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Ten-Count for Eddie Cotton

By Robert Ecksel on April 20, 2020


It was already an uneven playing field. What was Lennox and his team worried about?

Longtime referee Eddie Cotton passed away Friday due to complications from COVID-19. He was 72.


I always admired Cotton’s unobtrusive work in the ring and we spoke several years ago about his philosophy of refereeing.


“The main focus is that you’re supposed to make sure that the fighters are safe,” he said. “Your main concern is the safety of the fighters. That’s number one. Yet they’re engaged in a very dangerous, violent sport. That’s why I have always been in favor of the standing 8-count. It’s been outlawed and many people are not in favor of it. When I was a fan I was not in favor of it, because I didn’t understand it. But as an experienced referee going on 26 years now, I really would hope that sooner or later we understand that you need it.”


I asked Cotton about his criteria for stopping a fight.


“There’s a bunch of different criteria that most good referees use,” replied Cotton. “I think all of us have a scorecard in the back of our heads. Even though we don’t score, remember that at one time the referee used to score. So if a bout starts to get lopsided and the guy has lost his punching power, has very little chance to win, and he starts taking some punches, then the fight should be terminated. So you start looking at them and asking: Are they coherent?”


Coherence is relative, in and out of the ring.


Cotton went on. “I don’t ask fighters during the course of the fight, 'Are you okay? Are you all right? Do you want to continue?’” he said. “Because most of the time, even if they’re hurt and they’re in bad condition, they’ll say yes. I’ll try to ask them some other things like, 'Do you know where you are? What round is this? What’s your last name?’ Something that will let me know: if they can’t respond to that, they’re finished.”


I asked Cotton about the biggest fights for which he was the third man.


“I’ve had a total of 30 world title bouts and approximately 60 championship bouts. I had Bowe-Golota 2 at the Garden. Three of Sugar Shane Mosley’s title fights. But number one was Tyson and Lennox Lewis.”


That fight was a slaughter. Tyson was a shadow of his former self. But Cotton was chastised for not letting Lewis fight his fight.


I asked Cotton to explain what went down that night in Memphis.


“This was the first time in the history of any championship that instructions weren’t given in the ring before the opening bell. If you remember, they had a line of people separating the fighters. At the press conference they decided they would have separate weigh-ins, separate rules meetings, separate everything. I went into Tyson’s dressing room and he was a complete gentleman, and I told him this: ‘We’re starting from scratch with a clean slate. All the stuff in the past is out the window. I expect you to abide by the rules of boxing, so I expect a good clean fight and obey my commands.’ He said, ‘Yes, sir. Thank you very much. Yes, sir.’”


That’s the Tyson I’d always encountered. He was only a monster when surrounded by monsters. Around civilized people, Mike’s downright civilized.


“Then we went into Lennox’s dressing room,” said Cotton. “He was sitting down on a sofa with sunglasses on. He did not stand up to shake my hand like you would normally do. Emanuel Steward said, ‘Look, Eddie, we’re very happy you’re the referee. You’ve worked in other bouts where you’ve had to handle heavyweights and you’ve done a fine job. But we don’t want any clinches.’ I said ‘What do you mean you don’t want any clinches?’ ‘If there’s a clinch, we want you to break it up. We don’t want you to wait for any lull or anybody to punch out of there. We want you to break it up.’ I said ‘Fine, that’s not a problem.’”


It was already an uneven playing field. What was Lennox and his team worried about?


“I think that they were worried about Mike getting in a clinch, tying up, and biting or doing something. That’s what I think and that’s what the commission thought too, because when we went outside, the commission said, ‘Well, Eddie, don’t let ‘em clinch. If they get tied up, break ‘em up right away.’ And Lennox is clenching for dear life the entire fight! And that’s what really kind of made it seems that I was on him, because he was holding, and he was pushing down. He was using his elbow. He was doing everything. Mike fought a clean fight. And when I read the comments later from Emanuel, he said I didn’t let him fight ‘a tall man’s fight.’ A tall man’s fight that is holding and clinching, hitting on the break, everything else? That’s what that whole thing was about. I didn’t let him fight? I broke up the clinches. What was I supposed to do? Let him clinch? He said break ‘em up.


“If you notice after the fourth round when I took that point from Lennox when he pushed Mike down—that was the second warning—he pushed Mike down and then swung across his back before he actually went to the canvas. And I’m glad he missed him,” Cotton said. “Otherwise I’d be in all kinds of controversy. “After I took the point, from then on Lennox fought! So some people said I actually made Lennox fight the fight to win. Because initially when he came out, he looked to me like he was scared. And then after he saw that Mike didn’t have anything—I can tell you that: he had nothing—Lennox started to fight. After that round I took that point, you could hear Emanuel in the corner. He was imploring. He said, ‘Lennox, just fight like a little bitch.’ Those were his exact words. I got it on tape. He says, ‘You’re gonna f-around and get hit with something. This guy’s a dead man. You better fight.' So Lennox didn’t tie up that much and boxed and finally knocked Mike out. And that was that.”

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