Thursday, August 6, 2009

Replay, But Which Way? A Look at Instant Replay in Boxing

[Editor's Note: Paul Stuart Haberman is SportsJudge's boxing and mixed martial arts expert and today takes a look at the various ways to implement instant replay into professional boxing.]

On August 1, 2009, Nate (Galaxxy Warrior) Campbell, 33-6-1 (25 KOs), a 37-year-old veteran contender who was enjoying a major renaissance in his career during the past two years, was declared the loser by third round technical knockout in his bout with Timothy (Desert Storm) Bradley, the undefeated WBO light welterweight champion. The reason? Campbell was unable to see out of his left eye following a brutal, but unintentional, head butt that opened a sizeable gash across his left eyebrow. For those watching the bout on Showtime, it was plain that the head butt caused the offending wound. But to referee David Mendoza, who did not have the proper angle to assess what happened, it was caused by a punch. Thus, a bout that would have been declared a no-decision had Referee Mendoza ruled that an unintentional head butt caused the gash turned into a heartbreaking loss for the “Galaxxy Warrior.”

Following Campbell’s loss, the cries once again came for state athletic commissions and sanctioning bodies to legalize the use of instant replay in boxing. Anyone who has witnessed such controversies as Campbell-Bradley, Acelino Freitas-Joel Casamayor, and innumerable others will argue that instant replay is long overdue, especially at the top rung of the sport. There have simply been too many fights that have been stopped or decided on the basis of the errors of referees. Indeed, refereeing is an inexact science, and referees simply cannot view the fight from every angle at the same time. This fact has been recognized in many sports for a long time now. The next question then is how the use of instant replay can best be introduced to professional boxing. We will, therefore, look at the possible implementation schemes below.

1. Corner Challenge: Under this alternative, the trainer would signal the referee that they are challenging his call on a knockdown or head butt shortly after it is made. A time-out would then be called in order to review the call at issue. The upside to this possibility is, like a coach in professional football, the trainer could not only be in a position to advise his boxer what to do between rounds during a given fight, but would also be in position to make sure his boxer receives the proper call before its too late. The downside would be that, in the absence of a penalty, such as a point deduction from the corner’s boxer if it turns out the call was correct upon replay, a corner challenge may be prone to abuse and slow the momentum of a fight if its not used with discretion. Also, if a boxer is charged a point deduction for each ruling that is upheld on review, it could lead to an even wider gap to close if that boxer already sustained a legitimate knockdown. There is also the question of when such a challenge would be made; would the corner be allowed the challenge the call at the end of a round? At the end of a fight? At a break in the action during the round?

2. Boxer Challenge: Under this alternative, the boxer himself, like a tennis player questioning the call of a line judge, could compel the review of a determination of a knockdown or head butt by promptly challenging the call after its made. The upside to this method of compelling an instant replay is that the boxer himself may, at times, be in the best position to know what actually happened. However, the potential downsides are many; what if the boxer is frivolously challenging the call because he needs a rest? What if there is a language barrier or other communication problem between the referee and the boxer making the complaint? Would the instant replay be reviewed immediately following the suspect call, during a break in the action, at the end of round, or at the end of the fight? Would there be a limit on how many times a boxer can challenge a call during a fight? Would taking a point away if the call was properly made be an appropriate check on a boxer’s use of such a challenge? What if the boxer did not have the presence of mind to verbalize his desire to challenge the call?

3. Promoter Challenge: Under this scheme, the promoter would be the one who would be immediately responsible for challenging the call of a referee. This is probably the worst alternative, as there would be an ever-present possibility of partiality towards their boxer. Do you think, for example, that Don King would have spoken up for Junior Witter on the undercard of Campbell-Bradley if he observed what he felt was an erroneous call made in favor of his boxer, Devon Alexander? Not likely. Thus, if someone like Witter came into a title fight either without a promoter, or without a promoter of similar sway and influence, he would be at a distinct disadvantage if only promoters or the lead promoter were allowed to challenge the referee’s call.

