Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Sparkle Lee toiled in relative anonymity as an amateur boxing referee. Still she was able to garner a reputation as someone who was willing to officiate a fight anywhere at any time.
She worked in basements, as well as in bigger venues, but the important fights always seemed to elude her. On more than one occasion her friends and family members asked her why she stuck with a job that was so unwelcoming to women.
“I was doing what I loved, and I always had a lot of faith,” said the 47-year-old Lee, who recently retired from the NYPD after serving as a Bronx police officer for 20 years.
“I loved the sport and I always believed in it, so I never thought of quitting. Not even once.”
Over the years, Lee has become an unwitting trailblazer. In 1998, she became the first woman in history to referee a New York City Golden Gloves bout. Three years later she was the first female referee appointed to the New York State Athletic Commission.
Last August she was the first woman to referee a fight in New Jersey, when she was the third “man” in the ring for Nasser Athumani’s stoppage of former world junior welterweight champion Juan Urango.
And on November 17, she reached what many insiders consider the pinnacle of the boxing profession when she oversaw bantamweight prospect Abner Mares’s 12 round decision victory over Damian Marchiano in Atlantic City.
Not only was a regional WBO title at stake, the fight was televised on HBO.
“I didn’t even know I was getting that assignment until the afternoon of the fight,” said the always cheerful and exuberant Lee. “I expected to handle some undercard fights. When I saw my name penciled in for the title fight, I was shocked. I immediately went and called my kids.”
Lee has one son and two daughters, as well as 5-month-old grandson. She draws great strength from them, and says they are the greatest blessings in a life that is full of blessings.
“It was great to referee a fight on HBO,” said Lee. “But no matter where you are working, you have to always remember that nothing is more important than the health and safety of the fighters.”
Similar words have been stated by esteemed referee Benji Esteves Jr., who, not surprisingly, was a longtime mentor to Lee. He guided her through the labyrinthine amateur system, and the mutual respect the two have for each other is immeasurable.
“Sparkle has always been a good learner and a hard worker,” said Esteves. “She didn’t always get the right opportunities to prove herself; that was just the nature of the game. But I am not at all surprised by her success. She’s been learning her craft for over 20 years, so she is fundamentally sound and understands that you can never stop learning.”
“Benji has been a blessing,” said Lee. “He has taught me so much, and continues to teach me today. I’ve been blessed to have him as a teacher.”
New York State Athletic Commissioner Ron Scott Stevens is also an admirer of Lee’s work ethic and acumen in the ring.
“She’s really coming into her own, and she has a very good refereeing style,” said Stevens. “She is very decisive and safety conscious.”
Unlike many others who have spent decades immersed in the sport, Stevens always believed that women would make their mark in the sweet science as fighters and judges. He envisioned it as an evolutionary process, and his prognostications have come true.
“We’ve had women timekeepers, judges and commissioners for many years,” he explained. “It was only natural that they would eventually want to expand into all areas of the game. They deserve to be where they are today because they are doing a great job.”
Way back in the early 1980s, Lee and her twin sister Star started training for the White Collar Boxing program at Gleason’s Gym, when the fabled venue was still located in Manhattan.
Once she joined the police department in 1987, she decided not to box competitively but was still emotionally attached to the game. Bruce Silverglade, who is still the owner of Gleason’s, ran the New York City AAU amateur program at the time.
He realized that Lee had an abundance of talents that would be put to good use as an official.
“She was a real nice kid who had a great personality and a real desire to learn everything she could about boxing,” said Silverglade, who has been a mentor to countless boxing neophytes.
“She went on to eventually run the amateur program herself, and was in charge of all the New York officials. She took no nonsense, and has done a great job in everything she’s been associated with in boxing. As a referee, she is in control and you hardly notice her. That is the sign of a good official.”
Taking control in the ring has not always been so easy for Lee. In her very first amateur fight, two middleweights flailed wildly at each other and completely ignored her instructions. She vowed to never let that happen again. To her credit, it has not.
“I can be very hard on myself, but I am also very good at learning from my mistakes,” said Lee, who has incessantly studied tapes of referees Joe Cortez and Larry Hazzard, both of whom are or were well known for their take-charge officiating styles.
Lee considers them among the best in the business.
“I see myself like any other referee, but know that you are only as good as your last fight. I learn from all of my fights, and I will continue to learn in each and every one of them.”
While Lee might seem like an overnight sensation to some, the road to where she is now has been a circuitous one. However, she is elated to be where she is in her life and looks forward to a future full of boxing, as well as working as the manager or adviser to her nephews who she believes are about to make big waves in the music business.
“I started out as a wrestling fan until I found out it was fake,” said Lee. “Then I became a boxing fan. I met lots of great people, and I was helped by so many great people. I love every aspect of boxing, and I am so happy to be involved in it. I am blessed, truly blessed.”