Everything isn’t what it seems in boxing. Fight fans have grown accustomed to accept the unexpected in the theater of the unexpected yet turn sour at times when the result doesn’t fall to our liking. It is easy for boxing followers to fall victim to the emotions or the intensity of the moment during a fight. Referee Tony Weeks calls our plight “the short run versus the long run.” Weeks says fight fans use “gut check” reactions when throwing out criticism yet come to terms with the result of an event after giving it some thought during the “long run.”
Weeks learned to keep his composure during difficult fights when he worked at the federal prisons in Phoenix, Arizona as a recreational specialist, he informed me in a recent chat.
Weeks says he built his success on experience and instincts. He studies body demeanor more than anything and honed his craft under the theory that, “referees aren’t made, they are born.”
Read on as Weeks enlightens us about the “totality” of a boxing fight, and explains his approach during the classic encounter between Jose Luis Castillo/Diego Corrales and recent bouts between Canelo Alvarez/Alfredo Angulo and Floyd Mayweather/Marcos Maidana.
RM: Why did you decide to become a referee?
TW: Well, at the time, I was working with the federal prisons in Phoenix, Arizona as a recreation specialist. I decided to put on a boxing exhibition in the prison. We got the fighters and set the ring up there in the yard. And the guys got up there and started sparring. But then it dawned on me; I forgot to get a referee. So, I asked one of the trainers if I go in there and referee. They were fine with it. So, I got in the ring, and it felt natural. It felt really good.
RM: I see. So, how did you come into the professional ranks as a referee?
TW: Well, Bento Martinez referred me to the Arizona State Boxing Commission. Usually you start from the amateur ranks and work your way up.
RM: When did you get to Vegas?
TW: I moved to Vegas in 1995. But I didn’t get on until 2000.
RM: How come it took so long?
TW: Well, you know, you just have to wait it out.
RM: You had to pay your dues?
TW: Yeah. I just waited for a position to open up and that was it.
RM: OK. How do you stand out as a referee? How can a referee draw attention yet stay neutral, and be in the big fights?
TW: Well, it’s just like you noticed. It’s just about doing your job and not to do anything extra to bring attention to yourself. You just perform your job correctly and consistently. Nothing extra is needed. When you do something extra people start to know that, “Hey, this guy wants to be in the picture.” And that is just wrong.
RM: Can you take me through the process of how you get selected to referee a fight? Let’s say the Mayweather/Maidana in May, how did you get selected to referee that fight?
TW: Well, the commission selects the officials for all of the fights.
TW: We have a great commission and they know what fights are good for certain officials and so forth.
RM: So, it’s not really the fighters that choose?
TW: Well, I believe they give both camps two or three names and they could choose if they want this person or don’t want this person. But it’s ultimately up to the commission.
RM: OK. In boxing, referees get a lot of criticism. It comes with the territory. Does the criticism ever bother you?
TW: I mean, here’s the thing, we cannot expect the general public, fighters, or trainers, to think the way that we think. We are trained to officiate a fight fairly for both fighters. We are not taking any sides. There are fans and trainers that have a financial investment or emotional investment on a fighter and we (referees) cannot expect them to think fairly. It all comes with the territory.
RM: So, if it’s a thankless job as you say, what motivates you to do it?
TW: Well, it’s the love of the game. I do it for the love of the sport.
TW: I tell anyone, you can’t do it for the money or the fame. You have to have a genuine love and respect for the sport. These fighters train hard. They put in hours of effort, and they deserve to have good officiating. And ultimately, we have their lives in our hands. Fighters deserve to know that we are competent.
RM: OK. This is might be a horrible comparison, but I used to be a teacher and it can also be a thankless job. I mean, you are there to help the kids and half the time they are not even paying attention to what you are saying.
RM: So, teaching reminds me of the referee profession because at the end of the day, whether the kids liked it or not, I went home feeling like I did what was in their best interest. Do you feel the same way about refereeing?
TW: Oh yeah. You know, we cannot help what someone else thinks or feels. We can only control ourselves. A lot of times when a fan or fighter get upset at an official, it’s usually during the short run.
RM: What do you mean by short run?
