CompuBox: 30 Years and Counting

By Robert Ecksel on February 16, 2015
CompuBox: 30 Years and Counting
“The purists were a little skeptical,” said Canobbio. “Some trainers were a little skeptical.”

“I’m by reflex a proponent,” Lampley admitted. “It’s been, from the beginning, a foundational element for me in building the story of a fight…”

Some count the days. Some count the years. Some count the decades. Some count the punches.

Thirty years ago today, CompuBox covered its first fight live on TV.

“February 16, 1985 was the first show, the Mancini-Bramble rematch,” Bob Canobbio, founder and president of CompuBox, told “It was on HBO. That was our first client.”

Before CompuBox, Canobbio was working at Sports Illustrated as a researcher. When someone called Sports Illustrated with a sports related question, they came through his desk. Fortuitously, HBO was in the same building, the Time-Life Building on 15th and Sixth, as Sports Illustrated and that’s where he met HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg. At Greenburg’s request, Canobbio started doing research on Boxing’s Best, a series of documentaries for HBO Sports.

All that changed in 1984.

“In ’84 we got word that a guy started something called Sports Information Database. With the advent of the personal computer, the idea was to assemble a team of editors from all sports to collect as much data as possible, attend these events with a portable computer—not a laptop—to access any kind of historical information that would be necessary. So I was hired as an editor at this new operation. I left Sports Illustrated to become an editor at this Sports Information Database. While I was there, I met my partner at the time, Logan Hobson, who left UPI to go to this database. While we were there a guy came in with this demo, a program for tennis. He went to the US Open, I think it was, and he created a box score for tennis using this portable computer he brought to the event, and that’s where we got the idea.

“Obviously we love boxing and thought maybe we can apply this to boxing. So we had a program written and we tested it out, I believe in Atlantic City. We did a card off television. And then we went to the Garden. They were still doing weekly or monthly shows back then. It was MSG Boxing, and we actually went to John Condon, who was the voice of the Garden at the time, and said, ‘We have this program. Can we test it out on your live show? We’ll make graphics on it, at no charge,’ and he said yeah and we taped it and brought it to Ross Greenburg at HBO. He looked at the tape and said, ‘This is pretty cool. I like it.’ So, within three months of its development, we were in business.”

It might have been kismet. It might have been happenstance. It might have been dumb luck. But Canobbio was prescient.

“Right place at the right time,” he said, “and with the advent of the portable computer, we were just crazy enough to think at the time that we could pull it off. Right from the beginning, we had the program written so we could watch one fighter each, not trying to count both fighters with one operator. The first key was jab connect/jab miss. And then we had a non-jab for awhile, which we changed to power punch. I know some people have an issue with that. How can somebody land 300 power punches and not knock his opponent out? It’s just the term we use for non-jab. And then we added a body connect over the years. So basically it’s pretty much the same program that we started with. We wanted to keep it simple for the sake of accuracy. We’ve gotten requests to count hooks, right crosses, uppercuts. It sounds great, but it’s too many keys. We don’t want to sacrifice accuracy, so we kept the program relatively simple.”

Boxing is sublime, but it is resistant to change. Of all the major sports, boxing was, especially at the time, the weakest statistically.

“At the time there was nothing for boxing. There was tale of the tape. If you watch the old shows, that was it. During the fight there was nothing. There was just the clock. There were no real statistics for boxing, especially during a fight as the fight went on. There was nothing to speak of. There was a void there.”

Not everyone was as enthusiastic as Ross Greenburg about CompuBox.

“The purists were a little skeptical,” recalled Canobbio. “Some of the trainers were a little skeptical. But Eddie Futch embraced it right away. Lou Duva embraced it right away. George Benton was along for the ride. I don’t think he understood everything that we were spitting out, but Lou and Dan Duva saw it as a useful tool, right from the get-go. So did Eddie Futch. If you can say he landed a flurry of punches, why can’t you say he landed 15 punches out of 20 thrown? We were just backing up what the announcers were saying. We were just backing it up in black and white, so to speak.

“We just tried to sell it to everyone at the beginning. We tried to get into the training camps. We can track your fighter in sparring. We can scout your opponent, the number of punches they throw per round, and I think some of the old-timers thought we were invading their territory. Initially it was a production tool. We never said we were going to score fights. We’re just giving you a qualitative analysis of a fighter’s output, what they’re throwing. Has it evolved into more than just a production tool? Well, yeah, because as we gathered more data over time we can tell the averages per round and what’s a good connect percentage and what’s a good amount for jabs thrown per round. We never said we’re going to replace judges. We never really intended to do that. It just so happened that over time it’s been leaned on whenever it’s a close fight, and when it’s not a close fight. We always say there’s a two percent margin of error. We never say we were going to get every punch. But if it wasn’t accurate, we wouldn’t be talking right now. I firmly believe that. If we weren’t doing something right, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

Among those who were less than enthusiastic, at least at first, was Larry Merchant. I asked Canobbio why he thought that was.

