How Boxing Judging Works in Las Vegas
Nevada Athletic Commission Executive Director Bob Bennett explains what happens on fight nights.
Boxing judging is a job where, if people notice you, it means you screwed up. 2017 saw Adalaide Byrd dragged into the spotlight after she scored the Sep. 16 middleweight title bout between Saul “Canelo” Álvarez and Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin 118-110 for Canelo. Some thought GGG had won, including the second judge. Others thought it was a draw, including the third judge. A few observers may have even deemed it a narrow win for Canelo.
But no one thought Canelo dominated. Even Oscar De La Hoya said, “A lot of people are not understanding 118-110, just like myself”… and he’s Canelo’s promoter.
Except Adalaide Byrd, who gave him 10 of 12 rounds.
This article was intended to explain how that verdict occurred. But I quickly realized something: I knew virtually nothing about boxing judges. I had no idea how they got their jobs, what their qualifications were, or how much they were paid.
And it seemed worth grasping how boxing is supposed to work before we get angry about the moments it malfunctions.
Enter Bob Bennett. He is the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission (NSAC), which “regulates all contests and exhibitions of unarmed combat.” Bennett handles its day-to-day operations. Since Nevada contains Las Vegas, Bennett is involved in a huge number of high-profile boxing and mixed martial arts events each year. Before this, he spent over two years as an NSAC Professional Judge, meaning he is uniquely well equipped to discuss boxing judging. (Boasting an impressive variety of life experiences, Bennett is also a former Marine and member of the FBI.)
With Bennett’s help, this is a brief explanation what it means to be a pro boxing judge. (Incidentally, you can apply to be one in Nevada right here: for all the wiseasses out there, yes, you are required to “pass an annual eye exam conducted by a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist.”)
The Amateur Level. This is where Bennett started judging: “I was working in the FBI at the time and I wanted to give something back.” He first coached basketball in Vegas before shifting over to judging boxing, which he did for 10 years. While this isn’t required, “I would say the majority of our judges have previously been an amateur judge.” From here, the chosen few step into the shadows.
Shadow Judging. You become a shadow judge “when the executive director thinks you may have potential to become a professional judge.” As a shadow judge, you attend as many fights possible—“mostly the smaller events because there’s more seats available.” Then you score the fight as if you were judging it and “turn them in to the executive director at the end of the night. I did that for two years, going to mostly to middle or lower-end fights for my predecessor, Keith Kizer.” (Bennett noted some shadow judges only needed to serve a year, but recommended getting as much experience as possible before going pro.)
During that time, Kizer tracked how Bennett scored the fights. Bennett was “seven percent out of the majority”—meaning 93 percent of the time he agreed with at least two judges. (In general, boxing relies on the assumption that all three judges are capable and reliable. That way “if one judge has an off night, the other two will get it right and the right fighter will win.”)
Additional Preparation. This includes everything from seeking out an established judge as a mentor to making a point of “practice judging fights” on television. Bennett also noted it “may help if you had some boxing experience” but it’s not a “requirement.” And yes, Bennett used to fight: “I boxed a hell of a lot in the street. And some smokers in the Marines, never on a Marine Corps Boxing team. I never boxed formally, but God knows I’ve had my fair share of fights and been knocked out.”
Taking the Leap. So the moment comes when it seems the shadow judge is ready for the bright lights and the executive director goes to the NSAC Chairman and reports: “I want to give this person a try.”
Then it’s a matter of proving themselves: “They have to pass a written test and score some fights, starting off with four- and six-round fights.” (Championship bouts can last up to 12 rounds.)
New talent is continually in the pipeline: “Two months ago we brought a shadow judge up. Right now we have three who are working to be a professional judge.”
What are they looking for in these aspiring judges?
The Good Stuff. Bennett particularly seeks out judges who display the “ability to concentrate when 20,000 fans are screaming” and “know judging is all about the fighter.” In general, if a judge is continually calm and focused, there is potential.
Of course, there can be warning signs too.
Causes for Concern. Bennett’s a stickler for concentration, saying judges should not be “interested in who is in the crowd, the ring card girls, or themselves when they should be focused on the fight,” much less seeking to be “the center of attention.” Of course, the biggest problem is the judge who consistently scores fights in ways that other proven judges did not. This tendency gets even more concerning when a judge is not “open to constructive criticism” and cannot “justify the reasons for scoring the fight” the way they scored it. (Related to this, Bennett said if an otherwise reliable judge were experiencing personal difficulties that compromised their ability to do their job, he expected them to confide in him ahead of the bout, rather than learning about it after an embarrassing verdict.)
If judges prove themselves at lower-end events, they get more prominent assignments. In time, they may even find themselves working title fights.
Which brings us to…
Pay Day. If you don’t work an event, you don’t get paid, as there’s no salary. For those who successfully perform their duties, a fee comes from “the promoters.” How much? “The money, it varies,” Bennett said. “If you’re a lower-end judge like I was, you get on a small fight making $200. If you’re working the undercard of a bigger fight, you may get $700.” And from there it goes up… to a point. Bennett reported that for the IBF Junior Lightweight title fight at Mandalay Bay on Dec. 9 (which is part of a card broadcast on HBO) “the fee to the referee is $1,600 and the judges is $1,300.”
