The business of boxing has multiple levels of understanding. Sports officials usually let their results do the talking and rarely reveal much about themselves, or the method to their madness. And from a distance, officials in sports are obsessed with perfection. But what gets lost in officiating is the passion for the sport.
Dancing boxers and Mike Tyson fights are some of the things that run through the mind of Robert Hoyle, the highly regarded boxing judge out of the state of Nevada.
Hoyle never fought professionally but grew up a fighter. He was in the military for 21 years before entering boxing.
In this interview, Hoyle reminds us that judges are not getting rich writing on scorecards. As Hoyle tells us, “No one has came up and said, ‘Hey, here is some money. Take care of my guy.’ But as sports are viewed as a level playing field where the best man usually wins, Hoyle oversees the outcome and senses the disconnection at times between the way fans and officials watch fights.
Hoyle’s boxing journey started in the 1980s when he worked security at Caesars Palace sports events, covering prizefights like Marvin Hagler vs. Ray Leonard. In 1992, Hoyle switched roles to be an inspector, working corners and overseeing fighters. In 1999, Hoyle seized the opportunity to become a boxing judge, and he has worked some of the more memorable fights in recent memory, including the third fight between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez, and the Floyd Mayweather vs. Miguel Cotto fight.
Read on as Hoyle explains the art of judging, the Mike Tyson mystic, and the myth behind “fixed fights.”
Ray Markarian: Thanks for taking the time, Robert.
Robert Hoyle: Well hey, you called me, man, this is a privilege. I didn’t want to miss the chance to get to talk to you.
RM: Well, you know, to speak to a respected boxing judge that has worked many high profile fights is my privilege. Let’s keep it free flowing…. Let’s start off by telling me why you wanted to be a boxing judge.
RH: You know, I’ll tell you, my first exposure to boxing was when I started out as an inspector. And, I am not sure if you are familiar with the duties of an inspector. We work the corners and work with the fighters before the fights…
RH: OK. So, some of the fights that got me real charged up back in the day were the Tyson fights. Mike Tyson real made me a fan of boxing. From working security for events to becoming an inspector, I got the opportunity to go into the amateur program as a boxing judge and it became like a bug to me. And once you catch the bug in boxing you’re stuck. It’s the same reason why a lot of fighters can’t retire. They keep coming back because they got that bug. And that’s what I got. So, once I started as an inspector, I wanted to do more. I enjoyed what I was doing with the fighters in the dressing rooms and sitting ringside. It felt good to be a part of the event and actually make a difference. I think we all come across situations in life where we get an opportunity to make a difference, and I wanted to make a difference in boxing.
RM: So, how did you even get a job as an inspector? I’m sure it’s not easy.
RH: Yeah, it’s funny you say that. I saw your interview with Kenny (boxing referee Kenny Bayless.) Kenny and I have this six-degrees of separation. Kenny started off as an inspector. When he got called up to be a referee, I took his spot as an inspector.
RM: Wow. Small world.
RH: Yeah. I just happened to be in the right place at the time.
RM: What is the main thing that has changed about your experience as judge from when you started in 1999 to the present day?
RH: You never stop learning. I worked with a lot of officials that are more senior than I am, and they don’t think they need to learn anymore. They think they know it all. But you always see different angles when you learn.
RM: Then what makes you different from any other judge?
RH: Well, I wouldn’t say I am different. But I am constantly try to reinvent or recharge myself.
RM: You always want to stay sharp.
RH: Exactly. You see, as a judge, I learn a lot from referees and other judges. Referees need to know the rules. And judges need to know the rules. If a referee calls a knockdown, it’s a knockdown. But if he doesn’t see it, it didn’t happen.
RM: What is the biggest disconnection in your opinion between the way fans and officials sees fights?
RH: Everybody wants to believe that a fight is close. If one round is close, sometimes a fan thinks the entire fight was close. The casual fan needs to remember that a 12 round championship fight has 12 individual fights.
RM: So, do you use a basic criterion for every fight?