“He’s old school. He called it a computer toy at the beginning. The old school reporter in him, maybe there was some ego involved. I could be wrong, but maybe he felt it cut into some of his airtime, to have to go into those numbers and look at the stats. But if you look at Larry over the years, he always stirred the pot, so this was nothing new really. He was great at what he did. He was a tremendous interviewer. He always got a good angle on a fight. I respect that a lot. But I think it was the old school reporter in him: I don’t need a computer to tell me who’s winning a fight. But what we’re doing is giving grist to the mill, so to speak.

“I think we would have landed elsewhere had we not gone to HBO first, but I knew Ross Greenburg. It also fit into their format because HBO had no commercials. HBO stayed in the corners. Instead of cutting to a commercial, like in a network, they stayed in the corner. We can go to the corner, we can get the audio, and put the stats in too. So it fit well initially with their format. But we were also calling the networks back then, because CBS, NBC, and ABC were all in the business. And I had one of the network guys at ABC tell me, if you would have come to us first, we would have used you right from the start. They felt HBO was the new kid on the block and they were stealing their thunder. But it worked out fine. We were able to present the product in the right way by having it on HBO. It was a great vehicle right from the start.”

Most of us take CompuBox for granted, but it has its detractors who claim that it’s nothing more than some guys tapping a keyboard and therefore subject to human error.

“Honestly, it used to bother me more. There are always going to be critics out there. Everybody in boxing is an expert. Everybody has their own opinion. Everybody has their favorite fighters. They’re all going to see a fight a certain way. How many controversial decisions are there in boxing? We never said we’re scoring a fight. We’re just giving you a barometer of a fighter’s activity. That’s the way the program was initially developed. But if it wasn’t accurate, we wouldn’t be around for thirty years. People are going to say what they’re going to say regardless—especially now with social media being a faceless vehicle, people are going to write and say whatever they want and not have to say it to my face. They can just write it or tweet it and it’s just out there. All I know is I’m going to be doing 120 shows this year, so we must be doing something right. The people who are going to hate on it are going to hate on it and there’s not much I can do. There’s always going to be some guy sitting at home in his underwear watching the fight who’s got something to say. If it’s not CompuBox, they’re going to complain about something else. It bugs me a little bit. It used to bug me a lot more. But it is what it is.”

For those dissatisfied with CompuBox’s approach and results, there might be hope on the horizon, however distant the horizon, however watered down the hope. There is something called PunchForce, a computer sensor that can be inserted in boxing gloves which the Wall Street Journal declared in 2012, none too convincingly as it turned out, was a chance to “Say Goodbye to Boxing Judges.”

“If they can get it to work it’s wonderful,” Canobbio said, “but there are so many issues with putting sensors in boxing gloves. It’s the most accurate, most efficient way to do it. But there are so many different issues. First of all, how many different gloves are there now? There used to be just Everlast and Reyes. But now there have to be at least five or six manufacturers, and all those manufacturers would have to be onboard to pre-manufacture the gloves with the sensor in it. That’s one thing. Another thing is there are big issues with frequencies in certain venues. Some venues are better than others. That’s a big problem. Getting the fighters to agree to wear it is also a problem. Some said yeah, okay—especially the punchers. But there’s always a guy or trainer who has it in the back of their mind, Wow, this glove has been messed with, they put something in this glove. It’s like messing with a baseball player’s bat. A lot of times fighters don’t like their gloves messed with. That’s another issue. So there’s a bunch of red flags with that technology. There are just too many things that can go wrong, and if it’s not accurate then really what good is it? There was another thing, something around the wrist called an accelerometer. But that doesn’t measure force. It measures speed and velocity. You could infer force, but the only way to get true measure of force is to have that sensor in the striking part of the glove, in the knuckle area. We looked at closely with this company, but they just couldn’t get it to work on a consistent basis.”

