Joe Cortez: From The Referee’s Perspective

joe cortezby Shawn O’Donnell: Joe Cortez is a long standing professional referee who has witnessed some of the biggest moments in boxing history. He presided over the main event of the largest audience in fight history: Julio Cesar Chavez and Greg Haugen. Cortez was also present for one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history, when ancient pugilist,George Foreman, knocked out Michael Moorer to recapture the heavyweight title. Lately fans and media have been hounding Cortez over his governance of boxing matches. Many of his critics have pointed to the fact that he is no longer a part of history, but is in fact the one that is influencing historical outcomes. It is the life of the referee, noticeable when there is controversy, but as visible as a ghost when fights run smooth..

I first interviewed Cortez a week after the Hopkins Calzaghe fight. During this time I also had the opportunity to participate in one of his refereeing seminars. I found him to be very professional and dedicated to his craft. On a personal note, I found him and his wife Sylvia, to be very decent people. Unfortunately I had to put the interview aside because the story lacked a significant angle. As I watched the Lorenzo-Soto fight, I witnessed Joe take an enormous amount of criticism over the stoppage of the fight. After the fight, he refused to engage the media and explain his perspective. Seizing on this opportunity, I thought it might be a good time to extract his thoughts and clarify some misunderstandings that occurred on that night. So I decided to contact him and get his side of the story. Keeping to my journalistic integrity, I warned Joe that I would be ‘fair but firm’. But before I go into that storm of controversy, I believe that it is necessary to veer off path to address two prior controversial fights that Cortez refereed.

During the Mayweather-Hatton fight many fans thought that Cortez unjustly penalized Hatton for hitting Mayweather on the back of the head, while in the same instance, he let many of Mayweather’s indiscretions go unnoticed. After going back and reviewing the fight I think that Cortez was justified in chastising Hatton for hitting behind the head. It was clearly a violation of the rules. In my opinion it would have sufficed with a warning though. Mayweather turned his back while Hatton was in the process of attacking him. On the other hand, Mayweather used his forearm and elbow to impede Hatton’s progress on the inside. When I physically demonstrated these actions to Cortez, he gave me a reply that I did not anticipate. Cortez pointed out that Hatton made aggressive advances right into Mayweather’s outstretched forearm. “If he chose to run into his forearm there is not much I can do about that. It was his choice”. After I reviewed the fight I came to the conclusion that he was partly right. There were reckless advances into his forearm, but there were also clever manipulations of the forearm that pushed Hatton’s head and throat backwards. It was a move that warranted a strong warning and a penalization. In fairness to Cortez he did warn Mayweather about this on several occasions.

Many fans also felt that the referee split the fighters up too quickly. Cortez had warned Hatton prior to the fight that he was not going to allow a ineffective, mauling style of fighting that night. Actually this style of fighting is what many fans have objected to in Hatton’s recent outings. Keeping to his promise he split up the fighters in a quick manner, especially when there was no relevant action going on .

Conversely, Cortez received an enormous amount of criticism for the way he handled the Calzaghe-Hopkins fight. The main point of contention was that he did not break the fighters quickly enough. An action that many believe benefited Hopkins. There was probably too much holding in this fight, but there were factors to consider that influenced the match. Calzaghe is a southpaw and Hopkins is a orthodox fighter-a recipe for disaster to begin with. Both men are competing for the same punching angles and both fighters utilize similar combative styles. In this fight Calzaghe tended to use looping and arcing punches. This allowed a greater opportunity for clinches to occur. A factor that Hopkins was only too willing to accept, and exploit to his advantage. The inside tie-up game is where Hopkins excels. It puts him in a position to hit others while minimizing the chances of getting hit back. Hopkins kept active and punched on the inside, thus, there was no need to break the fighters. It was only when the fight shifted into the later rounds that Hopkins stalled and killed the clock with tactics such as a feigned groin injury.

One common denominator that many people fail to see clearly is that both Hopkins and Mayweather are master defensive fighters. They know how to position their bodies in ways that nullify offense. In the same instance, they know how to turn innocuous movements into competitive advantages, and in some cases, they use their bodies to shield the vision of the referee from what is really going on. With that in mind, any referee would have had difficulty administering these matches. When I talked to Cortez about the Calzaghe-Hopkins fight, he told me that it was a very physically demanding fight. To demonstrate his point he shoved me backwards with his hand to show the force that he had to use while separating the two fighters. I was very surprised how strong he was for a guy in his sixties. I’m not the strongest guy in the world, but then again, I am not Woody Allen either. If that is the effort that he had to exert on the fighters to separate them, anyone would have had trouble governing that match.