TW: Well, they are usually mad during the fight or immediately after the fight. That’s when people have a gut check reaction. But in time, in the long run, when people sit back and analyze a fight in a different state of mind, that’s when people tend to understand why a referee made a particular move.
TW: And that’s the same thing with teachers, I’m sure you will have students come up to you later on in life and say, “Hey, I’m glad you did what you did. And if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
RM: True. So, boxers usually acknowledge your decisions after the fact?
TW: Oh yeah… It always happens.
RM: OK. Can you give me an example of how you keep your emotions out of a fight?
TW: Well, it’s really simple. My mother can be in the ring and I will still call it down the middle. I have no investment whatsoever. I respect the fighters. But there is no financial or emotional investment for me to sway either way. When I see a foul, I am going to react to it. When I see one fighter taking an illegal advantage, I am going to react to it. OK. Here is the most important thing about refereeing, it’s even the same in life; people want you to be fair. You know, sometimes it may not appear that we (referees) are fair, but that goes back to what I was saying about “the short run.” Most fighters and people that understand boxing know that referees are there to keep the fight fair.
RM: Speaking of fairness, you just reminded me of the Canelo Alvarez/Alfredo Angulo fight a few months ago. Did you ever talk with Angulo after you stopped the fight? I know Angulo thought you stopped the fight prematurely.
TW: Yeah. It’s on camera. I did go to the corner and speak to him. I allowed him to vent, you know. He deserves that. If he was mad at me, that’s ok. I can live with it. I cannot be in his head or in his body to see what is going on. I just see what is going on from the outside. I just wouldn’t be doing my job if I let that fight go on any further. I wouldn’t be competent in doing my job.
RM: I hear you.
TW: But here is the one thing about it, fighters respect referees. And that respect is earned over the course of time. When I went over to Angulo’s corner he could have said anything to me, but the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “I like you. I respect you. But tonight you were wrong.” And, that’s fine with me.
TW: A fighter can say whatever they want to say. They are in the ring taking punishment. But it makes a big difference when the respect is there from both parties.
RM: It’s interesting because referees have so much authority in the ring. I mean, you have the authority to decide when to end everyone’s night. How do you handle that responsibility?
TW: No. I mean, first of all, you have to have the ability and courage to know when to enforce that ruling. That’s all it is. Once again, I refer back to “the short run versus the long run.” There’s always going to be an immediate reaction.
TW: Listen, when you go back to the Angulo fight, if I had allowed that fight to go on and Angulo would have gotten hurt, the same people who booed me for stopping the fight would have chastised me and said that I should have stopped the fight.
RM: Yeah. Good point.
TW: I mean it’s darned if you do and darned if you don’t. You know, you just have to have the ability to make the call and have the courage to make the call. When I first started refereeing in Phoenix, an old referee named Al Munoz that passed away told me something that I didn’t fully understand at the time. He said, “Referees aren’t made, they are born.” And that is so true. Anybody can learn the rules and regulations. But not everyone can effectively apply those rules and regulations in the right circumstances.
TW: Bottom line, it’s either in you or it’s not. It’s like anything in life.
RM: “The short run” is like basketball. Basketball players never think that they are the one that commits a foul.
TW: Right. They just can’t see it fairly. Competitors can’t see it straight down the middle when they are trying to win.
RM: And fans or promoters can’t think like a referee because they have an investment on one particular side.
TW: Exactly. And they are not trained to officiate like we are trained.
RM: Right. Hey, I have to ask you about the first Mayweather/Maidana fight. Mayweather kept looking at you after he got cut in the fourth round. It seemed as though he was looking to you for help. Did you notice that or was it just me?
TW: Well, I don’t know if he was asking for help or not. But I believe it was the first time that he was ever cut in a fight.
TW: Fighters react differently to cuts. I don’t think he was asking for help. But the cut was definitely bothering him.
RM: After the fight the Mayweather camp said, “Tony Weeks will never referee another Mayweather fight.” How do you respond?
TW: I don’t. I don’t respond to it. That is just someone’s opinions. They might be the minority.
TW: Like I said, people can look at something, but really don’t understand what is going on. You should never criticize somebody, or in this case an official, until you have been in that ring. Most of these people have never been in that position to make a critical call. My body of work speaks for itself.
