By Derek Bonnett: One of the many highlights of the International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend are the Ringside Lectures. The 2017 weekend did not disappoint. The most engaging lecture this year and some of the most interesting over the last six years came from a myriad of boxing’s top referees. Joe Cortez delivered a great lecture back in 2011, but 2017’s delivered a KO combination comprised of Kenny Bayless, Robert Byrd, Tony Weeks, Robert Hoyle, and Russell Mora. The ensemble of top ring officials followed an entertaining discussion led by newly inducted Marco Antonio Barrera on the museum grounds Saturday, June 10.
Much of the weekend’s discourse centered on Mexican boxing traits such as heart, will, and warrior instinct or what they simply call cojones in places like Distrito Federal, Mexicali, Tijuana, or Culiacan. Leading referees Bayless and Weeks discuss their great honor in being part of Mexican-linked battles such as Barrera-Morales III and Corrales-Castillo I. Bayless, a future hall of fame referee, was so bedazzled by the action between Barrera and Morales that even now he had trouble sorting out the winners. Weeks spoke twice over the weekend in regard to his role in the first clash between Castillo and Corrales.
"That has to be one of the top ten best fights ever," Weeks, a veteran referee with one job shy of six hundred fights, said of the bout. "You had Corrales down and hurt in the tenth. Then he went down again. By then, I was looking at Corrales closely because I was thinking about stopping it. Next thing you know, I am looking at Castillo and stepping in."
The left hook from Castillo was perfectly timed and drilled Chico right on the side of his chin. The lanky champion wobbled and then fell, turning away from his opponent. Corrales’ mouthpiece was noted as being out by the commentary team on Showtime. Weeks correctly brought Corrales to his corner and strongly commanded Joe Goosen to put it back in quickly so he could resume action with minimal impact on the action produced by the fighters themselves.
When Corrales hit the canvas again seconds later, the mouthpiece was more obviously taken out by the fighter to buy himself a few precious seconds. Weeks was hip to this tactic.
"You okay? I’m going to take a point away for taking the mouthpiece out," Weeks said without hesitation on fight night, proving Robert Byrd’s point made later in the lecture on June 10.
"The most important thing, to me, is knowledge of the rules," Byrd said with almost dumb simplicity.
However, the top-flight referee couldn’t be more right.
Very often on television boxing fans hear network commentators express admiration for a referee based on how little their involvement is among the fighters or not being seen at all. The comment, sarcastic or not, has some merit to it, but it certainly undermines the mental precision a boxing referee must maintain at all times in lieu of the action unfolding before him or her.
"If you understand and you know what the rules are," Byrd, himself closing in on 700 contests as referee, continued, "then you can apply that rule correctly. It really doesn’t matter what announcers say; we don’t care. Our job is the safety of that fighter and complying with the rules."
A chorus of laughter followed from the audience, but what I noticed most from stage side was the synchronized nods of agreement enacted by Bayless, Weeks, Hoyle, and Mora as Byrd made his point. Byrd was praised by Bayless for initiating the modern practice of referees actually training as fighters. Bayless never fought as a professional and he attests that ring experience, while not essential, certainly helps a referee to make the right call.
The center of the discussion then turned to Mora, a referee widely criticized for his ring decisions most commonly associated with his work in the first Abner Mares-Joseph Agbeko bout in 2011. On fight night, I remember my own outrage at Mora for overlooking a slew of low blows landed by Mares, calling a knockdown against Agbeko following a hard blow south of the border, and, eventually, deducting a point from Agbeko after he was hit low. Hall of Fame commentator Al Bernstein called it the worst referee job he had ever witnessed.
"It was a very difficult fight and a very difficult time for me, but to err is human," Mora explained, now with more than 470 bouts on his resume. "I had to learn and accept that on that night I could have done a better job. I have learned a few more tools since then. There’s a saying in boxing that you have to be better today than last year or last month. I love boxing and I knew I had to get back to that confidence level."
As questions from the lecture built upon one another, the topic of suicide involving boxing referees was raised.
"Having been where I was, I can understand that," Mora said solemnly. "But I have this network of referees. I had them calling me, sometimes all of them each day, for support. We have that now. A lot of referees in different eras went about it alone."
Bayless a referee of more than 730 contests shared that during his referee tenure, he officiated three bouts which ended with a fallen fighter.
"The first was from a single punch," Bayless recalled. "He had a subdural hematoma; that is a bleeding of the brain. They cut him open and stopped the bleeding, but when they closed him up, it started bleeding again and he lost his life. I didn’t think I wanted to referee again after that."
And who could blame him?
"Today we call each other up to discuss fights," Bayless said. "I might call Tony and ask him about a fight neither of us worked and talk about what we would have done or if we agreed. When we reach out to a colleague that had a bad night, we can’t be too judgmental. We all have to own it and talk out how things might have been done better."
Referee criticism cannot come up without two things being mentioned: Chavez-Taylor I and Richard Steele. Steele had nearly five hundred bouts in his professional career as a referee and served as a mentor to many Las Vegas referees including Bayless. His work in the Chavez-Taylor bout will always be subject to scrutiny fair or unfair, depending on your perspective.
Bayless recounted some of the injuries sustained by Taylor against the Mexican icon, including a broken orbital bone, badly cut lips, swollen eyes, and approximately two pints of his own blood poisoning him after being ingested. Taylor was taken to the hospital on a stretcher. Many boxing aficionados can only focus on the two seconds remaining and the scores at the time, but, you see, that is what makes boxing so great. This very point I shared with Mora later in the day at the memorabilia show. In boxing there are two ways to win. You can build up more points the way Taylor was or you can score a knockout. In tennis, two sets down is almost a foregone conclusion. In football, soccer, baseball, and basketball a certain gap in points typically determines the winner unofficially before the time has run out. Boxing has that X-Factor, the knockout. In many ways, the outcome of Chavez-Taylor I is the perfect example of why boxing is great.
"Richard Steele made the right call," Byrd stated emphatically.
Together the team of referees recounted numerous factors of the fight such as Taylor being asked if he was all right and Lou Duva distracting Taylor from the corner.
"A round is three minutes long," Weeks stated. "It doesn’t matter how much time is left. Our job is to ensure the safety of the fighter. If the referee determines that one more punch is too much, then the fight must end."
"We can all live with the fight that gets stopped too early," Byrd said to a round of applause.
"In the NBA, everybody gets to go home after the game. Why can’t the same be for boxing?" Mora asked.
After speaking with him personally, even I left on great terms with Mora, who truly is an excellent human being and gentleman. He loves fighters too and he openly shared some photo memories with me and my wife after our discussion. He admitted to hundreds of people and thousands more after this writing that he made mistakes and could be better. It takes a man to do that and men deserve respect.
The common theme of the afternoon was safety first. Boxing will always have bad calls and hasty stoppages from referees, but it is comforting to know that the right men are on the job and have a lot to offer those on the way up.