The Troubles with CompuBox
By: Matt O’Brien
Boxing is a notoriously difficult sport to score. Although the brief a fighter must follow is simple enough – hit and hurt your opponent more than he does you – deciding who completes this task more successfully can be a complicated affair.
Witness the myriad of disputed decisions that litter boxing history as evidence of the above. In the wake of Manny Pacquiao’s defeat to unfavoured Australian Jeff Horn last weekend, another contentious result can be added to that list.
Much was made in the controversy that followed the Filipino’s defeat of his apparent dominance according to the CompuBox punch statistics. Despite being unanimously declared the winner on the three judges’ cards, Horn allegedly landed just 92 punches of 625 thrown (15%) compared to 182 of 573 (32%) for the Pacman. While these stats seem to provide objective support for the idea that the judges’ scores did not accurately reflect the action in the ring, there are several reasons why we should handle the punch data with extreme caution.
First of all, while the name “CompuBox” might evoke images of a supercomputer programmed for the specific purpose of calculating the winner of boxing matches, the truth is somewhat more prosaic. In reality, CompuBox means two guys sitting at ringside with a laptop, each with the job of watching one boxer and four keys to press that record the punches that boxer attempts. The four buttons correspond to jabs thrown, jabs landed, power punches thrown and power punches landed. At the end of each round the numbers collected on the laptop are compared, and hey-presto – there’s your CompuBox punch stats.
So while the name sounds technical enough, we have to remember that there is a considerable amount of room for human error. For instance, recording when a single punch lands or misses sounds fairly straight forward, but telling if a blow grazed the gloves or connected with the side of the face can often be tricky even with the benefit of slow motion replays. In real-time as the action unfolds, it is far from an easy task. Consider also a body shot thrown on the blind side of the CompuBox operator: it could have been blocked by an elbow or it could have been a fight-changing rib-cruncher and they may be none the wiser.
The potential for human error only increases when we take into account combination punching. One-two-three-four – rat-a-tat-tat! – fired in a flurry of blurring gloves and grunts in less than a split second. Could you be sure that you’d accurately gauge, in real-time and without revision, exactly how many landed cleanly? Of course, a focused CompuBox operator would no doubt perform the task much better than the average viewer, but over the course of a twelve-round fight that would still leave a significant margin for error.
Even supposing, generously, that such errors could be reduced through careful training to a fairly negligible amount, the types of punches recorded are still liable to present a misleading picture of how a fight is unfolding. That’s because, as noted, CompuBox operators are faced with a choice of only two types of punches: “jabs” and “power punches”. The problem with this description is that the actual power behind a particular punch has no bearing on it being categorized as such. A jab is simply a straight punch thrown with the fighter’s lead hand; everything else is considered a “power” shot, by CompuBox definition.
In the words of one the co-founders of CompuBox, Bob Canobbio, “We call a non-jab a power punch for lack of a better description… we call it power punch because it sounds better than non-jab.” While this might be a great recipe for a catchy, TV-friendly sound bite, it’s a terrible method for recording which fighter is actually landing the most damaging blows.
Ignoring these practical limitations for a moment though, a more fundamental problem exists: the difference between tallying punches and scoring rounds. For while it’s a convenient formula to regard the fighter who lands the most as the winner (as the old amateur, Olympic-style scoring system used to do), professional boxing depends on much more than this.
Specifically, the four scoring criteria are: (1) accurate punching; (2) effective aggression; (3) defence; and (4) ring generalship. What CompuBox seeks to provide is an objective measure of the first criteria. What it does not provide is an accurate reflection of all of the criteria judges are adhering to. In this sense, it can be a dangerously flawed tool in assessing who won a professional boxing match, even assuming the punch stats are 100% accurate.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss the importance of “effectiveness”, “defence” and “ring generalship” as wordy and intangible. On the contrary, they are in fact very real and concrete: they are the difference between a shot crashing into an arm, or it being rolled over a shoulder; they are the difference between a fighter pushing his opponent back into a corner, or being lulled into a trap; they are the reason why Willie Pep and Pernell Whitaker star in the Boxing Hall of Fame, and Eric Esch (aka “Butterbean”) starred in Jackass: The Movie.
Consider, for example, the following exchange: Fighter A throws a fast series of looping punches as Fighter B backs into a corner. Let’s imagine that three punches out of a six punch combination land – but none of the blows does damage, and are either lacking in force or partially deflected by Fighter B. Then – boom! – Fighter B unloads with a well-timed, accurate jab-shot that rocks the head back of Fighter A, before nimbly skipping off to the other side of the ring with his opponent ambling after him.
