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Boxing System Misses the Point

August 29, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The decision that robbed Roy Jones of a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics took boxing, where outrageous judging had become commonplace, to a new low.

The resulting howls of protest brought the sport to an Olympic crossroads, where the available courses of action were clear: Either fix it or eliminate it.

Thus began computer scoring, a system designed to take the subjective element out of the process. Instead, five judges would each be given a keyboard with two buttons, red for the fighter in red and blue for the opponent. The judges were to push the proper button each time they saw an effective punch. If three of the judges punched the same button within one second, the fighter got a point.

Most points wins, plain and simple. End of controversy? Hardly.

The new system, in its fourth Olympics, has reduced boxing to fencing with gloves, rhythmic dancing with headgear. The sport that has been played out in the ring nightly at the Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall is so dull, so far from boxing as we know it, that it is almost unrecognizable.

None of the elements that attract boxing fans -- power, courage, endurance, hand speed -- are in play here.

Julio Cesar Chavez, master of the body shot, wouldn't have been successful in this system. The judges rarely count body shots. Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, proficient at landing devastating three-, four-, even five-punch combinations, wouldn't have been successful in this system. Judges cannot punch the buttons quickly enough in the time allotted to reward such combinations. A fighter usually gets credit for one of four punches landed in succession, two at best, penalizing those with speed.

And it's not just the scoring system that is at fault.

George Foreman and Joe Frazier, knockout specialists, wouldn't have been successful in this system. When a fighter is the slightest bit stunned by a blow, he is given a standing eight-count by the referee, allowing the dazed fighter time to recover.

Add to that the headgear worn by the boxers, and knockouts become highly unlikely. The only chance is with a single devastating blow, such as the one landed by David Reid of the U.S. in 1996, when he stopped Alfredo Duvergel of Cuba to win the last gold medal awarded an American boxer.

Under the system, all punches are treated equally. A blow that hurts or floors an opponent is worth one point, same as a soft jab that does little more than cause the recipient to blink.

The result: matches that consist of two fighters circling from afar, the thought of swinging for a knockout or digging for a body shot low on their lists of priorities. Instead, they seek to flick long-range jabs, or, if they find themselves in close, land a counterpunch that will be worth as much as the initial punch.

And when a fighter gets ahead, he often tries to run out the clock. With only four two-minute rounds, that's an effective strategy.

In winning his quarterfinal match against Yordani Despaigne of Cuba, U.S. 165-pounder Andre Dirrell landed only 12 punches. That's not to fault Dirrell, who understood the system. But who wants to watch such a fight?

The result is that Olympic boxing has grown less popular in the U.S., meaning fewer talented athletes get involved, resulting in fewer medals and even less interest.

Reid and Oscar De La Hoya are the only two American fighters to have won Olympic gold since the system changed.

"We've got to learn how to work the computer," said U.S. heavyweight Devin Vargas, who was eliminated in the quarterfinals.

"We need a national coach who will study the international style and come up with what we need," said Basheer Abdullah, the U.S. coach who plans to return to his post in the military after the Olympics. "We've got to learn how to play the system."

It won't be easy. How many young fighters, knowing their combination punches and flashy style are their tickets to lucrative pro contracts, are willing to switch to what international judges are looking for?

"Don't give up on us yet," Abdullah said.

A better idea would be to give up the system. Go back to asking judges, competent ones, to score what they see in terms of overall ring skills, stop halting bouts whenever a fighter cringes from a blow and enforce the rules against holding and stalling.

In other words, let them fight. These are supposed to be fights, aren't they?

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