It is one of boxing’s most recognizable sights: the man in the suit peering over and under the ropes, craning sideways and forward, trying to observe the action in the ring as his hands rest on the apron. Yet, like so much else in the Covid-19 era, that’s an image increasingly locked in the past.
Boxing judges, like fighters and promoters, are also finding themselves adjusting to the Brave New World of pandemic protocols and social distancing edicts. For judges that means abandoning their usual perch and sitting six feet away from the ring to tabulate their scorecards, away from a line of fire that includes fighters’ blood, sweat, tears, and other aerosols responsible for transmitting the coronavirus. Then there are the small day-to-day modifications, from repeated Covid-19 testing to staying cooped up in a hotel room for hours on end, that one figures could affect a judge accustomed to following a certain routine.
For veteran judge Steve Weisfeld, though, none of these changes have disrupted his deadeye focus on the task at hand. It’s business as usual.
“They say the only thing constant in life is change,” Weisfeld told BoxingScene.com in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, I don’t think (these changes) affect us as officials. Our concentration is solely on the boxers in front of us.”
Weisfeld, one of the sport’s most respected judges, has judged fights professionally for 29 years since 1991, or when George Foreman was still pining for a heavyweight title. Weisfeld was recently involved in five of Top Rank’s fight cards in Las Vegas – all closed system events removed from the public and referred to colloquially as the “Bubble.” He was tested for the coronavirus before each fight card, or five times in all. His last assignment was the Oscar Valdez-Jason Velez card last Thursday.
“If it was an open event with no protections, with a crowd there, that would be certainly something that I wouldn’t be comfortable with at this time,” Weisfeld, a native of River Vale, New Jersey, admitted. “The fact that it was a closed system event and all the other precautions were in place, that was very, very important. I felt very safe in the Bubble.”
In addition to sitting six feet away from the ring, Weisfeld noted another change: the absence of a photographer who could potentially interfere with his sightline.
“Unlike the pre-Covid situation, I also had nobody within six inches of me also,” Weisfeld said. “I didn’t have the photographer that close and that’s another change.”
Yet asked if that was a source of relief, not having a photographer abutting him as he tried to do his job, Weisfeld demurred.
“I wouldn’t say relieve, because it implies that it’s a problem to begin with,” Weisfeld explained. “But it’s something that I didn’t have to deal with and that I usually do. I would say 99% of the photographers are tremendous, and if they are slightly in our space you just let them know or just establish that before the fight starts. It’s a little factor that is a slight change from what was pre-Covid.”
As is the case for a fighter, the biggest change for a judge is perhaps dealing with the lack of a crowd, whose boos and cheers often supply the dramatic impetus for a show. But while such an absence may be detrimental to the fighter who relies on partisan support for boosting his performance, one would think that in the judge’s case it might aid him in scoring a fight more accurately. After all, how many times does the crowd go wild for punches that swipe only at air? And how many times have such reactions obscured a judge’s precision? Weisfeld, however, doesn’t exactly see this change as a benefit, if only because judges are already trained in excess to block out any interference from the crowd. In fact, the ability to do so is one of the most fundamental tenets involved in operating as a judge in the first place.
“I don’t think that not having a crowd should help judges because it should be a non-factor, anyway,” Weisfeld said. “I’ve been judging professionally since 1991, and if I can’t block out the crowd at this point then I never will. A good professional judge – and there a lot of excellent judges – has no problem blocking out the crowd. I wouldn’t say it’s a help or hindrance. It’s a non-factor.”
Weisfeld might have a point there. Anybody who thinks that that a closed system event might lead to better scoring might want to heed some of the scorecards recently turned in by Dave Moretti (Valdez-Velez, Greer-Nova, Cortes-Salina), an otherwise highly respected and tenured judge out of Las Vegas.
A competent official is not swayed by changes in procedure, pandemic-related or not.
“The social distancing and the masks are really non factors when it comes to judging,” Weisfeld continued. “The demands of us not to miss the punches, to focus on the number of punches, the effectiveness of the punch, the hardness of the punch, etc. – those demands are so great that we really don’t pay any attention to the non-factors that might have to do with the crowd or the masks, etc.
“There are changes, yes, but I want to emphasize that (a judge’s) focus is 100% on the fighters and I don’t think those differences really affected me.”
For Weisfeld, it boils down to concentration. He brings up how the typical human being today has a shorter attention span than a goldfish. The attention span for a goldfish is about eight or nine seconds, a human seven.
“We have to be much better than the typical person, certainly better than the typical goldfish, and have to be able to concentrate for 180 seconds (at a time),” Weisfeld said. “What’s in front of us is just too important to even think about who’s next to me. At the end of the day you have one fighter from the blue corner, you have one fighter from the red corner, both boxers have trained incredibly hard to get to where they are, we have to be at the top of our game as soon as the first bell rings. I really want to emphasize that. At the end of the day we only want one thing, and that is for the right fighter to win.”
One change Weisfeld does not want to see is judging fights remotely. Early on during the pandemic, it was suggested informally in various corners that not only would it be safer for judges to score from home, but that it could possibly improve scoring. But that’s just a canard, according to Weisfeld. For one, being at a fight allows you to get a sense of how visceral the punches are.
“There is an advantage from the judges’ point of view to being at the fight in person than trying to score it on TV in that you really get to see and feel the effect of the punches, especially some body shots,” he said.
And it’s not simply a matter of how loud a punch is.
“There are many other ways to gauge the effectiveness of a punch,” Weisfeld said. “For example you can see a boxer’s entire reaction to (a punch) and that’s really what you get in person that you can’t get from television. Even from six feet back.
“The commission, the doctors, the referees, they all know how hurt the fighter is. The judges should know how the fighters are hurt also. That’s easier to tell in person than on TV.”