George Ward: Picture courtesy Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
Go to a fight. Watch each corner between rounds. If the fight is being properly regulated, someone will be standing on the ring apron just outside the ropes, staring intently at the interplay between the fighter, his trainer, and anyone else who's involved. That observer is an inspector. On fight night, he's the eyes and ears of the state athletic commission in the dressing room and at ringside. Without inspectors, fight cards don't take place.
George Ward is an inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission. He was born in Brooklyn in 1958. His date of birth (September 11th) would have deeper meaning later on. His father was a police officer. His brother followed in his father's footsteps. His sister is a nurse.
Ward went to Erasmus High School, which years earlier had produced Barbra Streisand, Billy Cunningham, and Neil Diamond. He played tight end on the varsity football team ("I was always big"); pitcher and first base in baseball.
After graduating from Erasmus in 1977, Ward married at age nineteen and worked as a building maintenance mechanic for seven years. But with a growing family, he needed a job with better benefits, so he applied to become a New York City police officer, firefighter, and corrections officer. "The Department of Corrections called me first," he says. "That's how I became a corrections officer."
In 1984, Ward began work at the Adolescent Remand Detention Center on Rikers Island. "At the time," he recalls, "there was a lot of gang violence in the city jails, and the warden thought a boxing program would reduce stress among the adolescent inmates. I'd always loved boxing. I boxed a bit at the Flatbush Boys Club when I was a kid, but I realized at an early age that I didn't have what it takes to be a boxer. My parents always told me, 'If you can't be what you want, be the next best thing.' So I'd started refereeing in the amateurs. Then the warden asked me to start an adolescent boxing program on Rikers Island and I jumped at the chance."
Ward's program became operational in 1986. "There were two thousand inmates," he remembers, "and 186 of them joined the program. We used a regulation ring, headgear, and twelve-ounce gloves. Every other Friday night, we had a dozen fights, sometimes more. I was the trainer, matchmaker, and referee. For each show, I chose a different inmate to be the ring announcer and assigned other corrections officers to be the judges. The inmates were the fans. I loved it."
In 1988, the Department of Corrections disbanded Ward's boxing program because of civil liability issues. Two years later, he was transferred to the Brooklyn Correctional Facility, where he worked in the recreation department with the general inmate population. In 1993, that jail closed and he moved to the Brooklyn House of Detention. He stayed there until 1999, when he requested a transfer to the Queens House of Detention, so he could be closer to his home on Long Island.
"Being a corrections officer is a unique experience," Ward acknowledges. "My first six months on the job, I was frightened because I'd never been in a jail before. But over time, I learned how to deal with the pressures of the job. The inmates are in jail for a reason, but you treat them on an individual basis. I was in a few situations where there were fights and I had to break things up. I'm not Superman. I'd call for help to stop the violence. Sometimes now, I'll run into someone on the street who I knew as an inmate on the inside, but I've never had a problem."
Ward retired as a corrections officer in 2005. His remaining professional obligation is his work as an inspector for the New York State Athletic Commission. He was appointed to the position in 1982 and has been doing it ever since. It's a per diem job that pays $52 for each assignment plus 48 cents a mile in travel expenses. In other words, he does it for love of boxing, not money.
"The first fight I worked as an inspector," Ward recalls, "was at a bingo hall in Shirley, Long Island. I drove seventy miles to get there and was so nervous I couldn't tell you who fought that night. But over time, I fell in love with the job. I refereed in the amateurs until last year and could have been a pro referee a long time ago, but I prefer being an inspector. As a referee, you get relatively few assignments. As an inspector, I can work every card that's within driving distance of my home."
On fight night, Ward arrives at the arena two hours before the first bout. Generally, he's assigned to cover one or two fighters. That means sitting with them in the dressing room prior to their bouts and accompanying them to ringside for their fights.
In the dressing room, Ward introduces himself to each fighter that he has been assigned to supervise and also to the fighter's seconds. During the time leading up to a fight, supervises the wrapping of hands, watches his fighters glove up, and checks the corner bucket to make sure that no illegal substances are present. He also makes sure that things move as scheduled so each fighter is ready on time.
When the fighter leaves for the ring, Ward goes with him. In the corner, he watches to make sure that all rules and regulations are followed. He wipes ice and excess water from the ring canvas and checks to make sure that the fighter's mouthpiece is in place before the start of each round. "I'm always watching and listening for anything out of the ordinary," he says. He's also looking for signs that a fighter might be hurt more than the referee or ring doctor realize.
"I've seen good and I've seen bad," Ward notes. "I've seen trainers stab a fighter's glove with scissors on purpose to buy extra time for their fighter. I've caught guys with illegal substances. I'm not a decision-maker. When something improper happens, depending on what it is, my job is to notify the referee or one of the commissioners at ringside. They decide what to do about it."