TW: For someone to disrespect a whole body of work and judge it by one night is self-explanatory.
RM: OK. Personally, I don’t think you did a bad job. I was just wondering if you are sensitive to the criticism.
TW: Look, I was a fan before I became a referee. I understand the way they think. But it has no bearing on me whatsoever. They don’t make me or break me. When something major happens, the media picks up on it. And there hasn’t been anything in the media to really substantiate anything from the Mayweather camp. It was a hell of a fight. No one has ever seen Mayweather in that type of fight. So it is definitely going to influence everybody.
RM: I hear you. So Mayweather had never been in that type of fight and people don’t know how to respond or whom to blame.
TW: Right. And they are only looking at one side. You know, we as referees are looking at the totality of the fight. We are looking at what both fighters are doing. We are not just looking at from one side.
RM: A fair and impartial referee…
TW: That’s all.
RM: Yeah, you also worked the Mayweather/Cotto fight…
RM: Some people complained about rough-housing in the Mayweather/Maidana fight, but the Cotto fight had some similar action.
TW: Yeah, well, here’s the thing about Maidana, he’s a street guy, and he is a street brawler. He’s very awkward. He throws punches from all angles. And of course there are times he has a tendency to do some unsportsmanlike conduct. And a lot of times that (unsportsmanlike conduct) stands out more to people than anything else. Sometimes people only focus on the unsportsmanlike action but true boxing people know what’s going on.
RM: So if most people are focusing on the street brawling action, what are you focusing on?
TW: The totality of the fight.
TW: I look at what Fighter A is doing and what Fighter B is doing. One guy can be doing something unsportsmanlike that is completely obvious. And the other guy might have the ability to do something (unsportsmanlike) also, and make it look as though he isn’t doing anything wrong. Fighters have the ability to do things that don’t stand out to the crowd.
RM: So, do you study styles of fighters before the fight?
TW: Yeah. I study their styles to see what they are doing before they do it. But I don’t let that history influence me in a way where I try to anticipate something to happen.
RM: What do you mean?
TW: Well, for example, you might have a fighter that has a tendency to hit low. But I still have to call my fight fair. I am still going to react to any punch the same way to where if it’s a legitimate low blow or if it’s marginal. In other words, I am not going to jump the gun because a fighter has the tendency throw a low blow.
RM: I hear you. So you know the fighters but you still have to play your game the way you are supposed to play it.
TW: That’s right. It’s a new fight. You can’t hold a fighter’s history against him. It’s no different than a football coach scouting the opposing team. Referees study to see the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of the fighters. It is just good information.
TW: But I still react instinctively. It goes back to what I said about “Referees aren’t made, they are born.” You just have to have a natural gift to sense certain things. For example, it’s like when I worked in a prison. I could be on a rec yard and there could be anywhere from 500 to 1000 inmates on the field at anytime. If I look across the field and see a group of inmates grouped together, I could pretty much sense and feel what is going on by their demeanor, and by their body action. I can tell if it’s an argument or if they are drinking wine, or whatever it may be. Just being on the yard helps you feel the tension. If you suddenly walk in a quiet room you can sense when there is an argument. You can sense if something is happening. So, it’s just a natural instinct. You either have it or don’t.
RM: Yeah. OK…
TW: Yeah. We’re always learning, man. It’s like the late Bruce Lee said, “Absorb what is useful and discard what is useless.”
RM: I hear you. Let’s talk about the Jose Luis Castillo/Diego Corrales fight. Can you take me through your mind process during round 10 of that fight?
TW: Well, that fight comes to my mind at least once a day. It is definitely the highlight of my career. Going into the 10th round it was a tremendous fight. It went back and forth. Each fighter took equal punishment. Corrales’ eye was swelling up bad. When Corrales went down for the first time in the 10th round and I started counting, I looked at him and I could tell he was focused. He was still alert. Then the mouthpiece came out. I decided to let the fight continue and put the mouthpiece back in. Almost as soon as I let it continue, he (Corrales) went down again. I’m looking at his demeanor. He is still alert. He is still focused on me. Once again, the mouthpiece comes out. But that time I deducted a point for the mouthpiece and let the fight resume. Then all of a sudden the tide just turned. It was like a light switch. One second I am watching Corrales, on the verge of maybe stopping the match. Then Corrales comes back and hurts Castillo. Now, my focus turns to Castillo. And the next thing you know, I’m stopping the fight. It happened that fast.
