Sunday 4 November 2012

Commentary: Ron Lipton – Missing in Action

The restoration of Ron Lipton’s referee’s licence just over a year ago by the New York State Athletic Commission, was from the perspective of many committed boxing fans, I think, acknowledged more with an overwhelming feeling of relief and less with a sense of triumph.

Here, after all, is a man who had officiated at the highest levels of the sport in the 1990s but whose licence, revoked initially on the basis of an incident in which he was acting in self-defence, had became embroiled in a protracted effort to secure registration in a toxin-permeated atmosphere of what appeared to be an interminable series of obfuscations and needless and heavy-handed bias.

Still, with well over a decade of his refereeing career frozen and never to be returned, it was in something of a celebratory mood that in May earlier this year, a party of upwards of 70 persons consisting of his family, friends, acquaintances and students from New York City’s Marist College in Poughkeepsie came out to see Lipton referee a preliminary bout on a bill headlined by Patrick Hyland, an up and coming super featherweight.

Some may have considered it to be something of a humiliation, or if that is too strong a word, something of a ‘comedown’, to be refereeing on a prelim bout before a hometown audience. But not Lipton.

How would one know this? Anyone looking on as a member of the audience or tuned into the live Internet stream would have noticed Lipton’s figure, situated just outside the spotlights which were strategically shone onto the squared ring, in the partially-darkened vicinity of the ring; his silhouette conveying an erect and focussed posture.

They would have then observed him proceed to embark on a gentle but precisely executed set of stretching exercises, and would have noted him purposefully walking around the ring prior to the entrances of the combatants of the bout to which he had been designated to officiate.

This is Lipton before any bout he officiates. It matters not whether he is about to officiate a twelve-round world championship bout before a capacity crowd of frenzied Irishmen in the Green Glens Arena in County Cork or in a six-round preliminary bout in a modest promotion in New York State; Lipton is the same model professional exhibiting the same high level of commitment and diligence before, during and after the fight that he is overseeing.

This will not come as a surprise to those who have known him in his capacity as a trainer, a college instructor, an award-winning choreographer and as an officer in law enforcement.

To know Lipton is to recognise in both his background and persona a dyed-in-the-wool native of New York City. What with underpinnings as a police official, a three-time boxing champion in the amateur ranks (albeit achieved in neighbouring New Jersey) alongside his Jewish-Italian heritage, he is a definition of the essence of what could be defined as ‘traditional’ New York.

And with his ambiance as a tough and versatile, life-long dweller and operator within the hyper-competitive jungle of America’s foremost conurbation, there resides in his cool, articulate demeanour something of the unquenchable spirit referred to by the character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca who matter-of-a-factly cautions the Nazi figure played by Conrad Veidt about the practicability of invading certain neighbourhoods in New York.

For most of his life, Lipton has lived and breathed boxing. Yet, one year on after the re-issuance of his licence, the May fight is the only one he has participated in despite a number of high profile promotions having taken place. The biting sense of discrepancy is not displaced even if one allows for an ostensibly not unreasonable strategy of easing him back into his duties after his rather lengthy ‘lay off.’ The fact is that Lipton does not appear to have been used as often as he could and should be utilised particularly given his vast experience.

What is behind this seeming policy of exclusion if no longer outright ostracism? During his enforced absence, Lipton was outspoken in his criticism of certain figures in the boxing industry and specifically was unrelenting in his denunciations of what he perceived to be the woeful standards of refereeing.

The latter was not particularly controversial given the widespread criticisms of certain referees voiced by fans on the pages of boxing magazines and Internet sites. Most notorious was the condemnation and revulsion felt by many at the handling of a fight involving Beethoven Scotland who later died from brain injuries. This formed the centre point of an article by the late Jack Newfield in the November edition of The Nation in 2001.

While Lipton lessened the tone of the criticisms he had voiced about certain figures, he remained uncompromising in his appraisals of refereeing competence. His outspokenness was due not only to the injustice meted to him but also because many aficionados of the sport sought his opinions in the aftermath of every major match on the cyberboxingzone website where he has served as a popular and respected resident expert for over a decade.

Since his formal re-instatement among the fraternity of New York referees, he has kept silent on performance as he is bound by a code of conduct. But the developments over the past year appear not to have solved the issues at the heart of his original blackballing.

If the often self-touted cultural trait of British ‘fair play’ is not a phrase commonly used across the Atlantic, the Americans nonetheless frequently assert the pre-eminence of justice as an essential cog in the conduct of the affairs of their society.  Openness and transparency are the highly valued corresponding values in an avowedly competitive culture shorn of the stereotypically tradition bound methods practised in the so-called ‘Old World.’

But in the culture of New York, the LaGuardian values of meritocracy have for long vied with those of Tammany Hall-like patronage and deeply embedded traditions of intrigue and the closed-door dealings of cabals.

From this writer’s outsider’s vantage point, it is almost inconceivable to think of the son-of-the-soil Lipton being the victim of an ethnic-based prejudice, although he is surely one of a few Jewish referees who have operated at top level boxing in recent times. The same applies even taking into consideration the changes in demography and the increased and influential role of African-Americans and Latinos in boxing administration since the 1970s. Those familiar with the Lipton story would be aware of his championing the cause of African-Americans and other minorities which was undertaken at great personal cost while he was in law enforcement.

The suspicion is that there are issues at play which may be rooted in party political allegiances or are predicated on persons bearing a particularly severe form of personal animus.

Meanwhile, as the sands of time ebb away ever slowly but surely, the Jeffersonian quote about justice not sleeping forever must continually plague the mind of Ron Lipton and, indeed, any reasonable and objective person who loves and cares for the sport of boxing.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2012)

Ron Lipton is featured in IMPACT: Jewish Boxers in America a new documentary airing on Cablevision and The Jewish Channel.

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.

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