Veteran referee Steve Smoger recently talked with Saturday Night Boxing in a wide-ranging interview. Boxing has sent Smoger, a professional referee since 1982, all around the world. He has worked fights on six continents in dozens of countries. One of the more high-profile referees in the sport, Smoger lives in New Jersey and was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. Smoger remains busy as an active referee; in 2012, he worked 55 fights.
In Part I of the interview, Smoger, who was the third man in the ring for classics such as Hopkins-Trinidad, Toney-Jirov and Ward-Augustus, talks about his early involvement with boxing, his first mentors, his refereeing philosophy, fight preparation and Taylor-Pavlik I.
Interview by Adam Abramowitz:
(This Interview has been condensed.)
(This Interview has been condensed.)
You were born in Virginia in a military family and moved to New Jersey. Was boxing a big part of your family growing up?
Absolutely. Fighters were the main topic in my home. My dad was a great fight fan. He even dabbled in managing a local kid, a local heavyweight, just to support him. It never went anywhere, but he always used to tell me the stories of the fighters of his era – Joe Louis and Ray Robinson – and how terrific they were. They were always a topic in my home.
I read that you actually attended the first fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott in Philadelphia.
I absolutely did. I was on my daddy’s knee. I don’t know what I was looking at, but I was there. That shows you how ardent a fan my dad was. I was there with my dad and my Uncle Denny. The story of what I recall was that my dad said when Jersey Joe got knocked out I started to cry. And my dad said, “Why are you so upset? “
And I said, “Well dad, he’s from Jersey.”
The end result was that the crowd all went to the new champion and I actually touched Walcott’s robe. I went down and we saw him coming out with his entourage. My dad held me over and I touched him. September 23, 1952.
As an adult, what made you want to get further involved in boxing?
Well, I boxed on the amateur level at the Atlantic City YMCA, recreationally. I also boxed while in college at Penn State, mostly for conditioning. They had an intramural team. I found that I didn’t enjoy wrestling. I found that [in boxing] at 5’6½", 135 lbs. I was in with people my own size and my own weight. So I liked that factor. I was too small for basketball, too small for football. I ran cross country at Atlantic City High, and as you well know, Adam, conditioning is 90% of boxing. So I found three, two-minute rounds or three-threes didn’t tax me because of my running agenda.
I dabbled in it and it was a lot of fun – mostly recreationally. But I enjoyed the ambience of the sport, if you will. When I graduated from law school, I became a member of the Atlantic City PAL [Police Athletic League] club and they had a very fine amateur program. I became like an assistant coach, helping with the conditioning of the kids who fought on the PAL boxing team. So, it was a natural progression.
Realizing my own natural limitations, I did enjoy the whole atmosphere of the gym. I began to referee on the amateur level after I graduated from law school. I began in the South Jersey/Philadelphia region. And, like everything in life, timing is everything. When casinos came in, the New Jersey Boxing Commission – it changed shortly thereafter to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board – needed referees.
On the staff at that time were Frank Cappuccino, Tony Perez and a few others. They had a very limited crew. So I submitted an application and was accepted in 1982.
I read that Jersey Joe Walcott was the commissioner at the time and he was the one who signed your first professional permit.
You did your homework, sir. And guess when he signed it?
I was on the amateur level, waiting and waiting. I became an inspector – my first position with the New Jersey Boxing Commission. I was an inspector from 1978-1982, along with training as an amateur referee.
As inspector, the eyes and ears of the commission, I would assist the chief inspector in observing hand wrapping and you’ll notice the inspectors in the corner. For example, the fight we just did in Pennsylvania [I originally reached out to Smoger at the Adamek-Cunningham II card in December], there was an inspector assigned to each corner to observe the activity.
I was in the company of tremendous trainers in those four years as an inspector – Emanuel Steward, may he rest in peace. You name a top trainer and I would have been assigned to that corner at one time or another. So I was learning the trade – the professionalism of the sport – and all the while functioning as an amateur referee on the circuit.
