It was not just the first fight between George Groves and Carl Froch that brought them to people’s attention. The men in the middle have been part of our main focus and criticism for some considerable time. We do not hold back when it comes to referees.
A few weeks ago there was even a dispute in the ring when Liam Williams told referee Bob Williams that he had let his demolition of Joe Mullender go on too long. It was a criticism well worth listening to as Williams had been in the corner for when Dale Evans fought Mike Towell, from which the Dundee boxer died and also in the corner when Nick Blackwell ended in a coma after his fight with Chris Eubank Jr. Ironically, the referee for both the Towell and the Blackwell fight was the same man; Victor Loughlin.
Getting things wrong in the sport of boxing could not be more devastating than the man in the middle deciding that things need to continue for longer than they need to. I am aware, even, of one occasion when a referee refused to accept the towel being thrown in and allowing a fight to continue. It was Mickey Vann when Graham Earl’s corner threw in the towel in his fight with Michael Katsidis. Seconds later Earl wobbled Katsidis but ultimately was unable to win the contest; his referee gave him a fighting chance though…
But when they do allow the punishment to go beyond the point where it is sensible, the consequences can be of the worst possible kind.
So why take on the job? Why put yourself in the middle of such a critical focus of criticism? Why go through the training and the voluntary hours of learning the rule book, getting your face on TV and taking the criticism?
Well how else do you get to be famous? How else do you get to be in Madison Square Gardens? Or the 02? Or at some of the biggest fights in the history of boxing? If you were to ask Arthur Mercante who was in the ring with Ali and Frazier on the 8th March 1971 at MSG he would probably have told you that being in the ring for that fight, out of the 145 title fights he refereed, he would rather have been elsewhere in the 10th. It was then that he accidentally poked Frazier in the eye, earning the wrath of Frazier’s team but not altering the outcome of the fight.
Sometimes though, earning the wrath can be quite dangerous as the referee in the European Youth Games who was attacked by Croat boxer, Vido Loncar, after he had awarded the contest to his opponent. Now serving a life ban from the sport Loncar had to be dragged from the ring after physically making his point known.
Ironically in the sport that is thought of as being the most dangerous of all sports referees have found themselves threatened but alive. In football there have been referees murdered after sending someone off in a youth game in Argentina, an American player ended up with a 15 year prison term after killing the referee with a single punch and in Brazil, a referee was decapitated after stabbing to death a player on the field of play!
Referees though also double as judges in boxing and here they can end up being mired in controversy. It means that referees can never paint themselves as lily white victims. In the Olympics at Rio, we are well aware of the removal of judges and referees who were corrupt and we are now looking into an abyss where there may be NO boxing in the Olympics in Tokyo because of the lack of faith in the amateur organisation that runs the amateur side of the sport, AIBA.
This was after the famous Michael Conlan tirade and when he had beaten Vladimir Nikitin of Russia and then was denied the win by such corruption. There had been previous Russian wins that were strange – especially when Evgeny Tishchenko of Russia “beat” Kazakhstan’s Vassily Levit.
Thankfully few of the refereeing decisions in the professional game have been truly questioned though a few have drawn criticism, mainly it has to be said, because of their interventions to stop fights or their lack of intervention.
All referees have a difficult job to complete BUT we need them. Attempts to give us judging by computer should fail because the objectivity of the analysis does not really take into account the fact that two human beings are competing. Perhaps we have to also remember that the referee is similarly human and prone to similar failings… we can forgive but learn by not forgetting…