Improving decisions in boxing: are video replays the answer?

Published 20 July 2018 | Authored by: Sean O'Toole

The use of video replays to improve field-of-play decisions is a hot topic during the football World Cup, whilst other sports like rugby, cricket and tennis have used it for several years to reduce the number of wrong decisions made at critical times.

Some fans had initial concerns that video replays might slow down play. It seems though that fans embrace it once they understand how the technology is used and what the rules are. The delay often creates a build-up of anticipation, with each fan being a self-proclaimed expert in the interpretation of the replays.

Boxing, one of the world’s oldest sports, is some way behind other sports in adopting video technology. It is used during contests on a fight-by-fight basis, but only where its use has been approved by all interested parties. Even then there are no uniform rules for when and how the technology will be used.

This article:

  • Explains to the reader the basic rules concerning boxing so that all readers are able to properly understand and form a view on whether video replay should have a place in boxing;

  • Looks at the types of decisions which are often considered to be controversial and whether video technology could improve those decisions;

  • The pros and cons of using video replays;

  • Analyses the World Boxing Super Series rules insofar as they relate to video replays;

  • Considers how the use of video replay could have been used during a couple of major fights this past year;

  • Concludes with recommendations for how governing bodies could improve the sport by using video technology.

Boxing – the basics

In order to properly consider the issues surrounding the use of video replays in boxing, it is important that all readers understand some of the basics of boxing.

How fights are made: Boxing promoters are responsible for organising, promoting and delivering boxing events. Each contest is subject to a contractual relationship between the boxers and the promoter. Those contracts are subject to the various rules of the relevant governing bodies, but otherwise the parties are free to agree contractual terms.

Relevant governing bodies: The British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) is the national governing body for professional boxing recognised by Sport England. It sanctions boxing contests that take place in the United Kingdom.

A contest might also be sanctioned by one or more international governing body if, for example, the contest is for a title of that governing body. There are a number of international governing bodies, each with its own ‘world champion’ at each weight division. The main international governing bodies are World Boxing Council (WBC), World Boxing Association (WBA), International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organisation (WBO)

In-play rules of boxing: The referee officiates a boxing contest and is (in general) the sole arbiters of the rules of boxing. The rules of boxing are not only designed to make the sport entertaining, but more importantly they seek to protect boxers’ health. By being the sole arbiter of the rules of boxing, the referee is also therefore responsible for the safety of the boxers.

The referee is generally unassisted with the making of decisions (an exception is the availability of a medical expert to advise on the safety of the boxers).

What role can video replay play in boxing?

The integrity of the sport of boxing is a major concern for many – it is commonplace for experts and fans to question decisions of judges and referees. Criticisms of boxing decisions can be categorised as follows:

General refereeing decisions during a contest (e.g. Anthony Joshua vs. Joseph Parker - 31 March 20181) - Boxing cannot afford to become a stop-start sport - boxers and fans rely on free-flowing rounds. Video technology therefore has, in the author’s view, no place in reviewing the general performance of the referee during the contest.

These decisions are therefore never reviewed during the contest.

The referee stopping the fight (e.g. Carl Froch vs. George Groves - 23 November 20132) - Where the referee decides in his absolute discretion that one contestant is outclassed or is unable to continue as a result of injury, or is not in a position to continue boxing, he must stop the contest. Whilst fans enjoy seeing knockouts and will sometimes criticise referees for stopping fights before a knockout, the author would rather see a contest stopped one punch too soon rather than one punch too late. For that reason, referees do not have the time to consult another person or to analyse video replays and must make decisions based on what they see.

These decisions are therefore never reviewed during the contest.

Scoring of the judges (e.g. Canelo Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin - 16 September 2017): 3 - Scoring in boxing is predominantly subjective. Video technology is not going to improve the decision making of judges when awarding points according to the subjective criteria and judges do not have the time to watch entire rounds more than once.

These decisions are therefore never reviewed during the contest.

A decision which affects the outcome of the contest (e.g. Andre Dirrell vs Jose Uzcategui - 20 May 20174) - Some refereeing decisions which affect the outcome of the contest could be reviewed without interrupting the boxing contest or the safety of the boxers.

An example of this is where an injury requires the referee to stop a bout, the result of the contest depends upon whether the injury was suffered by a legal blow, ‘accidental foul’ (such as an accidental clash of heads) or intentional foul (such as a deliberate head-butt).

