Merits of open scoring a split decision of sorts

Originally Published: December 7, 2006
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The tough, close championship fight has just ended, and the crowd is buzzing.

Both fighters – and their fans – believe they have won and stand with raised arms awaiting the decision.

Then ring announcer Michael Buffer is handed the scorecards.

He steps to the center of the ring.

It is the moment of truth.

After Buffer reads the scores, will he say, "And the new …" to signify a new champion? Or will it be, "And still …" to signify that the champion has retained the title?

It's one of the most exciting moments in boxing, but one that is endangered, at least when it comes to WBC championship fights.

Kassim Ouma
Ouma

Jermain Taylor
Taylor

When middleweight champ Jermain Taylor (25-0-1, 17 KOs) makes his third title defense against former junior middleweight belt holder Kassim Ouma (25-2-1, 15 KOs) at Alltel Arena on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET/7 PT), the WBC's new open scoring system for championship bouts will be voluntarily used by the Arkansas State Athletic Commission.

That means the scores will be publicly announced following the fourth and eighth rounds, in accordance with a policy that was adopted by the WBC at its annual convention in October.

Gary Heral, boxing chairman of the Arkansas commission, said the scores will be announced over the public address system, given to the fighters' corners and to HBO, as well as displayed on the arena's video screens. The judges, however, will be referred to as judges A, B and C until the fight's conclusion, when the judges' names and final tallies will still be announced.

Some people love the idea. Others despise it.

"I think you get the crowd more into it if the crowd knows who is up and who's down," Taylor said. "I think it's pretty good."

"I think it's a good start because there have been so many controversial and bad decisions lately. I think it's worth trying. Let's see where we wind up."
-- Emanuel Steward, Jermain Taylor's trainer

Said Emanuel Steward, Taylor's head trainer: "I think it's a good start because there have been so many controversial and bad decisions lately. I think it's worth trying. Let's see where we wind up."

WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who championed the cause, is its chief supporter.

"At this moment in time in boxing, one of the most important things is to do something for justice in scoring," he said. "We have been doing so many clinics, basic guidelines, booklets and videos, but we still have a problem. I believe that this is gigantic in sports, and will make the judges much more conscientious of their responsibility. It will make them be 100 percent concentrated, and it will also give them a sense of pride, because they have confidence in their scoring and themselves. A good judge should feel very proud. I believe that we have taken a major step in the history of boxing."

The judges on the spot Saturday night – Harold Laurens of Curacao, Sergio Silvi of Italy and Jack Woodburn of Canada – are all inexperienced in major championship bouts.

"I think [open scoring] will make the judges think very carefully when they put those scores down knowing that they will be made public during the fight," said Lou DiBella, Taylor's promoter. "So I think it's worth a try."

Since the policy was adopted, it has been used three times with noncontroversial results. On Nov. 10 in Germany, Sinan Samil Sam retained his regional WBC heavyweight belt with a routine unanimous decision against Bob Mirovic. On Nov. 13 in Tokyo, bantamweight titlist Hozumi Hasegawa and strawweight titlist Eagle Kyowa both retained their belts on unanimous decisions.

"Suppose a fighter has been cut from a head butt and it's questionable as to whether he can continue. If he knows he's ahead on the cards, he can simply tell the ref he cannot go on and he wins the fight on a technical decision."
-- Promoter J Russell Peltz, who opposes open scoring

Opponents of the system include traditionalist J Russell Peltz, Ouma's co-promoter with Golden Boy and a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

"I like the suspense of waiting for the scores," Peltz said. "Nothing the WBC does is in the best interest of boxing. Cutting championship fights from 15 rounds to 12? They started it. They started the day-before weigh-in. Now open scoring. It's ridiculous."

One of the many reasons Peltz is against open scoring is because of the possible ways it can be manipulated.

"Suppose a fighter has been cut from a head butt and it's questionable as to whether he can continue," Peltz said. "If he knows he's ahead on the cards, he can simply tell the ref he cannot go on and he wins the fight on a technical decision."

Those who are against open scoring also point to the most obvious way to manipulate it: A fighter who knows he is ahead can sit on his lead, thus turning the fight into a boring scene.

That's what happened the last time open scoring was used on a high-profile card before the WBC's policy was instituted.

Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis
AP Photo/Adam NadelThe WBC instituted an open-scoring system on an experimental basis a month after the March, 13, 1999, heavyweight title bout between Evander Holyfield, left, and Lennox Lewis ended in a draw.

It came in April 1999 on a Don King-promoted, Showtime-televised card in Washington, where the commission approved its use as an experiment a month after the highly controversial draw between heavyweight champions Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield in their unification match had many in boxing looking for solutions to bad scoring.

On the Washington card, WBA junior welterweight titlist Sharmba Mitchell retained his belt via majority decision against Reggie Green. Scores were given after each round, and the open scoring had a direct influence on the outcome.

Going into the 12th round, Green could only win on a knockout, and Mitchell knew it, admitting to the media, "I played it safe at the end."

In another title bout on the card, Mark Johnson outpointed Ratanachai Vorapin to win the vacant IBF junior bantamweight title. Scores were only revealed following the fourth and eighth rounds, but Johnson knew he was in command after eight. He admitted that he, like Mitchell, also played it safe for the remainder of the bout.

"I think it hurt the crowd," Johnson told the media afterward. "After I heard them say Mark Johnson was up after eight rounds, why should I go out there and fight 9, 10, 11 and 12?"

"I think it hurt the crowd. After I heard them say Mark Johnson was up after eight rounds, why should I go out there and fight 9, 10, 11 and 12?"
-- Mark Johnson, who won the vacant IBF junior bantamweight title in 1999 with open scoring used during the bout

Of course, the opposite could also be true. A fighter, knowing he is trailing, may throw caution to the wind and go for a knockout. That's what Taylor believes.

"It would give me motivation because if you know you're down for a fact, you know you got to pick it up," Taylor said.

There are also those who argue that judges could be swayed by the crowd to vote for the popular fighter, in this case Taylor, who is from Little Rock and fighting in a much-anticipated homecoming fight. Heral doesn't buy it.

"It would give me motivation because if you know you're down for a fact, you know you got to pick it up."
-- Jermain Taylor

"A good official will tune out the crowd," he said. "I would hope a judge wouldn't be intimidated by the crowd."

Another downside of open scoring, some say, is that upon hearing scores vastly different from his or her own, a judge could fall in line with the other two judges.

Peltz said open scoring is not the solution to ensuring judges render proper decisions. Good judges are the solution.

"I honestly believe the intent of the open scoring decision is to intimidate judges into scoring fights correctly so as not to embarrass themselves with the fans when their scorecards are announced during the action. But I have a better idea," he said. "How about appointing experienced, competent judges, those with solid track records who are not homers and who will not be influenced by the crowd one way or another. Wouldn't that be a swell idea?

"I don't think enough judges are sat down or suspended for turning in bad scorecards."

Heral said a representative of the WBC called him to explain the system and that the commission decided to give it a try for this rare championship fight in Arkansas.

"We don't have to use it, but we thought it might be something we'd be interested in," Heral said. "Anything good for the sport is a good thing, and I think this could be good for the sport. I think the fans will like it and we're anxious to see how it will work. I think it will create some interest.

"The arguments I've heard against it, I just don't buy. I hope it works. This is no law. If it doesn't work out, we don't have to do it again, but it's worth a try."

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.

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