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 saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Opinions and Observations: The Salido-Garcia Card

Throughout Saturday's fight, Mikey Garcia performed a specific maneuver that illustrated his expert ring intelligence. He tied up Orlando Salido on the ropes and then literally walked him to the center of the ring. Practically each time referee Benjy Esteves broke them apart, Garcia subtlety retreated. This allowed Salido the opportunity to come forward with wide shots, which is exactly what Garcia wanted in order to land his surgical counterpunches. Once Garcia touched the ropes, he tied up Salido, walked him back to the middle and repeated the process. This sequence demonstrated Garcia's acute understanding of how he was going to win the fight. He knew that his strength was his counterpunching. In addition, he understood that Salido's best chance of scoring was along the ropes, when the distance was effectively closed.
 
Garcia didn't engage with Salido in a mano-a-mano shootout. No, instead he was a sharpshooter, striking his target with a dazzling assortment of single shots and combinations. Scoring knockdowns with three different punches – left hook, right uppercut and straight right hand – Garcia showcased elite skills, and for the first time, I felt that he could become a legitimate star in the sport.
 
Here are a couple of other examples of Garcia's advanced ring skills: Later in the fight, when Salido was finally starting to put some punches together, Garcia fired off a triple jab and then turned Salido with a left hook. That sequence simultaneously thwarted Salido's aggression and scored impressively. Even at Salido's best, Garcia still controlled the ring. (Garcia also notched a knockdown with a hook off the jab, a winning combination that has become virtually extinct in modern boxing.) Furthermore, Garcia didn't get overly excited by his four knockdowns. He stayed patient. He knew that the knockdowns were from shots that Salido didn't see, not from accumulated punishment. Garcia didn't rush in to exchanges or punch himself out looking for a killshot. Again, these are veteran plays.
 
So with Garcia being such a savvy fighter, perhaps it should have come as no surprise when he and Robert Garcia, his trainer and brother, decided to end the fight after the eighth round when Garcia's nose was broken by a head butt. Could Garcia have continued fighting? Certainly. But Team Garcia knew what they had in front of them: a large lead against a desperate and dangerous veteran fighter. They probably weren't going to get Salido out of there – hard hitters like Gamboa, Lopez and Marquez couldn't – so they made a calculated decision to call it a day. The crowd at Madison Square Garden didn't like it. I wasn't thrilled by it, but I certainly understood it.
 
And although Salido was having his best moments of the fight before it was stopped, he was legitimately behind by anywhere from 8 to 10 points. It's hard to engender a groundswell of righteous anger on your behalf when you're effectively down by such a large margin. Surely, he understands this.
 
What I liked most about Garcia's performance was his quick start. In some of his past fights, Garcia wound up on the wrong end of the patient vs. deliberate axis. He could be plodding, waiting endlessly for opportunities to unleash his arsenal and open up. But on Saturday, he quickly established control over Salido and didn't let him into the fight. He used quick lateral movement to take away Salido's throwing angles, without taking himself out of punching range. He also featured a variety of punches from the outset of the fight, making Salido more tentative.
 
There are still things for the 25-year-old to work on. Although I love how Garcia really turns over his left hook, he could improve its accuracy. Salido is not a hard target to hit, but Garcia missed high on a number of occasions with the left hook, especially when it was the finishing punch of a combination.
 
Garcia could also step on the gas a little more. Yes, he was wise not to engage Salido in a war; however, Garcia could have put his punches together even a little more than he did. He mostly threw two and three-punch combinations. There were moments, especially earlier in the fight, where more shots were there for him; he was a little too eager to retreat. That may sound nitpicky, but Garcia actually was much better at this on Saturday than he had been in his previous fight against Jonathon Barros. Garcia could still become a more fluid offensive fighter, one who initiates just a little more often. This would present opponents with additional complications. Ultimately, the future is bright for Mikey. If he can pick his aggression up a tad more, watch out, boxing.
 
For Salido, he was consistently beaten by a better man. Did he walk in too much with wide shots? Yes. Does he always do that? Yes. Salido's greatest attribute is his relentless pressure. However, it's very tough to apply pressure when on the canvas. As the fight progressed, Salido started to wing shots from stranger and stranger angles – and a few of them scored, but ultimately they weren't enough to hurt Garcia.
 
Even after being on the canvas four times, Salido picked himself up and continued to fight hard like the pro that he is. Ultimately, the match came down to class and skill. Garcia was sharper, smarter and more versatile. And that was the fight.
 
**********************************************************
 
During the first round of Gennady Golovkin-Gabriel Rosado, it was already apparent that Rosado was wary of Golvokin's power. Rosado, a pressure fighter who wins by his infighting skills, circled constantly along the ropes, trying his best to avoid Golovkin's heavy hands. In these early rounds, Rosado was not trying to win, but to survive. In Golovkin, he faced a powerful foe that featured a treacherous combination of power, aggression, accuracy and intelligence.
 
By the time Rosado started to land decent shots, specifically his left uppercut and straight right hand, his face was a mess and he had absorbed real punishment. Rosado's a tough Philadelphia kid, perhaps too tough, and his corner saved him from himself during the seventh round; it was a merciful stoppage. Rosado never went down and he fought as best he could. He was demolished in the fight, but he left the ring on Saturday with his dignity.
 
Golovkin, the decorated amateur from Kazakhstan, has developed a cult following in boxing circles, and it's easy to see why. He's a gifted offensive fighter who literally runs to his opponent during lulls in the action. He's a pressure fighter but with an Olympian's arsenal. His jab might be his best punch. He throws pretty and punishing combinations. He also seems to get stronger as fights progress.
 
Perhaps Golovkin's great separator is his chin. Although he can block and parry shots, Golovkin has an ability to take his opponents' best, which makes the prospect of defeating him all the more challenging. Grzegorz Proksa landed some punishing straight left bombs in Golovkin's previous fight. Rosado connected with a couple of menacing left uppercuts; yet, in both cases, Golovkin kept smiling and coming forward.
 
Like Mikey Garcia, Golovkin can also be patient. He didn't recklessly push for the knockout. Although he applied pressure, he wasn't trying to end things at the first sign of trouble for Rosado. He knew how tough his opponent was. There were a number of points when Golovkin took a small step back and recalibrated instead of continuing to trade shots.
 
It will take a lot to beat Golovkin, and perhaps this is why so many top middleweights have passed up the opportunity to fight him (for example, Quillin, Sturm, Macklin and Geale). Perhaps Martinez's spectacular counter left hands could crack Golovkin's chin. Maybe Geale's jab could fluster Golovkin enough to win seven rounds. It's possible, but these scenarios remain hypotheticals. Who will be the first top middleweight to get in the ring with GGG?
 
Rosado will most likely drop back down to 154. He's not tied to any particular promoter, so he would make an attractive opponent for some of the bigger fish in the division, e.g. Alvarez, Trout and Lara. He's a tough kid and has developed some real ring craft over the years. He won't win fights from the outside but he has a very strong sense of who he is in the ring. After he recuperates from Saturday's fight, he'll be back in a meaningful fight sooner rather than later.
 
******************************************************
 
The most entertaining fight on Saturday was the junior lightweight showdown between Roman "Rocky" Martinez and Juan Carlos Burgos. Burgos had the superior technique while Martinez featured consistent pressure and some punishing right hands. To my eyes, Burgos eked out a win by 115-113. Most watching at home (including the HBO crew) thought that Burgos won by a wider decision. A number of people that I talked to at Madison Square Garden thought that Martinez was the victor.
 
Scores were 116-112 (Martinez), 114-114 and 117-111 (Burgos). The crowd didn't agree with the decision, but when do boxing fans ever like draws –the nature of the sport demands a definitive conclusion. Ultimately, I was fine with the outcome. I believe that the fight featured up to eight swing rounds that could have legitimately gone to either boxer.
 
To my eyes, Burgos won the early rounds with cleaner punching, but he increasingly engaged in Martinez's fight. ("Won" may be too strong of a word. "Edged" may be more appropriate.) Instead of using his legs more and picking his spots, he decided to slug it out along the ropes. Again, Burgos did well there, landing punishing left hooks and right hands. However, Martinez was the one coming forward and moving his hands more. It was easiest to score moments for Burgos when he was in the center of the ring, connecting with sharp shots that featured his superior hand speed. When along the ropes, the notion of who was the more effective fighter was certainly a legitimate question.
 
There were two great rounds in the fight. In the 6th, Martinez withstood numerous power shots from Burgos in the center of the ring, but in the last half of the round, he drove Burgos back with crushing straight right hands. He then continued to tee off on Burgos against the ropes. In the 10th, Burgos landed a series of lead left hooks to the body, many of which were thrown from the southpaw stance. (Interestingly, Burgos switched to southpaw throughout the fight, but mostly to land the left hook, which is unusual in that the left hook is not the lead hand in the southpaw stance. This confused Martinez at various points in the fight and led to a number of successful moments for Burgos.) These two rounds epitomized the fight as a whole – a beautiful ebb and flow.
 
Team Burgos should look back at Saturday with some regret. There were too many rounds (seven and eight, for example, really stood out to me) where Burgos got trapped along the ropes and didn't move his hands enough. Burgos had a real skill advantage, but he was taken out of his game plan at points by Martinez. Ultimately, Burgos allowed Martinez to make it a close fight. I would welcome a rematch. The two styles blend together wonderfully.

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 saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
@snboxing on twitter
Follow Saturday Night Boxing on Facebook:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The SNB Interview -- Steve Smoger, Part I

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.) 
 
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 upmost 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.

Part II

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 saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com
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