There are several component parts making up the sum of what historically made the sport of boxing a vital and compelling form of entertainment for the American fight fan. Primary among these was the development of raw talent from the neighbourhood clubs as well as overseeing the transition of amateur fighters to the professional ranks through the state and nationwide boxing programs.
There was also the requirement that the promoters matched such talent competitively and regularly if they were to hold the interest of the fans. It is no surprise therefore that the maladies of contemporary boxing stem, arguably, from the non-availability and the mishandling of talent as is palpably demonstrable with the state of the heavyweight division. It is also quite clear that for a miscellany of reasons, fight promoters are failing to deliver genuinely competitive bouts in the main event and under-the-bill match ups. The reasons for the aforementioned continue to be argued and debated upon by members of the fight community.
One other matter consistently featuring in the heated discourse on the state of the sport is the standard of officiating. The fallout from recent world title matches involving Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz, and Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson are examples of bouts which caught the eye of the wider news media for all the wrong reasons.
For the aficionado, however, part of the overriding sense of malaise and degeneration in the fortunes of the sport which he loves is increasingly centred on the quality of refereeing.
Unlike other fields of professional activity where optimum standards of performance are demanded, and a high enough threshold is demarcated for practitioners to function at a level which is acceptable, it has often appeared that the administrators of the sport have been rather lax in enforcing minimum levels of competence.
Consider for instance, the debacle which ensued at the end of the bout between Floyd Mayweather and Victor Ortiz. The signals and the instructions given by the referee were not clear and precise enough; and almost reminiscent of the second Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston bout, Joe Cortez allowed his attention to be drawn away from the fighters. It is not being presumptuous to speak about cardinal principles in refereeing the sport of boxing, and Cortez broke more than one that night.
Some would tend to view refereeing as a combination of both art and science, involving the exhibition of both mental and, to an extent, physical strengths. The referee sets the tone for the fight. He is an impartial arbiter who must covey authority without being overbearing, and must also have developed a level of focus and concentration; a presence of mind, to an extent that when called upon, he can demonstrate razor sharp reactions.
If, as is widely argued, there has been a diminution in refereeing standards, the question then has to be asked why this is the case. Is it, for instance, a situation where referees do not receive the requisite amount of training in order to sufficiently cope with the demands of a professional boxing contest? Or might it be that the pool of talent for referees is somewhat constricted? What criteria, it may be asked, is referred to when selecting referees for assignments? This is a key issue, given that the selection of referees has a bearing on the credibility of sport both from the perspectives of the aficionado-fan and the wider sporting world.
With what specific attributes should a competent boxing referee be imbued? Some argue that rather as is the case with the fighters, a referee should gain experience within the amateur game before graduating to the professional ranks. The argument goes along the lines that they are inculcated with the fundamentals of the game; learning for posterity, the essential habits of concentrating on the fighting in the ring and enforcing discipline.
But there is a counter argument. There are those who insist that an amateur refereeing background, including having experience at Golden Gloves and Olympic levels, translates poorly into the professional ranks and is demonstrated by some referees who tend to be unnecessarily authoritarian and overly intrusive in the fights.
Whatever the pre-pro bout experience of some specific referees, those who are familiar with the peculiarities of the chaotic contest between Miguel Cotto and Yuri Foreman in June of 2010 will perhaps be appreciative of this point. The BBC headlined its report as a “New York Farce”.
One particular area of concern regarding the handling of bouts involves the degree to which referees should intervene to separate fighters. There is of course no question that when one fighter ‘ties up’ another as a defensive measure or as a persistent manoeuvre aimed at frustrating his opponent, the referee should act to prise them apart, and in so doing will be facilitating the fluid progression of the bout.
However, a problem arises when one boxer is attempting to engage in ‘inside fighting’ and is prevented from doing so. When fighters complain that “I wasn’t allowed to fight my type of fight” as in the case of Ricky Hatton during his bout with Floyd Mayweather, the factor of a referee acting as less than a neutral arbiter comes in to play, since his actions serve to obstruct the rhythm of the one who is disadvantaged while aiding the game plan of the other.
This does not condone the sort of referee who takes the other extreme of affecting a ‘non-interventionist’, aloof strategy. By consistently situating themselves at places in the ring which are arguably too far from the action, the danger exists that he may become almost detached from the proceedings, and that his reactions to a situation may be affected by his distance from the combatants. Close calls are missed, and the possibility that the referee may intervene a punch or two too late is a risk not worth taking.
While referees are not expected to be within the age range of most active fighters or to be as physically honed, it does grate some when they set about their task pot-bellied and grossly overweight.
A referee must also be independent and not be swayed either by actions of ‘super star’ boxers or the emotions of a crowd; the latter evidently occurring six years ago in Germany when Arthur Abraham was allowed to fight open mouthed from a broken jaw in his fight with Edison Miranda.
The pungent whiff of favouritism and political expediency has for some time tainted the decisions reached in the selecting of officials, and this has manifested itself in the unsatisfactory conduct of a number of bouts. Those who have benefitted over the years from the patronage dispensed from the fiefdoms of boxing commissions are well known to the fight community.
But there are those who have suffered under this system, one of who has been Ron Lipton. Lipton became familiar to fight fans in the 1990s when he regularly officiated in bouts broadcast by, amongst others, the HBO, ESPN and Madison Square Garden channels. He was the third man in the ring in the first bout between Chris Eubank and Steve Collins, Evander Holyfield and Bobby Czyz, Tommy Morrison and Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock, Pernell Whitiker and Gary Jacobs, as well as other bouts involving Roy Jones, Roberto Duran and Oscar DeLaHoya.
Outside of the United States, Lipton refereed world title bouts in Italy and Ireland. His longstanding involvement in boxing ranges from an amateur career as a three-time Golden Gloves lightweight champion of New Jersey, to serving as a sparring partner for middleweights Rubin Hurricane Carter and Dick Tiger, and as a witness to boxing history with his associations with these fighters and the likes of Muhammad Ali.
After years of being denied a licence, Lipton was granted one in October last year by the New York State Athletic Commission. This is a welcome development for those who recall the finesse and sense of professionalism which he exhibited during the bouts that he handled.
For Lipton, the key lies in selecting those who have “vast boxing experience, who are in shape, are quick, fluid, and have performed well under pressure while remaining cool”.
And how does he handle the aura of the contemporary boxing ‘superstar’ or high-profile fighter with an ego to match that of a Roman emperor? “All boxers, champs and challengers, should be treated the same,” he is on the record as stating.
When Bobby Czyz made insinuations about Evander Holyfield in a bout in order to get it stopped earlier than it eventually went, Lipton held firm. Fans will also recall Roy Jones signalling Lipton to stop his bout against Bryant Brannon. Brannon was being dominated by the lightening fast Jones, and from a distance he appeared to be getting consistently hammered. What most did not see, but as the third man in the ring was apparent to Lipton, was that Jones was missing many of his shots by fractions of inches. Again Lipton only stepped in when he was satisfied that Brannon was unable to continue.
Apart from insulating himself from the tendency for some referees to be overawed by the status of certain fighters, Lipton’s handling also makes a non-issue the sort of lingering suspicion held about some in his profession who have pre-designated notions as to the sort of fighting style they favour: boxer or puncher, the important thing is to treat both equally and not to allow either to get away with any infringements of the rules.
Biases of the aforementioned type were magnified when referees were given the responsibility for scoring bouts. This is no longer the case in American jurisdictions and is a state of affairs Lipton is happy with. “There is”, he once mentioned, “too much going on in the ring.”
And what do fans look forward to when Lipton is finally selected for his return to the ring? A calm and unobtrusive arbiter who is primed to make interventions when he adjudges such an action to be required. With Lipton there are not the sorts of irritating and objectionable features boxing fans have had to endure over the years including hysterical gesturing of the hands, the making of overly emotional faces or yelling orders to boxers in a gruff manner. Importantly, he sets the tone before the action commences by keeping control in the respective dressing rooms and preparing each fighter for any contingency before he gets into the ring.
As he stated in an interview conducted over a decade ago, “My instructions in mid-ring are always the same: ‘I’ve given you the rules. Respect each other, obey my commands, and let’s keep this strictly professional.”
The honour of having been selected to officiate a professional title match is what spurs him on, and boxing fans will no doubt be honoured to have him in the ring sooner rather than later.
For further information on Ron Lipton: http://www.ronliptononline.com/
Adeyinka Makinde is the author of the biographies: DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula. Website: http://adeyinkamakinde.homestead.com/index.html