RH: Well, before every round I want to see who controls the action and who can do the most damage. In my opinion, the smart fighter will come out in the first round and jump on the other guy. That’s why we had so many knockouts in the first round back in the day… The best fighters never gave their opponent the chance to get into his groove. The smartest thing to do is catch the opponent off guard in the first round.
RM: What are you looking for when there isn’t a knockout?
RH: Well, I am still looking at scoring blows. Fans don’t remember a scoring zone. As a judge you have to remember if a punch landed on the opponents’ back or back of the head, then it’s not a scoring blow. It may have caused some damage, but it’s not a scoring blow.
RM: So, tell me more about that. What is a scoring blow?
RH: A scoring blow is any punch that lands between the navel and top of the forehead. You split the ears and go back down to the body. Any punch on the back, I don’t care how strong of a punch that is… You have a lot of boxers that like to turn their back defensively; they are forcing their opponent outside of the scoring zone.
RM: Do you remember the first fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe?
RH: Yeah I do.
RM: Well, Bowe knocked Holyfield down with a blow to the back of the head. In the 11th round, Bowe kind of got out of his way and Holyfield fell into the ropes, and took an illegal shot. The referee scored that a knockdown. Is that a scoring blow?
RH: Well, that’s the referee’s call. In a particular fight, if a fighter is throwing a punch and you turn your head to cause that blow to land outside the scoring zone, the referee can call it a knockdown. The name of the game is to hit and not get hit.
RM: But if the referee did not call it a knockdown, then it’s a rabbit punch, and you just keep going?
RH: Right. But you do consider the attacking fighter’s aggression. Let me just tell you this; if the round is really close, you must identify the effective aggressor. Now, that Bowe punch wasn’t an effective, aggressive punch because it was outside the scoring zone but he was still aggressive. He was trying to win the fight. Out of everything I tell you, you have to remember that a boxing judge is looking for that guy who is trying to win.
RM: Looking for that guy who is trying to win?
RM: Well, most times both of the fighters are trying to win, right?
RH: Very true.
RM: So how do you prepare to judge a fight?
RH: People ask me that question all the time. But you never know who is going to show up in the ring on that particular night. It could be Tyson and Holyfield. Everybody knows those fighters but I don’t know where Tyson’s mind is going to be on that (fight) night and I don’t know where Holyfield’s mind is going to be that (fight) night. I just know that someone is going to establish that dominant authority when they come together in the ring. And that’s what I am looking for, I am looking for that fighter that is establishing dominant authority in that ring for that particular round.
RM: How much does momentum play into a fight?
RH: Look, I am not a fortuneteller. You can look at all of the history you want. I can’t tell you which fighter is coming in that ring the hungriest. If Fighter A and Fighter B jump in the ring today and then fight again six months from now, I expect the fight to be completely different, because you don’t know what’s going on in their head. Boxing is a mental sport. If your mind is not ready for what you are about to engage in, it will take you out of the fight.
RM: What do you think it takes to get recognized as a “good” judge?
RH: Well, I am just very lucky to grow up as an official around the top guys in the game, here in Las Vegas. I am fortunate enough to pick their brains to ask what they are looking for, and how they identify who is causing the most damage. I say the word “damage” sort of nonchalantly but to me boxing is like a dance. If you watch two people dancing together, you automatically can spot who is leading the dance.
RM: Referee Jack Reiss once told me that there are a lot of posers in boxing. He said that many officials do not know what it feels like to take a punch. Do you agree with his thoughts on poser officials?
RH: Well, there are a lot of officials that don’t know what it takes to step in the ring. Sometimes it is good to know what a fighter is feeling. There are many officials that have not hit a punching bag. I am positive most officials have not laced up a pair of boxing shoes and stepped in the ring, not to fight an opponent, but just hop around in that ring. That boxing mat feels like sand after a while. You start feeling heavy around your feet. You begin to gain a different level of respect for fighters that can fight for 12 rounds, and still fight strong in that 12th round. You gain a whole new respect for them. If you don’t understand and see what happens in the gym, whether it’s sparring or just working out, you are doing yourself a disservice as an official.
RM: What is the first thing you are looking for when the round starts?
