The Boxing Paradox


By José Santana: Technical boxing, as a style and term, is becoming increasingly more popular. It has evolved from traditional outside fighting and is touted as the smartest and best way to win a fight. It focuses on sticking and moving, defense and counterpunching, and using the entire area of the ring to avoid prolonged sequences of offensive engagement. It has come to be synonymous with the sports name, boxing. When referring to it we say things such as “he out-boxed his opponent” and implore fighters to “box” instead of brawl. We speak of technical boxing as “artful” and “intelligent,” implying that it is the preferred style of fighting to win. We have made the style the objective.


The common adage “hit and not get hit” is often used to support this style. But what the more modern technical boxing style has done is placed a heavy importance on “not get hit” at the expense of “hit.” It has evolved from the versatile and fluid employment of the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, to a more cautious approach void of any intentional offense.


This is precisely what took place in the May 2 Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao bout, in the wake of which two differing observations of the fight emerged.


Among those who closely follow boxing – the self-referred hardcore fans – the common opinion is one that Mayweather clearly won the fight with his “technical” superiority. Among those who occasionally tune-in for the big fight – the casual fan – the general consensus is that Pacquiao was more aggressive and deserved to if not win at least be credited for pushing the action.


Indeed there is a segment of hardcore fans who detest this caution-first approach as well, but the growing voice says that even if it is boring to watch, it is a crafty display of skill deserving of victory.


Because Boxing fans suffer from a self-righteous tendency to constantly point out that they know more about Boxing than anyone else (because they actually watch more Boxing than anyone else) they often arrogantly brush off the casual fans opinion. This especially happens when so seldom the eye of the sporting world is on our beloved sport.


But for a brief moment, I would like to question the trend of the times and actually suppose that perhaps the casual fan has a point. Why should any of us value this “technical brilliance,” if it does not result in damage inflicted on the opponent?


Bringing back the ’hit’


Every researcher’s best friend, Wikipedia, describes the goal of Boxing historically to be to weaken or knock down the opponent.


Going back to the London Prize Ring rules of 1838, a bout ended when one fighter could no longer continue. From thence came the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867, which introduced a more codified set of rules as well as round limits. The advent of the Queensberry Rules allowed for the more modern styles we are currently familiar with to develop. Over time, as rounds became fewer, fighters no longer had to ensure that their opponent could not continue, but to do enough to win on points.


Few fighters are as vocal as Mayweather about having an approach that seeks to avoid damage more than inflicting it.


“I keep them at bay,” Mayweather said of his style in an interview with after his bout against Pacquiao. “I touch ‘em, I touch ‘em, I keep ‘em at bay … he gets close I lock him up; tie him up, we wrestle a little bit, get him back on the outside, touch him … I watch him. I’m moving and just keep him at bay, and just be smart. And don’t play checkers, play chess.”


Mayweather’s ability to fight from the outside is unparalleled by any other fighter this era. In the categories of ring generalship and defense he is truly brilliant. But he very tellingly describes his style. Noticeably absent is talk of any intentional offense.


Roy Jones Jr. is another modern example of a great defensive tactician, but unlike Mayweather he understands that the goal of Boxing is two-fold.


In a 2014 interview with he said, “The difference between me and Mayweather is that Mayweather is smart. He is protecting his record so he’s got to be smart with it … I was more explosive once I made you miss because if you catch me, OK, live by the gun then die by the gun. But when I make you miss I’m trying to make you pay.”


And therein lies the problem. If fighters are content to protect themselves and not employ effective offense, no matter how skillful they appear to be we must level our appreciation of their tactful approach with disappointment in their ability to weaken the opposition.



Lederman’s Four


HBO Boxing unofficial scorer Harold Lederman has proposed four ways to score a fight: clean punching, effective aggression, ring generalship, and defense. This scoring method has famously caught on and become on of the more popular ways to judge a round.


Clean punching is self-explanatory; landing punches and doing damage is what this criterion is all about. Effective aggression is forcing the action and getting punches off first. Ring generalship, as described by Lederman in an HBO Boxing YouTube segment of “Hey Harold!,” is “putting the opponent where you want to put him in the ring,” and defense of course is blocking and avoiding punches.


While all are aspects of a fight, is this the best formula for judging a fight?


Technical boxing leans heavy on ring generalship and defense, which ideally lead to clean punching. The issue is when clean punching doesn’t occur. Against Pacquiao Mayweather averaged 12 punches landed per round. The majority of the punches he landed were of little consequence. For his part, Pacquiao landed even less than Mayweather, no doubt due to his superior defense.


The controversy, however, is that Pacquiao landed the harder shots and had the more meaningful moments.


This is root of the discrepancy of opinion. Mayweather’s steady, cautious approach while impressive to the hardcore fan was of no value to the casual one.



The balancing act


This is happening in other sports too. Both Major League Baseball and the NCAA have recently undertaken attempts to increase the entertainment values of their respective sports.


