating more efficient.

The only major change in boxing in the last 25 years was moving from 15- to 12-round fights. Other than that, boxing has stayed the same and as a result, it’s fallen behind. That’s why MMA and the UFC have been so successful. There was a void in combat sports created by boxing’s reluctance to embrace change, and MMA came along and filled it.

A perfect example is Wilder vs. Stiverne earlier this year. Wilder fought for, and won, the heavyweight championship in Las Vegas in January, becoming the first American to hold one of the heavyweight championship belts since 2007.

And only 8,400 people showed up to see it.

Two weeks later, at the same venue, the UFC featured Anderson Silva vs. Nick Diaz, two fighters coming off back-to-back losses. That fight drew a crowd or over 13,000.

It’s just another example of boxing’s growing irrelevance — an American wins the Heavyweight Championship, and it’s out-sold by two guys trying not to lose their third straight fight.

Boxing has turned into an event sport where the masses tune in to the marquee fights that happen every so often, like Saturday’s fight. That’s one of the reasons I called for the development of youth programs  — to strengthen boxing from top to bottom and bring back a culture of loyal fans who watch more than just the occasional fight. Boxing had the opportunity to start that movement Saturday night. I thought Mayweather vs. Pacquiao would be the fight to make the world believe in boxing again and that the sport could regain its popularity, maybe even create a whole generation of new boxing fans.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.

But that doesn’t mean some good can’t come of it. If the negative press from a fight the entire world stopped to watch doesn’t make the sport of boxing look at itself and say, It’s time for change, I’m not sure what will. For those who love boxing, if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

Mayweather vs. Pacquiao won’t go down as one of the all-time great fights even though the two fighters will be remembered as all-time greats. But their fight could be looked back upon as a turning point in boxing history — the event that sparked the changes that brought the sport back to the mainstream. If boxing could just open its eyes and embrace change.