Listening to Canobbio, one gets a sense that he’s not only entrenched in boxing, but that he hasn’t lost his love of the game. I asked him about the state of boxing, given its ups and downs, its eternally waxing and waning popularity.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he said. “The audience is out there, but it could be so much more. Maybe, with network exposure, if the right matches are made, it will be a shot in the arm for boxing. The fans are out there. Despite all the crap that’s thrown at them, they still keeping coming back for more. They’ll watch what’s perceived to be a good fight. But there’s an audience out there, an audience that could grow. And with economics being the way they are, you’d be surprised how many people don’t have HBO and Showtime. You take it for granted everyone has cable. A lot of people don’t. So they’re not seeing the top fights live. It could be so much more. NBC is getting back in the game. So is Spike TV. That’s encouraging. It could have a ripple effect. It’s a whole other ballgame when it’s on network television.”

Wanting to get another take on CompuBox, specifically from someone impartial, I spoke with HBO’s Jim Lampley.

“I first started calling fights on ABC,” Lampley told me. “The first fight I called was Tyson-Ferguson in February 1986, and CompuBox was part of the ABC telecast at that moment. I moved to HBO in 1988, and of course CompuBox was a fixture there as well. So I’ve never called a fight that didn’t have CompuBox. The one Showtime show that I did, in August of 1998 in St. Tropez, a Holyfield-Qawi doubleheader against other opponents, Lee Roy Murphy and Ossie Ocasio, probably didn’t have CompuBox. But every other show I’ve ever done had CompuBox. So obviously, I’m by reflex a proponent. It’s been, from the beginning, a foundational element for me in building the story of a fight.”

Lampley is a superb anchor and expert blow-by-blow man. He’s also in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His boxing bona fides are a given, as is his intelligence. And there’s no one more articulate than Jim Lampley.

“I can remember all the way back to childhood, when I was first learning to be a sports fan, how helpful it was to me to understand a horse racing form and get to the point where you could actually visualize in your head what happened in the race by watching that form. The box score for basketball, baseball, football, they all have an allure that not only helps you to understand sports as you go into them, but also helps you to love them because they give you a benchmark, they give you something to attach to in appreciating and understanding what you’re learning about. I’m not going to say it was a frustration for me in my youth that boxing had no such model and no such statistical paradigm, but it was subliminally and maybe consciously clear that love of boxing and lure from boxing had to be delivered in a different way, more literate, more narrative, more impressionistic than was possible with other sports, where even if you never saw him you knew that Sammy Baugh was great, he once had a 76-yard punt, that kind of thing.

“Bottom line is, when Bob came along, he did something audacious and something which I think a lot of purists were logically skeptical, and other people have attempted, most notably AIBA, the world amateur governing body, to create systems for counting punches, and they haven’t succeeded to my knowledge. Nobody has succeeded. But Bob I think, from the beginning, found the magic in the structure that requires a punch counter counting only one fighter. I think if you have people counting two fighters at one time it’s madness. You can’t possibly achieve something like functional accuracy in terms of depicting what happens in terms of a fight. But the way Bob devised it, with each person disciplined to look at one fighter at a time and count only those punches, has fostered a group of people and a system that works so well on a repeating basis that, forgive me for using them as my example, ringside scribes, hardened veterans of boxing reporting, who once would have scoffed at the notion that CompuBox didn’t mean that much, now use these numbers in their story leads to describe what has happened in fights. And most particularly, it’s the primary vehicle for sport in situations where the judges have seen one fight and everybody on media row has the other, and almost invariably, if not 100 percent invariably in that situation, the CompuBox numbers support the media view.

“So all of that I think has been a brilliant and amazing contribution to the sport. And over time, my appreciation for the accuracy and legitimacy of what they do has been constantly and overwhelmingly reinforced by a little vehicle that I see, and my colleagues see, and nobody in the general public sees. And that is that CompuBox provides a numerical analysis of the two fighters, in essence a face-to-face numerical comparison of how they match up, which gets more sophisticated in terms of, okay, what’ll this piece of numerical chemistry mean to what this guy does which seems complimentary or directly in conflict one way of the other, depending to on how these use these numbers to break down the numbers and analyze what will happen in the prizefight, and the accuracy over time of these predictions, they always make a prediction, is—I don’t want to be too extreme and say mindboggling, but it’s pretty stunning. If I want to know who’s going to win a prizefight, there’s no source of information in the world, no trainer, no fighter, no expert, none of colleagues at ringside, that I would trust as much as what the CompuBox analysis tells me is going to happen.”

I love listening to Lampley. His coherence is a thing to behold. Not constrained by time and the parameters of a fight, his language flows like a tributary of the River Styx. And while praising CompuBox is all well and good, I wondered if he could give a specific example.

“Some readers may remember that at the end of the Nicholas Walters’ knockout win over Nonito Donaire last year, I quoted from the CompuBox analysis, because the concluding line of the CompuBox analysis going into that fight was something to the effect, ‘This will not just be the changing of the guard, but a violent, decisive seizure of the championship by the younger, stronger, hungrier fighter.’ And that was a perfect description of what was going to happen.”

I’ve had personal dealings with Canobbio and have always found him to be polite and unpretentious.

“Logic tells you if someone was going to succeed against the odds, doing what Bob has done, that that personality has to be steady, consistent, rational, in the same place day after day after day, which is necessary to develop the repeating accuracy and legitimacy of the process, and that’s who Bob is. You never get a different Bob Canobbio. Yet get the same clearheaded, thoughtful, self disciplined, devoted professional every single fight, every single day of the week that you’re with him. It never changes. And ultimately, Bob Canobbio deserves to be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame for what he has contributed to boxing. I’m presumptuous to say that. I don’t vote. I’m not their panel. But I believe Bob is a person who richly deserves inclusion.”

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  1. Mike Silver 07:26pm, 02/21/2015

    Nice to hear from you Joe. I agree, the founders of CompuBox had come up with a very clever gimmick and their creativity and business sense are to be applauded. But, as we both know, it is much ado about nothing—as are so many things in our junk culture today.

  2. Tex Hassler 01:39pm, 02/21/2015

    Compubox cannot tell you if a punch is actually effective or it just grazed the other fighter. I am not an enemy of compubox but not a fan either. It can count punches and nothing more.

    It cannot take the place of a competent judge.

  3. Joe Bruno 04:31pm, 02/20/2015

    Mike Silver, I was covering boxing in NY City when Bob and Logan started Compubox. You’re right. Bob had no boxing background; that’s why he brought Logan Hobson on board .Logan was a boxing writer for either AP or UPI. I forget which.  I was against it then, and I told them both approximately what you’re opinion is now. My opinion hasn’t changed, but the bottom line is that they have been prominent and successful for 30 years. How can I argue with that? I thought, and still do think, counting punches means next to nothing, when one good punch can knock a guy down. But give Bob credit; he had no boxing background but he recognized a marketing success.  He re-invented the wheel, and I’m sure he made money doing so.  That is the real story; how someone can take chicken shit and make chicken salad.  My hats are off to them. Besides, they’re two good guys.

  4. Mike Silver 11:28am, 02/20/2015

    The founder of CompuBox states he worked as a “researcher” for many sports while working for Sports Illustrated—something that requires a heavy emphasis on statistics. In another quote he laments that “boxing had no such statistical paradigm”...and “during the fight there was nothing…just the clock..there were no real statistics for boxing…there was a void there.”  A void? These comments indicated to me a limited knowledge of boxing that is endemic among many boxing fans. I don’t doubt Mr. Canobbio’s love for the sport. But boxing is not like basketball or baseball. It is not a sport of statistics. The following quote by Bobby Franklin, a boxing writer and President of VBA Ring 4 of Boston) says it best:
    “CompuBox is like going to an art museum and instead of looking at a great painting and letting your soul interpret how you feel and respond to it, you ask the curator if you can see the paint by number instructions that came with it.”

  5. Your Name 07:02pm, 02/19/2015

    Mike Silver:  where in the article does it say that CompuBox was invented by statisticians whose knowledge of boxing was limited at best?  Why make that assumption?  How can you judge the boxing knowledge of founders Canobbio (who still runs the business) and Hobson and the current crop of CompuBox operators?

  6. Mike Silver 09:05pm, 02/18/2015

        What came to mind as I read this article were the words “clever gimmick” because in reality that is what CompuBox is—nothing more and nothing less. It is a clever gimmick geared toward the average fan (especially the new fan) to make him think something of value is being imparted.  The live audience for a fight never sees the “punch stats” nor are they subjected to what passes for “expert” commentary today.  Are they missing anything—absolutely not!       
      I am not surprised that CompuBox was invented by statisticians whose knowledge of boxing was limited at best. It is the perfect invention for a sport so thoroughly depleted of quality boxers, knowledgeable fans and worthwhile commentary.  It’s a great “fall back” tool when you really don’t understand what is missing from most of today’s boxers.  I would gladly trade an entire boxing match worth of “punch stats” for one minute of intelligent analyses at it pertains to why a fighter is being hit by so many punches or what his opponent should be doing that he isn’t doing. But with the exception of Harold Lederman, all I hear is incessant jabbering and an endless stream of mostly useless blather. Do we really need four HBO talking heads who seem to feel five seconds of dead air time is cause for panic.  They have caused me to actually miss the famous blowhard and boxing ignoramus Howard Cosell! For my money the MUTE button is a far better invention than CompuBox.