I thought I was ready to go up in June of ’82 and the story in short was that Joe called me. We were at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino at Tuesday Night at the Fights. Tuesday at the Trop was the first major series implemented by Don Elbaum at the advent of casino gaming. Joe said, “You caused yourself some time.”
I said, “What do you mean, Commish?”
He said, “I didn’t forget you.” We spent a lot of quality time together – many conversations, many lunches. If he came in early for a show, I was the only inspector who lived in the Atlantic City area. So I would meet him for lunch at whatever hotel we were working.
So we were at a casino and he said, “I didn’t forget the story that you touched my robe on the night I fought Rocky Marciano, and I wanted to commemorate that.” So he issued my provisional license, or permit as you say, on September 23, 1982 – 30 years to the day.
That’s a great story.
That’s true. That’s how it happened.
As a young referee, who were some of the people that you looked up to for guidance? Who were the people you would speak with to get better at your job?
There were two in particular. When I first broke in while working the amateurs, I was invited to do some ring work with Zach Clayton. Zach was a well-known and highly respected referee in Philadelphia. He then became the Commissioner [of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission]. We’re going back now to the late‘70s/early ‘80s. He emphasized positioning and smooth movement. He suggested that you train and do your ring work to music, so you flow, so you gain the sense of mobility without interfering. I really appreciated the insight from him.
Secondarily was Frank Cappuccino – again, ring movement, positioning and verbal commands – things of that nature. They were the two that I really looked up to…and then to a degree, my future commissioner, Larry Hazzard. He did real ring movement. He was very dynamic with his gestures, but not overly so. He was always in the right place at the right time. Those were the three officials that I really tried to emulate, some of their moves and some of their characteristics.
As you started getting bigger assignments, what did you find was most difficult for you?
The most challenging thing was to remain calm, cool and collected. You don’t want to get caught up in the moment. To me, the essence of refereeing is judgment and movement. You want to be in the right place in the right time. It’s like the beer commercial that was popular at the time: You have to know when to say when.
Fighter safety is paramount, but then again you don’t want to remove the drama from the sport, because at any given moment one punch can turn the tide – the John Tate shot with 12 seconds left. There are no off-nights. A referee cannot have an off-night when there are two lives in your hands and two careers in your hands. You can’t say they’ll do a redo. A fighter loses and all of the sudden he drops down in the ratings and he might not get another shot for years, or forever.
It was always refining my ability to be on the money and to make sure that I get it right. It’s the search for perfection – to be as perfect as one could be at any one sport or profession.
In the ‘80s you were very active in Atlantic City, where there seemed to be at least a decent-sized fight card every week. According to my count, you worked 44 fights in 1985, all in A.C. Can you describe what boxing was like in Atlantic City back then?
Adam, it was absolutely incredible. Those days will never be duplicated. I think in 1983 there were some 200-plus cards. At the time, I was the Atlantic City Prosecutor, which is equivalent to the district attorney. My brother-in-arms, who I stayed in close communication with – we always said we were in a club of two, the only two people in the world who were licensed referees and at one time district attorneys and at one time court officials – was Mills Lane. He was the district attorney of Reno and I was the district attorney of Atlantic City. He went to the superior court and I went to municipal court. We would exchange stories. He would have in his office, as I would have in mine, a bag packed.
You never knew when you would be called, even if you weren’t assigned. As the closest licensed official, I literally got called on several occasions at 5:00 for a 7:30 start when one referee was caught in traffic. Joe O’Neill, who was a fine referee with the New Jersey Commission, was a roofer. One day, he got done work, climbed down a ladder and stepped on a nail. So they called me. I was seven minutes away.
