Boxing is more than just two people trying to knock each other out. Many hours of strategy and planning goes into training a boxer for a fight. Of course, knockouts are great for fans, but it’s a very rare fighter indeed that doesn’t go to a decision more than once in their career. This may lead you to wonder how exactly judges score boxing contests and what they actually look out for.
In this article we’re going to take a deep dive into the system of points scoring by boxing judges, what they look for in a winning fighter, what they award points for and what they deduct points for. It’s important to note that these rules may vary slightly between sanctioning bodies in various countries, but as a general rule the below is what you’ll see on TV, and it’s the norm for pretty much every big title fight since the late 1960s.
Prior to 1968, professional boxing had no unified system of scoring. Scoring was typically set by the governing body sanctioning the fight, and it’s why you’ll sometimes see strange scorecards if you go back to fights prior to 1968 - one notable example is the fight between Jersey Joe Walcott and Joe Louis in 1947 where you’ll see scorecards like 8-6-1 and 9-6 - meaning the number of rounds awarded to each fighter.
In 1968 a system called the “ten point must” system was introduced by the World Boxing Council (WBC). This was adopted quickly by other sanctioning bodies and has become the norm for judging boxing matches by the majority of sanctioning bodies in the sport. We go into detail about the ten point must system below, but effectively it means that for each round, the winning fighter must be awarded ten points (with a few exceptions, for example if points are deducted for illegal blows.) The loser will be awarded 9 points - 8 points if they are knocked down once, 7 points if they are knocked down twice, and so on.
It’s worth mentioning amateur boxing here as amateur boxing is scored very differently to professional boxing - although the judges are largely looking for the same things to award points for, the way in which points are awarded is very different.
In amateur boxing, the score is calculated by the number of clean punches landed per round. For example - land a good jab on your opponent, you get one point. There’s no requirement for each fighter to be awarded a certain number of points - it’s simply based on how cleanly and effectively a fighter can land punches.
What makes the amateurs majorly different to professional boxing is that knockdowns aren’t given anywhere near as much weight - they simply count as one punch. This is the same with a standing eight count - all that happens is that an extra point gets awarded to the other fighter. Other than this, judges will award points for punches landed. It doesn’t really matter if one fighter is clearly more aggressive, or has a slicker style, or defends better - if one lands more punches than the other, they win the fight.
Points can be deducted for fouls, and fouls in amateur boxing are generally the same as in pro boxing - hitting below the belt, behind the head, etc. We go into specific detail of the actions considered fouls later in this article. Fights can also be stopped if someone is knocked out, if one fighter is disqualified, or interestingly if the points margin opens up to a certain point - e.g. the margin for the Commonwealth and Olympic games is 20 points, in that if one fighter is leading the other by 20 points or more the fight will be stopped.
Things that judges award points for
Let’s look at exactly what the judges will award points for in a boxing match. “Awarding points” is kind of a misleading term - you can’t earn more than ten points in a round, and if a boxer performs well, it’s more that his opponent will lose points than that the better performing boxer will gain points. Nonetheless, let’s look at some of the exact rules that judges need to abide by.
I researched this detail for the four major sanctioning bodies in the USA - the WBO, WBA, WBC and IBF, and couldn’t find a great deal in terms of exact scoring guidelines for judges. I did, however, find a lot of information published by the British Boxing Board of Control - which sanctions fights in the United Kingdom. The BBBofC is slightly different in that (except for title fights) the referee is the main scorer - but the ten point must system is still used. Below are exactly the things a judge looks for when scoring a fight.
Judges will award points for direct, clean hits with the knuckle of the glove of either hand to any part of the front or side of the head or body above the belt. This means head shots and body shots only - points are not awarded if punches are blocked or they hit the arms.
The belt in this situation is effectively where the fighters trunks are - think of it as an imaginary line across the boxer’s torso at the top of the hip bones. As anyone will know being hit below that area has the potential to be quite painful, so any shots in this area are deemed illegal.
Points are also awarded for effective, slick defence. Defence in this scenario means slipping, guarding, ducking, counter punching or using footwork to avoid an attack. It’s worth noting that defence also needs to be paired with effective offence - a boxer will not be awarded points if they spend the whole fight running away.
When contests are equal
If, all things considered, both boxers are performing to a similar standard and it is not possible to differentiate the winner of the round from the loser by attack and defence alone, the round is generally awarded to the fighter who does the most leading off, or who displays the more refined style. However, this is where a judge’s opinion comes into play, as judges can have wildly different opinions on what constitutes better style.
If it is not possible for one of the fighters to be awarded the round, the round is declared a draw and generally this means the round is scored a 10-10 - although if both fighters have had points deducted this could also be a 9-9.
My thanks to the BBBofC for this information. https://bbbofc.com/boxing-rules
Things that lose a fighter points
Generally, you lose points by losing the round. That might seem obvious, but as we mentioned above, the winner of the round is awarded 10 points and the loser is generally awarded between 7 - 9 points depending on their performance in the round. Usually, if a fighter is able to hold his own against his opponent in that he isn’t getting knocked down constantly, but is unable to outbox/outsmart his opponent and is unable to respond with effective offence, the round will be scored a 10-9. There are, however, situations where a fighter will earn less than 9 points in a round, which we’ve gone into below.
