The Psychology Of Poor Judging

By: Sean Crose

There has been much shaking of heads since Saturday night’s PBC on Fox card, which saw supposed rising welterweight Gabriel Maestre win a wildly controversial unanimous decision over Mykal Fox. Although most online clearly thought the slick and disciplined Fox deserved the decision win, judges Gloria Martinez Rizzo, John Mariano, and David Singh deemed that it was Maestre who was to get the victory. The fact that the former amateur standout also earned a WBA interim title in the process of winning just his 4th fight stood to make things even stranger. What was a 3-0 fighter, no matter how decorated before entering the pro ranks, doing fighting for an interim title? Wasn’t Vasyl Lomachenko supposed to have been a kind of one-off? Apparently not. Then again, horrible judging is far from a one-off itself.

It’s easy to point the finger at corruption when it comes to this sort of thing. Rizzo’s surprising score of 117-110 for Maestro, for instance, is infuriating to some fans. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any ready evidence of corruption on Rizzo’s part. In all likelihood, she had a bad night on the job. The same can be said for judges Mariano – who is essentially a local judge in Minnesota, where Maestro-Fox went down – and Singh, who has almost 400 judged fights on his resume. Of course, it ultimately doesn’t matter how a bad decision comes to be, simply that it comes to be at all. And that, perhaps, is where psychology, yes psychology, comes in.

The Psychology Of Poor Judging

Not that long ago, in 2019, a fascinating piece appeared in the Journal of Ethical Urban Living. The work was titled “The Ethics of Knowing the Score: Recommendations for Improving Boxing’s 10-Point Must System.” It was penned by John Scott Gray, a Professor of Psychology and Brian R. Russ, “an Assistant Professor of Mental Health Counseling.” The intensely academic backgrounds of these two writers could fool a person into underestimating their impressive knowledge of the fight game.

For example, they argue in the work that the judging of the first Canelo Alvarez – Gennady Golovkin bout presented “an astonishing five round difference in scoring” between two of the judges. What’s particularly insightful, however, is the authors focus on the problems currently inherent in scoring a fight. “Although there is a general understanding of how the scoring criteria are operationally defined,” they write, “there are still missing elements necessary to objectively score a boxing round. For example, it is unclear whether the four criteria should be weighted the same, or if clean punching should be prioritized.”

Gray and Russ go on to assert that “it is also unclear whether a boxer can win a round in which he or she lands fewer blows but has a superior aesthetic to the blows that he or she lands. In other words, do boxing judges have the ability to judge a boxing round on artistic principles?” These are questions fans of boxing hear broadcast teams discuss regularly throughout a televised or streamed fight card. Yet Gray and Russ go on to point out that old fashioned bias may have a lot to do poor judging, as well.

“Cognitive biases emerge from quick decisions,” state the authors, “and judging in boxing is no exception. For example, a judge may have a preconceived notion of who will win a bout they are scoring, and as the boxing match takes place, the judge may experience a confirmation bias.” Then, of course, there’s the simple matter of a judge’s personal taste. “A judge,” Gray and Russ state, “may prefer a particular boxing style, and therefore, score more favorable for boxers who exhibit those styles in a bout.”

The authors are fair enough to let the reader be aware of the fact that boxing is an intensely tough sport to score. “The judges have an excessively sophisticated task to complete in a short amount of time,” they write, “due to the degree of information occurring in each round and the complexity of the scoring system.” Some might rightly say, however, that no one forces judges to do their job.

What’s more, none of this input probably would mean a lot to Fox right now. The man put on the performance of a lifetime on Saturday and still came up empty handed. His record now stands at 22-3. As I wrote on social media, the worst thing is this loss might actually HURT Fox’s career in numerous ways. You can hear it now: “Dude’s lost two in a row. He’s got nothing to offer me.”

Perhaps everyone is wrong. Perhaps Saturday’s fight was closer than it seemed to many. I don’t trust my own opinions and biases enough not to give it another look. And maybe that’s the point. It takes a special kind of person to judge a professional boxing match. No one is perfect, much less fight judges. Perhaps what judges need more than anything else is the ability to objectively review their own decision making processes.

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