How Boxing's Referees Play a Crucial Role in the Sport

10.11.05 - By Joseph Carlo Russo: In a most technologically advanced era for sports entertainment one would assume the extinction of false calls and misleading claims on behalf of boxing referees. But, unfortunately, much to the disservice of the fans and the losing fighters, the November 5th Saturday night fight and other previous instances made clear that such an assumption is far from accurate..

As the November 5th card was foreshadowed to be a fan-friendly one it started off on a good note as Rafael Marquez handed undefeated Silence Mabuza his first taste of the canvas late in round one. Upon getting up Mabuza sustained a barrage of punches for a number of seconds until being saved by the bell. As the undefeated South African's chin was suspect in the first round, he went on to endure solid right hands and left hooks and one headbutt over the course of the next couple of rounds.

Due to the headbutt, a cut formed over the right eye of Mabuza. However, upon the referee's misconception that it was caused by a punch, Mabuza lost the bout via TKO in round three. Silence will probably never return to the States again as his chance of a lifetime had been exterminated at the hands of referee Norm Budden.

Now, referees are human and therefore are susceptible to making mistakes. But would it be so unjust, non-uniform, and implausible to have Al Bernstein and Steve Farhood deliver the message that the referee had in fact made a mistake? Would it be so irrational and preposterous to overturn a referee's call when it was clearly evidenced that he was wrong? And that, the cut was actually caused by a headbutt, perhaps allowing Mabuza a potential second chance at his deserved title shot? There is an obvious flaw afoot in the system, more importantly than that in Norm Budden's misjudgment.

It was a good thing that there was another bout following Marquez/Mabuza because then fans and viewers were given another chance to get their time and money's worth. Jeff Lacy is one of the most ferocious punchers in the sport so upon refereeing one of his fights an official must anticipate single punch knockdowns and multiple knockdowns.

When a knockdown occurs there are three steps a referee has to take. The first and most vital step is that he must offer the fighter a count. If the fighter is no longer capable of continuing he will be counted out. Some fighters, like Corrales, prefer to stay down for about eight seconds to regain their full conscience and composure. So, first and foremost a referee must proceed with a count. Second, if the fighter gets up, the referee then requests that the fighter walk to him and hold up his gloves to verify his able-bodied condition. The third step is for the referee to then decide whether to allow the fight to continue or call a halt to the bout.

On November 5th referee Vic Drakulich failed to comply with the most essential step. He jumped steps one and two and upon his own personal judgment went on to step three, based on what I saw. It was clear that Scott Pemberton was outpowered and outclassed. Upon being knocked down in round two Pemberton fell lifelessly and clumsily. But, not being given a count was a terrible disservice to him, especially considering his particular career circumstances. In addition, he rolled over after about four seconds to show the referee that he was fine, furthering the disservice that was performed to him.

Another severe instance of bad refereeing was performed by Laurence Cole earlier this year on April 9th as he failed to count out Mzonke Fana before calling a stoppage to Mzonke's only and last world title shot. Granted, Fana got caught with a great shot, which he admitted to. But, if it were enough to finish him then he would have and should have been counted out. Fana will never be seen again as whatever chance he had was stripped from him prematurely by referee Laurence Cole.

Whoever caught Wayne Braithewaite vs. Guillermo Jones on September 9th earlier this year witnessed yet another officiating atrocity as referee Jimmy Villers called an inexcusably premature halt to the bout in round four potentially ending Wayne Braithwaite's career. As Jones tried to inflict a series of punches Braithwaite kept his hands up and slipped punch after punch before Villers insisted the bout had to be stopped. Villers then went on to tell Braithwaite's camp that he can fight another day when in fact therein lies the problem.

As we continue to assess bad examples of refereeing we must also counter them and show what a good example of refereeing can do for both fighters and fans. Let us take a step back to May 8, 2004 to a war between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez. A first round as dominant and one-sided as that, which began Pacquiao vs. Marquez will usually distinguish between two fighters who are of different calibers. Or will it? As Pacquiao launched an assault on Marquez knocking him down three times in the first round, referee Joe Cortez did an utmost excellent job in allowing Marquez to continue. Cortez understood that Pacquiao's one punch power could do that to a fighter and that fighters will go down off one clean Pacman shot.

But, each time Marquez went down, Cortez counted. And each time Cortez counted, Marquez got up. The fans were then treated to one of the most spectacular wars of the year as Marquez fought his way from a devastating disadvantage to earn a much deserved draw with one judge having him the winner.

"Fair but Firm" Joe Cortez is one of the most respected referees in the sport and justifiably so. He lives up to his nickname and is as fair as they come. We should have all counted our blessings after the Marquez/Pacquiao fight that someone like Drakulich or Cole or Villers wasn't the third man in the ring. Or else, Marquez would not be the top ten pound for pound fighter that he is reputed as today.

Referees are seldom acknowledged but they represent one of the most critical and essential aspects of the sport. A referee can make or break a fight and a fighter for that matter. But, as an official it is a referee's job to make sure that a fight is conducted in the most fair and balanced manner as to see to that nobody may propose an argument against his actions.

In addition, boxing is also meant to be a form of entertainment and all professional fighters understand the harm that may be caused as a result. A fighter has a right to abstain from further punishment even if he is okay, and a referee must trust that if a fighter wants to quit he or his corner will exercise that right like Freitas, Tszyu, Abdullaev, and Gatti most recently had. But, it is not the referee's job or responsibility to deny a fighter a count and a chance based on his own pre-formulated personal judgment like Drakulich, Cole, and Villers had. Also, a referee should not be considered the end all to every call that is made in a fight if a judgment made by him has been evidenced as false.

It is predicaments like Barrerra/Fana, Marquez/Mabuza, Jones/Braithwaite, and Lacy/Pemberton that exhibit a most primitive side of boxing that can do much for deterring new fans and dissatisfying current ones. But, what is most perturbing about these occurrences is that they are easily preventable. A governing body must be established in order to prevent these types of instances. And a strict set of guidelines must be instilled that, which all officials must adhere to. Hopefully, as fans with the help of politicians like Senator John McCain we can push for progression and enhancements of this sort that can create for the perfection and greatness that boxing has always had the potential to achieve.

Article posted on 11.11.2005

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