Let's talk about bullshit.
Bullshit is a big part of boxing, whether we realize it or not. Though an incredibly physical sport, much of a boxing match takes place in the mental realm, where things are not always as they seem.
When we score a fight, we tend to think that we're seeing things as they really are, when oftentimes one of the fighters is trying to sell us a narrative. When Floyd Mayweather stands on the ropes and twists back and forth, showing off his confidence in his defensive shell, we don't notice the punches that slip through. When he finally unleashes a quick right hand with little power behind it, we ooh and ah at the brilliance of the counter. We see what the boxer wants us to see.
Before we jump in I'd like to note: in this context "bullshit" is not meant to be a derogatory term. If I happen to accuse one of your favorite fighters of "bullshitting" to gain an advantage, know that I consider this to be a serious boxing skill. Know also that some of my favorite fighters are masterful bullshitters. The point of this piece is not to denigrate or even tease any boxers, but rather to examine the place of deception in the prizefighting ring.
THE BULLSHIT BIAS
When I say "bullshitting," I mean tactics of deception. To bullshit in boxing is to play tricks on the mind and the eye; to appear more effective than you actually are; to look busier than you actually are; to coax the crowd, the judges, and the opponent into thinking that you are in complete control of the bout at all times, even when you aren't. And it works like a charm.
When Timothy Bradley (one of the greatest bullshitters active today) fought Juan Manuel Marquez in 2013, he connected at a lower percentage over the course of 12 rounds. Though Bradley outlanded Marquez in jabs, 82 to 38, Marquez landed significantly more power shots, 115 to Bradley's 86. The numbers don't tell the whole story of the fight, but you can look at the closeness of those statistics and fully understand why Bradley won a narrow split decision. The numbers are close, and the bout was close.
In that case the judges got the bout more or less right. I felt a Marquez decision was justified, but I can completely understand a close Bradley win. And if one of the three judges felt Marquez had done enough to win, you would expect the media scores to reflect that. But they don't.
According to FightSaga.com, 79 of 90 media members scored the bout for Bradley, closer to 90 percent than the 66 percent the judges' scorecards would imply. Of the remaining 11 media scorecards, only four were in favor of Marquez, with the other seven seeing the bout as a draw. There are a few strange outliers as well. HBO's Harold Lederman scored the bout 117-111 in favor of Bradley. So did Cliff Rold of BoxingScene. Lem Satterfield of The RING and Adam Abramowitz of Saturday Night Boxing both gave Bradley an absurd 118-110 lead, scoring only two rounds for the very game Marquez.
Bring the fight up to American boxing fans today, and you will almost certainly be told that Bradley completely outboxed Marquez--even that he embarrassed the Mexican veteran.
Timothy Bradley did box beautifully, but he laced his performance with a heavy dose of bullshit, and the vast majority of the boxing world fell for it.
It's not as if fans and media members are unaware of the concept of deception. One wrinkle I've often heard mentioned is that rounds might erroneously be given to the fighter who is coming forward, even if his retreating opponent is actually controlling the pace of the fight. The irony is that the opposite is true. Boxing fans have become so inured with the idea that the man moving backwards can actually be the one winning the fight that they inadvertently penalize the aggressor. Pressure fighters are seen as sloppy. Volume punchers are seen as ineffective. Meanwhile a fighter who backs up and lands quick but relatively powerless single shots that look big gets all the credit in the world.
I believe this is largely an American construct. After nearly a century and a half of professional gloved boxing in this country, an American style has developed. It's the defense-first style of men like Charley Burley, Holman Williams, Archie Moore, and more recently both the elder and younger Floyds Mayweather. Developed in America's primarily black boxing gyms, for black fighters who were denied money fights and therefore fought frequently to earn their keep, the style lives strong today. It seems fitting that a style designed for in-ring longevity should experience big-picture longevity as well. Deadspin's Charles Farrell calls it "The Black Code."
To quote Farrell's piece:
Black Code is racial, cultural, generational, and economic. It developed as a way of protecting oneself from damage: damage from punches, damage from cuts, and damage from economic loss. It allowed fighters to be in a perpetual state of readiness, willing and able to travel anywhere to fight anyone. Between them, Charley Burley, Eddie Booker, Holman Williams, Henry Hank, Holly Mims, Ralph "Tiger" Jones, and George Benton fought 735 times. Collectively, they suffered eight kayo losses. Keep in mind that, during the eras in which they fought, if a bout was stopped as the result of a cut caused by a head butt, the damaged fighter still lost by TKO. Using today's boxing rules, those eight kayo losses would have been cut in half. Further keep in mind that these fighters all spent their careers taking on monsters (including often having to fight each other), but that none of them was a world champ. None ever even fought for a title. It's worth reading that last sentence again and thinking about its implications.
But just like old fighters, old styles have to change eventually; and like all other things, styles change with the times. Gone are the circumstances that once made the Black Code so vital. No longer are black fighters kept out of the big fights--in America, the biggest fights all belong to blacks. No longer are black boxers being robbed of decisions in white towns--on the contrary, black boxing superstars Floyd Mayweather, Adrien Broner, and Tim Bradley have all been roundly accused of winning decisions they didn't deserve. And no longer are blacks forced to fight dozens of opponents a year just to scrape by.
That last fact is what I believe has enacted the change in this style. In the old days the Black Code was an approach for fighters who had very little time to prepare for their opponents. Lacking our prevalence of fight footage and training time, fighters like Sam Langford and Jersey Joe Walcott needed great craft to keep from being knocked out long enough to learn the other man's style and start working to undo it. If, like Langford or Walcott or George Benton, they were blessed with powerful hands, they could thwart the other man's offense before putting together devastating punches of their own. If they didn't happen to hit that hard, then they knew they'd be in for six or more rounds of tough work.
But today, the best fighters fight no more than three times a year, and usually less. Even less celebrated boxers, such as Tevin Farmer (one of my personal favorites), don't have to fight more than four times a year to make a living. Unlike their forebears, today's great black fighters have an abundance of time to study each opponent, or for their trainers to do it for them. They select their own sparring partners to emulate the opponent, rather than emulating other fighters themselves in the camps of successful white boxers.
Many of us in the boxing community now proudly claim the "slick, black spoiler" as our national style, a far cry from the cruel environment that first produced the Black Code in the early 20th century. Ironically, our overwhelming appreciation for the style has robbed it of its meaning.
Why is Adrien Broner standing with his back on the ropes, defending well but not firing back, if he already knows everything he needs to know about his opponent? Why is he dropping his hands to taunt after landing a solid uppercut rather than jumping on his opportunity to finish?
The defense-first style is no longer a means to an end. It's no longer a way for a fighter to survive the harsh realities of the ring in the hopes that he can land a big shot or slowly, gradually begin outsmarting his opponent. There is very little thought to Adrien Broner's style. He's not eyeing his openings when he lays on the ropes and performs a mimicry of Mayweather's shoulder roll; he's just playing around. Broner's style today looks a lot like the Black Code of old, but at its core it completely opposes what the Black Code was designed to do. Rather than negating his opponent's work, Broner gives his opponent opportunities, and yet we marvel and applaud at how well he mostly mitigates that risk.
You don't win a fight like that. Or at least you shouldn't.
SCORING A FIGHT
Now the elephant in the room: let's talk about scoring. Many of you know that I have a habit of turning in controversial scorecards. I'm used to being teased for my cards, and aside from my poor scoring of Mayweather vs Pacquiao (during which I suffered unprecedented server outages that prevented me from keeping a close eye on the action for many of the middle rounds) I am generally happy to stand by my scores, though I've also been known to adjust my numbers by a round or two on a rewatch, as I'm sure many of us do.
Nonetheless, when it comes to big fights, my scores are often very different from those of the rest of the boxing community and media. I believe this is because of my scoring values, which may differ somewhat from yours.
In boxing, fights are scored using the following criteria:
1) Clean punching
2) Ring generalship
4) Effective aggression
Now I've heard it said that there is a hierarchy to these criteria. Judges are supposedly instructed to place the most emphasis on clean punching, and only when the clean punching is even are they to consider ring generalship. If both fighters are effectively controlling the ring, then judges consider who has the better defense, and finally effective aggression is taken into account, all other things being equal. Judges are (in)famously idiosyncratic with their approaches to scoring, however, so who knows what the "standard" method is? It may vary widely from one commission to the next as much as it does from judge to judge.
Personally, I'd like to see all but one of those criteria removed from consideration. As far as I'm concerned, "clean punching" is the only thing that wins a bout.
The other three criteria, you see, are completely subject to the quality of the punching. Consider ring generalship: if a fighter is doing a great job of pivoting off the ropes and using lateral movement, but his opponent is nonetheless outlanding him with clean punches, is he really controlling the pace or location of the fight? Defense: if a fighter is slipping, rolling, and blocking nearly everything that comes his way but delivering no clean punches of his own, is he defending effectively? And what makes "effective" aggression effective if not the prevalence of solid, clean punches? Volume only counts if it lands.
If all of these already rely on the presence of clean punching to be considered, then why consider them at all?
When I score a fight, I look only at the punches scored. You can make your opponent miss nine out of every 10 punches, but if you only throw one punch for every 20 of his, you'd better hit damn hard or else lose the round on my card. Likewise, if you use your defense, making your opponent miss and then landing consistent, clean counters, you're a shoo-in for a 10-9 or better. Scoring this way is still subjective--the classic conundrum of "more punches or harder punches?" still exists--but by removing the other three criteria from direct consideration I believe you prevent yourself from letting preconceived biases enter into your scoring, at least to some extent. I don't get to nudge a round or two in my hometown fighter's favor by saying, "Well, he controlled the pace of that round at least!" or "He didn't do much, but his defense was superb!" Instead, I merely look at the number and quality of punches, and that's that. Whoever landed more, or better, or both wins the round.
Pep compiled a career record of 229-11-1 using a slick blend of defense and offense
They say that Willie Pep, who wasn't a Black Code fighter but shared many of the same traits, once won a round without throwing a single punch. People today seem to think that kind of thing happens all the time. The thing is, the Pep story is completely apocryphal, as it should be. Pep didn't win an incredible 229 fights by letting his opponents tee off on him. He made them miss, and then he made them pay.
On Saturday, October 3rd, Adrien Broner fought Khabib Allakhverdiev for some meaningless alphabet title in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. I attended the event in person, and sat about fifty feet from the ring in the lower portion of the arena's raised seating. I was seated dead-center, and spent most of my time looking directly at the fighters in the ring, only occasionally glancing up at the big screen when they strayed longer than a moment or two behind a cameraman who was standing near the turnbuckle of the red corner. In other words, I had a good view.
The fight was relatively close throughout. From my position, Allakhverdiev appeared to edge the early rounds with higher activity and body punching, while Broner used sharp counters and quick pot shots to pull ahead in the middle rounds. By the 12th and final round, I had Allakhverdiev ahead by one round. But let's forget all that for a moment and return to the very first round. Both Broner and Allakhverdiev were hesitant to throw, and so this round should have been relatively easy to keep track of live.
I'm usually not a great fan of punch stats, as I feel they do a poor job telling the story of a fight. For the sake of argument, however, I've compiled a list of every punch landed by either Broner or Allakhverdiev in that opening round, with accompanying images of each connected blow. I've also rated the punches according to the quality of their impact. There are glancing blows (G), clean blows (C), and hard blows (H). This still doesn't necessarily give a perfect picture of the action, as not all glancing blows are created equal, but it's better than simply counting punches. Take a look at the list below.
1. Allakhverdiev, G body jab
2. Broner, G hook
3. Allakhverdiev, C body cross
4. Broner, G hook (lands with wrist)
5. Allakhverdiev, G body jab
6. Broner, G hook
7. Broner, C jab
8. Allakhverdiev, G jab
9. Allakhverdiev, G chest cross (very difficult to see if this one lands--based on audible impact, I'll call it G)
10. Broner, G jab
11. Broner, G jab (Allakhverdiev really just leans into his hand, but since it's knuckles-to-face I'll call it a punch)
12. Allakhverdiev, G body jab
13. Allakhverdiev, H chest cross
14. Allakhverdiev, G body hook (hard to tell how much of the punch Broner catches on his elbow)
15. Broner, C jab
16. Broner, H cross
17. Broner, G cross
18. Allakhverdiev, C body uppercut
19. Allakhverdiev, G jab
20. Allakhverdiev, C body cross
21. Broner, G hook
22. Allakhverdiev, G chest cross (difficult to see whether this lands cleanly or not)
23. Broner, G cross (also very difficult to see clearly because of the camera angle
24. Allakhverdiev, C chest cross
25. Allakhverdiev, G jab
26. Allakhverdiev, G body uppercut
27. Broner, G hook (Allakhverdiev appears to land, too, but it's impossible to see)
28. Allakhverdiev, G body cross (impossible to see, but audible and visible impact, with Broner's hands out of position to defend, implies at least a glancing blow
29. Broner, G cross
So let's tally up the round. Of the 29 punches clearly landed, Allakhverdiev owned 16, while Broner landed 13. Broner landed the best hard punch of the round, a flashy lead right (though based on the way it was thrown, it was more timing than power that caused Allakhverdiev's head to snap back). Of Broner's other 12 punches, 10 were glancing blows, and two were clean but not particularly impactful. Of Khabib Allakhverdiev's 16 blows, one was a hard shot to the chest, while four were clean shots, with the remaining 11 being glancing or partially blocked punches.
At the very least, based on the numbers alone, this is a close round, one that Allakhverdiev very well could have won unless you place great emphasis on head shots, in which case you might favor Broner for his one very solid lead right. With that analysis, I would expect to see a fairly split ballot among media members scoring the fight.
That's not the way it went, though. In addition to Bad Left Hook's own Wil Esco, Sherdog's Mike Sloan, and Showtime's Steve Farhood (whose scoring I usually agree with) just about every person watching the bout seemed to give Broner the round. As far as I can tell I was the only media member of note to give the round to Allakhverdiev. Probabilistically, that makes no sense at all.
We could do the same thing for the second round. In that frame, Allakhverdiev landed 11 punches to Broner's 15. Of those, five were clean blows and two particularly hard, with the remaining six being glancing or partially blocked. Broner landed only four clean blows, with none of them particularly hard, and the remaining 11 glancing. Going by the numbers, another close round. If you favored Broner in the first frame based on the evident impact of his one crisp lead right, you'd almost have to side with Allakhverdiev in this round for landing the only really hard punches of the frame. But you've read up to this point; you know where this is going. Again, I scored this round for Allakhverdiev, and once again every other person of note scored it for Broner.
It's almost as if those viewing the fight placed a burden of proof on Allakhverdiev, challenging him to not only outscore Broner but to do it so excessively that it couldn't possibly be ignored.
So what's going on, and where does this type of thinking originate?
THE GREATEST (BULLSHITTER)
Muhammad Ali changed everything. Ali was among the first black fighters without the big punch to command it to gain both mainstream recognition and respect. Archie Moore was popular in his day (after being ignored for over a decade by top white fighters), but Moore was a tremendously hard hitter, with a world record 131 KOs to his name. Joe Louis was a national hero during World War II, but Joe too was a knockout artist, and certainly no Black Code defensive maestro. Sonny Liston, from whom Ali won the title, inspired fear with his terrifying visage and even more terrifying left hook.
Ali couldn't do what those men did. He wasn't feather-fisted, by any means, but he couldn't usually put a man away with a single punch either. The vast majority of Ali's finishes were attritive in nature, more retirements and referee stoppages than outright kayos. He was, in many ways, a callback to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and a man who took advantage of his size, defensive acumen, and savvy matchmaking to take the world title.
Ali, fighting half a century later, wasn't larger than most of his opponents the way Jack was, nor was he interested in avoiding heavy-handed competition. And early in his career, Ali was very much a practitioner of the Black Code. Ali's unique twist on defense-first fighting borrowed much from the Cuban fighters of the day, in particular Luis "El Feo" Rodriguez, with whom Ali shared management. His first fight with Sonny Liston is perhaps the best example, a bout in which Ali used his superior footwork and awkward head movement to exhaust and frustrate Liston, who had come into the bout in poor condition.
Ali's was a time of transition in the sport. He didn't fight as often as his predecessors, but it was rare for him to fight less than three times in any given year. For a superstar boxer, his career record of 61 fights sits comfortably between the 219 of Archie Moore, who fought before him, and the 30-50 compiled by most of today's top fighters. Still, Ali had the luxury of time between bouts that his predecessors clearly lacked.
So, too, did his opponents. Eddie Futch famously identified the holes in Ali's defense when he prepared Joe Frazier for the Fight of the Century in 1971. Frazier and his Philly brethren could be seen as an offshoot of the Black Code, a weaponized version of the defense-first style that enabled them to bring the fight to their opponents. Futch instructed Frazier to jab with Ali to open up his guard to the left hook, and had his fighter bob low to bait Ali's inefficient uppercut, which Frazier countered brilliantly to earn a tremendous knockdown in the fifteenth round.
Ali found himself competing against a wealth of gameplans of which early practitioners of the Black Code could never have dreamed, and it made it far more difficult for him to simply play defense until he had learned his opponent. What's more, he didn't need to learn his opponents habits in the ring, as he and his team could spend months studying for each fight. So as his career went on, Ali began relying on the one thing that no one could prepare for.
Ali's antics proved almost impossible to prepare for. Even fighters who beat him rarely seemed to feel as if they were beating him, and most of Ali's wins are remembered as being far more dominant than they really were. We remember him for his trash talk and his dance moves as much as we do for his actual boxing ability. We don't remember clearly any one punch Ali landed, but we recall how difficult it was for his opponents to do the same to him.
In short, Muhammad Ali was one of the first modern fighters to embrace the value of bullshit. He realized that making the opponent look bad could be every bit as effective as actually beating him up. What Ali did was more than technical precision; he sold a narrative, not only outside the ring but within it. Even when he was being outpunched, he radiated effortless, arrogant calm. His opponent's punches would be met with derision or disregard, while his own punches were crafted to appear as meaningful as possible. Quick, rather than powerful. Flashy, rather than efficient. He might not hurt you but he'd snap your head back or land a dozen showy punches on your arms while you stood there covering up.
Ali was a master storyteller, and his pen was his lightning left hand.
DECODING THE NEW BLACK CODE
Ali's impact is still felt today. The sport's greatest modern competitor, Floyd Mayweather Jr, owes much of his persona to Ali. Like Ali, he will probably be thought of more fondly after he's long gone. And also like Ali, Mayweather doesn't just defend his opponent's punches; he makes them look stupid while doing it. Mayweather lays on the ropes. He hangs his hands by his waist. He throws quick pot shots that lack power but catch the opponent off guard, and therefore catch the eyes of the audience. And as much as we complain about Mayweather's personality and fighting style, we simply love to watch him perform. As much as we clamor for someone to beat him, we shake our heads and laugh when they repeatedly fail to do so.
It's worth considering that none of the other recent masters of the tradition—Toney, Hopkins, Chris Byrd—has been nearly as successful or famous as Mayweather. Neither has anyone else who's operated with any variation of it. That's understandable: the style itself is too subtle, its inflections too hidden from sight, to draw any but the most boxing-savvy viewers. Everything about the code resists calling attention to itself. In some ways, that's its point.
And that's the thing about the new Black Code. It's not about subtlety anymore--quite the opposite, in fact. Fighters like Adrien Broner get over by making the opponent's punches appear so subtle as to escape attention, while making sure to throw the biggest, flashiest punches themselves. Like true performers, boxing's best bullshitters learn to play the crowd as well as their opponents. When the audience roars, they turn it on. When the opponent gets frustrated, they mock him and let his anger look like petulance.
Even Hopkins, who Farrell mentions above, has become quite the potent bullshitter in his old age. Once a truly old school Black Code fighter, Hopkins spends more time fooling his opponent and his audience these days than he does beating other fighters up. No longer is he the man who made the five hour drive from Philadelphia to Rochester to knock out Jouvin Mercado on a day's notice in just his fifth pro fight. Nowadays he spends his fights distracting us from the fact that Beibut Shumenov is peppering his body with jab after jab. He convinces us to overlook the clean combinations of Karo Murat by standing in Murat's corner and talking to his trainers even as those punches land.
Often the bullshitter sells his narrative to the opponent as well as the spectators. Hopkins had Murat so frustrated that he lost a point on fouls in the seventh, and prompted Steve Smoger to forecefully shove him back when he tried to continue the fight after the end of the 12th round. Neither Smoger nor the fans at home seemed to mind the numerous illegal blows landed by Hopkins throughout the fight.
It's gotten to the point that we don't just fall for the bullshit, we expect it. Bernard Hopkins is more popular as a bullshitter than he ever was as a rough & tumble boxer. Floyd Mayweather's popularity is evident. Timothy Bradley may have earned some goodwill by going to war with Ruslan Provodnikov, but it wasn't until the Marquez fight that fans started speaking of him as an obvious pound-for-pound great. Is it that we're insecure in our boxing knowledge? Are we so afraid to admit that we don't know everything there is to know about prizefighting that, when one fighter insists that he's smartly outboxing his opponent, we simply nod along?
Fighters like Adrien Broner don't win bouts because they outbox the opponent, but because they look good doing it, and because they make their opponents look foolish in the process. During last weekend's fight, the Showtime commentary team almost seemed disappointed in Allakhverdiev, as if Broner was setting some kind of bar that the Dagestani was simply failing to reach.
"That's the thing about Allakhverdiev," Paulie Malignaggi began during the second round. "If you throw only single shots at Broner he's in position to counter them . . . but right now Allakhverdiev, if he's not getting countered every time, if you throw only one or two shots at a time, it's hard to put something together." We already know that the round was statistically very close, with Allakhverdiev landing the only clean, powerful punches of the entire round. But in the minds of the viewers, Allakhverdiev had a lot of catching up to do.
I admit that I can be so keen to avoid being suckered that I sometimes overvalue an aggressive boxer's work against an adept bullshitter. I pay such close attention to which little punches sneak in and which don't that I may favor a half-dozen taps to one big, clean punch. We all of us have flaws, and boxing scoring is inherently subjective. Keep this in mind, though, the next time you see one of my scorecards and think to yourself, "What fight was he watching?" If I'm turning in a scorecard you can rest assured that I was not only watching the same fight as you, but that I was doing so very, very closely.
Because bullshit may draw eyes, but only boxing should win a fight.