SPORTSUpdated June 25, 2012, 8:28 p.m. ET
.Say Goodbye to Boxing Judges
HBO's New Punch-Analysis Gizmo Earns Raves in Trials; Could It Prevent Blown Decisions?
By TONY OLIVERO
The device is shaped like a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. It weighs in at 7.9 grams and belongs to HBO, the heavyweight among boxing broadcasters.
This technology, called PunchForce, is designed to measure the speed and force of a boxer's punches and transmit that information instantaneously to viewers of HBO broadcasts. But its real potential is far broader: If it works, it could help this struggling sport fix one of its most nagging flaws.
Like instant replay in baseball, the system would offer perspective about what actually took place between contestants, enhancing the ability of viewers to judge the judges. To many in boxing, the potential value of such punch analysis was underscored by the controversial June 9 bout between Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley, which Bradley won in a split decision despite a widespread perception that Pacquiao had prevailed.
Then again, the unofficial scoring provided by PunchForce might support official outcomes. "There are probably some fights where if people had those figures there would have been less disagreeing with the judges," said Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Either way, the device could give boxing a second wind at a time when fight fans increasingly are turning to mixed martial arts, or MMA, a form of combat that more often ends with decisive knockouts. Indeed, the state athletic commission in Nevada—boxing's home state—already has approved the use of PunchForce.
"From the fan perspective and the fighter perspective, I am all for it," said Kizer.
Yet like a fighter who's late to the ring, the technology has yet to launch. Never mind that the Federal Communications Commission granted approval to PunchForce in February, essentially ruling that it wouldn't interfere with other transmissions. It remained on the sidelines for the Pacquiao-Bradley match, and isn't expected to play a role in any imminent bout.
Precisely why isn't clear: PunchForce is a closely guarded secret at HBO. Michael Paschke, HBO senior software engineer, wouldn't comment beyond saying that PunchForce is "ready to go," having been tested on "hundreds of fights." An HBO spokesman said it was premature to discuss the technology.
But a person familiar with the project said HBO is planning a high-profile launch in January. The source said that the launch will be part of a "rebooting of the HBO boxing franchise."
In 2011, HBO had 23 boxing telecasts, with the five biggest fights available only on HBO pay-per-view, at prices as high as $60. But fight-loving viewers have been gravitating toward MMA fights, put on by companies including Ultimate Fighting Championship. Since 2006, the number of households paying to watch UFC fights has exceeded 700,000 at least 17 times, compared with 13 times for HBO's pay-per-view boxing matches.
About five years in the making, PunchForce required HBO to confront challenges involving battery life and ringside wireless connectivity. A document that the network filed with the FCC says that data from sensors on boxers' wrists "is simultaneously stored in a database for use via online applications as well as sent to a broadcast truck to be rendered into graphics for on-air viewing." The device does not tabulate whether punches were landed or not.
HBO has no doubt about its value to viewers, said its inventor, Jamyn Edis, a research-and-development executive at HBO before leaving this spring. "You just have to look at the blogs (to see that) there is a lot of argument about judging bias and refereeing bias," said Edis, now a new-media professor at New York University. But "numbers don't lie, and people having access to that data in real time, that can shine a light on the sport."
The device isn't perfectly accurate. Nathan Langholz, a UCLA Ph.D. candidate in statistics, studied PunchForce as a consultant to HBO. His work concluded that the technology had an accuracy rate of 80.5% when it came to force and 86.5% when it came to speed.
That may not sound bulletproof. But that's "more accurate than most speedometers in people's cars and more accurate than a lot of the technology we take for granted every day," said Edis.
Although approved for use in Nevada, PunchForce still must get the OK in other states where HBO might want to use it. Moreover, boxers would need to agree to wear the sensor on their wrists, according to the minutes of a Nevada boxing-commission meeting from 2010.
As a paid viewer of the Pacquiao-Bradley fight, Steven Harris would have welcomed some objective interpretation of the action—which to his eyes favored the title-holding Pacquiao. Who knows, he said, Punch Force could even prompt him to watch a greater number of pay-per-view fights—especially if judges "have a chance to view the technology," said Harris, a school custodian in Kansas City, Kan., arguing that no champion should lose his belt "without convincing evidence."
But just as baseball remains opposed to instant replay—outside reviewing home runs—boxing officials have no plans to incorporate PunchForce into the judging process.
"It would really have to get field-tested," said Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. Could he foresee the judging of boxing trending toward technology and away from humans? "Nope," he said.
A version of this article appeared June 26, 2012, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Say Goodbye to Boxing Judges.