4. Judge Challenge: In short, the three judges scoring the fight would also be acting as additional pairs of eyes for the referee’s calls throughout the contest. If one of the judges felt that a given call was in error, he would signal the same to the referee and a review would take place either during or after a round, and before the judges submitted their scoring of a given round. This possibility has very little potential downside, as many judges double as referees and thus know what to look for, but it is also a potential distraction to their larger review of a round for scoring purposes. A more skeptical individual may also question a judge’s partiality, depending which boxer is the promoter’s guy. Additionally, there is the more abstract argument that giving the judges the power to make challenges usurps the referee’s role as the “sole arbiter” of the match.

5. Referee Challenge: Under this scenario, a referee could review his own call sua sponte at the end of a round or during a break in the action. This method would be especially useful in places such as Britain, where domestic contests are decided solely by a referee, and thus a referee would simply be seeking to correct his own call in order to achieve a fairer scorecard. The downside to this possibility is that some referees may not have the humility in the heat of the action to admit that they might have blown a call, or may otherwise have certain biases towards one boxer or another, depending on what has happened in a match to that point.

6. Commissioner Challenge: Here, the head of a given state or national athletic commission/federation would be the only person to determine whether or not an instant replay is needed during the course of a bout. Like a judge challenge, there is little downside to this, especially as the commissioner has a tacit obligation to be impartial as to all participants and parties involved in a given fight card. The major question here is whether this puts too much power in the hands of a commissioner who, like many others (including his referees), may not be in the best position to determine whether a challenge is necessary. If he’s not, whom does the commissioner listen to in order to gauge whether a given call is worthy of review? The respective corners? The managers? The show’s promoter? His deputies? Does he simply take a look at an instant replay by himself and unilaterally decide if the ruling gets overturned? Again, the hazard is there of taking power away from the referee, who is charged with being the “sole arbiter” of the match.

7. Automatic Replay: Perhaps there could be an automatic replay of each and every head butt and knockdown call made during a given bout. Under this possibility, each such call would be summarily reviewed by instant play at the end of a round to make sure they were correct, even if no one challenges it. The major question here is who would review the calls and make such a decision. If there referee himself had to, it would take away from his duties of checking on the conditions of boxers between rounds, issuing admonishments and warnings to boxers between rounds, and otherwise keeping track of how much time is left before the next round starts. While this method may be the most foolproof, therefore, it may also be the most cumbersome of the options.

8. Outside Referees: Like the judges, these referees would be placed around the ring strictly to cover all potential angles and challenge the call if they see a head butt or knockdown differently. The obvious downside to this possibility would be the cost of three additional officials per fight card.

9. Hybrid Challenge: Under this scenario, perhaps a mixture of different people involved in a given bout, such as both the boxer and his corner or a corner and the judges, would each have the power to make challenges to a referee’s call. This option would provide several layers of protection for a boxer in each fight, and has little potential downside other than the possibility of slowing the momentum of a fight, depending when the challenge can be made. Naturally, while a corner or boxer could be controlled by penalties, no such limitation would exist on challenges made by a judge or commissioner. It is important to remember, however, that these calls simply do not come up that often overall, thus any caps on the number of challenges will rarely be an issue.

Whichever of the above scenarios, if any, is ultimately deemed appropriate by the athletic commissions and sanctioning bodies that provide the legal and regulatory structure to professional boxing, Campbell-Bradley made clear that the time has come. Boxers need not suffer injustice by human error on top of the physical tax their chosen profession places on their bodies.

(This article also appeared on

Paul Stuart Haberman, Esq. is an attorney at the New York law firm of Heidell, Pittoni, Murphy & Bach, LLP. He is also a New York State licensed boxing manager and the Chairman of the Sports Law Committee of the New York County Lawyers Association. ©

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Yourtimeblog said...

I'm all for instant replay as well. I think under the right circumstances, it's sorely needed.

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