“Be careful what you wish for,” is the way Steve Morrow describes his life over the last 25 years.
From police officer to boxing writer to boxing judge, how else can you explain it? “You are out of your mind,” Morrow says, “If you were to tell me 15 years ago that I would have 40 title fights under my belt and I get paid to judge fights all over the world, I would say you are out of your mind.”
Morrow says he understands the politics in boxing that comes with judging fights but he tries to stay away. He keeps a clean rap sheet, in this interview and in his professional life. I tried to pick his brain as much as possible, like using a stick to stab a tree; I wanted to know how and why judges judge the way that they do. Morrow could not answer for everyone but he has a simple approach. Concentration is key. And he describes the misconception that most boxing fans have about judging fights. “We don’t watch fights,” Morrow said, “We score fights.”
Read on as we try to infiltrate the mind of the man with the responsibility to make dreams become a reality for one fighter, and make reality become a nightmare for another.
Ray Markarian: How did you become a boxing judge?
Steve Morrow: Well, it’s kind of a long story. I worked for a boxing magazine for eight years. I started around 1989 or 90. I have always loved the sport and I loved to write. So it was the best of both worlds. I got to go to fights, you know, walk around, interview fighters, that kind of stuff. And it was a real nice hobby. And I just slowly started to develop the idea that I could become a judge, one day. I liked the intricacies of judging. I liked the concentration that it takes. So, I started looking into it. I finally got accepted into a training seminar. They put on two of them, one in Northern California and one in Southern California. It was every four weeks. Eventually, I got my California judges license in 1998. I started doing local shows, club shows, and slowly bigger and bigger fights. I got my WBC International license in 2006, and slowly been growing from there. I have grown beyond my wildest dreams to tell the truth.
SM: Well, that’s the long answer to your short question. It just appealed to me. Maybe I liked the stress.
RM: There is a lot of stress involved, right?
SM: There is. I never wanted to be a referee.
RM: How come?
SM: Well, I refereed enough fights on the street as a cop. I was a cop for 31 years. Believe it or not, I just didn’t want that scrutiny that comes with being a referee. In police work we have a saying it says. “Life is a fish bowl.” Referees are just under the microscope every minute in there. Yes, there is a lot of stress as a judge. But if you are competent and you have confidence in your abilities, then stress just comes with it. Stress is part of the job. Everybody’s got an opinion. You know, half the people don’t like you off the bat. That’s always how it is.
RM: So, you were a cop while you studied to become a boxing judge?
RM: Tell me about that transition.
SM: When I started writing for the boxing magazine (Morrow wrote for a magazine called Professional Boxing Updates) it gave me some access. Police work is a very stressful job. Going to fights became my escape. When I was there I wasn’t seen as a cop. I didn’t look like a cop. Writing just became a very nice hobby and a stress reducer. I was writing until 1998. When I got licensed in California as a judge I stopped writing for the magazine. I retired police work in 2008.
RM: How does someone fail to get his license as a judge?
SM: I don’t know how to answer that. Maybe they don’t have the practical skills to score a fight. It’s not easy to do.
RM: Did you have to judge amateur shows when you started?
SM: No. I started at some very low-level club shows. Then you have more experienced officials mentor you along the way, walking you through the process. They throw you in a pool and you have to learn how to swim.
RM: Have you been involved in a fight where your scorecard did not reflect the fans opinion of the outcome?
SM: Well, sure. But fans are fans. They are going to root for their favorite regardless of how fighters perform, for the most part. We have another saying as officials. We say, “We don’t watch fights. We score fights.” There’s a big difference. To answer your question: Have I been on the offside of the general fan based decision? Sure.
RM: So then how do you handle stress as a boxing judge?
SM: Well, as a judge, you put it on yourself to be perfect every time. That is the stress I am talking about. You have to completely concentrate for three straight minutes regardless of the madness going on around you. One of the most difficult aspects of judging in my opinion is the ability to concentrate on two moving objects for three minutes straight. It’s very difficult at times. The general public for the most part does not consider that aspect of our job.
RM: Meaning, you are zoned in. You are focused on the two combatants and nothing else.
SM: Right. It’s just total concentration for three minutes. And during a title fight, we judge 12, three-minute fights. That’s what we do. We concentrate for three minutes. Turn in our scorecard. Rest. And then there is another three-minute fight.
RM: How much does momentum play into your personal judging criteria? Let’s say momentum from a previous round.
SM: Well, you know, we are judging a three-minute fight. You cannot concern yourself with what happened previously. The fighters have to fight for a full three minutes and we give credit to the winner. It’s a subjective system based on some parameters. It’s also an aggregate score. I don’t know what my score is after a fight much less anyone else’s. I try very hard to stay focused on the three minutes. Does that answer your question?
SM: You just try to stay in the moment. You try very hard to stay focused on the moment.