Ward was assigned to James Toney on April 30, 2005, when "Lights Out" wrested the WBA heavyweight crown from John Ruiz. In that capacity, he took the urine sample from James that tested positive for Nandrolone (an illegal steroid). Toney was stripped of his WBA belt and Ruiz was reinstated as champion.
And there are more painful memories. Ward was in the corner of George Khalid Jones on June 26, 2001, when Jones knocked out Beethavean Scottland. Seconds after the fight, Scottland lapsed into a coma. Six days later, he died. There's a school of thought that, had Ward been in Scottland's corner, he might have gotten the ring doctor involved at an earlier point in time. Maybe it would have made a difference; maybe not.
But some traumas can't be avoided. On November 23, 2001, there was a fight card at Roseland Ballroom to raise funds for the families of police officers and fire-fighters who had died on 9/11. Ward was assigned to James Butler, who lost a ten-round decision to Richard Grant. As the victor stood in the ring awaiting a post-fight television interview, Butler walked over and sucker-punched him.
"It came out of nowhere," Ward says. "The fight was over. Butler moved toward him like fighters always do when they're going to embrace. And it happened in an instant. Grant dropped to the canvas like he was shot. Blood was pouring out of his mouth. He was hurt real bad."
After the assault, Butler jumped out of the ring and ran to his dressing room. Ray Kelly (the once-and-future New York City police commissioner) was chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission at the time.
"Commissioner Kelly told me to secure the dressing room," Ward recalls. "So I went in and kept everyone else out until the police arrived. We were alone; just Butler and me. He was calm. Then the police came in. They let him change into his street clothes, handcuffed him, and took him away."
Thereafter, Ward testified before the grand jury that indicted the fighter on a charge of felony assault. Butler pled guilty, served four months in prison, and was released on five year's probation. Three years later, he bludgeoned writer Sam Kellerman to death. He's now serving a 29-year sentence for manslaughter.
Ward was also in Andrew Golota's corner on the night of July 11, 1996, when Golota was disqualified by referee Wayne Kelly for repeated low blows inflicted upon Riddick Bowe.
"There was a riot in the ring and a riot out of it," Ward says. "The trouble came from Bowe's corner, and then everything got out of hand. Lou Duva [Golota's trainer] was on the canvas. He had some kind of heart problem, and I was pushing people away from him so he wouldn't get trampled. The scariest thing for me that night was, I'd come to Madison Square Garden right from my job as a corrections officer. I had my gun with me, and I was afraid that someone would grab it out of the holster; so I had to make sure that my gun was secure at the same time I was trying to protect Lou Duva. After that, I never wore my gun in the ring again."
If Ward had been in Bowe's corner that night, would things have been different?
"I couldn't answer that," Ward responds. "I can only tell you what I do in certain situations. When I see hostility building in a corner, I try to clear the area and use my presence to stop a problem before it happens. It helps that I'm 6-feet-3-inches, 250 pounds."
Being an inspector is often a thankless job. Ron Scott Stevens (chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission) observes, "On fight night, the inspectors do all the dirty work. Everyone else is in the arena enjoying the show. The inspectors are in the dressing rooms making sure that everything is done above-board and that the rules and regulations of the commission are being followed. The only time they come out is when the fighter they're assigned to is fighting. And they're in a very sensitive situation. From the fighters' point of view, a stranger has entered their midst to supervise them at a time of high tension."
"But George is one of our best inspectors," Stevens continues. "He has the total respect of his peers. He cares about the welfare of the fighters. He's attentive to detail. He knows every duty that an inspector has to perform. He's always available, a team player, dependable and fair. If he makes a mistake, which isn't often, he's the first to acknowledge it. He has an authoritative presence and is tough when he has to be; but he doesn't push people around or interfere with the concentration or rhythm of a fighter's team."
Ward appreciates the kind words. But it's equally important to him that he's doing something he loves to do. After all, he couldn't be a fighter and this is the next best thing.
* * *
Last week, Nevada Senator Harry Reid was in the news for accepting free ringside tickets from the Nevada State Athletic Commission at a time when the powers that be in Nevada were trying to persuade Reid to block legislation that would have created a federal boxing commission. Marc Ratner (former executive director of the NSAC) acknowledged to the Associated Press, "I invited him because I was talking with his staff. This was a chance for all of my commissioners, who are politically appointed, to interact with [him]. I am a states rights activist, and I didn't want any federal bill that would take away our state rights to regulate fights."
The Reid incident is just the tip of the iceberg where the NSAC is concerned. First, let's be clear about one thing. Reid's tickets didn't come from the commission. They were funnelled through the commission, but the commission didn't pay for them either. In each instance, the original source was the promoter.
