Home > Boxing > The third man is the most important man in the ring

The third man is the most important man in the ring

Boxing is an inherently dangerous sport, after all the aim is to hit another man as hard as you can until he can take no more. At its finest it is an art form, a sweet science, and those fortunate enough to have witnessed the Sugar Rays; Muhammad Ali and Roy Jones Jr. in their primes will not disagree. However at its most base level, it is brutal and, as Chris Eubank delighted in telling us, “a barbaric sport.”

Although they are rare, injuries suffered by the likes of Gerald McClellan and Michael Watson do occur and a few boxers, such as Duk Koo Kim and Johnny Owen are unfortunate enough to lose their lives. Boxing is a very serious and potentially life-threatening business and it is for this reason that that one man in the ring does not wear gloves. His job title? Referee. His job? To do everything he can to make sure a fighter is able to leave the ring under his own steam.

While referees do a sterling job most of the time, there are occasions when one asks oneself: “what is the referee doing?” Unfortunately 2010 has seen two instances of gross incompetence in big world title fights.

The first came courtesy of Arthur Mercante Jr. during the Yuri Foreman-Miguel Cotto fight back in June. Foreman came in to the ring with his right knee heavily strapped and so it was clear that there was some kind of issue with it. In round seven, we found out what it was as his knee gave way from under the Israeli. He rose to his feet but was clearly in pain. To be fair to Mercante, Foreman still looked game but his response of: “come on suck it up kid,” sounded more like an annoying pushy father than a professional boxing referee. The knee gave way a second time in the same round leading HBO commentators Roy Jones Jr. and Jim Lampley to proclaim that the fight was as good as over. Wrong. Foreman again rose to his feet and Mercante could not usher him back in quickly enough. For those who may not be aware, Foreman is a very mobile fighter dependent on his footwork or, as Jim Lampley so succinctly phrased it: “Foreman without legs is like Cotto without fists.” Consequently he took a series of short, jolting punches from the Puerto Rican before the bell sounded to end the round.

The real drama however, unfolded in round eight. Foreman’s knee locked again and he was clearly in no fit state to continue. Seeing this, his corner threw in the towel. Mercante however, refused to acknowledge it (as is his right) claiming that Foreman was game and that he did not know who had thrown the towel. The fight had now officially turned in to a farce. Sure Foreman looked game but he is a fighter with a warrior’s heart. He knows no quit so his corner tried to quit for him. Mercante had other ideas and ordered the fight to continue despite Foreman’s trainer Joe Greer entering the ring (which should have been an automatic disqualification). So, Foreman, who is training to be a Rabbi in his spare time, was left to be a sitting duck for a round longer until one of the most feared punches in boxing, Cotto’s left hook to the body, put everyone out of their misery. It was a shot Foreman need not have taken, in fact he took punches for two rounds that he should not have had to. Fortunately, the only lasting damage done was to the reputations of the sport and Arthur Mercante Jr.

Fast forward four months or so to the Vitali Klitschko-Shannon Briggs fight in Hamburg. England’s Ian John Lewis was the man in the ring on this occasion. It must be said at this point that Lewis is a first rate referee who has performed admirably on many occasions, but this Saturday passed (16th October), he got it badly wrong.

Klitschko comfortably pocketed the first four rounds behind a stiff jab but the problems for Ian John Lewis started in the fifth. It was in this round that Klitschko began to land his trademark booming right cross on the face of his American challenger at will. This continued in to round six, when he also began to bring the left hand in to play. By the end of the round, his jab, jab, cross approach was as successful as it was relentless. Briggs was stunned half way through the seventh before a monstrous right hand at the end of the round had him walking in circles and sagging on the ropes. Luckily for the American (or unluckily as may actually be the case), the bell sounded, saving him from an almost certain knockout.