RM: So what makes you good at what you do? You’ve obviously moved up from being a sportswriter for fun, to judging world championship fights all over the world. What makes you a good judge?
SM: Perhaps it’s my commitment.
SM: When I had an opportunity to move up to the international arena I told myself that the only way I could do this is if I push myself to become as good as I can. I started to lean on mentors in my life, my boxing life. Duane Ford, for example. He is one of the primer judges in my boxing, in my opinion. He has had over 200 world title fights and has helped me immensely. I just hung around knowledgeable people like him (Ford), and asked the right questions.
RM: How does a fighter win a round? What do you look for?
SM: Well, I subscribe to the old Tommy Kaczmarek School of using the mental computer. You know, when that bell rings and I am watching the action develop, it’s about effective aggressiveness. Clean punching. I am looking for who is inflicting damage. We call it ring generalship. I am looking for who is dictating pace. So, I am looking for many things in that mental computer, and it works pretty well. That’s not to say that it’s perfect. When the bell rings, whoever’s got the score, that’s the score that they get. Do you follow me?
SM: It’s like if you and I are fighting and we both start off with 10 points, and you are taking it to me, you are moving me backwards. You’re pretty much jabbing and connecting with clean shots, disrupting my game plan, if you will. Then it’s going to be (the round will be scored) 10-9 for you. You can knock me down. That’s another point. Or if I work back up to a 10-10, absent a knockdown. I am just keeping a running score in my head. That’s what helps me. And when the bell rings, where I am, that’s what the score is. I know it’s a complex system. But it works for me.
RM: Can one punch win a round?
SM: Probably not. It’s the totality of the circumstances. I am involved in teaching officials now. We talk about that concept. And there is a from old quote from John Wooden that says, “Never confuse activity with achievement.”
RM: I like it.
SM: Just because someone lands a solid punch doesn’t mean he’s winning. It’s effective aggression, not just aggression. If I am knocking you around for two and a half minutes and you just tag me a couple of times, you probably aren’t going to win the round.
RM: Many of the fans and media in boxing say star fighters get gift decisions. Let’s say for example, the fight in 1997 between De la Hoya vs. Pernell Whitaker. A lot of people thought Whitaker won that fight. Some people thought Juan Manuel Marquez won more than one of his fights with Pacquiao. What is your opinion on star fighters getting “gift” decisions?
SM: Well, that’s politics. All I can tell you is that I am not going to do it, personally. I only have control over myself. That’s how I prefer to look at it. I don’t know what anybody else might choose to do. I know that is kind of a cop out to your question. But, everybody’s got opinions. Everybody’s got one. All I can do is control my own opinion. And that is what I choose to do.
RM: OK. Fair point. Then what does the word “robbery” in boxing, mean to you?
SM: Well, the public tends to want to root for their favorite fighter. And their favorite fighter can be a personal friend, somebody they grew up with, or they like their style of fighting, whatever. Regardless of the round by round scoring of the fight, if a (fan friendly) fighter does not get the decision, fans think he was robbed. Have there been some extreme cases (bad decisions)? Sure. Do they involve me? No. I am aware of the bad press that comes along with tough decisions but it is not my places to buy into it. You know, again, if it ever involves me, then I can speak to it. I just try to stay away from criticizing other officials.
RM: OK. This is in no way an accusation. I am just trying to learn about your mindset. Do you feel extra pressure because of the fans and media? Do judges in general feel their opinions lack credibility because of scrutiny from fans and media?
SM: I don’t know how to answer that. I mean; there are three judges in a fight. And it’s a subjective system. How one judge sees the fight from his chair might be different than how the other two see it. You would hope that the scores are aligned. But, occasionally, somebody sees it a different way. Sometimes it’s a far different way.
SM: You know, I might sit back later with my colleagues and wonder why that person saw what they saw. But they are the ones that have to explain it. I try real hard not to worry about anyone else’s scores. I know that probably doesn’t answer what you are looking for…. I guess, I just try not to buy into the hype that comes along with working in this business.
RM: So, are you a boxing fan.
RM: How do you eliminate that “fan mentality” when you score a fight?
SM: Well, it goes back to what I stated earlier, we don’t watch fights, we score fights. You have to train yourself to that. Sitting in front of the ring apron from an elevated chair is a lot different than sitting in the second row. It’s amazing. It’s rare that we get to go to fights where we don’t have that judge mentality. I can’t sit back and enjoy the fight as a fan. I watch a lot of fights on TV. But I also find myself scoring the fights on TV.
RM: I would imagine you do.
SM: Yeah. It’s not easy.
RM: What type of research do you do before a fight?
SM: I just virtually don’t do any research. I don’t want to know who’s favored. I try not to read the press prior to a fight. I just try to make an effort to stay as focused and neutral as I can. My wife calls it my game face…
RM: Ha. That’s funny.
