Boxing: The point of absurdity

American Rau'shee Warren's loss, crazy as it was, was business as usual in a sport that's been gutted by its scoring system.

Published August 13, 2008 6:30PM (EDT)

American flyweight boxer Rau'shee Warren, said by those with the patience or masochism to follow amateur boxing to be one of the better medal hopes for the U.S., lost his first bout to South Korean Lee Ok-sung at least in part because he danced around and avoided contact for the last 30 seconds of the bout, thinking he was leading when in fact he trailed by a point.

It's impossible to know if Warren could have landed the tying punch in those last 30 seconds if he'd only thrown one. But a bigger problem is that it would have been impossible to know if Warren could have landed the tying punch even if he had thrown some. Even if he'd landed one. Even if he'd knocked Lee down with it.

Warren and American coach Dan Campbell complained about the scoring in the fight, which saw each man awarded a point at least once when the other had landed a punch. Lee seemed to get a point every time Warren got one, whether a punch had landed or not. At one point, Warren got credit for landing a punch as Lee landed one and Warren, missing, fell to the canvas.

"It was just weird the way the scoring went," Campbell said. "It ain't right," Warren said. "It doesn't seem real to me."

Join the club. Ukraine has filed a protest over the scoring in a loss to a Chinese fighter, and Great Britain has groused publicly about the judging in a loss, also to China.

All of which means nothing more than that an amateur boxing tournament is going on.

Scoring in amateur boxing is about as absurd a thing as you're likely to see in elite sports. There are five judges at ringside with computers, and they're supposed to press a button when they see a legal punch land. If three of the five press their button within a second of each other, the fighter gets one point.

That's it. Counting punches. A knock-your-block-off blow is worth the same as a love tap, even if it knocks the guy down, though he can still be counted out, which happens about once a century since the best amateur boxers pitty-pat away in an effort to score points. Ring generalship, power, aggressiveness -- some of the big things that make boxing what it is -- are ignored. The judges aren't judges. They're a team of punch counters.

This system came into being in response to the crooked decision that robbed American Roy Jones Jr. of a gold medal in Seoul in 1988. The idea is a judge can't fix a fight if all he's doing is counting punches and two fellow judges have to agree with him within a second for a point to register. It would be difficult -- though it would seem there are people saying it's not impossible -- to arrange that in advance. There would have to be some kind of signals going back and forth.

So boxing is like gymnastics and figure skating in that the subjective scoring system has been tweaked in response to obvious and, let's face it, inevitable corruption. Let's hear it for the Olympic ideal of purity in sport.

Whether it's served that purpose is debatable, but what isn't is that in boxing the scoring system has devastated the sport. It's unwatchable.

The basic idea of amateur boxing is: Go out there and do your best, and the random numbers on the scoreboard might just go your way. Even if it's on the up and up, the scoring system rewards pot shots over combinations because single punches are easier to see. It rewards pitty-pats over power punches, because they're easier to land and worth the same. It rewards head-hunting over body punches because body blows are difficult for judges to see. You can spend a day in the Olympic boxing venue and never see a body punch rewarded with a point.

In other words, if you want to create a successful Olympic boxer, you would take any of the legendary trainers of the last 100 years or so and tell the kid, "Every thing this guy says, do the opposite."

I figure maybe it takes an American getting screwed to force a change in the system. Roy Jones Jr. wasn't the first fighter who wuz ever robbed, after all.

So watching the Warren-Lee fight, with Lee seeming to get phantom catch-up points that had the Chinese crowd booing, it occurred to me that if Warren lost, this might be the bout to spark another change. Maybe the pendulum would even swing back to the old-fashioned boxing judging. There are other ways to combat corruption -- such as the figure skating system of having only some judges' votes count -- than by gutting the very nature of the sport.

But I've long since grown so bored with amateur boxing that I don't know if there's any serious momentum toward a change, and except for a few days every four summers, I don't care. At any rate, Warren's brain freeze, thinking he was ahead when he was behind, overshadowed the judging, so the craziness continues.

As for Warren, 21, who stayed in the amateurs to go to the Beijing games after losing in his first bout in Athens, he'll turn pro, where his quickness and slashing style figure to serve him well and the judging, while hardly free of corruption or incompetence, at least makes a modicum of sense.

That's about as strong an indictment as I can think of: For the kid to get a chance at some fair treatment, he should go into professional boxing.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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