The MLB’s pace of game program has implemented rules aimed at reducing the amount of time it takes to complete a game. Due to its annual decrease in popularity, baseball is desperate for ways to increase the amount of action that takes place in a ballgame. In this 21st century fast-paced world, attention spans are decreasing, and without enough drama or scoring people are less interested in tuning in to baseball.


Likewise, this past season the NCAA experimented with ways to manipulate the rules in order to increase the amount of action during basketball games.


“With many college basketball games becoming low-scoring affairs during the 2014-15 season, there was a large public outcry from fans and media members to increase the pace of play by reducing the shot clock,” wrote Scott Phillips of in an April 27 article.


The NCAA rules committee experimented with reducing the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds in this years NIT, CBI, and CIT postseason tournaments. Gradually, coaches are now offering their support for this change as well.


“Hopefully the rules committee does the right thing and sets the shot clock down to 30. This is a necessary change that will slow down some of the criticism surrounding the current state of college hoops.”


That’s not to say that there aren’t exciting teams or games in college basketball. There are, just as there are exciting fighters and fights in Boxing. But every sport has a vested interest in ensuring that viewers are always entertained.


The difference is baseball and basketball have definitive scoring systems to declare winners. They know what they value. They value shooting; they value scoring, they value home runs. We don’t. We have judges, each with their own value system, declaring winners. And this is how we end up with fights like Miguel Vazquez vs. Mickey Bey, with lots of moving, lots of holding, infrequent offense, and two judges with vastly different scorecards.


Robert Hoyle scored the bout 119-109 in favor of Bey. Adaliade Byrd scored it 115-113 in favor of Vazquez. Clearly they did not just see different fights, but they valued what took place differently.


Conversely, should we really expect, or exhort, fighters to throw more punches?


Now more than ever there are serious concerns surrounding the safety and health of athletes in every sport. When we use words like damage we are referring to human bodies. Life is the most important gift each of us has, and it is our duty to take care of it.


The National Football League is one organization experiencing major pressure to increase the safety of its sport, and has undertaken actions to do so.


Under major scrutiny for its culpability concerning player concussions, high-profile lawsuits have been filed against the NFL. Adding to the gravity was the 2011 suicide of Dave Duerson, who left a note asking that his brain be examined for trauma due to concussions from football. Just a year later, Hall of Famer Junior Seau and Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher also committed suicide. Both of their brains were found to have evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.


Boxing does not have to look far to see the negative effect the sport has had on the health of some of its athletes.


The greatest example is perhaps the greatest fighter, Muhammad Ali. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. It has been reported that he can now barely speak.



The essence of Boxing


So what does this all mean for Boxing?


While we look at ways to ensure the sport is exciting, we should equally be looking for ways to make it safer.


Additionally, we should not be looking to diminish the skill it takes to use movement, defense, counter-punching and the like all to your advantage.


Every fighter that steps through the ropes understands that there is a risk involved. Technical boxing allows the fighter to control for his own safety without relying on rules changes. To expect them to up the ante by fighting a phone booth battle is unreasonable. As a sport, we walk the fine line of inhumanity. This has always been the struggle of Boxing throughout its search for legitimacy in a modern world. Yet still, technical boxing void of any meaningful offense is not boxing, not in this writer’s eyes at least.


At the end of the “Hey Harold!” interview Lederman says, “The truth of the matter is that you score 99 percent for clean punching and one percent for the other three, and that’s the truth. They really complicate something that is very simple. Say to yourself who did more damage in that round and give him ten points and you’ll be a great judge.”


See, the problem is not the style. People are right to see the beauty in it. The problem is what the style has become. It is that Boxing, like every sport, has offense and defense, and as technical boxing is evolving it is being used to win fights while using as little offense as possible. It is that a portion of fans have been influenced to think that technical boxing is the highest class of fighting. It has created a caste system within the sport – the brawlers are the peasants void of skill, class, and intelligence. The boxers are the refined, civil group.


The hardcore fan has overvalued the fluidity. They’ve fallen in love with ring generalship. Stick + move + stick + hold = win round. That is the new formula, and it is not good for any sport but especially one that traditionally is valued by how much damage each fighter can inflict on each other.


If we watched Boxing as the casual fan does, will we see it the same way? What if we judged a bout as one long 36-minute fight instead twelve three-minute rounds? If all we’re looking for is at the end who did more damage over the course of the fight, as with an unorganized street fight, the result of a fight like Mayweather vs. Pacquiao could have been different.


By the rules, Mayweather did what he had to do to win. But while boxing fans sit and defend his technical brilliance, he lost in the eyes of the public. He lost because the public has one idea of what fighting is, and Mayweather betrays the essence of that idea.


This paradox, that the best way to win a fight is by “boxing,” goes against the essence of what the sport is. In that sense, at the least, the casual fan has a point.


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May 10, 2015


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