Understand: There is the potential of a very nice sum for a night’s work. Each of the three judges for Mayweather-Pacquiao reportedly earned $20,000, with the referee collecting slightly more at a record $25,000. However, it should be remembered that was the most lucrative fight ever as it generated over $600 million, including nine-figure sums for both boxers. Considering the time it takes to reach that level and the scarcity of fights of that magnitude, Bennett concluded, “If [judges] do it for the money, they’re in the wrong business.”
(Bennett noted that the NSAC itself is financed through collecting “two percent of the sales tax from the tickets.” He praised NSAC Chairman Anthony Marnell III for supporting the shift to this model instead of continuing to receive an operating budget from the state: “This way, we’re able to increase our staff and become more technologically efficient.”)
So the average boxing judge doesn’t make a ton of money. Which might lead a cynic to wonder in they’re seeking some side action and if we should do some…
Checking for Corruption: Bennett stated he did not believe boxing judges in Nevada were bribed or otherwise pressured: “I have not observed this with respect to judges while being the executive director for the NSAC or otherwise.”
(He added, “I have, however, observed this with respect to fighters during the course of my employment with the FBI for 24 1⁄2 years.” He investigated a case where “fighters were receiving cash for losing on purpose to advance the career of another fighter.” The FBI successfully “proved conspiracy to commit sports bribery,” leading two defendants to plead guilty and two more to be “found guilty at trial.”)
Finally, there’s the matter of what a judge actually looks for during a fight.
What a Judge Wants: Bennett defined it this way: “Clean effective legal punches combined with accuracy in any direction of movement (aggressor/counter puncher) and damage done by punches landed on the opponent.” (Boxing experience can come in handy judging damage since a fighter knows what it’s like to take various types of punches.) He said there shouldn’t be an inherent edge given to the aggressor over the counterpuncher or vice versa: “The fighter can have either style or both, but the bottom line is their punches must be clean, effective, and hurting her/his opponent. I really do not evaluate the style such as the Matador vs. Bull, but more importantly which one is scoring punches that are more effective and in the scoring zone.”
Which brings us back to Adalaide Byrd. Bennett said he evaluated her on the time he’d known her since he began the job in 2014. (Byrd had been involved in debated decisions before then.) Bennett noted he went into the fight confident in her performance: “It’s very unfortunate she had a bad night. She couldn’t have had a worse night.”
The Debrief: “Generally speaking when somebody has an off night, they have a conversation with me and we go over the fight.” Bennett said this occurred with Byrd: “We did watch the fight. We did go over the fight together. She did explain to me what she thought she saw the night of the fight and what she saw taking a look at the fight a second time. And we moved forward.” He said that legally “because it’s a personnel matter, I cannot discuss any discipline action matters,” but noted “obviously, she’s not being assigned to major championship fights at this time.”
However, Byrd’s career as a boxing judge in Nevada isn’t over. Indeed, it’s already resumed.
The Return: In general, Bennett believes that if a judge has an “off night” (as opposed to demonstrating they’re simply not up to to the job), they need to get back to work: “If you’re fielding a ground ball and it took a bad bounce and hit you in the eye, the only way to stop you from being gun-shy is to hit that guy some balls right away.”
He feels Byrd had an off night, as is bound to happen occasionally to someone who’s been “in the business 30, 35 years.” He said she “took a took a little time off and came back on Oct. 21,” when she “scored an eight-round fight.” He noted she was with the majority “in all but one round.” She has continued to work since, though has been assigned “lower-end fights.”
Bennett praised her for judging again in the face of a barrage of criticism—seriously, Google her name—”She picked herself back up.”
It’s worth remembering that most of boxing’s biggest travesties have nothing to do with Nevada. Earlier in 2017, Manny Pacquiao was utterly robbed by a baffling unanimous decision in Australia—in that case, all three judges were comically wrong. Or take Olympic boxing. (Seriously, take it.) After embarrassments like Roy Jones Jr. “losing” a fight in which he outlanded his opponent 86 punches to 32 in 1988, it was decided to scrap traditional boxing judging and switch to a point system. That let a computer score the fight based on how many punches made contact in a target area on a fighter.
Which sounds good until you remember that there are punches and there are punches, much as there’s a difference between a gentle rain and a monsoon. The new approach was rejected and more traditional scoring was reinstated. The 2016 Olympics still generated so much controversy all 36 judges and referees wound up being suspended. (In particular, Russian fighters seemed to have a uncanny knack for “earning” sketchy decisions.)
Yet from all these scandals, Byrd’s is the only name that people actually know. Fairly or unfairly, she seems to be sticking as the poster child for all the problems with judging in boxing, including ones far from Vegas. Bennett and I first spoke well over a month after Canelo-GGG… and he reported just that day his office had been besieged with angry phone calls about the fight following an HBO segment.
Which may help to explain why Bennett made his email signature this quote from Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”
Bennett is obsessed with judges being ready to perform: “Tell me what a fighter does to get ready for a fight. We should be training just as hard as that fighter has.” He noted during his judging days he “would score fights weekly and train approximately 10 hours a week if there was not an event.”
He noted he now works as hard as he ever has: “If you want to be good, it’s a seven-day-a-week business. It’s like the FBI: you don’t shut your phone off.”
Strictly from a financial standpoint, Vegas couldn’t have had a much better year than 2017. In particular, Canelo-GGG (1.3 million pay-per-view buys) and Mayweather-McGregor (4.4 million PPVs) generated staggering earnings.
Yet 2017 will be also be remembered for that scorecard. Bennett understands this: “The boxing world, as the does MMA world, really crucifies the officials.”
And that’s simply the way it is: “We get paid to get it right.”