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When Champs Become Referees

BY Ed Schuyler ON July 05, 2005
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Something not seen in boxing any more is a former world champion acting as a referee, but several great fighters have played a role in boxing history as the third man in the ring after their fighting days were over.

The only fight I ever covered in which an ex-champ was the referee was when Joe Louis worked Joe Frazier’s fifth-round technical knockout of Jerry Quarry on Jan. 17, 1974 in Madison Square Garden. Because the fight did not go the distance an embarrassing situation was avoided. Louis had neglected to mark a couple of rounds on his scorecard.

Two former champions who did not escape the harsh glow of bad publicity were heavyweight Jersey Joe Walcott and featherweight Willie Pep.

Walcott was front and center in the fiasco that was Muhammad Ali’s one-punch first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in their rematch on May 25, 1965, at Lewiston, Maine.

After the knockdown from a blow that some observers called a perfect punch and others called a phantom punch, Walcott tried to get Ali to go to a neutral corner. Instead Ali stood over Liston, then danced around the ring. After about 17 seconds, without Walcott having started to count, Liston got up. Walcott wiped his gloves, and action resumed. Walcott then heard Nat Fleischer, publisher of The Ring, hollering at him from ringside. So he walked toward Fleischer, who told him the fight was over. Walcott then stopped the bout. It was announced that Liston had been counted out by the knockdown timekeeper.

Pep refereed a WBC featherweight title defense by Johnny Famechon, a Frenchman fighting out of Australia, against Fighting Harada on July 28, 1969, in Sydney. Pep had outpointed a Frenchman named Ray Famechon in a title defense on March 17, 1950.

Johnny Famechon was knocked down in the second and fourteenth rounds. He apparently was knocked down in the fifth, but Pep ruled it a slip. Harada, a former bantamweight champion, slipped to the canvas in the eleventh, but Pep ruled it a knockdown. There were no judges, except Pep, who raised both fighters’ arms, signifying a draw. Promoter Mickey Duff then had Pep’s card checked and instead of a 71-71 score, it added up to 70-69 for Famechon. Even the Sydney newspapers thought Harada had won.

Billy Conn, a former light heavyweight champion, handled his duties as a referee correctly, then needed protection to get back to his dressing room after Carlos Ortiz retained the lightweight title by stopping Mexican Sugar Ramos in the fifth round on Oct. 22, 1966, at Mexico City.

Ramos, a former featherweight champ, scored a flash knockdown in the second round, exciting a partisan crowd that was already pumped up. Ortiz, however, started scoring with left hooks that cut and closed Ramos’ left eye. In the fourth round, Conn halted the action and summoned the ringside physician to examine the eye. The doctor refused. After the bell, Conn again asked the doctor to examine the eye, but again the doctor refused. When the eye got worse in the fifth round and the doctor once again refused to look at it, Conn stopped the fight, making the Puerto Rican champion a technical knockout winner. Rocks, coins and even chairs were thrown into the ring.

After Ortiz and Conn reached the safety of their dressing rooms, the Mexican commission informed Ortiz that if he did not return to the ring and resume the fight, Ramos would be declared the winner. Ortiz called the Mexican bluff and ultimately retained the title.

Other champions who refereed title fights after retiring included heavyweights Jim Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Jim Braddock, Jack Sharkey, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston, as well as light heavyweight Tommy Loughran, middleweight Fred Apostoli, welterweight Jack Britton, lightweight Benny Leonard, featherweight Petey Scalzo and triple champions Henry Armstrong and Barney Ross.

It seems that often these men were used as referees because of their celebrity, which sometimes also added a sense of legitmacy to the fight. My all-time favorite celebrity, however, was not an ex-boxing champion. but a former peace officer/faro dealer named Wyatt Earp. There will be more on Earp later.

The first of seven fights that were refereed by Jeffries was one to name his successor after he retired. That was a twelfth round knockout of Jack Root by Marvin Hart on July 3, 1905, and you can bet that many in the crowd still considered the referee as the heavyweight champion.

Dempsey never refereed a heavyweight championship fight, but he did work seven title bouts. He might have been a decisive referee, but he was indecisive when he came to scoring. He favored Barney Ross 5-3, 7 even, when Ross regained the welterweight title from Jimmy McLarnin on a unanimous decision in their third fight on May 28, 1935. In a 6-5-4 referee’s decision, Dempsey favored lightweight champion Sammy Angott over Davey Day on May 3, 1940.

Braddock lent his name and fame, as referee, to three title fights in 1939. The first was a seventh-round technical knockout by middleweight champion Freddie Steele (who by one count was 123-3-11 at the time) of Carmen Barth (26-7-2) on Feb. 19, 1938. That was 19 months after Braddock has lost the heavyweight title to Joe Louis and 29 days after he outpointed Tommy Farr in his final fight.

Leonard was a regular referee for the New York State Athletic Commission, and on April 18, 1947, he apparently was assigned an entire six-bout card at St. Nicholas Arena that featured Eddie Giosa’s 10-round decision over Julio Cesar Jimenez. The walkout bout between Mario Roman and Bobby Williams was about one minute into the first round when Leonard collapsed and died.

One reason former world champions no longer referee is that their celebrity is not enough to get them a license.

Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said in order to referee a title fight in that jurisdiction, you have have refereed in the amateurs, before working your way up through four, six, eight and ten-rounders in the pros to reach the championship level. “It takes three to four years,” Ratner said.

Now, more on Wyatt Earp.

“On Dec. 12, 1896, one of the classic crimes of the American ring was perpetrated, when Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey came together in the National Athletic Club in San Francisco,” Alexander Johnson wrote in “Ten and Out,” first published in 1927.

The purse was $10,000, winner take all. The referee was Earp. The rumors were the outcome was fixed.

Fitzimmons, who would take the heavyweight title from Jim Corbett 3½ months later, reportedly dominated the action over the first seven rounds. In the eighth, Fitzsimmons landed an apparently legal body punch, and Sharkey sank to the floor. Earp stopped the fight and awarded Sharkey the victory on a foul.

“There was almost a riot as the fight ended,” Johnson wrote, “and Fitz made a rush at Earp. That gentleman is reported to have had a gun.”

The decision stood.

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