This is a longstanding problem in Nevada, where thousands of tickets (and often, in excess of one hundred tickets per fight) have been given to commission personnel by promoters in recent years. Three years ago, in an article entitled "Conflicts of Interest," I wrote about the receipt of fight tickets by members of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. A portion of that article follows:
"CONFLICTS OF INTEREST" . . . SECONDSOUT.COM . . . MARCH 20, 2003
Under Nevada regulations, each of the state's five commissioners is given six tickets in addition to his own seat for every fight card held in Nevada. These tickets are provided by the promoter. Two of them must be ringside. The other four tickets may be anywhere in the arena. The goal of this rule is to eliminate the embarrassment and abuse that might otherwise flow from commissioners asking promoters for tickets. But ringside tickets can be in the first row or the last. "Anywhere in the arena" can mean more ringside tickets or nose-bleed seats. That leaves a lot of room for favors.
These tickets are no small item. In a recent 29-day period, there were four major fight cards held in Las Vegas. The ticket range for these cards was as follows: Medina-Marquez ($50 to $250), Mosley-Marquez ($25 to $250), Austin-Marquez ($40 to $200), Jones-Ruiz ($100 to $1,200).
If the promoters of these fight cards gave each commissioner the least expensive tickets required by law, their face value would have been $4,660 for each commissioner. If the promoters gave each commissioner the most expensive tickets allowable under Nevada law, their face value would have been $11,400 for each commissioner.
And that's for one month alone.
Raymond Avansino, Jr. [now chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission] was reportedly sufficiently concerned with the ticket issue that he asked the Nevada State Ethics Commission for a confidential opinion on the propriety of the system. Then, after some preliminary steps, his request for an opinion was withdrawn.
One might also ask whether the commissioners pay personal income tax on tickets that they receive and give to a family member or friend. According to the Internal Revenue Service, these tickets are taxable as items of personal income.
In dealing with the ticket issue, Nevada's chief deputy attorney general Keith Kizer [now executive director of NSAC] cites Section 281.481(1) of the Nevada Revised Statutes, which states, "A public officer or employee shall not seek or accept any gift, service, favor, employment, engagement, emolument, or economic opportunity which would tend improperly to influence a reasonable person in his position to depart from the faithful and impartial discharge of his public duties."
The key loophole in this statute is the provision that gratuities are only forbidden if they "would tend improperly to influence a reasonable person." Kizer knows each of the commissioners. He believes that they are all honorable men and thus would not be improperly influenced by these perks of office.
However, Section 6308 of the federal Professional Boxing Safety Act is a different matter. This statute has a section entitled "Conflicts of Interest" that declares," No member or employee of a boxing commission, no person who administers or enforces State boxing laws, and no member of the Association of Boxing Commissions may belong to, contract with, or receive any compensation from any person who sanctions, arranges, or promotes professional boxing matches."
In other words, the federal statute contains a flat prohibition. There's no "reasonable person" "exemption. Moreover, under the federal law, "compensation" doesn't mean just money; it means anything of value.
The policies of the Nevada State Athletic Commission appear to violate the Professional Boxing Safety Act. That's a shame because, when the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds disrespect for the law.
* * *
And a note on another matter --
Wayne Rozen had a vision. Rosen, 63, is president of Indian Valley Industries, a family-owned company in upstate New York that sells construction material and erosion-control products.
"I've always been fascinated by the fight between Jack Johnson and James Jeffries" Rozen says. "It's the quintessential American underdog story although, in a narrower sense, it's Jeffries who was the underdog. From the day he said yes, he never had a chance to win the fight. And when it was over, his legacy as an unconquerable hero was shattered."
Rozen, a longtime boxing fan who began writing articles for The Ring at age sixteen, cherishes the memory of getting an autograph from Sonny Liston shortly after Liston learned to write. In later years, he wrote a column on boxing for the Gannett newspaper syndicate, had a cup of coffee as an analyst for ESPN's Top Rank Boxing, and promoted a handful of fights.
Three years ago, Rozen made a commitment to a remarkable project. "I wanted to write about the Great White Hope fight," he says. "I knew how I wanted the book to play out, and I also knew that no publisher would publish the book the way I wanted. So I decided to do it myself."
The result isn't vanity publishing. It's self-publishing to do the job right. America on the Ropes is possibly the best coffee-table photo book ever devoted to a single fight. It's 334 pages long and printed on oversized heavy glossy stock. The text is pretty good. The photographs are extraordinary. There are 300 of them combined with reproductions of fight tickets, cartoons, and other memorabilia of the day. The photos are arranged perfectly with the text and brought to life by the production values of the book.
Jack Johnson is still a vibrant figure in American history, but James Jeffries has been largely forgotten except as an appendage to Papa Jack. This book gives both men their due and restores Jeffries' life and lustre.
"The publishing bill was more than I wanted [in excess of $50,000]," Rozen acknowledges. "Just getting the book printed cost a lot. And there were photo permissions, an editor, an art director, and publicist. I'd love to sell enough books to get my money back. I probably won't, but that's fine."
Meanwhile, Rozen has one final thought on the Johnson-Jeffries fight. "At no time before or after," he says, "is there any record of the two men shaking hands. Given the spirit of boxing, I think that's sad."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org