Under the BBBoC Rules of Boxing5 (at the end of Rule 3.50), if the injury was suffered by a legal blow, the boxer causing the injury wins the contest by technical knockout. If the injury was suffered by an accidental foul, the bout will result in a technical draw if stopped before four completed rounds, or a technical decision in favour of the boxer who is ahead on the score cards at the time the bout is stopped if it is stopped after four completed rounds. If the injury was suffered by an intentional foul, the boxer causing the injury loses by disqualification.

Where an injury is suffered from an intentional foul which is not severe enough for the referee to stop the bout immediately, the referee notifies the authorities and deducts two points from the boxer who caused the foul. Point deductions for intentional fouls that do not cause injury will be at the discretion of the referee. If the contest continues and at a later round it needs to be stopped because of the same injury, the rules in relation to accidental fouls will apply.

It is these sorts of decisions which, where appropriate (see below section entitled ‘Does boxing use video replay’), are reviewed during the contest.

Does boxing use video replay?

International governing bodies do not directly address the use of video technology in their rules and regulations and therefore its use is not compulsory6. It is therefore only used where the promoters and boxers agree to its use in the relevant contracts, subject to sanction by the relevant governing bodies.

As a matter of policy, the BBBoC does not sanction the use of video replays and so it is not used for contests taking place in the United Kingdom. But it has been used elsewhere – for example, during Callum Smith’s contest in February 2018 in Nuremberg, Germany, and Martin Murray’s against Sergio Martinez in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in April 2013.

Mauricio Sulaiman, the president of the WBC, has recently commented on Twitter in response to criticism about the decision in a contest:

WBC has used INSTANT REPLAY in many countries with great success, it’s up to the local boxing commissions to accept its use”.7

Whilst the WBC’s policy is to use the technology where appropriate, their rules provide the WBC with the express right to deny sanction of a contest if it does not recognise and accommodate to its satisfaction the legitimate interest in the conduct of the bout, including the use of instant replay (WBC Rule 2.2).

Should boxing use video replay?

The case for video replays

There are three key reasons for boxing to use video replays:

  • Assisting the referee: the referee’s role is such a difficult one – the action takes place at such a quick pace and referees are not always at the best angles to clearly see what has happened. Video replay therefore provides referees (or other officials) with support, different angles, and the ability to review the action at a slower speed.
  • Consequences of wrong decisions: the difference in a boxer’s career between a win and lose is much greater than athletes in other sports. A defeat could result in the loss of a title or ranking positions, as well as the emotional impact of defeat. It is rare for boxers to ‘bounce straight back’ after a defeat.
  • Avoid negative publicity: it is commonplace for bad decisions to be heavily criticised. The technology is now available to reduce the number of such decisions

Mauricio Sulaiman has supported the use of video replays. He recently commented:

Yes it [bad judging] was a main topic [at the WBC Convention] because anytime there is a controversy, unfortunately it hurts the whole sport regardless where it happened, and how it happened. But we have things, we have procedures and rules that can help minimize controversies. That is our main concern. …Instant replay — it’s a must. Every sport has it. We need to implement it professionally, immediately in boxing…8

He has also commented elsewhere:

The truth is that the Referee is a human being and in a very fast paced sport, we do review cuts and any major situations, that can change the outcome of a bout." 9

Case against video replays

Robert Smith, General Secretary of the BBBoC, kindly agreed to explain to the author for the purpose of this article why the BBBoC does not intend to change its presence stance in not permitting instant replays. He lists the key reasons as follows:

  • The referee is the closest to the action unlike other sports and therefore in a better position to see any infringements.

    • Should a referee miss any issue, he can take advice from the steward in charge/supervisor or the judges at ringside.

    • By permitting instant replay, there will be a break in the action and may take away the advantage of a particular boxer.

    • Should it be seen that an infringement has occurred by reviewing an incident at the end of the round, a referee cannot go back to the incident and alter any action he has already taken.

    • Not all tournaments have the instant replay facility or if they do we would need to rely on the television company in attendance. This solution would not be ideal at present. Obviously, as time goes by this may change.

Mr Smith goes on to say:

the British Boxing Board of Control always reviews its procedures during the course of the year and should a system be introduced in the future where the Stewards feel that a number of issues can be resolved I am sure they will consider their policy at that point.

Procedure for the use of video technology

There are no uniform rules regulating the use of video replays in boxing and so where video replay is used, it is subject to whatever rules are agreed between the parties.

The WBSS endorse the use of video replays. The WBSS is an eight-man elimination tournament between elite boxers at a particular weight division. Season 1 of the WBSS commenced in September 2017 and included leading British fighters such as George Groves, Callum Smith and Chris Eubank Jr.