  7. Observer 01:25pm, 02/18/2015


    you’re an ignorant ass who comments at 4:18 am in the morning…

  8. Kurt 04:18am, 02/18/2015

    Compubox is just another tool to prop up the house fighter. Gives Lampley and cohorts an additional bunch of BS to mislead the public about whats really going on in ring. I have noticed on the rare occasion the house fighter is actually getting out punched the compubox visuals seem to disappear.

  9. Jim Crue 07:13pm, 02/17/2015

    Jim Lampley seems like a very good guy. He just talks too much. Go to the Hagler vs Sibson fight thats on this site and listen to Barry Tomkins and Ray Leonard call the fight. There are actually moments of silence. Now we have Lampley, Max and Roy Jones and every other round Harold talking. There are 2 guys fighting and 4 guys at ringside. Max and Roy continually talk over each other and Lampley never shuts up. It’s crazy. I have respect for all four of them but its at least 2 too many. I wish Mr. Lampley would listen to fights called by Don Dunphy, Jack Drees, Chris Schenckle or even Jimmy Powers. They all actually gave the viewers ears a rest. now the fights seem to be more about the announcers than the fighters. Of course with the non competitive fights broadcast these days maybe thats not all wrong.
    And Julie Lederman is the best judge in boxing.

  10. Ant 04:52pm, 02/17/2015

    A pitcher’s w-l record doesn’t tell you how good a pitcher is but it does tell you what his w-l record is.  That’s useful information along with era, ip, hits allowed, etc. 
    compubox seems nice and the computer parts makes it sound high tech, but, like bikermike said, its one person pushing buttons on one side of the ring.  It’s similar to the Olympic scoring method and that was a disaster.  But at least they had more than one person tracking the punches. 
    Punchforce on the other hand sounds more promising.

  11. Ant 04:38pm, 02/17/2015

    It’s misinformation.

  12. bikermike 04:33pm, 02/17/2015

    See…compubox was some way to get the fans back….due to some high profile hotly debated decisions….referee stops contests….etc.

    Still the end of the day….it is a bunch of folks pressing a button ...within a certain window of time…to indicate they scored a blow for one or the other boxer.
    ..all the human stuff is still there…..individual bias….some like head shots…so don’t value body attacks….or just didn’t see the blow land…or scored a blow that was thrown..but did not land…etc etc

    I think it is a newsworthy report…something like a recently released poll….in the heat of election day !!
    I wouldn’t want fights to be awarded ...only because of compubox results.

    I think it is a good thing…not a bad thing.

    Great article

  13. Numbers Guy 02:58pm, 02/17/2015

    Why would anyone be against CompuBox?  What is wrong with having more information?  Everybody knows, and it is explained every single broadcast, that the punch counts are not taken into consideration by the judges, they are subjective, and they don’t account for impact. 

    So what is wrong with having more information?  Its like saying, ‘I don’t want to know what a pitcher’s W-L record is because it is not a perfect measurement.’

    It is good, objective information. Nobody ever ever ever has said that it indicates which fighter won. 

    If you don’t like it, don’t pay attention to it.  But why suggest suppressing it?  Only an Autocrat or Cuban-style Communist would suggest suppressing information.

    CompuBox is the best addition to boxing broadcasts since instant replays!

  14. peter 07:44am, 02/17/2015

    I’m old school. There is something artificial, simplistic and dispassionate about simply counting punches in order to score a fight. Is Compubox a “contribution”  to boxing, or an intrusion ? Using Compubox is like inviting the machine into the garden, to borrow a concept from Leo Marx. With that said, resorting to it after a close contest is not a bad thing. So, I guess I’m new school, too.

  15. Joe Bruno 07:11am, 02/17/2015

    I was the VP of the Boxing Writers Association when Bob and Logan came up with this idea for counting punches. I told them both personally it would never work. They were right and I was wrong.

  16. Ant 07:44pm, 02/16/2015

    It shouldn’t be used.

  17. Kid Blast 08:48am, 02/16/2015

    I don’t like it. It doesn’t tell the true story re qualitative vs quantitative, You could throw 10 pity patty shots to one cruncher and you are behind 10-1..

    I am a big fan of Lampley but this time I disagree.

  18. ch. 08:40am, 02/16/2015

    I think compubox gives a certain perspective on the action that wasn’t presented before it came on the scene, but it hardly ever rewarded body punching. At least from what I perceived from the action I was viewing.

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