RM: Then what helped you make the correct decision so quickly?
TW: Well, when I was doing the Corrales/Castillo fight, I didn’t understand how big the fight was in terms of what happened in the fight, until afterwards.
RM: I got you.
TW: As a referee you look at a fighter’s demeanor. You look at their physical reaction to the punches and analyze the punishment they are taking. It was clear that Castillo was hurt by a right hand that Corrales threw. Then he took a barrage of punches. His hands stopped moving and his head went limp, that was it for me.
RM: So, you’re always looking at the fighter’s demeanor first before anything else?
TW: Always. It’s always about safety. Nothing comes before the safety of the fighters.
RM: OK. Are there any other fights that you think about everyday?
TW: Yeah. I think about my first big fight in Vegas. It was a Friday night fight between Bernard Hopkins and Antuwn Echols. And everyone was in town because the following night was the big match between Tito Trinidad and Fernando Vargas.
RM: Oh… Great fight.
TW: Right… So, everyone was at my fight. And there were all types of fouls. You know how Bernard can be. I was really tested that night. But fortunately everything went well. It kind of put me on that map because it showed that I could handle a tough fight when I’m in one. So, that fight really stands out.
RM: Was that the fight where Hopkins fell through the ropes?
TW: No, that was the fight where Echols picked up Hopkins and slammed him on his shoulder. So, Hopkins had to fight the remainder of the fight with a hurt shoulder.
RM: Oh yeah. So, it gets you excited when more people are at the fights?
TW: Well, no not really. I’m already pumped to be in the ring. I don’t pay attention to the crowd because it takes a lot to stay focused. The fight just feels a lot different when you are going through it in the moment. It looks and feels a lot different when you watch it afterwards. You just get a different perspective.
RM: OK. Here’s a question – How many times out of ten do you watch a fight afterwards and listen to the commentary or read about it and think – “Man, these guys don’t even know what the heck they are talking about.”
TW: Well, you know it’s like I already said, I don’t listen to the commentary. There are times when I do listen, but it doesn’t bother me because I understand what I am doing and I understand the way they may be thinking.
TW: A referee cannot allow the media to affect him because it can take away from our natural ability to think and see what is really happening. If we listen too much to the commentary or the media then we can go into the next fight and try to compensate for what they (the media) are saying.
RM: So, in your opinion do some referees listen to the media too much or try to please the crowd?
TW: Well, of course that has happened. But we referees have a brotherhood. We all support each other. We critique each other. If someone does something wrong we are going to let you know. We cannot sugarcoat anything because it won’t help. But most importantly, it’s private. The conversations are between us. It is not something that I would broadcast. If you aren’t a referee then you don’t know what we go through. We as referees are the only ones that understand. So it is more important to have support from one another.
RM: So it’s like a fraternity. Referees have each other’s back.
TW: That’s the bottom line. We are on our own.
RM: Yeah. And you like it better that way.
TW: Yes of course. We (referees) respect each other and support each other. We are the best qualified to console that person and help to try to get better the next time. We have an obligation to be supremely confident in what we do.
RM: Well, how did you gain that confidence?
TW: I just have a natural ability and instincts to perform my job. Every time I get a fight I gain more and more experience. Through experience comes confidence. You gain more experience and confidence with every fight especially a difficult fight.
RM: Do you gain more experience from high-profile fights over a club show?
TW: No. You cannot put a distinction between the two. It doesn’t matter if it’s a high-profile or small ballroom fight. It’s the same fight. You have to have the same approach. One thing I used to do when I started out in Phoenix, Arizona, we used to do fights in small ballrooms. I used to pretend I was in the big fights. I used to pretend Jimmy Lennon or Michael Buffer was announcing my name. At the time, I was just having fun with it. But it actually helped me because when I got to Vegas and actually did the big fights; I was already in that frame of mind. So, everything became natural. Everything became second nature.
You can email Ray at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @raymarkarian