What would shock people the most about Cortez is the amount of preparation that he puts into his trade. Cortez keeps a daily physical fitness regiment that includes running and lifting weights. During the hour and a half refereeing seminar Joe gave, he was in constant motion; blurring around the ring, issuing orders and reviewing possible scenarios that potential referees would encounter. This is something that Cortez does himself. Joe has a full scale boxing ring set up in his garage, in which he continuously reviews rules and rehearses any possible glitches that could go wrong in a match. Joe showed the assembled group a film of one of his practices, in which he barked orders at imaginary fighters, and moved about the ring with the agility of a man half his age. But as much as we try prepare to avert disaster, it is always lurking around the corner-waiting to trip us up. Joe’s run in with Murphy’s Law would occur on June 28th , while working the Humberto Soto- Francisco Lorenzo fight. A match contested for the WBC interim 130 lb championship.

Strangely, Cortez did not convey his trademark “I am firm but fair” mantra during the pre-fight instructions. Perhaps it was an impending sign. The fight started out relatively uneventful, with both fighters moving and probing cautiously for the first two rounds. One thing that I did notice about the much shorter Lorenzo, he bounced around the ring awkwardly with his head leaning in. Was it a sign of age, or an indication that his balance was shot?It was something that would play a significant role in the out come of this fight though. As Soto picked up the pace in the fight, he managed to hurt Lorenzo. As Lorenzo pitched forward, off balance, and on the way to the canvas, Soto managed to graze his head slightly with a restrained punch. It would occur again the next round, but under slightly different circumstances.

In round four Soto continued where he left off with an aggressive offense. During one of these attacks, Cortez stepped in to separate the two fighters, which disrupted Soto’s competitive advantage. He looked at Cortez, confused and unsure whether the referee was separating them at an inopportune time, or if he was stepping in to stop the fight. As Cortez gestured for the fight to resume,Soto let loose a combination that drove Lorenzo to the canvas. Lorenzo’s head pitched forward again, but this time his gloves touched the canvas. By the rules, if a fighters gloves hit the canvas, the standing fighter is to stop fighting until the referee declares the action to continue .Before Cortez could intercede, Soto threw an additional punch that appeared to merely graze the back of Lorenzo’s head. Cortez stopped the fight immediately, but he did not gesture to anyone what his verdict was. He then walked over and conferenced with officials from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and after what appeared to be several minutes, he turned to announcer Micheal Buffer and gave him the official outcome of the fight. Buffer announced to the crowd that Lorenzo was the winner due to a disqualification because of a blow to the back of the head. The crowd and media in attendance expressed their displeasure vociferously.

Watching it on the TV, it appeared that the punch was not a hard blow. Cortez would go on to acknowledge this. But from Joe’s position it was clearly a hard concussive blow to the back of the head. “By the unified ABC rules, if a fighter is hit to the back of the head, while on the canvas and cannot continue, the fight is declared a disqualification. I turned to the doctor at ringside and explained to him that it was a blow to the back of the head. He made the decision that Lorenzo could not continue, and by the rules Lorenzo had to be declared the winner by disqualification. If I went against that ruling, I would be in violation of the rules” There a few things that I have learned during my years of involvement with boxing. You see fights differently as a fan and as a person that is involved in the action. The angles and perspectives are different. With this in mind, I gave Joe the benefit of the doubt. To be sure, I had an additional look at the fight as well. When I reviewed the footage in slow motion, I could see that as Soto’s glove made contact with the back of Lorenzo’s head the cushioning in the glove compressed upon contact. From this perspective the punch looked short and choppy, and by the given evidence, Cortez and the ringside doctor had indeed made the right judgment.

