Referee Benjy Esteves Jr. has been an amateur or professional referee for the better part of the last quarter century. He is confident enough in his own abilities to admit that he is still learning, and will continue to learn until his officiating days are over.
While viewing fights on television, he says he watches the referee as much as he watches the boxers.
“Sometimes the referee will be out of the picture and I’ll say he should be over there,” said the 50-year-old Esteves, who was the third man in the ring for the WBC lightweight title fight between David Diaz and Erik Morales on August 4 in Rosemont, Illinois.
“Then, bingo, nine times out of ten he’s there. Watching other referees work helps keep you sharp. You can’t afford to be anything less than your best in there.”
Prior to Bernard Hopkins’ upset victory over Antonio Tarver in June 2006, the Tarver camp had expressed concern over what they said was Hopkins’ propensity to hit on the hip.
They brought it up so I had to address it,” said Esteves. “Bernard is a very poised professional, a seasoned veteran, and he’ll take whatever you give him. I believe that you gain control of the fight in the locker room. I told him I wouldn’t judge him on past performances, but that I would be watching him. Things worked out well.”
But, added Esteves, a good referee must realize they cannot focus all of their attention on one fighter. It takes two to tango, so Esteves realized that if he watched Hopkins too closely Tarver might try to gain an advantage.
“You always have to remember that there are two fighters in there,” said Esteves. “I always tell fighters I will give them what I expect from them: a professional effort.”
Esteves has been giving a professional effort since the early nineties. Prior to that he had a stellar career as an amateur referee, where he held the title of Chief of Officials in New York State for five years. In that capacity, he was responsible for mentoring all of the other referees.
He remembers one of the early professional fights he did in Atlantic City. A young Irish welterweight who was handled by a very prominent trainer received a nasty gash on the top of his head.
Esteves dutifully told the ringside physician to give it a look between rounds. Somehow the bleeding stopped and the Irish youngster went on to win a decision. Esteves was perplexed.
He later learned that the trainer curled up the fighter’s hair, shoved it in the cut and sealed it with Vaseline. “It was a tactical move, but it is not something that I would miss today,” said Esteves.
Having recently officiated fights with prospects like junior welterweight Kendall Holt, who lost a WBO title bid to Ricardo Torres on September 1st, and Irish middleweight Andy Lee, Esteves was asked if he is ever overwhelmed by his good fortune.
“In the ring, you can’t be,” he responded. “You have to always be watching the fighters, and thinking about other things too: I just passed the neutral corner [or] I just passed a judge and might be blocking him so I have to move. If a mouthpiece falls out I have to go to this or that corner. While you’re thinking all of this, you’re also looking for cuts, butts and fouls.
“Once you do it for a while, you get well-practiced at it,” he continued. “It’s like brushing your teeth. But you can never forget your importance in there. Your job is to keep the fighters safe and also maintain the integrity of the sport.”
Esteves was the third man in the ring when Arturo Gatti brutally knocked out Joey Gamache in the second round in February 2000 at Madison Square Garden. It has since been alleged in court papers that Gatti was allowed to come in overweight. The controversy resulted in a total revamping of the then beleaguered New York State Athletic Commission, which is now considered one of the finest in the country.
Esteves remembers that fight all too well. “It’s a referee’s worst nightmare to lose a fighter in the ring,” he said. “I was running into stop the fight whenGatti caught Gamache with a three-punch combination. As I came in with my arms up, Gamache went down. I really thought he might have been more seriously hurt. When I saw it on the video, it looked horrible.”
More recently, in March 2007, he refereed a middleweight fight between Andy Lee and Carl Daniels. The highly touted Lee knocked out the former junior middleweight titlist in the third round, also at MSG.
“As soon as he hit the ground, I wanted the doctor to see him,” said Esteves. “I didn’t want to move him in any way, even to take the mouthpiece out. Thankfully, he’s okay.”
At least twice a week Esteves speaks with Joe Cortez, who many people consider the dean of contemporary referees. It was from Cortez, says Esteves, that he has learned to be calm and cool. In a business where character assassination is an art form, Cortez is one of the few people you never hear anything remotely negative about.
“I try to pattern myself after Joe,” said Esteves. “I go to his seminars and listen closely to whatever he says.”
Two other early mentors were Larry Hazzard and Tony Orlando, both of whom were longtime New Jersey referees but are now involved in the administrative aspect of boxing. It was Hazzard who culled Esteves from the amateur ranks and “turned” him pro.
“I picked up so much from those guys,” said Esteves. “I am very grateful for all that I learned from them.”
Growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, Esteves had only a passing interest in boxing. His brother Norberto, a retired New York City social services worker boxed, as did his uncle, featherweight Victor Melendez, a solid pro who compiled a 16-0-4 (0KOS) record between 1963-69. His two losses were decisions to Ismael Laguna and Carlos “Teo” Cruz, both of whom held world titles.
His cousins Carlos Pacheco and Angel Nieves also boxed competitively, but by the time Esteves’ interest was piqued he considered himself too old to get started in such a challenging sport.
He still remembers being mesmerized by the first fight card he ever saw live. It was July 1973 at MSG, and Harold Weston Jr. stopped future middleweight champion VitoAntuofermo on cuts in five rounds. Esteves was hooked.
“It was so cool, so exciting,” said Esteves. “I always knew my uncle was a pro boxer, but never gave it much thought. After seeing my first fight live, I wanted to be involved in a big way.”
For some inexplicable reason, becoming a referee appealed to him. To that end, he called the offices of The RING magazine, which were then in Manhattan. VinceShomo, a multiple Golden Gloves champion, picked up the phone.