And you really hone your craft. The only way you can really better yourself and improve is work. It was very, very exciting because every major name fought in Atlantic City in the '80s. It was incredible. You name a stable. Kronk was here with Hilmer Kenty, Sean O’Grady from the Midwest. Holyfield fought here at the Showboat. Tyson fought here on his way up. He fought at the Claridge. Lennox Lewis fought his first fight in the United States. Here’s some trivia: who did Lenox Lewis’ first fight in the U.S.
I know you did. It was his second professional fight.
Exactly. He knocked out Bruce Johnson at Convention Hall [now Boardwalk Hall] on a Mike Tyson undercard. It was incredible. The preparation I don’t think will ever be duplicated for a person to come in and be able to try to master his trade of refereeing, because I had every occasion – 4s, 6s, 8s and even 15s. There were 15-round championships back in the day. Words cannot describe the excitement of leaving work, leaving my office, going over, having a light snack, change and get ready for a fight at the Playboy Club, or the Atlantis Casino. Resorts was very, very active. Every Tuesday night at the Trop there was a fight card. That was Atlantic City’s answer to the club show. Occasionally, there was a television card, but primarily it was 4s, 6s and 8s.
It was very dynamic and a learning experience for me, being in the company of Bob Lee, the former Commissioner, Joe Walcott, initially. You can’t top that – Joe Walcott as my incoming commissioner! It was incredible and it will never be duplicated, at least not on a level that I will experience.
In 1986, you had your first international assignment with Jong-Kwan Chung and Bi-Won Jung in South Korea. How did the fight come about in terms of your assignment and do you have any lasting memories of the match?
Yes. I’ll tell you why. The IBF was in its infancy. They were formed in 1983. I was honored, if you will, Adam, because that was one of their first fights in Korea. Bob Lee selected me. I met Alan Kim, who today still functions as a supervisor and vice president of the WBA. The experience was incredible. The experience of being involved in a world title and that was in, I think, my third year, was fabulous. The lasting memory is how they treat their fighters in Asia. They are treated as deity – the ceremonies that precede the fight, the prayer ceremonies in Korea but also in Thailand, the pre-fight prayer and the pre-fight menus. What the fighters go through and how they are treated by the public is incredible in Asia. It was really, really fantastic.
It was my first international fight experience. I had never been in an Asian country. [I had to] adapt or observe the rituals. And then having the fight go very, very well, Alan praised me for my work. They enjoyed the fact that my speed in the ring didn’t interfere with the little fellows [the fight was for a flyweight title] and they reported it back and it was very, very glowing. That opened the door to other matches. I had a great run in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s. I worked Korea, Thailand, Japan – your major venues in Asia. It was fabulous. The fact that it was the first event and it went so well. Also, the fact that it was one of the IBF’s first championship matches.
You’ve been all around the world in boxing. What’s the most obscure place you’ve been to and what sticks out about that experience?
I think the most obscure place was an IBA world title fight in Ekaterinburg, Russia. It was a very, very good fight. The young man’s name [Rustam Nugaev] escapes me but he did come over here and fight in the United States. It was an excellent bout. Being in Russia for the first time and seeing the sights and sounds of working Russia, that stands out. The crowd was excellent. They treated me with the utmost respect. It showed me that boxing is truly an international sport.
Going through customs in Russia is a little much. You have to have your visa in order. They want to know what you're doing there and why you’re doing it there, and so forth. Luckily, they had members of the promoter’s team there to greet us, take us through and answer any questions.
The fight went well. There was no problem. There was no controversy. I made a very, very good friend. He’s the Russian commissioner. His first name is Igor [Igor Mazurov, the General Secretary of the Russian Professional Boxing Federation]. I saw him as recently as September of ’12. I did an IBO fight over there in 2012. Bakhtin. Alexander Bakhtin. I think he fought a Filipino [Roli Gasca]. We’ve been friends from ’08 to 2012. Every time I’m there, he treats me very, very well.