The rub is whether Lorenzo was rendered incapable of continuing because of the overall assault in the fight, or because of the blow to the back of the head. That is where this whole thing gets blurry and turns into a debate for the ages. Joe Cortez did not make the judgment that Lorenzo was incapable of continuing. This was done by the ringside doctor. This in itself was a difficult judgment. How does one make a ruling about a professional fighters’ ability to withstand punishment and continue in a fight? With a hemorrhaging nose, an ugly cut above the eye gushing blood; I personally thought Lorenzo was done,but that was prior to the knockdown.. The problem specifically with this fight is the way the rules apply. There is no punitive rule for a fighter that acts like a soccer player rolling on the ground distorting their injuries to influence an official’s judgment. If the verdict did not sit well with the fans, it was even more disturbing to the WBC.

The WBC immediately stepped in and reversed the ruling by the NSA and declared the fight a no-contest. This effectively means that there is no winner. The WBC took an additional three weeks to determine if this was indeed the right ruling. I checked their website for further information, but found no precise verdict on this fight. According to Internet sources, the WBC did release a statement regarding this fight. Firstly, the no-contest decision would hold. Their reasoning was that the blow to the back of the head was unintentional. The rules state that if a fight does not exceed four rounds, and is stopped on an accidental foul, the fight is declared a no-contest If the unintentional foul happens after round four, they go the scorecards and declare the winner based on points. If the fight ended in the same manner,in the next round, Soto would have been the winner. The WBC also ordered the two fighters to engage in a immediate rematch, but it would have to be after Dec.26th (because of Lorenzo’s medical suspension imposed by the NSA). Surprisingly, the WBC decided to fine Lorenzo 2000$ for unsportsmanlike like conduct.

It could get interesting from here folks. The WBC could find themselves in legal trouble no matter which direction they go in. I could see Lorenzo taking action for being singled out for unsportsmanlike conduct. After all he didn’t hit himself in the back of the head. It wasn’t to far back that the WBC was almost declared insolvent because of a lawsuit issued by former WBC light-heavyweight champion Gracianno Riachiagni. The suit arose from a controversial decision by the WBC to strip him of his title. Eventually the dispute was settled out of court,but it made Riachiagni a wealthy man through due process. Could Soto seek similar legal action for being wronged as well? We will have to see. Judging by his displeasure with Cortez we might not have to wait long. During a Spanish language TV interview , after the fight, he accused Cortez of being a racist. This statement did not sit well with Cortez, “I find that statement very offensive. My good friend, Gaspar Ortega, was Mexican and I am the godfather to his kids. I have Mexican people that work for me. I have even lived in Mexico for a while. Out of all the things that have happened to me surrounding this fight that statement was the most hurtful.”

It seems that no matter how good a boxing referee is, they are bound to incur flack for their decisions. I could remember Larry Hazzard taking a lot of heat for stopping fights too early. Richard Steele also had an unpleasant time after he stopped the Meldrick Taylor- Cesar Chavez fight. Controversy is not an easy thing to live with either. Referee Richard Greene committed suicide several months after the WBA lightweight title fight, which he presided over, ended in a ring death .One thing that Steele, Cortez and Hazzard have in common is that they can make decisions and do not second guess themselves. Cortez is a guy that has an opinion and is willing to express it with confidence. He has plenty of support from his colleagues such as Kenny Bayless, Mark Nelson , Benjy Esteves, Russel Mora and Mike Ortega. All these referees have contacted Cortez after the Soto-Lorenzo fight and commended him on making the right decision.

As a fan sitting at home, you have the ability to see the replay of the fight. In an instance, when a decision has to be made, referees have to step forward and make a call without the luxury of technology. It is a hard thing to do, and don’t get me wrong, bad decisions can be made because of this. These people are human after all. With the Mayweather- Hatton fight, you have to ask yourself: Did the right guy win? Yes. Mayweather won because he was a bigger and more skilled guy. Hatton lost concentration during the fight and was knocked out by a punch he did not see coming. Was Calzaghe the right guy to win? Yes. He was the more active guy and carried the fight. During the Soto- Lorenzo fight, Soto would have won if he kept his emotions in check and followed the rules. You can’t punch a guy when he is down. Cortez can lift his head nobly about the Soto-Lorenzo call. He made the right decision based on the circumstances in front of him. Blame the rule book, or Soto for the result. In the future it might be a good idea for TV networks to post a rudimentary list of rules that govern professional boxing. There would be less confusion as a result of this.

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