Sunday, October 1, 2017

The SNB Interview -- Jack Reiss Part I

Jack Reiss is one of the leading referees in boxing today. In a career that has spanned over two decades, he's become a familiar presence in the center of the ring for big fights in California and in many others title bouts around the world. Originally from Brooklyn, Reiss boxed as a kid and has always held a love of the sport. 

Reiss worked as a fireman for the Los Angeles Fire Department for 31 years, including 19 years as a captain. His professional experiences with evaluating trauma, along with his martial arts background and his rigorous boxing training from seasoned vets affiliated with the California State Athletic Commission, have provided him with a unique perspective on refereeing (and judging). These aspects have helped form his distinctive refereeing style, featuring clear verbal commands, alacrity in identifying cuts and fouls and a thorough evaluation of fighters after knockdowns.  

Reiss's success in the sport can in part be attributed to his meticulous preparation. He keeps a personal book of refereeing from his past fights that details specific situations in the ring. He maintains an excel spreadsheet of every fight that he's done.

When speaking with Reiss, his love of the sport and the thrill of refereeing are immediately apparent. And while he enjoys his current status in boxing, he possesses an unyielding desire for improvement. After fights, he subjects himself to a rigorous review of his performance that often involves talking with trusted peers in the industry. He loves the pressure of big fights but he also understands that every opportunity to referee is a chance to improve.    

In Part I of my interview with Reiss, he discusses his martial arts training, his early mentors as a boxing official, the most difficult challenges in reffing and judging, the concept of ring generalship, the difference between holding versus clinching, what's in his personal book of refereeing and his process for establishing a physical baseline level for a fighter.   

Interview conducted by Adam Abramowitz
The interview has been edited and condensed.

Jack, you grew up in Brooklyn and did some amateur fighting as a kid. How did you originally get into boxing?
My family loved boxing. My father, who died when I was eight years old, always encouraged me and my brother to box and play around. I got pictures of my father back in 1928 standing on a beach in a boxing stance. But I’m really not clear on what his level of boxing was. I do have pictures of him with heavyweight boxers and some famous boxers from back in the day. He passed away and [laughs] my mother’s stories always changed with time.

But I always loved boxing. As a young kid, I was playing ice hockey and I wanted to learn how to defend myself. I couldn’t find a boxing gym so I found a martial arts gym. I studied martial arts and kickboxing. I had smokers in both kickboxing and boxing – really to help me with hockey. But I dumped hockey at 17 and I stayed with boxing and kickboxing.  

How would you describe Jack Reiss as an amateur fighter? What were you good at?

I had discipline and a good work ethic. I trained like crazy but I really didn’t have good instruction so I was way out there on my own. I had a pretty good punch, a good right hand, but very raw.

Growing up, who were some of the fighters that you were a fan of as a kid?

No question about it, Marvin Hagler was my idol. I loved the way that guy kept coming forward. Accurate. He was always in great shape, all business and one of the toughest guys out there. He could fight righty or lefty – had power in both hands. He was just a great fighter.   

In California, you can be both a professional judge and referee and you have done both. Who were some of your mentors as you were starting out professionally?

In the beginning it was Marty Denkin. He spent a lot of quality time with me – quality and quantity. He helped me refine what I did. Pat Russell also helped me along with Dick Young, Jim Jen Kin, Larry Rozadilla, Lou Filippo. Lots of guys helped. But Marty gave me more that I can even talk about.

As a judge and a ref what were some of the aspects that you found challenging when you started out? What did you have to improve on?

Concentration – the number-one thing. You got to really block everything out. You have to learn how to concentrate for three minutes, stop, take a mental break and concentrate again for three minutes without any distractions.

Also, the challenge is that you got these pre-determined ideas in your mind of what you think boxing is and what you’re seeing. I was taught professionally to know what I’m actually seeing. It’s a huge difference. I see it on a bigger scale. I’m looking at the four criteria for judging…learning about ring generalship, learning about what an effective punch is.

If you’re coming forward and I land a punch on your chest, stopping you dead in your tracks. And you’re no longer able to impose your will on me. I might not have done any damage but it was sure an effective punch because I just took you off your game and now I’m taking control. Sometimes in a close round it comes down to that.

One of the four scoring criteria that is controversial in many eyes is the concept of ring generalship. It’s been defined in various ways by different officials. In your mind, what defines good ring generalship?

Did you see the Cotto-Kamegai fight?

Yes I did.

That was a perfect example of ring generalship. Miguel Cotto fought exactly where and when he wanted to. Do you know what the difference is between a clinch and a hold?

Yes, I think so. 

What’s the definition?

A clinch is a tie-up or a brief break in action. A hold is when the fighter refuses to let go. That’s my sense of it. One fighter won’t let the other fighter continue, even once the referee has intervened.

It’s not far off what you’re saying. But let me explain it a way that might make you understand it even betterA clinch is an offensive technique used to navigate the ring. So, Miguel Cotto showed that beautifully. Kamegai is walking him down. Cotto is moving backward and hitting him, making Kamegai pay for that real estate. Kamegai gets him against the ropes. Miguel clinched, spun off the ropes and let him go. He used the clinching to navigate the ring. Holding is stopping the action for no apparent reason.

In 2006, you had your first international refereeing assignment in Ensenada, Mexico. The fight was a bantamweight eliminator between former title challenger Ivan Hernandez and ex-strawweight champ Roberto Carlos Leyva. What do you remember about that fight and describe your feelings leading up to it?

That was a crazy fight. Absolutely crazy. Both guys were from Ensenada and there was a lot of bad blood between them. The fight featured a number of head butts and lots of blood. 

On that note, you know what’s interesting. I’m sure most refs and judges do this. You create more problems for yourself with your own anxiety, wanting to be the best you can be and be perfect, that you’re nervous all the way up until the time you walk into the arena. You worry about getting to the arena on time. You worry that your uniform is correct and everything looks good. You worry about getting a good meal. You worry that you’re not going to have to go to the restroom right before the fight.

Once you get into the arena, it all settles down because you leave all of those things behind you. You made it. You sit down and judge or get in that ring and ref. So there’s a lot of anxiety, a lot of performance pressure that comes into play but it’s all what you do to yourself in your own head.

As you’ve become more experienced in your boxing career, do you have a preference between judging and reffing?

Yes, at this time while my body still holds up, I love reffing. I love being in the ring. Someday, when the body isn’t as good, I’ll enjoy sitting down and challenging myself to be the best judge I can be.

Do your experiences as a judge help inform you as a referee, and vice versa? If so, how does that work?

Absolutely. As a referee, the number-one thing I’m looking for is safety. I’m looking at damaging blows and fouls. As a judge, I’m looking at who’s landing the harder and more damaging blows and scoring more points. So I take that in the ring with me as a ref and I look at not only safety, not only damage, not only taking away points, but I’m actually looking at who’s winning or losing the fight to help me see the natural flow of this bout.

I’ll give you a great example. I’ve got a 10- or 12-round fight. We’re in the sixth round. I can tell in my head from a judging aspect who won those last six rounds. I’m keeping both meters going. I’m watching for safety and fouls but I’m also watching who’s winning the rounds. So when the sixth round comes and this guy hasn’t won one round, I’m saying to myself this guy can no longer win mathematically. I start evaluating if he has a punch or other factors that are involved. And the judging part of it helps. You might want to pull that kid out of there.

One aspect of judging that fascinates me is the stamina it takes to devote full concentration when judging five or six bouts on a card. How do you stay sharp on a night where you’re going to be judging those marathon cards?

I’m very appreciative that you’ve asked that question because most people just don’t get it. The hardest part about judging a card like that is the five, six and seven hour amount of time that you have to be on and off. If you add to it prep time for your clothes, travel time to the arena – you’re there an hour-and-a-half before the fight – it’s a lot of sitting around and you get tired.

What I like to do is get up and move around between fights. I make sure that I’m hydrated because with dehydration comes fatigue and you lose your concentration. I know that happens to me personally. If I have to, if I’m really exhausted on a 12-bout card and I’ve been there for six hours already and I have to judge some fights, I’ll actually have a cup of soda or some coffee with caffeine to help me wake up so I don’t lose concentration. Towards the end of the night I might do that.

There’s one fight in particular I wanted to ask you about as a judge. You were one of the three judges for Salido-Lomachenko. In that fight, there were dozens of low blows that were allowed by the ref. How difficult is it to judge a fight during those circumstances when the fouls perhaps materially affected the action in the ring?

Whether it’s that fight or any other fight that you’re talking about, I’m dictated by what the referee calls as a foul. However, if I see a blow that hits the groin, I’m not going to call it a scoring blow, even if the referee doesn’t indicate it. He might be giving a silent warning, you know “keep it up,” or a soft warning without any hand gestures. But I can see where I’m sitting that it didn’t land in a scoring area. So I’m going to not count it and I’m only going to count what I feel are legal, scoring blows.
I understand that you keep a personal book of refereeing that includes all of your past experiences. What’s in Jack’s book and what are the types of things that you put into it?

That book started on day one and I have bullet points that mean something to me. Things that I remember to do at the beginning of the fight – the eight things I’m checking before the fight starts. It just says, “Check eight things before the fight.”

Always hold their gloves before the fight and you touch their gloves together instead of letting them do it, which stops them from punching each other while I’m standing there talking to them. Things like that. Also stuff on the inside like watch the heads and elbows before the hands because you’re looking for head butts.

It also is a schematic to put me in the zone. Situational. I have 10 pages of a guy getting knocked down and dropped and gets hit while he’s on the ground.  The standing fighter throws an intentional punch but misses. What’s my reaction?  I’ve got slips and head butts and mouthpieces that fall out. I go over these things mentally from the experiences I’ve had where they’ve happened in the fight.

I was in the ring with Chris Arreola and Bermane Stiverne and Stiverne knocks down Arreola. I was counting over Arreola and I turned my head around too fast. I whipped my head around to see Arreola and I realized that I was in hyperspeed. So I remind myself to slow down. Take your time. There’s a million things in there, Adam. I’ll show you the book one day if we get the opportunity.

But it’s situational. It helps me get in the zone I need to be in. If I haven’t reffed in the ring in six weeks, I walk around my house going through knockdowns. I go through different things in this book – this playbook, whatever you want to call it – and I just walk through the scenarios mentally in my head.

Although you are well known for doing a lot of high-profile fights, most of a referee’s assignments are in smaller club shows. What are the differences between the smaller four- or six-round fights and the big main events?

Excellent question. There is a difference and one of them is that I have more leeway in a small club show that’s not on TV. I get to protect these fighters even more. What I mean by that is if I got a guy who’s lost three rounds and it’s a mismatch, I don’t have to let the sauce ripen on the stove. I can find a way to get this kid out of there and I’m not going to take criticism by the promoter. Nobody’s going to get angry. Everybody’s going to realize that it was a mismatch.

Whereas on TV, sometimes on paper you have what appears to be a great match but one of the guys once the action starts doesn’t have a chance. You got to give the fighter his due until he is no longer able to intelligently defend himself, or it’s gotten to a point where everyone knows that it’s a mismatch. I do everything I can to have an ending be definitive but sometimes you have to pull a guy out.

It’s a little bit easier on the club shows. It’s a great time for me personally. I do a lot of learning on those shows. In other words, I go to these small shows and say, “What do I want to do today?” Today, what I want to do is really work on my mechanics. If there’s a head butt. I’m going to go slow. I’m going to look at both fighters’ heads. Turn and look at the chief inspector. Signal mechanically that I got a butt and a cut or a butt with no cut and it helps me slow down. It helps me get those mechanics so deeply ingrained that when I’m at a big show, it comes natural. So I practice different things on those small shows.

One aspect of your style is that you are very deliberate in assessing fighters once they’ve been knocked down. How did that style evolve?

You’re right it has evolved. It’s come from a blend of my experiences, but not just my experience as a fighter or a referee, but my experience as a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department. I was a fireman for 31 years, captain for 19 years. I was on a paramedic engine since day one on the job.  Part of the job was we would go out to view trauma – shootings, stabbings, car accidents – and we would come upon unconscious or semi-conscious patients. We had to try to establish a baseline of what’s normal for that patient to assess his level of needed care. So it evolved from understanding trauma and being able to see the mechanism of injury.

Also, I have a baseline on a fighter when I go over the pre-fight instructions in the dressing room. I talk to the guys. I get them on their feet. I watch them as they walk to the ring. I know what’s normal for them. So when they get knocked down, I remember what the baseline is. I remember their normal. I’m looking to see their gait, their eyes, their muscle control, to see how off base they are.

I give it a mathematical number. The guy has to be at least 50% for me to let the fight continue. He needs to be 50% of what he was in the dressing room or for what’s normal for him so he could intelligently defend himself. If he’s below that I’m stopping his fight.

I wanted to discuss building a baseline in a little more detail. One fight that you did, and we talked about it briefly when we met in Nebraska, was the recent Joe Smith-Sullivan Barrera bout. I was really impressed with your work there. You went over to Smith’s corner and indicated that you believed that something was wrong. Subsequently, it was revealed that he had broken his jaw. What did you see during that bout that indicated to you that something was amiss with him?

Adam, like Steve Smoger was telling you [in a previous interview with Smoger], and you could talk to Joe Cortez, Pat Russell, Marty Denkin, Luis Pabon, Bill Clancy, Benjy Esteves, Jay Nady, all of the guys in Vegas – Robert [Byrd] Kenny [Bayless], Russell Mora, Tony [Weeks] – every one of those guys will tell you, you got to do your homework.  I had done my homework for both fighters but more importantly, I refereed Joe Smith six months earlier with Bernard Hopkins. When I walked in the dressing room to give him pre-fight instructions against Barrera, he wasn’t the same guy as he was six months earlier. His eyes looked sunken. I was worried that he couldn’t make weight. He was dehydrated. Additionally, they changed it at the last minute from a 12-round to a 10-round fight, which threw up a red flag to me. Who’s changing this and why? It was his corner and his promoter that wanted to drop down. So there were a lot of indications to me that there was something going on. And then, just talking to him, just looking at him, I knew that there was something different.

Then when he got into the ring and dropped Barrera in the first round… this kid never took a backward step before and now all of the sudden he’s backing up. He’s boxing. I’d never seen that guy do it from all of the fights I’ve watched. So round after round I’m watching this guy boxing, moving backwards. Something was wrong. His punch output was down. He was throwing singular punches rather than combinations. Instead of moving forward he was moving back. It clearly wasn’t the Joe Smith I had seen on films of him and when he fought Bernard Hopkins. I knew something was wrong.

Click here for Part II of the interview

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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