We run the rules meetings together. The formality in Russia is much greater than let’s say the rules meeting in the United States. It’s very formal. They go over each and every aspect. You have to go over the international language of “Stop, Box and Break.” Hand-wrappings are different. Everything is different. You try with every organization you are working for to formulate and make sure to apply those rules correctly.
For big title fights, can you walk us through your preparation, both leading up to the fight and during the day of the match?
That’s a very good question. Well I’m in the gym every day. If the fighters can train, I can train. I want to be in the best shape that I possibly can. I find that if you are in good physical shape, you are in good mental shape. So, I’m lucky to live half a block from the mighty Atlantic Ocean and the Ventnor City/Atlantic City Boardwalk. I’m up there other than on snow days. I also have access to the Ocean Club Condominium gym and health club. And I have a tread and other equipment in my own home. So, I’m always ready and I’m always set to go. I don’t take any days off.
Adam, there are two schools of thought and I’ll go right to it. Early in my career, I had the pleasure of being asked to present a referee’s seminar for the World Boxing Association that was held in Atlantic City in ’90 or ’91. I was honored. It was early in my career yet they thought enough of my ability to ask me to join the panel. And on the panel was a very fine British referee – he's a dear friend and has been for many years – by the name of John Coyle. John has been involved in many major, major matches, including Mike Tyson – possibly Lennox Lewis. They asked him about his prep. I recall him saying that he didn’t want to know anything about the fighters he is about to work. He didn’t want any preconceived notions. He wants to go in with a clear and open mind without any predilection for Fighter A or Fighter B. He didn’t want to know tendencies. He will make his decisions as the fight dictates.
Now I say this because I get up and say, “Now with all due respect to my esteemed colleague, I want to know everything about the fighters that I’m assigned to.”
Do they have a tendency to get cut? Are they bleeders? Can they take a shot? What are their recuperative powers? I want to know more about their losses than their victories. I want to see, if they are not undefeated, who beat them and how. Did they lose by TKO? By points?
And I implement that today. If I get a world title fight, I immediately research every aspect of those fighters. I have Showtime on Demand. I have HBO on Demand. Those are the fight channels. If there are any recent fights or anything back in the archives, I’ll try to watch it.
You prep every aspect…I make sure my toenails are cut, so you don’t have any problems the day of the fight. Every aspect is covered. I don’t want to have an ingrown toenail.
[As fight day approaches] I cut down on any major activities. I won’t bike on the Boardwalk. I start to slow down on the tread. I don’t want to pull a muscle. I’ll modify my workout routine as we get closer to the fight. And I’m happy to say, as each day passes, there are butterflies. It’s a confident nervousness, but then again it’s nervousness. You know, what could be? It heightens my awareness.
Then I leave for the venue. I’m an early bird. If the report time for a title is 6:00, I’m there at 5:00. I want to get set up in the official’s room. I want to make sure that I have space for clothing. The early bird gets the better seating and the better lockers, what have you. And it takes the tension away. I want to get the drive out of the way.
You can’t have anything on your mind. I have my pre-fight routine of a light meal about 4:00, 4:30 or 5:00 – nothing that would cause any indigestion – nothing fancy, bland. And then I report. I check in with the Commissioner – Melvina Lathan, Madame Commissioner in New York; Aaron Davis, New Jersey; Greg Sirb, as you know, in Pennsylvania.
Then you meet with your supervisor and you coordinate with your supervisor and the local commissioner, or who he or she designates, to go in with pre-fight instructions.
Now, before I do that, if I’m the “title referee,” I’ll have the first opportunity to check the ring, which is very important. After I settle in, even before I change, I’ll ask permission from the commission to check the ring – because I may not go on for four hours. Then I’ll check the ring. When I saw you, Adam, Gary Rosato was the title referee. Gary checked it first. I didn’t see the necessity to go in. Gary and I have a great relationship. We work very well together. He said, Steve, it was fine. And that was fine. That’s all I needed to hear. He had heavyweights and I had heavyweights. I know that if he checked the tautness of the ropes that everything was fine. If I do find a problem I will then call maintenance. In the Garden, I know exactly who to go to at MSG, and they send a technician to tighten the rope or whatever.
