Boxing: How “the narrative” impacts upon what you see.
Recently we had the privilege of watching two of the finest middleweights in boxing go at it for the second time. Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin (GGG to make everyones life easier) and Santos Saúl Álvarez Barragán (Canelo for the same reason) put their bodies on the line to give the boxing public another fantastic fight. Unfortunately, just like their first fight, the outcome was marred with controversy. Most observers scored it a draw, some gave it to GGG, and others gave it to Canelo. The judges ultimately decided that Canelo had won. Those who are familiar with boxing know that this is not a rare occurrence. Boxing, outside of a knockout, hasn’t got a very objective way to judge who wins. It’s a set of very, very subjective critera. So with close fights like Canelo vs GGG II its no wonder there’s a split amongst judges, analysts and the public. However, those familiar with boxing also know that you can have a fight in which 99% of the public and analysts believe fighter A won and the judges give it to fighter B. Canelo vs GGG I is an good example. Almost everyone thought GGG won except 2 judges. Why is it such a common occurrence in boxing for people to witness the same event and arrive at different conclusions?
(I’m going to steer clear of the corruption in boxing as the reason. Corruption is axiomatic to boxing and there is nothing more to add. It just is, and it is an absolute tragedy. Lets accept this and move on to what is more interesting and less talked about)
I believe narratives best explains these differences. Human beings love narratives. We love them so much that if I showed you a video of two triangles moving around a screen with a square and a circle, your brain will invent a story which would explain what is happening by ascribing intentions to the inanimate objects (Heider-Simmel illusion). What does this mean for boxing? In order to sell a fight the promoters and journalist create narratives. For Canelo vs GGG the narrative was, “can the boxer-puncher/counter-puncher, Canelo, beat the swarmer/slugger, GGG?”
(Boxer-puncher is boxing lingo for someone who has a lot of skill as well as power. A counter-puncher is self-explanatory. A swarmer is a fighter who overwhelms their opponent with pressure and hard punches. A slugger is also self-explanatory)
This is a classic tale in the world of boxing as it is a classic human story: two opposites going to war. Now, there is nothing wrong with a good narrative. The problem arises when you match our love for narratives with our unconscious submission to cognitive biases.
Our cognitive biases have evolved to simplify the complicated world. We create these perceptions (with the help of narratives) to streamline our thinking to make it easier for us to cope with the astounding level of detail in the world, so that we can function. The downside is that when you simplify something you have to leave out detail, and the more detail you leave out, the more likely you are to be wrong. Because we unconsciously submit to our cognitive biases, we never like to admit when they are wrong (admit when we are wrong). When we experience ‘cognitive dissonance’ (you believe one thing but witness the opposite) we tend to rationalise away the problem. Understanding this, I want to examine how narratives, coupled with our cognitive biases, help shape what we see when we watch a boxing match. To do this I will examine two boxing fights; Canelo vs GGG II and Mayweather Jr. vs Cotto.
What actually happened in Canelo vs GGG II was the exact opposite of the narrative we were sold. Canelo became the swarmer/slugger and GGG became the boxer-puncher/counter-puncher. What we witnessed was the exact opposite of the narrative we believed we would witness (an example of cognitive dissonance). The narrative we thought would happen concluded that, if it turned into a brawl, GGG would KO Canelo and, if it turned into a boxing match, Canelo would out-point GGG. So when Canelo decided to brawl, the narrative (and therefore our belief) suggested that he would get knocked out. That didn’t happen: Canelo pressured and GGG retreated. Did this mean that the narrative (and our perceptions) were wrong? Of course not! As people like Andre Ward pointed out, “Canelo took the fight to the slugger and the slugger retreated and tried to box. Therefore Canelo won!” That seems right, doesn’t it? If Andre Ward is correct, so is the narrative, it’s just that GGG let down his side of the story. “We weren’t wrong, he went off-script. If only he fought like the narrative suggested he would have won. He didn’t, therefore he lost”…
Did you see what happened there?! Whatever GGG did in the actual fight becomes irrelevant to the post-fight commentary. We rationalised away the contradictory evidence in order to maintain our preconceived notions. Rather than changing the belief and the narrative, we blame GGG for the failure of the narrative and the preconceived ideas. Our analysis becomes, “you went off -script. He came to you and you should have knocked him out as the narrative suggests. You didn’t, therefore you must have lost. The narrative cant be wrong. You didn’t do good enough job”. People did not evaluate the fight based on the fight itself, people evaluated the fight based on the narrative. I know this because when analysts like Andre Ward suggested Canelo won the reason they gave was the one above; they analysed the narrative and not the punches landed.
I’m not here to say who won or who didn’t (I personally scored it a draw of 114-114 twice). What I saw was Canelo doing the unexpected, but I also saw GGG do the unexpected, as he boxed going backwards surprisingly well. I am here to make the case that often disagreements on the outcome of fights are based on the pre-fight narrative and not the actual events.
Onto Mayweather and Cotto…
Let me start by calming down all the boxing fans: I’m not saying Cotto won… Again, I am NOT Saying Cotto won. He clearly lost… Now we can move on.
The narrative for every single Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight was the same, “can you hit him?” The answer time and time again, “No!” Mayweather Jr. was/is (he retires and un-retires frequently) without a shadow of a doubt the best defensive boxer that ever lived. In 50 professional fights, he was hit hard 4 times - an unbelievable accomplishment! “You can’t hit the guy” or so the narrative would suggest, which the commentators would repeat ad nauseam. Enter Miguel Cotto. Mayweather beat Cotto in a very comfortable fight. However, Cotto appeared to be doing the impossible, he seemed to be hitting Mayweather regularly… “No no no! Of course he wasn’t. Mayweather is slipping and sliding those punches and blocking most of them”, the HBO commentator would reassure us. “These punches aren’t effective” they would say. CompuBox (a system of counting the punches landed. Two people sat at ringside hitting a button every time they think someone landed) would agree, as it showed Cotto hardly landing…
“You just can’t hit him! The CompuBox numbers show it.”
“I see, my mistake… But, why is his face battered and bruised? Isn’t his nose bleeding?”
“No! You can’t hit him!”
As the commentators kept reminding us of Mayweathers defensive prowess, Cotto would continue to bloody his face. Finally in round 6, the overwhelming evidence piled up against the narrative that even the commentators concluded that Mayweather was getting hit. It was fascinating to watch, these men continue to sing the praises of Mayweathers defense while simultaneously watching his face get bloodied. Again, I am not saying Cotto was winning the fight, but he was hitting him. Yet it was almost as if the commentary team could not bring themselves to acknowledge it. This is actually a reoccurring theme in almost every Mayweather fight, especially towards the end of his career. While he would be getting hit, the commentators and analysts would maintain that he wasn’t (I mean this literally. There are several times across his fights where he would be hit and immediately the commentary team would follow with “WOW! You just cant hit him”). Again let me be clear, Mayweather was/is the best defensive fighter that’s ever lived. I’m only here to make the case that often what we see is directed by the narrative we believe. We believe he can’t be hit, so that’s what we see.