RH: One thing I can spot right away is when a particular fighter is moving in the wrong direction. The best fighters come with a plan. If you watch a fight closely and think of boxing as a dance, you can see one guy leading the other guy into a big punch. And that tells me the best fighters come with a plan. There’s guys that come to fight and there’s the ones that come with a plan. The fighters with a plan are like fortune tellers because they see the end coming. They watch their opponent’s movement.
RM: I hear you. One fighter will throw a punch to set it up for three or four punches later.
RH: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
RM: But we are talking about the casual fan that does not see it.
RH: No. They don’t see it. One thing I will tell you about becoming an official is that it robs you of the fandom. I watch fights at home like it is work. I don’t enjoy fights anymore. It’s work. I remember the last time I was a fan. Before I became an inspector, I was working security for a Tyson fight. Tyson used to create so much electricity in the arena. He made me feel like I was fighting.
RM: Sounds intense.
RH: I am not knocking any of the guys that are fighting today. There’s some great talent right now. But Tyson used to make you feel like you were a part of the event. I was a fan of Mike Tyson because he was so destructive and explosive.
RM: Which Tyson fight are you talking about?
RH: The Frank Bruno fight.
RM: Oh, the first fight?
RH: Yeah. You have to remember, Frank Bruno was a big guy. Tyson used to fight some massive guys. And Bruno was huge, but he was breathing so hard because he was nervous…. I was sitting ringside for that fight and Bruno’s abs looked like bricks. I remember thinking that if I fought this guy (Bruno) and punched him in the stomach I would probably break my wrist. When Mike comes out of the dressing room he was menacing. He had the look of, “Man, I am going to kill this guy.” We all know the end result. Tyson destroyed (Bruno). See, that’s the mental side of the sport that I am talking about. Bruno had the looks of a winner that night, but a lot of guys have the fight taken out of them before the walk in the ring.
RM: Can you give me an example of a time you worked a fight when a guy lost it mentally before he entered the ring?
RH: Well, I will tell you about the time when Mike Tyson fought Bruce Seldon. I worked as an inspector in Seldon’s corner, and we could hear Tyson warming up in his dressing room. And, when I am talking about warming up, I am talking about Tyson throwing punches at a wall.
RM: Tyson was shadow boxing?
RH: Yeah. But in Seldon’s dressing room we were thinking, “What is that noise? What is going on?” But Bruce knew what was going on… He knew what he was about to face. So, only a fighter can decide if he is ready to face that.
RM: That is a crazy story.
RH: Yeah. As an inspector, you have to stay neutral but I was just thinking about Seldon’s stress at the moment.
RM: You know, these stories are fun to talk about but I remember during that particular time, a lot of people thought the Tyson/Seldon fight was fixed.
RH: They can say what they want. But if you are not mentally prepared for someone like Mike Tyson, he will scare the hell out of you.
RH: I mean, that’s just the truth. I think Bruce was ready for the fight physically. But he didn’t have the mental toughness like Holyfield. Holyfield made up his mind that he wasn’t going anywhere. Holyfield said he was good or better than Mike Tyson. And Holyfield went after him.
RM: But as a judge, I am sure you hear about “fixed fights” often…. I’ll be honest, I Googled your name before we got on the phone, and one of the first things that came up was an article written to the Nevada State Athletic Commission criticizing you about a fight that you judged. The article was basically declaring the fight corrupt partially because of your scorecard. How do you feel when you hear that?
RH: Well Ray, I am glad you asked me that question. I am fortunate enough to judge fights in the fight capital of the world. I mean there are some other great cities and states that hold amazing fights including California and New York. But let me just tell you this, Las Vegas is not a fighter-dependent city.
RM: What does fighter-dependent city mean?
RH: Some places have fighters that go to the top level and they represent a city, or state, or even a country. Las Vegas does not have that. Mike Tyson, Holyfield, and Mayweather, they built this city. Now, this guy that wrote an article about me, and I will tell you, I am in awe that he even took the time to pen that much about me, but no one in Las Vegas can even tell you about the fighters he is talking about. You know?
