How boxing is counterpunching incompetent refereeing, its age-old foe

Before each bout is set to begin at the Women’s World Boxing Championships in New Delhi, a column of five judges, each in a crisp white shirt and a black bowtie, wearing white gloves, march to their spots around the ring. They are the judges that officiate all of the International Boxing Association’s tournaments; they are also the original reason the federation fell into a state of disrepute.

For the past few years, the IBA has been working with Professor Richard McLaren, a professor specialising in sports law, for creating a system where IBA officials in charge of bouts can be tested. The test essentially detects the cognitive functions of the brain, when certain questions are asked. It does so by analysing the voice responses to select questions.

It’s led to a selection pool of competent judges that the IBA feels can be plucked and placed in any competition at any point. “230-250 people have been vetted as officials. You have the confidence that people have been vetted and if some official drops out, we can automatically dip into the pool and pick another vetted official up,” says Chris Roberts, IBA’s Development Director at IBA.

Roberts was a commissioned officer in the British Army for 30 years, was the CEO of Boxing Scotland until 2022 and was awarded an Officer of the order of the British Empire medal (OBE) in 2021. He was brought in by the IBA in July 2022 to oversee all competitions and events. Since joining, Roberts has embraced the McLaren interview technique, which aims to eliminate judges with a prior history of wrongdoing.

“We have been working with Mr McLaren over the last two years. We needed to ensure that the concerns of the IOC were met and we had to look at how our integrity and how our governance was being managed,” Roberts told The Indian Express.

VAR-like system

The IBA recently also overhauled how bouts were reviewed. The earlier system would involve a complaint by the coach, which would then be taken up by a team of reviewers in another part of the venue. They would go through multiple reviews a day and then after a delay of three hours or so, would inform the coach of the status of the review.

The process was considered slow and would render the result far away from the lights of the boxing ring. It was one that needed to be swapped out for a far more instant review – one where justice delayed wouldn’t feel like justice denied. And thus, a new review system came about.

“The new bout review is like VAR – instant. What we do now is that the observer and the evaluator score the bout as well. So, you get five judges who score a bout 3-2, the match automatically goes to a real-time bout review. Approximately 96% of 3-2 decisions are challenged so we focus mostly on those,” said Roberts.

The system swaps out reviewers poring through a TV screen and instead places an evaluator and observer along with the judges. The evaluator and observer both mark their scores and the result is then changed or remains the same based on those scores.

India benefited from it when Ravina, a youth boxer, won the gold medal at the 2021 Men’s and Women’s Youth Boxing Worlds. She had lost to Netherlands boxer Megan DeCler 2-3 but then got awarded the bout 4-3 after the evaluator and observer’s scores came in.

“I wrote back to the Dutch boxer’s father (who is also her coach) explaining the system, how it worked and how the decisions were made. Once I explained how the system worked and why the result was overturned, he was okay with it. It’s a process of education,” said Roberts.

IOC feedback

The trouble though, is that they have had little feedback from the IOC on the new changes, who have yet to open communications with the IBA and them hosting boxing events despite being suspended.

“We have done what the IOC has asked us to do. Now we are waiting on feedback. We’ve been doing this for a long time but disappointingly – we want to work, we want to be involved and we want to know what’s wrong and what’s not, what’s good and what’s not. We are an international governing body. It’s the right thing to do to sit down and discuss this,” says Roberts.

He then adds, “It’s the right thing to do to sit down and discuss this. Boxing should remain in the Olympic Games and IBA should be running boxing as an international federation. We are doing everything we are being asked to do.”