The fight is over. The two boxers’ hearts still beat with piston force. One raises red gloved fist. They think they’ve won. A blue glove pushes up into the air. They think they’ve won.
The referee collects the judges’ score cards. The crowd sits forward on their seats. They know who has won. The corners know who was won. The referee knows who has won. The judges know who has won. The decision is announced and everyone feels wronged.
Judging is difficult; those that say otherwise have never had to sit in the chair. Deciding who wins and why is the center of sport.
Judges use specific rule sets, which determine the way a game is played and slight changes in duration, or abilities can radically impact the way the game is played. For example there is a vast difference between Muay Thai, with its five rounds of eight weapons compared to K-1 or Glory kickboxing, which only has three rounds and has no elbows, nor long periods in the clinch. In the west, competitors often compete within multiple rulesets if only to gain fight experience. In Thailand there is the Khaad Cheuk of Thai Fights in which participants bound their fists in hemp rope exposing their fingers during the fight. Alluding to “traditional” Muay Thai the boxers tend not to punch as frequently as it is easier to damage the hands. There is also Max Muay Thai, the highest rated Muay Thai show in Thailand. The Max format has three, three minute rounds, favoring fighters that move forward with aggression unlike other stadium style scoring. In addition Max incentivizes boxers monetarily by awarding bonuses for cuts and exciting bouts. By compressing the fights into three rounds Max promotes an action packed bout fit for televised consumption.
In the case of Muay Thai in America, where the sport is still in its infancy, judging has been shown to be uneven and unpredictable. This problem stems from inconsistency and a lack of transparency. Let’s highlight Lion Fight 27’s recent controversial bout between Gaston Bolanos and Kronphet Phetrachapet in an effort to illustrate the problematic tendencies of Muay Thai judging in America.
Lion Fight, at only five years old, is relatively young compared to other regular ring sport promotions such as Onesongchai, which started in 1975 or Top Rank boxing promotion, which began in 1973. With televised regular shows every other month on AXS-TV Fights, Lion Fight is now in the process of building star fighters, such as Bolanos, who recently signed another multi-fight contract. Promoting across the USA is ambitious for many reasons, but an unforeseeable outcome of hosting shows in Las Vegas, Southern California and Connecticut, has been widely differing standards applied to judging in those regions. Due to a variety of factors Lion Fight has also gone through several sanctioning bodies, from the United States Muay Thai Association (USMTA) with Paulo Tocha as head official and most recently with the International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) under President Steve Fossum for their events in California.
The bout between Phetrachapet and the undefeated Bolanos, who’d quickly risen up in the Lion Fight world scoring some spectacular knockouts, was a classic match of youth versus experience. Kronphet was no slouch coming into the ring with close to 100 fights, most of them in Thailand. The bout itself was very close with Bolanos pressing forward and Kronphet on the back foot successfully scoring some hard body kicks. After five hard fought rounds the decision went to the judges’ score cards with two judges giving the bout to Kronphet (48-47) and the third to Bolanos (48-47).
As soon as the verdict was announced, a split decision, foul play was cried by Bolanos supporters of the bout. Globally, across social media, the seemingly small world of Muay Thai was immersed arguing over the decision. Within only a few days, the IKF reviewed and reversed the decision. Protestors over the decision were placated, but those that felt the original decision was fair were floored by a seemingly swift and unprecedented reversal on what was a close fight. But why?
The first suggestion was an ethnocentric conspiracy theory as the two Thai judges awarded the fight to countryman Kronphet. Then, another suggestion was the IKF reversed the decision in order to appease Lion Fight in order to continue sanctioning the televised bouts, although the IKF has stated that the review was internally motivated. As a fledgling sport in the USA perhaps it was all too easily influenced by people in positions of relative and perceived power?
Hearsay and conjecture are kinds of evidence, but what degree of truth to the theories is there? We’ll never know. The consequence of this investigation and overturned decision has led to two judges credibility being questioned – both are exceptionally versed in muay Thai, with decades of experience both fighting in the ring and or refereeing for the IKF along with other sanctioning bodies. Of course there have been both praises of the IKF’s decision and criticisms.
The question of credibility that was brought to light, however, is a good one. What makes a judge credible? Credible judges in Muay Thai demonstrate consistency in following a transparent set of guidelines.
Consistency refers to a multitude of judges scoring similarly along with each individual judge scoring bouts in the same manner. In the case of Bolanos and Kronphet, the judges only contested a single round, which shows a close congruence between the judges no matter what scoring system that they were using (whether the judges were following the IKF standards or were using traditional scoring derived from the stadiums in Thailand). By having close scores an established method of fighting is set. Fighters can quickly learn how to fight according to the regular decisions of the judges. When a total score goes outside of a one-point difference between the judges it becomes very difficult for fighters to adjust their fighting style, especially when the scores between fights vary (for example in bout one the score is 48-47, 50-45, 48-47 and in bout two the score is 49-46, 47-48, 46-49).
While it is of permanent importance that judges remain consistent it is important to note subjective bias in judges, whether it be the influence of crowd noise, noted by Tony Meyers in his essay “The Impact of Crowd Noise on Officiating in Muay Thai: Achieving External Validity in an Experimental Setting” or the influence of gambling (common in Thailand where in a close match judges will show grengjai, or consideration, for a gambler’s favorite- little different from the “homefield” advantage phenemonen).
Where we see inconsistency is when the fight was reviewed. The IKF review process consisted of 21 officials and non-officials sending in their scores. The vast majority, 18, gave the bout to Bolanos with the bulk scoring the bout heavily in favor of Bolanos – 9 people had it 49-46 for Bolanos. Why such the large discrepancy between all the live judges, including the one judge who gave it 48-47 for Bolanos? Was it the impact of watching a video versus live? Was it the lack of crowd impact? Or lack of “homefield” advantage? The difference in scoring criteria?
The reversal highlights the inconsistency of judging in the United States and demands that it should be clear who can become a judge and why. Is someone a good judge because they were a good fighter, coach, or referee? While active participants in the fight event, the skill set to be a good fighter are not the same as those of a referee. That is not to say that familiarity with the sport should not be heavily weighed in favor of those who are interested in becoming judges but to understand that judging is a skill set that like fighting, coaching, and refereeing is one that must be trained and practiced in order to deliver regular decisions that resist subjective bias.
Not only should there be a regular review of judges abilities, but there should be a clear training schedule for judges so that it is apparent to coaches, fighters, promoters, sanctioning bodies, and the public that the judges are qualified.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly the problem of inconsistent rulings can be alleviated by the adaptation of standard rule set for every Muay Thai promotion. Tony Meyer’s work with judging, refereeing, and translating the rules of Muay Thai from Thailand should be used in the future. Not because they are based on principles of Muay Thai purity, but because as shown in “An Examination of Judging Consistency in a Combat Sport” well defined criteria showed more congruence between Judges and across fights. Through the adoption of a universalized rule set across sanctioning bodies problematic cases such as the recent bout between Bolanos and Kronphet.