Shannon Briggs (right) was made to take much more punishment than was necessary on Saturday night. (This image is the property of Reuters)

The Brooklyn native emerged for round eight and the systematic beating continued. Very little was coming back from Briggs and with Klitschko having won every round up to that point, Briggs needed a sensational knockout that never looked like coming. Round nine saw the giant Ukrainian wobble Briggs again and although the referee took a close look at Briggs on more than one occasion, he still somehow did not deem the fight worthy of a stoppage. Sure Briggs had not hit the canvas, but he was taking big shot after big shot from a 240 lbs plus monster without throwing much back. The fight needed to be stopped to save the American from unnecessary punishment. It was not and the last three rounds followed the same pattern with two huge right hooks from Klitschko nearly putting Briggs to sleep in the 12th and final round.

Klitschko unsurprisingly pitched a shutout to retain his WBC Heavyweight strap, but Briggs was too brave for his own good and should have been saved from himself in the eighth or ninth round at the latest. Ian John Lewis failed the fighter on this occasion (although some blame should be apportioned to Briggs’s corner for not pulling their man out) and Briggs wound up in hospital nursing a torn bicep; broken nose and, rather painfully, a broken orbital bone. All one can say is thank God his CT scan did not show up any abnormalities.

In both of these fights, boxers had to take far more punishment than was necessary as the referee failed in his duty to ensure the safety of both boxers as much as he can. These are unfortunately not isolated incidents, just the most high profile examples and as long as such incompetence continues, there will always be the risk of another Gerald McClellan or Johnny Owen. The referee is the most important man in the ring, sometimes he would do well to remember that.

Categories: Boxing
  1. October 20, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Firstly, in response to Harpie, correct; he should know the rules.

    Secondly, it is a balancing act I agree. The fans in attendance and those watching do not want to see fights stopped at the first sign of danger but there are instances, such as the two I quoted, where he needs to step in. At the end of the day, if I were asked to prolong a fight and risk a man’s life doing it for the sake of entertainment I would say ‘stick your job.’ If something happened, you would have to live with it for the rest of your life. In fact, one thing I did not mention was that the referee in the Mancini-Duk Koo Kim fight, Richard Greene, actually committed suicide after Kim died. These things can have huge repercussions. Whilst I have never heard of a specific instance of a TV exec or promoter telling a ref to let a fight go as far as possible, nothing in boxing surprises me so I would not rule it out.

    John, excellent point. I had actually forgotten about this, probably because it was so bad I tried to blank it out of my memory. How the referee deemed Maccarinelli fit to continue after the first knockdown is a mystery and a half. It really was outrageous and could have had serious effects. Maccarinelli was in a really bad way after that fight and many feared the worst for a few moments. Luckily he was OK but that is luck not judgement. I hope that Enzo packs it in now because he is an accident waiting to happen. He is an affable guy so he could get a job in the media. Let’s hope he hangs them up.

    For those that haven’t seen it:

    Round 7.

  2. John Platt
    October 19, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    Lest we forget the Macarinelli Vs Frenkel farce on Frank Warren’s recent bill as another demonstration of incompetence from the man in the middle…

  3. Harpie
    October 19, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    I largely agree with the article but I think there might be a few other things for the refs to consider such as their future earning potential.

    Firstly, I saw some highlights of the Foreman-Cotto fight and was not overly impressed by the ref essentially bullying Foreman into continuing by playing with his ego. He should also not have re-started the fight after the trainer got into the ring. He should know the rules.

    Secondly, I suppose the difficulty for the refs is that they have a decision to make with the boxer’s health being just one facet of the argument. Boxing is a lucrative business with a large audience – both in the arena and at home – who want to see people get KO’d.

    Another issue is that of who pays the ref’s wage. I would suggest that if a referee takes the boxer’s health as his primary concern and stops a fight before someone gets KO’d, you’d have an angry audience, which would lead to angry tv execs, who would then perhaps shy away from appointing him as a ref in the future, which therefore makes his decision in the ring in one fight feed into his potential future earnings. If refs are professional – which I hope they would be when you potentially have another man’s well-being in your hands – they could lose out on a shed-load of future income as the result of taking a boxer’s health into consideration.

    Finally, I thought they were doctors at ringside these days as a result of several people getting badly injured a few years ago. Surely it is their responsibility to stop a fight if one of the boxer’s health is at risk?

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