Where's the best place to watch a boxing match?

The stadium scene.
Sept. 16 2003 3:19 PM

A Ringside Seat

Where's the best place to watch a boxing match?

Shane Mosley and Oscar de la Hoya
Pow! Lights out for ringside refs?

Oscar de la Hoya is filing a protest over his loss by unanimous decision to Shane Mosley in Saturday night's championship fight in Las Vegas. If it comes to jury trial, I have some evidence Oscar can use: a tape of the fight.

You can judge for yourself this Saturday night when HBO replays the fight, but this is what I saw: De la Hoya completely befuddled Mosley in the first six rounds, snapping his head back with jabs and occasional double jabs, nailing him with sharp right leads while building up a solid advantage in points. In the final six rounds, Mosley broke even, faring better by showing an aggression born not from strategy but from desperation. Having been thoroughly outboxed, his only chance of pulling the fight out was to plunge ahead, bang away, and pray for a knockout that he never got.

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Sitting on my living room couch Saturday night, I gave seven rounds to de la Hoya, four to Mosley, and scored one a draw. When ring announcer Michael Buffer said that the three judges had all scored it 115-113, my first reaction was, "That's not enough. De la Hoya won by more than that." Who agreed with me? Well, HBO wags Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and George Foreman all had de la Hoya well ahead. Foreman actually had the guts to say what many were thinking, "There's something very wrong here." HBO's Harold Lederman, perhaps boxing's most astute scorer, had de la Hoya winning by three rounds. If Lederman isn't the best scorer in boxing, Maxboxing.com's Jason Probst is. On ESPN.com, he had de la Hoya winning nine rounds to three.

Ah, I almost forgot about the stats. CompuBox, which scores the fight for HBO, had de la Hoya landing nearly 100 more punches than Mosley, 221 to 127. Most of the difference was jabs—106 for Oscar, 33 for Shane—but de la Hoya also landed more power punches, 115 to 94. So, what, exactly, did the judges and the writers at ringside who went for Mosley (apparently the ringside press was fairly evenly divided) see that nearly everyone who watched on television fail to see?

In 1954, the sportswriter Joe Williams wrote what was, for several decades, accepted as the definitive book on the subject of how we watch boxing matches, TV Boxing Book. Williams asked, "Does TV give the home fan a complete picture of the fight? Are there things the fan at the ringside will see that the home viewers don't? Is it possible to follow a fight on TV and really tell who won?" Williams contended that the ringside seat was still the best way to watch a fight. Television's "lack of dimensional depth … makes it impossible to measure the true force of a blow," he argued. Further, a ringside viewer "gets a clearer and more comprehensive view of the infighting, something the home fan seldom gets."

Williams' analysis, I think, was absolutely correct—for 1954 and probably through the 1970s. But then sports coverage on television underwent a renaissance. Today's fight fan sees the action from at least three different cameras, each one positioned to catch the action no matter where in the ring it occurs, plus slow-motion replays of key exchanges. It's the fight judges and sportswriters at ringside who now are at a disadvantage, having a clear view of what happens only one-fourth of the time. (And that's assuming that the referee isn't blocking their view.) To argue otherwise is like arguing that a football game can be viewed better in person than on television—if that were true, then why would they put televisions in the press box?

What do I see at home that I can't see in the arena? First and most obvious, on television I'm almost always guaranteed a view of the fighters' faces, of every fist colliding with every head. I can see precisely the things that Joe Williams thought were so important, such as the force of the punch and, as in Saturday's fight, whether a disputed blow was a punch or a head butt. (Did the judges think that Mosley's fourth-round butt, which opened a gash alongside de la Hoya's right eye, was actually a left hook? Replay showed it clearly.) As for the infighting that Williams thought was so important, how can I see it in person if I'm staring at a fighter's back? TV cameras do a better job of showing who's cleaning up inside.

The argument that the de la Hoya-Mosley fight was seen more accurately by those at ringside than those watching on television is further punctured by the fact that the men who accumulated the punch stats for CompuBox were sitting right there. "I don't understand the [judges'] scoring," says CompuBox's Bob Canobbio. "De La Hoya landed more punches in seven rounds with Mosley outpunching him in just three, while two were even. Even if you give Mosley the two even rounds, De La Hoya comes out ahead." 

Most boxing writers I know hate the punch-stat counts the way baseball writers about 15 years ago hated the new sabermatricians, and for the same reason: Statistics are both objective and verifiable. They detract from the sportswriters' (and for that matter, the fight judges') monopoly on interpreting a sporting event. The CompuBox statistics may not be the final word, but they must at least be recognized and dealt with.

So, what we're left with is a situation in which the combination of television, taped replay, and punch-stat counts give any TV-watching knucklehead more evidence to work with than is available to the judge or sportswriter sitting right there at ringside. Yet it's the opinion of the latter pair—the first on fight night, the second in the papers the next morning—that determines who "won" the fight and if and when there will be a lucrative rematch.

It's time for boxing to acknowledge what the National Football League was forced to admit more than 20 years ago: As technology grows more and more sophisticated, it gives fans more information and, more often than not, creates ugly controversy and very bad public relations. The argument in football used to be that if instant replay was used by officials it would take the "human element" out of the decision. But far from removing the human element, the NFL's instant replay, which routinely shows viewers what officials are in the worst possible position to see, is ideal for helping officials to do their job.