Rules of the Game: Exclusive Inside CSAC Boxing Officials Training
By Caryn A. Tate on April 13, 2020
In combat sports, the 'one more round' mentality has gone on a long time. (NY Daily News)
Recently, I was invited to sit in on several virtual trainings for California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) boxing referees and judges via video chat. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary social distancing, CSAC Executive Director Andy Foster has organized these webinars as a way to help keep California's boxing officials sharp since, as he said, "we can't be in the gyms right now for obvious reasons."
For judging and for refereeing, the officials were shown clips from various fights as case studies.
The group scored rounds from several older fights:
Andre Berto vs. Victor Ortiz I, Round 6
In that round, both fighters were dropped once. Afterwards, the judges were asked how they scored the round.
Everyone on the call scored it 10-9 Berto, as they felt he clearly won the round aside from being knocked down himself. The judges expressed the round is a good example of how a judge should not go on “cruise control” after seeing the first knockdown and automatically scoring for the fighter who scored it.
Francisco Vargas vs. Orlando Salido, Round 11
In the round, both fighters are highly active and there is a lot of back and forth effectiveness. In the end, some judges scored it 10-9 Vargas, while others scored it 10-9 Salido. In general, those who scored for Vargas felt his punches seemed to be harder than Salido’s, while the judges who scored for Salido felt he outlanded Vargas and the number of his landed punches outweighed the perceived power advantage of Vargas in determining the winner of the round. It’s a good example of relatively rare close rounds that are somewhat difficult to score, and how in this sort of case, two judges may score it differently based on their perception of who is being more effective overall (whether it’s by the number of clean punches landed by Fighter A, or by the slightly fewer but heavier punches by Fighter B).
Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton, Round 15
Most judges on the call scored the round for Norton, though it was a highly competitive round.
Lou Moret said, "It's almost a question of who wins, the aggressor or the counter puncher? Then they went toe to toe. I thought the harder punches were landed by Norton."
Jack Reiss added, "Was Norton's build up of an advantage enough for Holmes to wipe out the advantage when he staggered Norton? I didn't think so."
Tim Cheatham, who scored it close for Holmes, said, "It's a great round as an example of how you have to concentrate for three whole minutes."
Intentional or Uninentional Fouls
In 1994, round four of Riddick Bowe vs. Buster Mathis Jr. ended in a No Contest: Mathis, hurt, took a knee and then was hit by Bowe. Mathis was knocked out, on the canvas, unable to continue. The referee, veteran Arthur Mercante, ruled it an intentional foul by Bowe.
Typically, if a foul is ruled intentional and the injured fighter is unable to continue, the boxer who committed the foul loses by disqualification. This is clearly stated in the Unified Rules of Boxing overseen by the ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions). Instead, Mercante stated afterwards that he felt Bowe's punch was deliberate, but the referee didn't believe Bowe should be disqualified because it "came in the heat of battle." Therefore, Mercante "split the difference" and ruled it a No Contest, as if the foul had been unintentional.
The referees on the call debated whether Bowe's offending punch was intentional or unintentional. Jack Reiss' general rule of thumb is that, in order to be ruled intentional, a fouling punch has to be preceded by hesitation and separation (for instance, if Fighter A knocks Fighter B down, then hesitates after Fighter B is kneeling on the canvas, then Fighter A hits Fighter B again while he's down). Reiss, and a few others on the call, didn't feel Bowe had enough hesitation time to show he threw the punch intentionally. Others on the call disagreed and felt he paused long enough to consider what he was doing.
In a somber discussion of ring deaths, the officials examined the end of a 1962 fight between welterweight champion Benny Paret and Emile Griffith. The bout was shown live on national television with millions watching. In the twelfth round, Griffith landed a clean right hand upstairs that staggered Paret and had him seriously hurt. An educated eye can see that a close eye should have been kept on Paret as of that moment; his legs looked nearly gone. His hands were too low to protect himself adequately. The referee, Ruby Goldstein, allowed the bout to continue as Griffith battered Paret into the corner. Griffith landed approximately 25 more unanswered punches, all clean and to the head, before Goldstein stepped in to stop the action.
At that point it was too late, and the 25-year-old Paret slumped, unconscious, against the ropes. He would never awaken.
There were several factors about the situation that have since changed: there were only three ropes around the ring (as opposed to four now), there were no rope ties (the vertical ties that help hold the ropes steady), and there was no padding in the corners.
Paret had been fighting often (as most fighters did then), and was just coming off a 10th round knockout loss to Gene Fullmer three months earlier. In Paret's last five fights before the Griffith contest, he had lost three, twice by knockout (and one of those knockout losses was to Emile Griffith in the fighters' second meeting; all told they fought three times).
These were all critical pieces of information that a modern athletic commission would, hopefully, take into account when deciding whether to sanction a fight. In 1962, this just wasn't done, and the referees at the time allowed injured fighters to continue much longer than we know now is safe for the combatants.
Referee and judge Jack Reiss said, "Two major issues now are weight-cutting and (the referee) making a good assessment of the fighter—getting a 'baseline' ahead of the fight so you know what's normal for that guy."
As far as how Reiss recommends assessing whether a fighter can or should continue, he said, "You've got to ask yourself, 'Can this guy mathematically win at this point? Does he have a real puncher's chance? Is he fighting to win or to survive? Is there visible physical damage? What's best for boxing?'"
Ron Scott Stevens, former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, added, "Eyes that are swollen shut are a sure-fire sign there's neurological damage."
Veteran referee and judge Pat Russell said, "I saw the [Paret vs. Griffith] fight live as a kid. It takes moral courage to stop a fight. Sometimes the only person who is a fighter's friend is the referee. Everyone else—the crowd, the corners—wants the fight to continue.