SM: Yeah. Two days before a fight, I get all-serious. Maybe I think too much. But it’s a system. And it works for me. I don’t try to get caught up in the hype.
RM: It’s funny because when talking to referees like Jack Reiss or Kenny Bayless, or Tony Weeks, their referee mentality is so much different from yours. Referees research fighters extensively.
SM: Yeah, you bet. If I was a referee, I would want to do some research. I can certainly understand that. If I were refereeing a fight, I would want to know the history of the fighters. I would want to know how they have been performing in previous fights, their fighting styles. I would read up on some of the reports. Our (judges) preparation is so much different. We prepare to focus.
RM: So, are you a perfectionist?
SM: No. I am pretty tough on myself. But I am not a perfectionist. But I do like to think that I work hard at what I do and it gives me the edge that I need to stay focused.
RM: What is the greatest learning experience you’ve had as a judge?
SM: Wow. That’s a tough one. One of the moments that sticks out in my mind is the first time I went to Japan to judge a fight. There were 19,000 screaming fans. I was just overwhelmed with the emotion of ‘Holy crap, how did I get here?’ I know it doesn’t totally answer your question. It was just one of those moments of, ‘Wow. This is really happening.’
RM: I hear you.
SM: Yeah. Nobody gave it to me. Those are the types of conversations I have with my close friends, who are officials, we say, ‘Nobody gave this to us. We worked very hard to get here.’ I mean, the experience in Japan was crazy and exciting. I carry a little bit of that with me for every fight. Being in awe keeps me sharp. When I was a cop on the street I was always a little bit afraid
RM: Yeah. Keeps you on your toes, right.
SM: Yeah. It keeps me alert. Keeps me focused. When you start bitching about the things you used to only dream about, that’s when your ego needs to be checked. I try to be very grateful for every opportunity boxing brings me. The last thing I want to get is a big ego. I don’t want to become demanding. I know it might come off very deep, or whatever. But I am extremely fortunately to be where I am. Boxing is a very small circle. I just try to stay grateful.
RM: I am feeling you. Do you think there are judges that are not grateful?
SM: Well, people are people. I see people that get jealous. It’s weird that professionals say that kind of stuff but I try really hard not to buy into it. I am just happy to be working, happy to be in this business.
RM: How do judges get elected to work a fight?
SM: I am not 100% sure. It is beyond my pay grade, if you will. In the international scene there are appointments made by presidents and higher upper echelon types of people. The corners have an opportunity to speak up. How much weight that is given, depends on the individual. If they opposed to an official because of what they feel might be a prior bad score, or they don’t like our personalities, or whatever. They can say something.
RM: What is your opinion on CJ Ross?
SM: All I can tell you is that I have worked CJ a couple of times and never had an issue. I know she has been through some very rough experiences. They were not involving any of the fights we have done together. I wish her well. She is a nice lady and I hope things work out for her. And that is all I am going to say about that.
SM: Well, the reason being is that it is not my place to criticize other officials.
RM: I am not asking you to criticize. If you were in that (her) position, how would you feel?
SM: I try not to think about that. I try not to think about being nervous. It goes back to wanting to be right all the time. As long as you are confident in your abilities the pressure doesn’t matter. It is what it is. There’s a microscope on us. Like I said, life is a fish bowl. For her (Ross,) for whatever reason, she has faced some severe scrutiny. I wouldn’t want to be in that position. But I have never had any problems at all, with CJ.
RM: OK. I have friends, boxing fans that want to be judges. They think it is so easy. They say, “All you do is watch the fight and score it.” But it is so much different when you are out there, right?
SM: Totally different. One of the things we talk about in the (judges) seminars is that the vast majority of the public does not know what we do and how we do it. And the how we do it part, occasionally applies towards knowledge fans and experts. Most people don’t realize that we judge 12, three-minute fights. And we hand in our scorecard after every round. That is a very basic function of the judge most fans, and certainly the casual fans, don’t see. Judging a fight is far more complicated than just watching a fight.
RM: Have you ever handed in a scorecard that you regret?
SM: No. There have been some difficult fights to score but I don’t regret the scores.
RM: So, you are telling me that you do not feel any apprehension during the 12th round of a close fight?
SM: No. I don’t. It’s a hard thing to do, as you can imagine. You can’t listen to the voices in your head. You can’t listen to the screaming people behind you. Dealing with that pressure is a part of my job. I must score fairly. I must score the round based on exactly what I saw. Not, “Oh crap, here is the 12th round,” I can’t think, “Oh man, this is close.” I have to take all of those thoughts out of my head.
RM: So, I guess that does make you a perfectionist.
SM: Maybe. I prefer to think of it that we (judges) all try to do our jobs to the best of our abilities. I am not a perfectionist in my personal life. If I were a perfectionist, I certainly wouldn’t be playing golf.