Then, Miss Tami [Tami Cotel, a production manager] from HBO will approach you to wear a wire and you have to approve that with the commission that you can indeed wear a small microphone. You have to be cleared. So then they give me a wire, not a battery pack. When I’m changing, I’m wired up through my shirt so I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t want to worry about technical matters while I’m preparing.
Then, about an hour before fight time – and it’s very, very important – you establish your authority and your rapport at the pre-fight rules meeting. Now, some commissions require you to attend the day-before rules meeting, some don’t.
In foreign jurisdictions, just to digress, you attend the rules meeting and you even attend the glove ceremony – the selection of the gloves. And I keep the gloves in my room overnight after the selection and they are signed off by the supervisor. That’s an added duty, not so much in the U.S.A. The cards that we work here, they are kept by the commission.
But getting back to the pre-fight, you address the champion first. You emphasize the mouthpiece rule, low blows, cuts. And you ask them if there are any concerns, and they always have some. They’ll say, “You know, I don’t want to say anything, but the guy hits and holds.” And I’ll say, thank you for alerting me and I’ll be very sensitive to that.
And then you go to the challenger with the same. [Throughout this period] you’re with the company of the commissioner, or the designee, and the [sanctioning body] supervisor. You identify the chief second. You shake hands with the manager. You introduce who’s with you. This is George Martinez of the WBA and of course you know our commissioner, Mrs. Melvina Lathan. And then you exchange pleasantries. Any questions? Are there any concerns? And he’ll say, “Well, he hits behind the head.” And I’ll respond by saying I’ll be very sensitive to that.
Then you set up. You’ll meet with the technical crew who will place the battery on you and you just wait for the go signal. Let the games begin.
I want to double back to one thing you said about certain referees who don’t want to know anything about a fighter and other referees who want to know everything. You put yourself in the latter category. One of the fights you are most praised for is the Jermain Taylor-Kelly Pavlik fight in Atlantic City – their first match. I read a quote from you where you said that part of the reason why you knew that Pavlik was able to continue after the knockdown was seeing how he responded to shots in the previous fight of his that you worked against Edison Miranda. I’m sure that this type of intelligence per se has benefited you and, let’s face it, fight fans throughout your career.
Adam, I commend you on your research. I had the benefit of working Kelly in May of ’07. I believe in Tennessee. He took hellacious shots from Miranda and withstood them. And I think this is very important to substantiate my particular style, if you will. After the [Taylor] fight, leaving Convention Hall, I saw Kelly and I congratulated him on his victory. And he said, “Steve, I just want you to know when I stood up, I heard you. I focused on you. I heard Jack – Jack Loew – I heard my fans. But for the first time in my career, I had a funny sensation in my legs from the shot.”
Because the shot, I believe, was a right hand and it landed behind his left ear. He said, “Thank you for allowing me to continue.”
I said, “You earned it.”
You know, Adam, by the end of the round, he was almost fully recovered. That personified my career at that time and it continues to, thankfully. And it personified my style of allowing every effort…
There were many articles written. One said, I believe, of 100 referees, 98 would have stopped the fight at that time. Two would have allowed it to continue – me and Tony Weeks, who worked the first Castillo-Corrales fight. And then in the “what ifs”of 2007 in the Ring, it said, “What if Steve Smoger had called in sick the day of Taylor-Pavlik?” So, it resonated with the media and the fans.
And that style goes back to my early training – when to say when. You know there are a lot of clichés. “Better a second too early than late,” for example. And everyone can hide behind safety, and no one is more concerned about safety than myself. But, you’ve got to let the fighters fight. I call it allowing the fight to come to its natural conclusion. Let the fighters decide the fight.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org
@snboxing on twitter
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He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at email@example.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook: