Saturday, January 26, 2013

The SNB Interview -- Steve Smoger, Part II

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 II 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 most memorable fights, his two toughest boxers to referee, what fellow referees say and don't say to each other and the biggest challenge that young refs face today.  Part I 

Interview by Adam Abramowitz:
(This Interview has been condensed.)
You’ve been involved in so many high-profile fights. I can roll off 10 or 15 truly memorable matches. But is there one in your 30 years in the business that really sticks out after all this time?
We’ll put it in categories. The first decade of my career: Brown-Trice I – April 23, 1988, on the shores of Berck, France, near where the Allies landed – an IBF title, an absolute war, KO 14. Brown-Trice…a slugfest, a vacant title. It was as if the title was suspended over the ring and they were fighting for it. Seriously, they both had to be hospitalized after the fight to gain their liquids back. Kennedy McKinney-Welcome Ncita in Sardegna, Italy was fabulous.
Then, as we move into the second decade, Toney-Jirov stands out – an absolute war. I think James Toney at cruiserweight was at his very, very best. And then in the third phase, the public became aware of this veteran referee again – it was early in the third decade or late in the second decade – for the historical impact, would be Trinidad-Hopkins, the first major event anywhere in the world after 9/11. Lesser men would have fallen earlier. Hopkins was just so technical, but Tito was so tough. He withstood all of it until the 12th round. He had given everything he had. In fact, the corner and I had decided at the very same time [to stop it]. His dad was entering as I was moving in.
Then, later in that decade, was what we talked about earlier. It’s not really a trilogy; it’s just two fights: Pavlik-Miranda and Taylor-Pavlik I. Both seventh-round stoppages. Both masterful performances where you saw Kelly wear down and assert his will and his skill on two guys who were just…Miranda was number one when he got Kelly and it was an eliminator for Jermain’s title. Kelly prevailed. And by luck of the draw, I did the first one in Tennessee and then I was on the [New Jersey] rotation at the right spot at the right time four months later for the title fight. Had I been in the same jurisdiction, I don’t think I would have been able to back-to-back it. But, as fate had it, the first being in Tennessee didn’t affect the New Jersey rotation.
I think that various fights and different aspects of my career stand out. I always go back to Micky Ward-Emanuel Augustus – fight of the year ’01, an absolutely incredible fight. I recall on the replay, round four, Teddy Atlas saying, “Fans, at this break, call all your friends. We’re in the midst of a classic.”
He did that recently for the first Pawel Wolak-Delvin Rodriguez fight.
Yeah. There you go with another one. That was two years ago. That was a beauty. There, with the aid of the doctor – Wolak had an orange for an eye – the ophthalmologist [determined that] he could see and it led to another fight at the Garden. And it kept their careers on track. That too was an excellent experience in the Empire State of New York. 
I wanted to get back to Hopkins. Can you describe the challenge of working fights with boxers who foul, like Bernard Hopkins, Joel Casamayor – and I know you did some Luis Lazarte fights in Argentina.  Is there a difference working those types of fights?
Well, first of all, Bernard is the ultimate craftsman. I worked Bernard in his first major exposure against Gilbert Baptist. It was the only time that I worked in Colorado. So that stood out. And I was in the company of Butch Lewis, who always treated me as a gentleman in every respect. I hope he hears me in heaven. So, Bernard to me was a master technician.
The two toughest guys for me to work, who took me to school – you better be on your toes and you better be in the right place – were, number one, Roger Mayweather. If I’m on the left side, he’s doing something with a kidney shot on the right side. He was a slickster. And number two was Macho Camacho. He took me to school in Atlantic City. They had tremendous ring awareness. So they took me to school, but nothing outrageous. If I said something, they listened. But I had to be aware that they would do anything it took. They were in there to win. Those were the two toughest.
Now Lazarte, it wasn’t so much Lazarte. He respected me and I respected him. The crowd was nuts. They would egg him on and egg him on and egg him on. And I was able to [maintain control of the fight] by working close. You can’t work a perimeter with these guys. It’s tough. It’s like the matador and the bull. You got to work close. You want to stay out of the way but you want to be there to implement a break or a warning.
Now I never took points from any of these guys from my memory. But Roger, he was working. I would spin right and he would do something – hold and hit or drop something behind the head as soon as I whirled around. He was a good guy, but man, that stands out. Thirty years, those were the toughest.
Casamayor, I’ll give you an example. Casamayor fights Santa Cruz in the Garden and the eminent Harold Lederman took issue with my work that night. That’s when we had a very, very fine discussion of what is holding and what is clinching. In my view, Casamayor was much stronger. He, in every way, shape and form, offset Santa Cruz’s offense by strategically clinching. And I said, Harold, he wasn’t holding. A clinch is a strategic aspect. The difference is the length of time. If I say break and they don’t, it then moves from a clinch to holding. Then you got to get into warnings and what have you. But he said that I didn’t give them an opportunity to fight. And I said Joel’s experience and strength [was the difference]. He was so much stronger than this guy. He pushed him around the ring and anytime he [Santa Cruz] wanted to get his offense off, he [Casamayor] would clinch.
I’ll give you another example. Last year, at this very time, Devon Alexander implemented the same strategy with Marcos Maidana. Every time Maidana got close, Devon would clinch, let him go, throw a combination, and he won easily on the cards. Listen, I cannot dictate style. I cannot dictate whether the fight is going to be pretty. I’m there to implement and enforce the rules. There is no rule against strategic clinching.
And Harold said, I think you let it [the clinching in Casamayor-Santa Cruz] go on too long. And I said, you know, Harold, maybe it wasn’t pleasing to the HBO audience or whatever, even though I respect you immensely, I disagree. We had that friendly discussion.
But I never took a point from Joel and I never took a point from Diego [Corrales] too. But on the point that you raised, I went to Refereeing School 101.2 with the Black Mamba, Roger Mayweather, and with Mr. Camacho, Sr. – may he rest in peace.
There are many well-respected referees who frequently work in New Jersey – people like Benjy Esteves and Eddie Cotton. What’s the relationship between you and some of the other referees in the circuit?
Excellent. You mentioned two that I’m particularly close with. We’ll communicate if we’re working the same card – particularly with Benjy. We’ll drive together. We’ll split the parking fee. We go to seminars together. He gave the last seminar in New York, which was excellent. He’s an excellent referee. He moves well, does a wonderful job. Eddie is fantastic. He and I have been working together in New Jersey for many, many years. He can do all weights. We just did Foxwoods where he did lower weights and he was fantastic. Because of his size, he gets a lot of good heavyweight scraps. He does an outstanding job.
The one item I do want to mention is that the three of us never comment on one another’s work.
That’s interesting.
I wouldn’t be presumptuous to say to Benjy, “X, Y and Z,” or to Eddie. They have developed a style and they handle it in their own way. I think in a lot of ways we are on the same page, and maybe we would implement some things differently. We’re very supportive of each other, but I can indicate to you they have never commented on my style – no shoulda, coulda, woulda. That is something that you would be interested in. We don’t comment on each other’s work and we don’t comment on each other’s styles. “You know, you should’ve –” Never.
I will not name names, but I will tell you where this developed. A lot of young referees will come up to me – and this happened several years back. It’s a referee who is doing a fine job in another jurisdiction, not in New Jersey. He said, “Steve, I have admired your work for a lot of years. If you see me do anything that you think I can improve on, please let me know.”
I said, “Are you sure?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Well I think you are doing a fine job. And if we have an opportunity...”
This is at one of the conventions, either the IBF or the WBA or WBO, exiting a seminar. Well, as fate would have it, I’m called to do a world title in the Midwest and, lo and behold, this other referee is on that card. And he has the co-feature. It’s a local guy against a tough journeyman. And a lot of young referees will get fooled by what I call the shoeshine. One fighter in a corner throws a lot of blows, but they’re not landing. There is no signature shot. The head pops back. The eyes roll…Jermain Taylor, he was out [against Pavlik] before he hit the canvas. I don’t care. He was out. The minute the shot lands he went limp and I had to edge right in.
Well, this ref gets fooled by the shoeshine, jumps in and stops the fight. The stopped fighter is so energetic he throws a tantrum. I’m saying to myself, if he had enough energy to throw a tantrum, he certainly had enough energy to complete the round and [for the referee to] ask the doctor’s opinion.
The ref gets out of the ring and I’m prepping to go in. They’re hooking me up with the microphone for the main event. And he said to me, “What did you think of the stop?”
And I said, “If you want me to be candid, I think you were a tad premature.” Well, he went nuts.
“Don’t you know that I saw his eyes…” He went off like nobody’s business. He gave me every cliché – “Better a second too early” – you name it. Every cop-out: safety, he was hurt, prevention, wanting to fight another day, etc.
Look, it’s all stuff that is not relevant to the stoppage. We’re not the matchmakers. We’re not the doctors. I said, “You asked for my opinion. I did not say you did wrong or right. Had I been in there, I wouldn’t have stopped it. That’s all I’m staying.”
Boy oh boy, let me tell you...I smoothed it over. We went to dinner. It has never come up again but that was a learning lesson for me. I will not ask and I will not tell. If I see a glaring error, I will walk away. Don’t ask me.
Now that isn’t the same as Eddie and Benjy. We’re friends and we have a mutual respect. But when young guys come up to me at various jurisdictions – even out of the country – I’ll say, “You did a fine job; go see the commissioner; see the lead guy.”
Or, I was taught by a very wise referee many years ago, [when asked,] “Did you see the stop?”
[He said] “No, I turned away.”
You understand? “No, I was looking down.” That way you don’t get into a problem with your fellow referees. If I’m called to comment, I’ll make my comments at a seminar. I’ll say it there. “I thought it was a tad early,” or whatever. You don’t want to get into whether it was a slip or a knockdown [with another referee in a live setting]. Years ago, I had that incident and if I’m called upon at a live venue, I never make a comment. Even if someone asks me what I think, I’ll say,“I was turned away. I was looking at the clock. But I’m sure you did O.K.”
In your opinion, what is the state of boxing refereeing today?
The state of refereeing today is that we have too many referees. I say that with everyone having the right to ref. I wish them all well. But work makes you better. Getting an assignment once a month is not going to do it.
That’s why you are speaking to a person who has more state licenses than any active referee working today, and perhaps, ever. I am licensed in more states than any other referees, in more states – and you can research this – since they have been keeping records. I recently made an agreement with Eurosport to referee professional heavyweight tournament boxing in Europe. I say this with humility: I have refereed in more countries than any other referee in the history of boxing by being in the right place at the right time. And now at this stage in my career, having Europsort contact me and fly me to different venues throughout Europe to referee professional boxing, I don’t believe any American has ever refereed in Morocco. I don’t think any other American has refereed as I did last month in Riga, Latvia or Vilnius, Lithuania or Nicosia, Cyprus this past July.
I do that, one, for the intrigue and the travel. And generally speaking, when I do accept these assignments, Eurosport, or the promoters involved, ask me to give a seminar, so they can get a feel. I’m the only American referee on staff [for Eurosport's Bigger’s Better tournament]. So, they get a flavor of what I bring to the table as far as style. And I have found the seminars to be very refreshing. They bring a good exchange of ideas.
Two, I do that to stay in shape. I did a world title fight in Madison Square Garden and a few weeks later I’m at a club show outside Philadelphia. And a journalist said there, “Steve, you just did Johnny Ruiz and James Toney, a world title fight. What are you doing here?”
I said, “Listen, I learn from every fight. There is something that might occur in this four rounder. They’re more difficult than Toney and Ruiz.” You’ve got kids full of vim and vigor. Their girlfriends are in the audience and it’s 12 minutes of hell with these young kids. And you learn. You better move, or you’ll get trampled. The better the fighter, the more you can judge where they’re going to go. You know their styles and tastes. You know what they have and it’s easier to be – I call it the open window. You want to see the sides of both fighters, so you are there to implement the rules or issue a warning. I call it the open door or the open window. You can see each fighter. You position in the middle. And you rotate.
Listen, this is how I stay sharp. You work in Pennsylvania. Steve, you take [fights] 1, 3, 5 and 7. Gary, you take 2, 4, 6 and 8. That’s how you stay ready. I don’t think that the refs today are getting the work that is necessary in order to refine and progress in their craft. And it’s just numbers. I believe in New Jersey they have 30 referees. So if there were 35 shows in New Jersey last year, how many can be assigned? The commissions, they have a rotation. They want equal work for each guy. It’s difficult.
So I have to take my game on the road. I’m licensed in Virginia. I’ve worked Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York. I’m licensed in New Hampshire, Ohio, down in the Carolinas – whatever it takes to stay busy. Why sit home if I could work to refine my craft?
There are too many referees. There are some very fine referees. But, on average, unless you are in Nevada or California, your workload is not enough to keep you sharp in my humble opinion. It’s just the way it goes. New York has put on additional referees. They have waited their turn. They have come up. There are just too many. There’s no set roster of refs, as you have in any other major sport.
On a tangent, it seems to me that Nevada keeps its number of referees fairly low.
Not fairly low, very low. And it’s by design. They require residency. I had the honor and privilege – the first time in 24 years that California allowed an outside ref – [to work] Ward-Dawson. It was incredible, working with guys like Jack Reiss…great guys to break bread with in a working environment. It was fabulous. 24 years! Nevada, never. You have to be a registered voter and so forth and so on. You have to be a resident, as in California as well. Texas, they are slightly opening up.
John Burns was the commissioner at Foxwoods and he opened the door for interstate licensing in the East. He said, I don’t care where you are from. I want quality. He drew from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and he put together a multi-state staff. He only wanted the finest working referees during their [Foxwoods’] magnificent run, which was the ‘90s.
My only critique is too many refs, not enough work.
After 30 years as a professional referee, what still thrills you about boxing?
Going back to my dad – may he rest in peace – he said, Steve, when you watch boxing, it’s the last vestige of one-on-one. There are no timeouts. It’s just one man and/or women asserting will and skill on another person.
It’s the same thrill as when I began. Refereeing, Adam, is boxing without the pain. You are right there when you see one fighter asserting or one fighter recovering. The ebb and flow is incredible. It’s not like any other sport. Being in the ring with the gladiators of our era, that’s the excitement. And that never subsides.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at
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