Now, according to a CompuBox reading, in the above exchange Fighter A out-landed Fighter B by 3 power punches compared to 1 jab – an impressive statistic. He also showed more “aggression”, throwing 6 punches to his opponent’s 1. Any astute ringside observer would know to discard the significance of the punch stats in this instance though. Not only did Fighter B render the incoming attack ineffective with his superior defensive skills, he also controlled the flow of the action by enticing his opponent to throw punches only to achieve the goal of countering him, which he did accurately and effectively with a more damaging blow (that was not recorded as such), before lulling his foe towards another trap.
This is called ring generalship: making your opponent fight your fight and dictating the pace, range and terms at which the action takes place. Too often, punch data simply does not pay heed to these nuances. Multiply the above exchange by a few times per round over the course of a twelve-round fight, and you start to get a very good idea of just how skewed any reading of a fight based purely on CompuBox stats could become.
One final problem is that the final punch statistics for any given fight are never revised. That means however many punches are recorded on the night, in real-time, remains the “go-to” data for that match forever more. This is a real shame. While it is obviously useful during the live airing of a fight to provide viewers with a measurable guide to the action unfolding in front of them, there’s no reason why these figures could not be scrutinized and corrected utilizing available technology in the weeks that follow.
Consider how much more meaningful these numbers would be if a panel of observers reviewed fights and re-tallied the punch stats using slow motion and different camera angles to assess them more precisely. It would then be possible, for example, to extend the number of categories of punches to provide a fairer reflection of who is the more effective aggressor (i.e. who was actually landing the “power punches”). As a starting suggestion, “Damaging Blows” could be added to include those that land with greater visible effect or force, snapping the head back, producing a noticeable facial reaction or clearly hurting the opponent. This kind of revision might not be practical for every single fight, of course, but it would certainly be a welcome addition for replays of the biggest PPV contests.
All in all then, considering the potential impact of human error on the numbers recorded, the somewhat spurious categorization of the kinds of punches thrown, and the notoriously subjective nature of boxing’s four-point scoring criteria, what we are left with is a system containing significant flaws. The wider point here though is not that CompuBox is a completely useless tool or that it should be abandoned. The point is rather a cautionary one: while CompuBox stats can provide valuable insight into the activity unfolding in the ring and a fascinating guide to understanding the ebbs and flows of a particular contest, we should remember that it is ultimately just that – a guide.
As the CompuBox website itself clearly states: “CompuBox stats in no way, shape or form, determine a winner of a fight. The stats are used to enhance a telecast, show the estimated barometer of activity by both fighters and paint a picture of the activity on a round-by-round basis.”
We would do well to remind ourselves of these words more often in the aftermath of a controversial decision. The troubles with CompuBox only arise when the numbers are cited as incontrovertible “proof” that a fighter was dominant or used to justify cries of “robbery” – without putting them in context of the wider judging criteria, or considering that they could just be plain wrong.
Five Post Fight Thoughts from Pacquiao vs. Horn
By: William Holmes
A legend in the sport of boxing lost to a man that nobody thought he would lose to on Saturday in Brisbane, Australia.
Manny Pacquiao is a sure fire first ballot hall of famer and is an eight division world champion. Since 2005 almost all of his fights were made available exclusively on Pay Per View. However, many were stunned to see Jeff Horn be named the victor and were left in disbelief. Many, including the announcers on ESPN, strongly felt that Manny was robbed and clearly won the fight.
Is this the end of Pacquiao’s career? What does this mean going forward?
Here are five post fight thoughts from the Pacquiao vs. Horn fight.
1. Pacquiao Was Not Robbed
This may come as a shock to some, but Pacquiao was not robbed. I’m not saying he didn’t win the fight, but you can’t argue with the judges who felt Horn won the fight. Pacquiao didn’t dominate any round with the exception of the ninth, and many, many, rounds were “swing” rounds and could have been scored either way.
Fans have to remember that crowd reaction affects judges and this fight took place in Horn’s home country. Most of the fans in attendance were rooting for their fellow Australian and were reacting positively to every punch that Jeff Horn threw. Yes, judges are supposed to be able to block out the sound and view a fight objectively, but that’s easier said than done and no judge is completely immune to the vocal support that surrounds him.
Fans also have to realize that viewing a fight live is much different than viewing a fight on TV. When you’re watching a fight on TV you can be swayed by the commentary of the announce team and you have a much better view/angle on the action inside the ring than those who are watching the fight in person. Ring side judges do not have the advantage of wide camera angle and often their views are obstructed by the ropes, ring, competitors, and the referee.