Shomo was helpful and led him to Bruce Silverglade, the current owner of Gleason’s Gym. At the time, Silverglade headed the New York State amateur system. He and Shomo helped guide Esteves in the right direction but, Esteves says, “It was Frankie Martinez who made me what I am today.”
Esteves met Martinez while trying to locate Dick McGuire, who for many years was a top amateur official in the city. Every time he’d go looking fort him at a show, he’d find Martinez instead. After the third or fourth time, Martinez asked if he could help him.
“He was also from Hell’s Kitchen, and he took me under his wing,” said Esteves. “He taught me so much. He told me to never comment about a boxer before a fight, to never make predictions, to be clean, to be on time, and to be strong with your commands.”
Esteves said that there were times he’d leave the ring proud of his work, only to be criticized by Martinez. “He taught me to never get complacent and to always know there is room for improvement,” said Esteves. “If you forget that, you can’t help but get complacent.”
Esteves also learned invaluable lessons from his mother, Irene Nieves, who instilled in him his work ethic, honesty and devotion to personal and professional integrity. All of these traits have come to define the man that he is today.
She raised Esteves and his brother by herself, and even taught them the importance of physical fitness by her own example. Like Joe Cortez, she was firm but fair, gracious and giving. Although she was a single mother raising two boys in a neighborhood plagued by drugs and prostitution, Nieves found the time run a workout club in a local senior citizen center, as well as the bingo club at the church.
“My mother, God rest her soul, was a very special person,” said Esteves. “I always knew she was special, but after she died I found out about things I never knew about her. She was very popular. Everyone knew her and she did so much for everyone. She was the original Jenny on the block.”
Nieves was struck by a car and killed in Manhattan in July 2003. She was a youthful 70 years old at the time of her death. After her passing, Esteves learned of the countless errands and favors she did for people in the building. Never once did she complain, much less tell her children how much she did for others. She let her actions speak louder than her words.
Another invaluable lesson she taught Esteves and his brother was forgiveness. The woman who struck their mother was wracked with grief and guilt. On more than one occasion, she or her sister called the hospital to check on Nieves’ condition.
“We realized right away it was an accident,” said Esteves. “As devastated as we were, there was no reason for anger. We forgave her. I wished I could have had a few more years with my Mom, but am grateful for all that I had.”
Although Esteves did not know his late father growing up, he has since come to realize that he was a good man. After his untimely death a few years back, Esteves learned that he also had two half-sisters and a half-brother. They have since become very close and he loves them as if he’s known them his whole life.
Equally important to having the new family is the fact that he got to know his father through them. His namesake was employed as a laborer, and circumstances kept him and Esteves’ mother apart. Still, Esteves realizes now that he was, at his core, a very decent man.
“I even sign my name like him,” said Esteves. “It’s kind of eerie.”
If Esteves was employed in a military or a quasi-military organization such as a police department, people would consider him “squared away.”
He presents a good appearance, is articulate and competent, and exudes an air about him that makes you trust him and believe that he will do what he says, not only correctly, but in the time he says it will take him to do it. That is apparent in his everyday demeanor, as well as in his voice mail at IBM, where he is employed as an accounts receivable representative in the marketing division.
Besides being eternally optimistic and positive, he seems totally incorruptible and extremely professional in all of his daily dealings.
“I’m a naturally friendly guy, so when I see fighters I ask them how they are doing and inquire about their families,” he said. “But I try not to have conversations with fighters, because it can give someone the opening to say something. And I won’t schmooze with promoters. That’s a no-no. If I’m out of town doing a fight, I stay clear of the promoters.”
Esteves regularly attends small club shows, not only because he enjoys them but also to watch other referees in action. Never, he asserts, does he expect to enter for free. “I always pay my way,” he said. “I never flick my badge to get in.”
He also keeps himself in peak physical condition. On alternate days he runs four miles, rides a stationary bicycle, bangs the heavy bag and does loads of sit-ups. All of that hard work pays off because even after a fight as fast-paced as Diaz-Morales, he was barely winded.
“I like to stay limber and in shape at all times,” he said. “But if a fight is coming up, I do a little extra of everything.”
Esteves and his wife Nelsie, who have been together for 28 years, reside in Sayreville, New Jersey, which is about 40 minutes from Manhattan. Their two sons are successful in their own right. Benjamin III, 26, is an insurance representative and 21-year-old Julian just graduated from Rutgers University and is now working toward an advanced degree in criminal justice.
“I don’t have a wild side,” said Esteves. “But even though I live in a good neighborhood, where there is very little crime, I still put the Club on my steering wheel and I don’t leave my house windows open. Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, it’s hard to change.”
Esteves starts each day with a daily prayer to “put everything in focus.” His prayers and daily readings are as important to him as his exercise regimen.
He also believes in helping out those less fortunate than himself. Every third Saturday of the month, he and two IBM co-workers volunteer at a pantry in the City of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. They distribute canned, boxed and bagged goods to needy residents.
“That is very important to me,” said Esteves. “I feel it is important for us as human beings to give something back in any way to those less fortunate.
“No matter how bad you might think you have it, there are always people who have it worse. People at work say how tough their job is. I tell them at least you got a job.”
In his spare time, Esteves likes to detail other people’s cars. He has his own transitory equipment. If he works at the customers’ home, he gives them a discount because he’s using their electricity.
“That’s my nature, to put forth my best effort and to always be honest and open,” he said. “When customers get their car back and say ‘awesome,’ I feel good. When I referee a good fight, I feel good.
“As long as I do my best, I feel good. I never give less than a professional effort in anything I do. My reputation speaks for itself.”