Although he is no stranger to officiating big fights, referee Mike Ortega says that he is “honored” to have been chosen to be the third man in the ring this Saturday in Cardiff, Wales, when local hero Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler of Denmark will unify the super middleweight titles.
The bout, which is arguably the most important of the year, is expected to attract as many as 60,000 fans.
“According to a lot of people, this is the biggest historical boxing event in European history,” said the 50-year-old Ortega, a resident of New Haven, Connecticut, who is the son of welterweight boxing legend Gaspar Ortega.
“To be part of this is a tremendous honor.”
Ortega last saw ring action in early October, when he refereed the heavyweight title bout between Samuel Peter and Jameel McCline at Madison Square Garden.
Prior to that fight he spent a lot of time at his friend Dennis Hill’s martial arts academy in Connecticut. He wanted to put in some extra preparation because those fighters had a combined weight of over 500 pounds.
“I knew I’d be dealing with two big guys, so I worked on stuff like breaking up clinches,” he said.
For Calzaghe-Kessler, Ortega has viewed lots of footage of the fighters, especially in their most recent fights. He actually has already worked one of Calzaghe’s 20 title defenses, against Juan Carlos Giminez Ferreyra in Wales in April 1998.
Ortega realizes that fighters can change over the years. Having been a world class referee since 1996, he has come to expect the unexpected.
For that reason he has spent much of the past few weeks at the Town of Hamden gym, working on his fundamentals.
“I always study the fighters I’m going to work with so I know their tendencies,” he said. “I’ll go up in the ring and work on my mechanics, such as moving backwards or going side by side.”
While he is not speaking specifically about Calzaghe and Kessler, he says some fighters might be prone to hit on the break, hit behind the head, or come out of their neutral corner too early.
“I try to break it down early, so I have an idea in my head what to expect,” he said. “I’ll go in the dressing room and say I know you like to do this, but…..”
While Ortega is much too professional to offer any opinions on the Calzaghe-Kessler matchup, he does say that when a southpaw like Calzaghe fights a conventional boxer like Kessler it is necessary to closely monitor the fighters’ footwork.
“”You always have to be in position to pick up (observe) an accidental trip,” he said. “You have to be able to see if the knockdown was clean or if it was a slip. It’s easy for fighters to trip when a lefty fights a righty.”
Ortega, who is in peak physical condition, says that by the end of an active 12 round bout he is more mentally than physically exhausted.
“You have to have total concentration in there,” he said. “Not just during the action, but even between rounds. Sometimes a fighter might be hurt and want to quit, but his corner will be convincing him to go out for another round. If that’s the case, I need to know that.”
Like all of the good referees, Ortega makes a very difficult job look extremely easy. Although he engaged in only one amateur fight, he has been around boxing all of his life.
As a youngster he would accompany his father to the gym on a regular basis. In order to keep the youngster out of the way of boxers in serious training, Gaspar would tell his son to go in the ring and shadow box if the ring was empty.
If no one was using the heavy or speed bags, he’d tell him to go play with them. As a result, Ortega might not be conventionally or classically trained but he feels very comfortable in the ring.
“As a kid the ring and the gym was like a playpen for me,” he said. ‘I grew up in the ring, so I was never intimidated by it. Not even now, when I’m doing bigger fights in front of bigger crowds with major titles on the line.”
Besides his father, who is now 72 with his mental faculties intact, Ortega was mentored by esteemed referees Joe Cortez and Arthur Mercante Jr., as well as the late Chuck Minker, the former head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Ortega remembers attending a convention with those officials, as well as great referees like Carlos Padilla and Richard Steele.
“Chuck (Minker) told me you are among the cream of the crop,” recalled Ortega. “He told me to stay close, to listen and watch, and that some day I’d be in the same class as them.”
To say that Cortez is like family to the Ortega’s would be an understatement. When Gaspar first came to New York from Mexico at the age of 18 in the early fifties, he lived in Spanish Harlem. It was there that he met Joe and his brother Mike, both of whom went on to become New York City Golden Gloves champions.
“They came from a broken home and were running wild on the streets,” said Ortega. “My father couldn’t speak any English, and Joe liked the way he talked. Joe became my dad’s interpreter and my dad, who had turned pro at 15, took Joe under his wing.”
Not only did Gaspar get the Cortez brothers involved in boxing, he and his wife were given permission by Cortez’s mother to raise Joe in their home. Joe was like a big brother to Mike, who is 14 years his junior.
He was also Mike’s best man at his wedding and is the godfather to his children, Miguel, who along with Ortega’s wife Suzette will accompany him to Wales, Joseph, who is named after Cortez, and Gabriella.
“He’s showed me so much, taught me so much, really showed me the ropes,” said Ortega. “When people tell me my style is like is, it is a great compliment.”
Among the many championship caliber fighters that Ortega has officiated are Jermain Taylor, Acelino Freitas, Sultan Ibragimov, Antonio Tarver, Paul Malignaggi, Evander Holyfield, Diego Corrales and Zab Judah.
While he won’t comment on any of them personally or professionally, he admires them all for the dangerous and daunting work they do. He is especially in awe of the hard work they put forth to reach the championship level.
Because Ortega works by day as a maintainer for the Town of Hamden Parks and Recreation Department, he is asked if officiating is a vocation or a hobby.
“A hobby is like stamp collecting, where no one is going to get hurt,” he responded. “Being a referee is a part-time job that requires full-time preparation. I’ve seen what can happen to fighters, so I take my job very seriously. If a fight should be stopped I will stop it. I won’t allow someone to take a needless beating.”
That, he says, is why it is so important to prepare so hard for every fight. Even when Samuel Peter was dropped several times early on by McCline, Ortega never panicked. He let Peter continue, and Peter went on to win the fight by unanimous decision.
“You have to watch very closely, every second of the bout,” said Ortega. “There is no time to take a breather in there. You have someone’s life, as well as their career at stake.”
As chaotic as the atmosphere will be on Saturday in Wales, in the hours before the main event Ortega will find a quiet place to be by himself and say a prayer. He’ll pray for “swiftness of foot and sharpness of eyes.”
Most importantly, he says, he’ll pray to keep the fighters he’ll be working, as well as all other fighters, safe.
“A lot of spiritual preparation goes into this work, too,” said Ortega. “I always try to do my best and pray to not be afraid to make the right decision. Every fighter deserves a fair shake to advance their career and help their families. But the last thing I would want is to see a fighter get hurt.
“When you are in that ring, you can’t be intimidated by the fighters or the crowd or the television networks.”
Although Ortega will be working too hard to actually enjoy what many people believe will be the fight of the year, having just turned 50 in early October he says that being the referee for it is the greatest birthday present he could have received.
“I’m going to Wales, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with my family and working a really important fight,” said Ortega. “What a great way to celebrate my birthday.”