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A Numbers Game? Assessing Boxing’s Place In The Statistical Revolution

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compubox_actionCanobbio (forefront) told Raskin, “We don’t want to be thinking while we’re working.” Amen, sir, you've made a mega fan at TSS.In baseball, they use DIPS, FIP, VORP, WAR, and PECOTA. In football, it’s YACO, ANYPA, DVOA, and DYAR. In basketball, there are fewer acronyms, but we have PER, usage rate, and win shares.

Measuring a player by his batting average, receptions, or rebounds is soooo 2005. The sports world has changed—or at the very least, is changing—and knowing how to crunch numbers is as important to scouting and expert analysis as knowing talent when you see it.

Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League in 2010, but his 13-12 record would likely have kept him out of the running for the Cy Young award just a few years ago. However, because wins and losses are stats that are grossly skewed by factors beyond a pitcher’s control, 21 of 28 voters made the Mariners’ ace the runaway winner of the award.

The sabermetricians laugh at wins. They prefer wins above replacement—WAR—a stat in which Hernandez led the league. Hernandez’s Cy Young triumph was the latest overwhelming sign of how the statistical revolution is impacting sports.

Boxing, however, is not one of those sports.

On February 16, 1985, the fight game took a major leap forward in the statistical department when CompuBox co-founders Bob Canobbio and Logan Hobson were hired to count punches for the first time, and worked the Livingstone Bramble-Ray Mancini rematch for HBO. Tracking each fighter’s jabs thrown and landed and non-jabs thrown and landed, CompuBox injected never-before-measured numbers into televised boxing.

In the 26 years since, however, there have been minor twists and tweaks here and there, but nothing revolutionary. For myriad reasons, boxing remains a sport judged primarily by the naked eye, not by a calculator.

Because boxing is an individual sport, wins and losses are the ultimate statistical measurement. However, all win-loss numbers in boxing require qualification. We have to ask, “When did he fight?” and “Against whom did he fight?”

In the year in which he first won the world featherweight title, Willie Pep fought 24 times—an average of twice a month. Nowadays, most elite fighters enter the ring twice a year. The way activity has changed across eras detracts from the significance of win and loss totals. We can make legitimate arguments about the greatness of Manny Pacquiao vs. the greatness of Pep, but the reality is that “Pac-Man” might not make it one-quarter of the way to Pep’s 229 career victories.

Even within a given era, levels of opposition can vary so wildly as to render won-loss records borderline irrelevant. This isn’t the NBA, where every team plays against the same other 29 teams, just with slight variations in how often they play each opponent. In May, Evander Holyfield, with his increasingly mediocre looking 43-10-2 record, is scheduled to take on 64-2 Brian Nielsen. Holyfield is probably an all-time top-10 heavyweight, whereas Nielsen shouldn’t be in anyone’s top 300. One guy spent his entire career facing elite opposition, while the other’s career couldn’t look any more manufactured even if it had “MADE IN DENMARK” stamped across it in giant block letters.

Sure, there are some numbers that mean something in the fight fraternity and always will. Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 dossier. Joe Louis’ 25 consecutive heavyweight title defenses. Archie Moore’s 141 knockouts.

But don’t throw Pacquiao’s eight divisions with a “world” title in there. So-called championships have become so watered down, so easy to claim by beating non-contenders for recently stripped straps, that there’s no point counting them anymore.

If baseball expanded from a 162-game season to a 262-game season and somebody broke the single-season home run record, even if they did so steroid-free, would it matter to anyone? That’s essentially where we are now with Pacquiao claiming to be an eight-division “champion.” And don’t put any stock in the rhetoric regarding Pacquiao’s eight titles that “if it was so easy, everyone would do it.” Obviously, it’s not easy. But it’s far easier than it was even 10 years ago. Maybe Henry Armstrong or Ray Leonard could have done it if they were fighting today. And if things continue this way, in another decade or two, a fighter who isn’t as brilliant as Pacquiao might find himself winning titles in nine divisions.

Frankly, with titles becoming afterthoughts and with sample sets getting smaller and smaller in terms of how often guys fight, statistics are actually less integral to boxing now than they ever were before.

The only area in which this isn’t true is with regard to CompuBox and other punch-measuring stats.

Though progress in that realm has been slow and steady rather than dramatic since the initial impact in ’85, the movement continues to be of the forward variety.

“Over the years, we’ve enhanced the program, and our database has, of course, increased as we’ve done more fights,” explained Canobbio, who says the standard margin of error with CompuBox stats is in the neighborhood of two percent. “We’ve been able to build a database and determine what a weight class average is, what our record is for a weight class for punches thrown in a round and in a fight, one fighter, both fighters. So the stats have evolved as we’ve collected more data over the years. We’ve also added stuff to our live program, like being able to break down the punches landed minute by minute. And we do the Punch Zone now, which shows where the punches landed. That’s an addition.

“From my standpoint, I could probably add more categories, but I don’t want to sacrifice accuracy. We could do left hand and right hand if we wanted. But too many keys leads to too much thinking, and we don’t want to be thinking while we’re working. I don’t want to sacrifice accuracy.”

Other companies have tried to come up with their own advanced pugilistic metrics. For example, Showtime experimented last year with a chart showing where in the ring a fighter was standing when he landed his punches. That lasted all of two broadcasts.

HBO is currently looking into methods for measuring the force of punches landed, though the production team there is unable to comment on that because they’re still in the trial-and-error stage and have no timetable in place yet. But Canobbio shared what he knows about the endeavor.

“I think HBO is working on something where there’s a band around the wrist of a glove,” Canobbio revealed. “It’s an accelerometer, and with calculations, there’s a way they can infer force. That’s what I was told. I know that they’re working on it. I’ve seen them at ringside testing it.

“Force is the missing link in punch stats. I’ve had several meetings with individuals who have had technology that they say could directly measure the force, but it requires putting a device in the glove. And that’s a major red flag. Still, I would love to incorporate that into CompuBox if everything can be ironed out.”

Even if we are able to start measuring the force of a punch during a fight, one catch is that we won’t be able to compare modern stats in that regard with fighters from past generations. CompuBox can go back and watch the Sugar Ray Robinson fight films and count his punches thrown and landed; CompuBox can’t go back and measure his power.

Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do with statistical data in boxing. The sport just doesn’t lend itself conveniently to numbers or acronyms.

And to a large extent, that’s what we love about the fight game. In boxing, it’s not about what the math geeks tell you is happening. It’s about what you see happening with your own eyes.

Sure, we put three letters together sometimes as a barometer of fistic achievement. But when we do, it’s to spell Ali, Pep, Ray, or Joe.

Eric Raskin can be contacted at raskinboxing@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @EricRaskin and listen to new episodes of his podcast twice a month, by going to http://ringtheory.podbean.com.

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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