Monday, August 4, 2014

On Bad Referees

We know who they are: Laurence Cole, Luis Pabon, Russell Mora, Ian John-Lewis and Vic Drakulich. These are the bad boxing referees. There are other elderly officials, like Lou Moret and Stanley Christodoulou, who lack the athleticism and sharp decision making to referee fights but are still capable judges. All of these officials continue to harm the sport with impunity. Their poor performances are not a secret within the industry yet they still get plum assignments – and boxing continues to suffer as a result. 

Not all of these officials transgress in the same way. Mora plays favorites. John-Lewis and Drakulich lose control of fights. Moret seems to make things up as he goes. Cole also plays favorites and lets fighters take unhealthy punishment. A guy like Jay Nady believes that fight fans come to watch him. Pabon is the definition of arbitrary in his enforcement of rules. Seemingly 80% of British refs will stop a fight if the "B-Side" (especially an international one) looks at them funny. 

Even the best referees have their faults in the ring. Steve Smoger can be laissez-faire in breaking up clinches. Kenny Bayless may miss a knockdown every now and then. Tony Weeks can be a little slow in stopping fights. Robert Byrd rarely catches the rough stuff in clinches. Jack Reiss can be a tad officious. But time after time these refs are in the ring when wonderful fights occur; it's not a coincidence. They establish a rapport with fighters and their teams. They make strong commands in the ring and their judgment is respected. In addition, they aren't looking for reasons to deduct points. That doesn't mean that they always have an easy day at the office but they rarely let a fight spin out of control. Their records speak for themselves. 

Vic Drakulich will never be in the exalted group of the best referees in the sport. Saturday, where he helped ruin a perfectly good fight between Brandon Rios and Diego Chaves, was another illustration as to why he is considered a weak official. One bad judgment begat several additional ones, creating a chain of poor decision making. Drakulich wound up disqualifying Chaves and it was all perfectly avoidable. 

In the third round, Drakulich needlessly deducted a point from Chaves for holding. Sure, there were clinches in the fight, but not an uncommon amount. And it's not as if there wasn't action in the match. Chaves was throwing bombs from the outside and Rios did some great work in close quarters. Just two rounds later, Drakulich deducted a point from Rios when he tackled Chaves to the ground during a clinch. Again, these things happen in fights and it wasn't as if tackling was occurring throughout the bout. That point deduction sure felt like a makeup call. Ask yourself, if Drakulich hadn't deducted the first point from Chaves, would he have then taken the point away from Rios? I think the answer is obvious. 

Then things really started to devolve in the ring, with both fighters fouling with increased frequency and then working the ref to try and get more points deducted from their opponent. Rios kept butting and going low. Chaves butted and thumbed Rios in the eyes on a few occasions. Drakulich deducted another point from Chaves in the seventh. By the ninth, he had seen enough and stopped the bout. Rios, the house fighter, was awarded the victory.  

The grand irony of Saturday's debacle is that Bayless, one of the best in the business, was reffing on the undercard of Rios-Chaves, working the Jessie-Vargas-Anton Novikov fight. Were the Nevada State Athletic Commission sharp, it would have put the better official in the main event, especially since Rios' bouts often involve rough, inside fighting and cuts. Vargas-Novikov wound up resembling a high-level amateur fight where both boxers were busy trying to score points with single shots. Any competent official could have reffed that one. 

Drakulich's performance on Saturday epitomizes the root cause of bad refereeing: weak/obtuse commissions and sanctioning organizations. Very few referees are disciplined for poor performances. I can't remember a high-level referee in modern boxing who has been fired.  Even when refs are punished, they, in time, will resume their previous positions. Russell Mora was formally disciplined for refusing to call low blows during the first Abner Mares-Joseph Agbeko fight. Laurence Cole was suspended for telling Juan Manuel Marquez that he was ahead during a fight. Yet they both continue to work. Cole still gets some of the biggest fights in Texas as well as many international assignments from the sanctioning bodies and Mora continues to officiate plenty of fights in Nevada. Again, these are repeat offenders. 

These refs routinely make poor decisions in their fights but the refusal of boxing's bureaucracies to mete out sufficient discipline ensures that bad officials continue to spoil good fights. With the right ref, Rios-Chaves could have been a fight of the year candidate. Instead, boxing was left with a result that dissatisfied all parties. Now, there are certainly fights that warrant a disqualification. Rios' bout against Anthony Peterson was a good example (and one where Russell Mora acted appropriately in disqualifying Peterson for myriad low blows). But Saturday was not such a fight. It spiraled out of control because Drakulich decided to take points away for minor infractions and then when more serious ones occurred, he was left without recourse. He failed to effectively communicate with the corners between rounds about stopping the rough stuff and he didn't garner the respect of the combatants. 

Drakulich will be called into the Nevada State Athletic Commission on Monday to review his performance in the fight. He might even get a slap on the wrist. But I doubt that there will be a suspension or meaningful discipline; I'd love to be wrong.

It’s worth noting that the last example of proactive discipline from the Nevada State Athletic Commission was the removal of C.J. Ross as a judge. But remember, the former executive director of the commission, Keith Kizer, initially defended Ross' horrid scorecard for Mayweather-Alvarez. It was only when political pressure was exerted upon Kizer from parties above him that definitive action was taken place. Officially, Ross was put on "indefinite leave" but that was just a face-saving measure. She hasn't judged in Nevada again.

Nevada acted forcefully after that debacle only because it was embarrassed in the highest-profile fight of the year. Rios-Chaves does not come close to meeting that standard. Here's hoping that the commission's new executive director, Robert Bennett, imposes strong discipline on Drakulich, but I wouldn't bet on it. 

In the next 12 months, we will continue to see fights ruined by Cole, Pabon, Mora, et al., but the sport will keep humming along. The WBA and WBO love Pabon and send him around the world. Christodoulou is one of the WBA's favored refs for international assignments. The WBC still brings Cole to Japan every so often. Drakulich was somehow the 2010 WBC ref of the year.

Unless some major fiasco occurs that threatens the sanctity of the sport (and run-of-the-mill poor decision making by referees does not count here), these bad officials will continue to harm boxing without any serious consequences. Commissions and sanctioning body organizations are loath to rock the boat. They have created and upheld a rigid and entrenched tenure system that would make even public sector unions blush. Once a referee is part of the club, he never leaves until it is his decision to do so. Because the commissions and sanctioning bodies refuse to impose discipline, we all lose. The result of these actions, or inactions, to put it more accurately, degrades the sport. 

And Vic Drakulich will be back on your TV soon enough. 

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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1 comment:

  1. It seems that many boxing fans have either forgotten that a boxing match is governed by rules or are simply ignorant of these rules.

    Chaves and many of those commenting about his disqualification by the referee are probably not aware of or may have overlooked, conveniently or otherwise, the fact that:

    (1) The Unified Rules of Boxing of the Association of Boxing Commissions specifically provide that “IF THE REFEREE FEELS THAT THE BOXER HAS CONDUCTED HIMSELF IN AN UNSPORTSMAN-LIKE MANNER, HE MAY STOP THE BOUT AND DISQUALIFY THE BOXER;” and

    (2) The Association of Boxing Commission Referee Rules and Guidelines also specifically provide on Disqualification, in essence, that: A boxer will lose by DISQUALIFICATION when he or she has: fouled and caused harm to his or her opponent; continually refused to follow the rules; and continually disobeyed the Referee.

    It is what the referee FEELS about the conduct of a boxer that is the basis of his action and if the referee in the Rios-Chaves fight felt that Chaves conducted himself in an unsportsmanlike manner but did not feel the same about Rios, he is absolutely entitled to what he felt and nobody has the right to say that the referee is wrong because feelings are personal in nature and subjective in character.

    It must also be noted that the Association of Boxing Commissions Referee Rules and Guidelines allow disqualification of a boxer by the referee if the boxer fouled. The rules, as written, did not make it mandatory for the referee to even make a warning prior to a disqualification by reason of a foul. In the case of Chaves however, he and his corner were previously warned by the referee that Chaves will be disqualified if he continues with his infractions. Chaves definitely fouled a lot and on this reason alone, the disqualification was very much justified.

    Further, it is obvious that Chaves continually refused to follow the rules. In the statements he made after the bout, Chaves in effect or in essence admitted albeit impliedly, that he actually was continually not following the rules. On this point alone, his disqualification was justified.

    Further still, Chaves continually disobeyed the Referee. I clearly saw this and others like me who is a boxing fan but not a fan of Rios or Chaves probably saw this also. On this point alone, the disqualification of Chaves was justified.

    To all those who think that the referee was wrong in disqualifying Chaves: please read the applicable rules and if you have already done so, please read them again. For all those who think that the Unified Boxing Rules and the Referee Rules and Guidelines of the Association of Boxing Commissions do not make sense, then you all can lobby that the rules be changed but until the rules are changed, please stop saying that the referee was wrong in disqualifying Chaves. The feeling of the referee in the Rios-Chaves fight can neither be right nor wrong and if the law entitled him to disqualify Chaves on the basis of what he felt, the referee committed no wrong. This is the law and while this may be hard or may be foolish, this remains to be the law until this is changed. Dura lex sed lex.

    Personally, I would like to see that clinching be absolutely banned and that it be made the law that all boxers at all times observe clean fighting, follow the rules, heed the referee and display sportsmanlike conduct under pain of being disqualified and their pay being forfeited to be returned to the paying public if they do not do so. I pay to watch a boxing match, and a lot of other people probably do so, not to see 2 boxers wrestle, act dirty or conduct themselves in unsportsmanlike manner and when any of them do so, I and those who paid to see the match are legally cheated by the fighter, by the promoters and by the organizers of the match, if the money paid is not proportionately refunded.