Additionally, Jeff Horn pressed the action and was able to dominate the exchanges when they were in tight or when Pacquiao’s back was against the rope. Ring Generalship and effective aggression are two criteria that judges use to judge a fight, and it was clear that Horn was dictating the pace to Pacquiao and never stopped coming forward.
Again, I’m not saying Pacquiao didn’t win the fight, I’m merely stating he wasn’t robbed.
2. CompuBox Stats Are Overrated
Many upset boxing fans point to the CompuBox statistics as evidence that Pacquiao was robbed. They note that Horn only landed 15% of his punches and that Pacquiao landed almost 100 more punches.
However, fight fans have to understand that CompuBox punch totals are done by a person sitting ringside keeping a manual tally. There is nothing scientific or reliable about CompuBox, at best it is an estimation. CompuBox also doesn’t take into consideration the visible effects of the punches landed.
As a general rule punches are more noticeable when a bigger man lands against a smaller man, and Jeff Horn was clearly the bigger man. When his punches landed they visibly moved Pacquiao and many of Pacquiao’s punches were not noticeable to the untrained eye.
3. More Big Fights Need to Happen Outside of Las Vegas
As a fight city, Las Vegas is overrated.
Yes, it’s the gambling capital of the world and very few locations can compete with the purse sizes that Las Vegas provides. But, if you’ve ever gone to a fight in Las Vegas you’d know that most of the fans who attend a big fight in Las Vegas are more concerned with the glitz, glam and celebrity that Las Vegas provides instead of the action in the ring.
I’ve been to Vegas several times for big fights, and a good 95% of the fans in attendance do not show up until a few minutes before the main event starts. Most of the fans at a Las Vegas fight do not know the difference between a jab and a cross and are more concerned with looking good at a big event.
The Pacquiao Horn fight was held in an outdoor stadium in Australia and came across great on television. 50,000+ fans were in attendance, a number that currently can not be reached in Las Vegas. The excitement and anticipation of a fight comes off much better in a big stadium when compared to Las Vegas, and makes it more attractive to the casual sports fan.
The Klitschko vs. Joshua fight was held at Wembley Stadium and was one of the best fights of the year. The crowd was unbelievable and that fight also looked great on television.
The most entertaining fight that this writer ever attended live was when Pacquiao fought Margarito at the home of the Dallas Cowboys, AT&T Stadium. The venue was a big reason as to why that fight was so entertaining.
Granted, there will still be fight fans who only show up for the main event if a good boxing card were to be held outside of Las Vegas, but the overall experience is much better when it’s held in a stadium.
4. Pacquiao Needs to Drop Down in Weight
Ever since Pacquiao made the jump to the junior welterweight division and higher he has been the smaller man inside the ring. His walk around weight is near the welterweight limit and he often has to fight someone who has cut 10-20 pounds to make the welterweight limit.
When Pacquiao was in his prime his movement and endurance was good enough to run circles around his opponent so that they couldn’t catch him. He’s no longer in his prime and Jeff Horn was able to capitalize on his size advantage and trap Manny on the ropes with effective body work. If Jeff Horn was able to trap Pacquiao imagine what some of the other top welterweights could do to him.
Keith Thurman, Errol Spence Jr., Kell Brook, Shawn Porter, and even Lucas Matthysse are all opponents that are bigger than Pacquiao and would probably inflict more damage on him than what Horn did on Saturday.
Even though the current version of Pacquiao would still be competitive with most of the welterweights ranked in the top ten, he is risking serious damage to his body and health if he continues to campaign against bigger and stronger opponents when he is pushing 40.
5. An Aged Version of Pacquiao is Still Entertaining
Should Pacquiao retire? That’s a tough question but at the very least it should be discussed amongst him and his team.
But one thing that we learned on Saturday night is that even the faded and aged version of Manny Pacquiao is still exciting in the ring. His fight with Jeff Horn dominated social media and ESPN and has been the talk of the sports world for the past two days.
Fight fans were on the edge of their seat the entire fight and the ninth round was one of the most thrilling rounds of the year.
The ratings support the entertainment value of Pacquiao. ESPN recently released a press release indicating that the fight delivered a 2.4 overnight rating and was the highest rated fight for a cable network this decade. The release also indicated that the Battle of Brisbane was likely to be the highest-rated fight on ESPN’s networks since the mid 1990s.
The current version of Manny Pacquiao may have difficulty reclaiming a world title in the welterweight division, but he still draws eyes to the TV.