The WBSS has a contract with each boxer to deal with their participation in the WBSS – that contract incorporates the WBSS Rules10. Rule 33 provides as follows (strikeout and underlining show proposed amendments to the Season 1 rules ahead of Season 2 of the WBSS):

33. Instant Replay. In major controversies regarding the uncertainty of the origin of a cut, punches landed after the bell, or any major situation that can change the outcome of the Bout, the Instant Replay will be applied if approved by the local commission where the bout takes place and the involved World Sanctioning Bodies and if the necessary equipment is available at the appropriate venue according to the following guidelines:

a) The local commission with input from any involved world sanctioning body will appoint a Panel in charge of Instant Replay, and will decide when Instant Replay will be used. It is recommended that the Panel in charge of Instant Replay will consist of the Bout supervisor, the local commission representative, and any specifically appointed monitor supervisor.

b) Comosa, with the support of the television network, will provide a monitor to be placed at or near the head table of the commission with headphones for audio commentary to receive the live feed.

c) Instant Replay is limited to review (a) whether a cut or another injury to the face is the result of a punch or otherwise; (b) whether a punch is thrown after the bell signalling the end of a round; and (c) in any major situation that can change the outcome of the bout and where the replay clearly shows the actions are contradictory to the live ruling of the Referee.

d) The Referee may call “time out” during the break between rounds, or at the first opportune moment without interfering with the immediate boxing action in the sole discretion of the Referee, and consult with the Instant Replay Panel, if in doubt, as to any scenario. However, only the Instant Replay Panel may determine by unanimous decision, whether to review a controversial call as depicted on the Instant Replay Monitor. If requested by the Instant Replay Panel, the Referee shall call “time out” during the break between rounds, or when necessary during the round, at the first opportune moment without interfering with the immediate boxing action in the sole discretion of the Referee.

e) The Instant Replay Panel will review any controversial instance that may have occurred in any round. A determination of the referee may be overruled solely if the Instant Replay monitor clearly and conclusively reveals, according to the unanimous opinion of the Panel, that the ruling of the action by the Referee was mistaken in his original determination. Only a unanimous decision by the Panel is binding upon the Referee.

f) The Referee may request to participate to verify the action by watching the TV monitor, but the Referee does not a vote in the Instant Replay Panel. or may choose to accept the Panel’s recommendation. The Panel may request to verify the action by watching the TV monitor, and if requested so by the Panel, the Referee shall call “time out” during the break between rounds, for the Panel and the referee if he wishes to participate, to review the action.

g) Both corners, the working officials and the audience will be notified of the final decision right after such decision is made.

Rule 33 was prepared in consultation with a number of experts and was expressly approved by the World Sanctioning Bodies before being finalised. They provide us with a useful example of how procedurally instant replays can be adopted in boxing.

Some readers might however have some views on whether Rule 33 should be revisited – for example:

  • Should the boxers’ teams have transparency when a decision is being reviewed? For example, the Instant Replay Panel’s decisions being recorded with reasons and notified to the teams. The author, who represents a number of boxers during contests, would like to see such transparency.

  • Rule 33(d) provides that the Panel can refuse to review a decision despite the referee asking the Panel to review it. In the author’s view, where the referee considers it appropriate to call timeout in order to consult the Panel, then the Panel should review the decision.

  • It is inferred that the referee must make his own decision based on what he sees, but the author believes this should be expressly stated.

  • The author is dubious whether the Referee should be able to participate in the review of video replays as that will inevitably slow down the fight. The Panel decisions need to be speedy in order to minimise the amount of ‘time out’ required for a review.

These rules, however, only apply for WBSS contests where the local commission sanctions the use of video replay. Other contests which use video replay will be subject to separate rules. You can therefore have sympathy with referees and other officials who use video replays on an ad hoc basis and each use is subject to different rules.

There will however be no uniformity unless governing bodies provide their own rules for the use of video replays, which I would like to see (such rules should not make video replays mandatory, but give promoters and boxers the option to use video technology subject to the governing bodies’ rules as to how video replays are to be conducted).

Examples of controversial decisions

Guillermo Rigondeaux vs Moises Flores

17 June 2017 – Las Vegas

At the end of the first round, a round dominated by Rigondeaux, Flores was deemed unable to continue with the contest when he was hit with a clean left hand well after the bell ending the round.

There was much uncertainty at the time, with the referee appearing uncertain what to do. Drakulich reviewed the video replay, which is permitted in the event of a fight-ending punch under local commission rules. However, Drakulich had no access to the audio, which is key when it comes to ruling whether a shot was thrown before or after the bell. Based on the footage, he concluded that the punch was a legal shot and so Rigondeaux won the contest by knockout.

After a later review of the decision by the local commission, the result was changed to a no contest.