"We need to emphasize that when a ref has seen enough, that's based on his/her years of experience and we should respect their decision. We shouldn't underestimate the moral component of calling a fight when you need to call it."
Executive Director Andy Foster noted, "It's up to the referee to make sure a fighter can compete, not finish the fight. That's not your job."
He referenced the stoppage referee Jack Reiss made earlier this year of Bryant Perrella against Abel Ramos; Reiss stopped the action with one second left in the final round because he deemed Perrella unable to continue, and as he noted in my exclusive interview, "That situation was the exact demonstration of why the rule is in place that says, 'You cannot be saved by the bell in any round'...the other fighter earned the TKO victory. I can't cheat and say, 'Let's let the clock run out.' I would be cheating the other fighter."
In an effort to help referees be more informed about whether to stop fights, Foster has implemented a requirement for referees and ringside physicians to confirm official scores after rounds six and nine. In March 2017, Foster made this an option, but as of late 2019, referees and physicians are required to do this.
On the call, Foster said, "I don't like open scoring. I have a feeling open scoring could influence judges. The two people who can stop the fight (referee and ringside physician) are the two people who don't know the score. It's important for the ref to have the information." Because the refs and doctors get the scoring in the neutral corner away from the judges, they are the only officials aware of the scores, so it prevents the judges, the public, and the corners from also learning what the official scores are. The idea is to give referees and physicians one more tool in their toolboxes to help them stop a fight if needed to protect a fighter.
Foster said to the referees on the call, "I don't ever want your position to be, 'I'm gonna give you one more round.' If they can't go out and compete in boxing at the professional level that they're licensed at, then I don't know what we're doing. This commission sanctions athletic competition. It's combat sports, we understand that, but the 'one more round' mentality has gone on a long time. It's very rare that one more round ever works out for that fighter."
In round seven of Sergio Martinez vs. Kermit Cintron, Martinez dropped Cintron with a short left upstairs. Cintron thought it was a head butt, and immediately upon going down began complaining of one. Referee Frank Santori administered a count, and when Cintron rose towards the very end of the count, Santori appeared to think Cintron didn't rise in time and seemed to have waved off the fight, giving a little wave of his hand.
Cintron continued to complain of a head butt while Martinez celebrated what he thought was a knockout victory. Santori began to question his decision as Cintron stayed with him, insisting that it wasn't a knockdown or knockout because it was caused by a head butt.
HBO viewers had the benefit of instant replay, and we can see that a legal punch caused Cintron to go down—there was no butt. Santori, though, allowed himself to be talked into changing his ruling, and ordered the fight to continue after a three-plus minute break. They went into round eight, and because of the lengthy break, Cintron was well able to recover from the damaging punch.
Jack Reiss went through several factors that he felt would have resulted in a better way for a referee to handle such a chaotic situation:
1. Be more decisive and take control of the situation—the referee is the sole arbiter.
2. Mechanics: communicate better. Because of Santori's mechanics, it was unclear what was happening. Nobody knew whether this referee was ending the round or the fight. By clearly communicating, a referee can reduce the amount of controversy.
3. Timing: It took three-plus minutes to straighten things out, which gave Cintron a lot of time to recover from a punch when he should have had one minute between rounds if he made the count (which he did, just barely).
4. The referee took a point from Martinez for rabbit punching in the 12th round. It wasn't legit, as the punches were not egregious and they were caused by Cintron leaning forward. Because of the point deduction, Martinez ended up getting a draw instead of a win.
Bill Clancy said, "If you're gonna take a point in the last round it better be so egregious that it warrants the point deduction."
Reiss added, "What's best for boxing is, unless it's extremely egregious, don't take a point in the last round if at all possible because it can dramatically influence the outcome of a fight."
A flowchart, created to show the steps a referee must take to decide how to deal with fouls, knockdowns, etc., was referenced. The flowchart is a good tool for fans or other people outside the referee position, but as Reiss mentioned, "The ref has to make a decision on his own two feet. This is why we always say the most important trait of a good referee is good judgment. The rules should be a guideline."
Bill Clancy refereed Jose Uzcategui vs. Andre Dirrell I in 2017. In that bout, Clancy disqualified Uzcategui for hitting Dirrell after the bell in round 8, which knocked out Dirrell.
Clancy explained, "From an intentional standpoint, you have to consider history. With that fight there was history established. In the second round, Uzcategui hit Dirrell just after the bell and buzzed Dirrell. I assumed the camera would be on me between rounds as I went to Uzi's corner to clearly warn him what would happen if he did that again. But I was wrong—the camera was on Dirrell.
"At the end of round eight, Uzcategui threw a three-punch combination. I clearly articulated 'ten seconds' and then 'five seconds' (to the fighters). The third punch was after the bell and not only landed but knocked him unconscious."
Because of the history earlier in the fight, it was clear to Clancy that Uzcategui was intentionally throwing after the bell—in other words, it wasn't simply a continuation of the action (when a fighter is in the middle of throwing a flurry of punches and isn't able to stop himself in time). Therefore, Clancy deemed it an intentional foul, and it was one that resulted in Dirrell being knocked unconscious. So he felt the only reasonable action was to disqualify the offending fighter, as Dirrell wouldn't have been able to continue the fight fairly.
The jobs of referees and judges are difficult and complicated. Perhaps even more importantly, they can only be consistently successful in their critical roles if they learn, practice, and prepare as much as possible between fights. The CSAC trainings are a step in the right direction towards ensuring boxing officials continue to evolve and learn how to best protect the fighters and do what's fair for the sport and everyone involved.