If a fighter is knocked down in a round, the fight is scored (providing they get up) immediately a 10-8 to the other boxer. If the same boxer goes down again in a round, the score becomes 10-7. Go down again and it’s a 10-6. Generally with the major sanctioning bodies nowadays, there is no “three knockdown rule” as there used to be - in some fights if a fighter went down three times, the fight would be over and scored a TKO (technical knockout.)
If a fighter is knocked down, gets back up and avenges the knockdown (knocks the other fighter down) the knockdowns generally cancel each other out and the fight is awarded 10-9 to the better fighter.
Illegal blows are shots that are not permitted during the fight. Illegal blows are also sometimes called “fouls”. Let’s again refer to the British Boxing Board of Control’s rules around this, as they have specific definitions for what’s considered an illegal shot which are generally mirrored by the other sanctioning bodies.
- Hitting below the belt - also called a “low blow” - as we’ve mentioned, has the potential to be extremely painful and therefore is ruled a foul. Repeated fouls will result in point deductions.
- Hitting the back of the head or the neck - also sometimes called a “rabbit punch”
- Kidney punching - this involves punching the back near the kidneys and is extremely painful
- Hitting with the open glove - rather than making a fist, hitting with the inside of the gloves, which has the potential to cause a cut or catch a fighter in the eye with one of the laces of the glove
- Hitting with the elbows, the wrists or the back of the hand
- Ducking below the waistline constantly - this makes it a lot easier for an opponent to accidentally land a rabbit punch, or for the fighter ducking low to hit their opponent below the belt (this one tends not to be so strictly enforced)
- Intentionally falling without receiving a blow (unless deemed a slip, where the fighter that slipped will be expected to get up immediately and continue fighting)
- Excessive clinching, or failing to release from a cling when ordered
- Hitting an opponent on the break
- Hitting an opponent when they are falling to the floor or when they are down
- Hitting an opponent after the bell has rung to signify the end of the round
- Kicking, grappling or any other conduct the referee deems inappropriate
Again - my thanks to the BBBofC for this information. https://bbbofc.com/boxing-rules
All of the above, depending on how serious and how patient the referee is in terms of issuing warnings, result in a one point deduction from the round. The referee will generally call the fight to a halt, will inform the boxer they are taking points away, and will communicate to the judges clearly by holding his fingers up to show how many points will be taken away.
The referee will generally do this twice or three times before deciding to disqualify the fighter for poor conduct. The referee may decide to take more than one point away for actions determined to be more serious - a famous case of this is when Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in their second fight in 1997, where referee Mills Lane took two points away from Tyson after the first incident, and disqualified Tyson after the second.
Types of decision
If a fight doesn’t end in a knockout or a disqualification, it will go to a decision, which is where the judges’ scorecards will be looked at, and the round by round scores added up will determine the winner. There are obviously numerous scenarios that can result from this, either by all three judges declaring an overall winner (called a unanimous decision) or even all three declaring the fight a draw. Let’s look at what each type of decision means.
A unanimous decision (UD)
This is when all three judges have the same fighter scoring more points and unanimously agree that they are the winner. This is a common scenario in boxing - but a few examples include Ali vs Frazier in 1971 where Frazier won, and Floyd Mayweather vs Manny Pacquiao in 2015.
A split decision (SD)
This is where two judges have one fighter ahead, but the other judge has the other fighter ahead. In other words, two judges think one boxer won the fight but the other judge thinks the other boxer won. This generally happens in very close fights, but is not all that uncommon. A few notable examples include Marvin Hagler vs Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987 which Leonard won, and Bernard Hopkins vs Joe Calzaghe in 2008.
Draws can occur a few different ways. The obvious way is that if all judges have exactly the same score and all think the fight was a draw. This is not particularly common although it has happened. The more common way a fight is ruled a draw is if one judge has Boxer 1 ahead, another judge has Boxer 2 ahead and the third judge scored the fight a draw. In this situation the fight will be declared a draw. There is another way for the fight to be declared a draw which we’ll go onto shortly. Notable examples include Sugar Ray Leonard vs Thomas Hearns in 1989, and Canelo Alvarez vs Gennady Golovkin in 2017.
Majority decision (MD)
A majority decision is awarded when two judges award the fight to one fighter, but the other judge sees the fight as a draw. In this situation the fight is awarded to the fighter the “majority” of the judges saw as the winner. Notable examples of this include Riddick Bowe vs Evander Holyfield in 1993, and Shawn Porter vs Kell Brook in 2014.
This is actually one of the rarest outcomes in boxing. A majority draw is where two judges have scored the fight a draw with both boxers scoring the same number of points. The other judge has one of the fighters ahead, but by one or two points - not enough to declare a winner. The term “majority” comes from the fact that two judges felt the fight was a draw, and therefore the result is declared as a draw even though one judge gave a victory to one of the fighters.
There have only been a few examples of this in high-level professional boxing, two of the most notable being Pernell Whitaker vs Julio Cesar Chavez in 1993, and Badou Jack vs James DeGale in 2017.
Hopefully this article has answered most of your questions about how boxing is scored. If you have any questions that weren’t answered in this article, leave a comment down below and I’ll try and answer your query. Additionally, check out some of our other boxing information articles!
This article is part of our Boxing Info series.