Andre Dirrell vs Jose Uzcategui I

20 May 2017 - Maryland

This contest ended in two moments of controversy. The second grabbed the headlines: Dirrell’s uncle landing a left hook on Uzcategui after the contest. But it was the first controversy which could have been reviewed by instant replay: Uzcategui punching Dirrell after the bell of the eighth round and Dirrell being unable to continue.

Uzcategui threw a hook – cross – hook combination, with the first two shows clearly landing before the bell rung and Dirrell having no defence to defend himself against the third, irrespective of the bell. The referee had not stepped in to call an end to the round. The referee judged the blow to be a deliberate illegal shot after the bell and, since Dirrell (who was behind on the scorecards) appeared unable to continue, disqualified Uzcategui. Few on social media agreed with the referee’s decision.

The local commission upheld the disqualification, deeming the third punch intentional and after the bell. Despite that decision, the International Boxing Federation said that the referee made multiple errors in his handling of the bout and ordered an immediate rematch. They said at the time:

The referee made it clear that he had ruled the blow to Dirrell after the bell was ‘illegal’. However, the referee did not determine whether the ‘illegal’ punch was intentional or accidental pursuant to the [IBF] guidelines. Had the referee determined that the ‘illegal’ punch was accidental, the bout would have resulted in a technical decision awarded to Joe Uzcategui, who was ahead on the judge’s scorecard after eight rounds had been scored.

The IBF has also determined that it was inappropriate for the referee to advise Dirrell of the decision of the bout prior to the official decision being announced. Based on the above…the IBF has ruled that the referee’s conduct was inappropriate and will grant an immediate rematch.11

Liam Smith vs Liam Williams

8 May 2017

Both fighters suffered nasty cuts in this exciting fight, but a clash of heads led to a severe cut to Williams. The referee missed the clash of heads and so did not stop the contest, so Williams’ corner felt it had no choice but to throw in the towel. In the absence of a video replay, Smith won the contest by a referee technical decision.

At the time Williams was ahead by one point on all scorecards, although Smith was beginning to dominate the contest.

The boxers agreed to a rematch, which Smith convincingly won by majority decision.

Andre Dirrell vs Arthur Abraham

27 March 2010

Andre Dirrell defeated Arthur Abraham by way of disqualification in the Super Six super middleweight tournament in Detroit. Dirrell was ahead on the scorecards, but found himself on the backfoot in the later stages of the fight.

Dirrell slipped and his knee went to the canvas in the 11th round, at which time Abraham hit him. The blow was undoubtedly an illegal blow. But a moment later Dirrell fell to the floor, eyes shut, clearly indicating that he was not in a position to continue with the contest. Abraham looked confused.

The referee would have been assisted by video replay in order to determine whether there was intent to commit an illegal blow. Dirrell was checked over by medical experts; it is right that medical experts should determine whether Dirrell was in a position to continue (although the author believes video footage does put doubt on the extent of Dirrell’s injury, in a similar way to the video footage of the Utzcategui contest).

Sven Ottke vs Robin Reid

13 December 2003

Reid knocked Ottke to the canvas in the sixth round, but the referee ruled it a slip and so did not deduct a point from Ottke (who was the home fighter). The referee then deducted a point from Reid for a headbutt that, according to video replays, did not happen. It even appeared at one stage that the referee warned Reid for punching Ottke!

In the author’s opinion, Reid should have emerged as the clear victor, even taking into account of the questionable refereeing decisions, but the judges gave Ottke the decision.

Reid appealed the decision to the WBA in hope of a rematch being ordered. The WBA did not take issue with the decisions of the referee or the judges. Reid’s coach, Brian Hughes, commented:

"Harding [Reid’s promoter] paid out £6,500 for the appeal to be heard. I wouldn't have paid 10p for what we have got out of it. To be honest I am absolutely disgusted by it all, disgusted at the decision, disgusted at having to wait so long to hear anything at all from Harding. But this is the darker side of boxing."12

Concluding Remarks

Technology has the ability to revolutionise sports and I would like to embrace change. Video replay has the potential to reduce poor decisions which affect the outcome of the contest, thus improves the integrity of the sport as well as boxers’ careers.

The author would encourage international governing bodies to agree a universal procedure for the use of video replays to ensure consistency of rules, and in the first instance to make it mandatory to use video replay for world title contests, unless in exceptional circumstances (such as non-availability of equipment).

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About the Author

Sean O'Toole

Sean O'Toole

Sean is an associate in the sports law team at Beswicks Legal. He acts for clients across a broad range of commercial and regulatory disputes, with a particular focus on acting for clubs and sportspersons.

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