RM: And you always have to do a good job because your name is on the line.
RH: Exactly Ray. You can’t get discredited as an official and keep going. Everything that I do is critiqued so heavily. Most fighters will live to fight another day. An official is only as good as his last fight. I have to do a good job tonight because I have to work tomorrow. And I have to do a good job as the fans, the media, and the commission interpret it.
RM: Did you get any backlash from the commission for that article?
RH: I didn’t. But would they be eager to assign me to one of those fighters again? I don’t know. It is what it is.
RM: I hear you.
RH: I have no hidden agenda with any fighter. I feel like the justice of the sport is in my hands. If I don’t do the right thing, not only do I fail the fighters, but also I fail myself and my family, and my credibility in the sport.
RM: It is easy to question the credibility of a judge, right?
RH: Look Ray, I have done fights all over the world and I’ll be honest with you, I have seen home cooking. But for me, I don’t care who is the hometown or visiting guy. I just care about who wins that round.
RM: OK. But what does that say about the sport? How do you expect boxing fans to feel about the sport when they hear a professional judge talk about home cooking? Not about you, but about the sport.
RH: Well, what I will say about it is that a lot of the commissions and sanctioning bodies are aware of it. They know, and hear all the criticism. Nowadays, officials are not going to get away with it because someone is always watching. Being an official, I can watch a fight and read a scorecard, and I know what that judge was doing by reading the scorecard. It’s like reading a book. A long time ago, judges used to give a courtesy round.
RM: A courtesy round?
RH: Yeah. You know, if you have a guy that is winning eight or nine rounds straight, some judges used to start feeling bad for the guy that is losing and they say, “oh well, let’s give him a round.”
RH: That type of stuff doesn’t work today. Every round is counted and scrutinized. You have to be on your A game every round. If an official makes a mistake, somebody is watching you do that and they will ask, “Why did you give him that round when he didn’t win it?” and you have to have a clear answer to justify it. Because you have the TV crew and the fans watching closely as well, sometimes you even have a fighter that says he didn’t win a round in a fight. So, as an official you have to be on your ‘A game.’ You cannot make a mistake. Good thing for the fans is that the officiating is continuing to get better. Everyone is working to get it better. There are more eyes on it. I will tell you what, for any fight that anyone feels challenged by me, one thing I will do is I will take the video and I will watch it with my director or other judges that I respect. I will ask them what they see.
RM: You want to use every fight as a learning tool.
RM: You are considered an expert but at the end of the day you want to continue to learn and become even better at what you do.
RH: That is right.
RM: What’s the best advice anyone has given you about your profession?
RH: Best advice?
RH: Richard Steele once told me before one of the first big fights that I got assigned to, he said, “Don’t start doing something new today. What you have done has gotten you this far. Don’t change that and start something new.” I have always kept those words with me.
RM: What does boxing mean to you as a sport?
RH: You know, it’s just like for you in writing. I have read your articles. I saw your interview with Kenny. I know Kenny. You captured his essence. I visualized it. It was like I saw him talking. I wish I could write like you. But that wasn’t my calling. I don’t know how you found your calling, but you found it. I used to box when I was younger. I had some street fights when I was younger. So boxing was in me, but I joined the military so I didn’t really have a chance to pursue the sport. I didn’t choose boxing I fell into it. Something clicked.
RM: The passion for boxing just oozes out of you. I love it.
RH: Look man, we are not going to retire off of this sport. We do this for the love. Going back to how people say they pay us (judges) off. No one is coming up to us saying here’s 10 million dollars when their fighter is getting paid 30,000.
RM: That’s true.
RH: I’ll be honest with you, no one has came up and said, “Hey, here is some money. Take care of my guy.” Look, promoters and managers are paid to do what they do. It’s their job to hype up their guy. But I am going to tell you just like I would tell them, “the responsibility falls on your fighter. He needs to get in the ring to do what he is supposed to do because I have to do my job. And my job is score each round fairly for both fighters.”
RM: You have to look out for yourself first, right?
RH: Well, it’s like I said, I live and die by each fight.