The best referees in sports are more complex than mysterious. Their agenda to keep an even playing field is often what any fan would expect, but their preparation is at times overlooked.
Boxing referee Robert Byrd thinks it’s best to stay out of the equation. The veteran referee might be the perfect referee for any fight fan because he has built a reputation to, in his own words, “let fighters fight.” Maybe that is why he was chosen by the Nevada State Athletic Commission to referee the big fight between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez on Saturday night.
Or maybe it is because Byrd is a World Boxing Hall of Fame referee with over 100 world title bouts on his resume and 34 years of experience. Some of the most recent title fights Byrd worked include Floyd Mayweather vs. Robert Guerrero, and Timothy Bradley vs. Juan Manuel Marquez.
We spoke with Byrd on Wednesday about his preparation for Cotto vs. Canelo, his reputation in boxing, and the importance of positioning.
Ray Markarian: What’s going on Robert?
Robert Byrd: Well, I am at the gym. I am just waiting for the guy to get here and open shop…
RM : Are you going to work out?
RB : Well, I am going to work some sparring before I really have to go to work.
RM : Do you work at the boxing gyms often before fights?
RB : Well, I try to get in a couple times a week, whether I am working a fight or not. I am a strong believer in you practice the way you play. I can go out and run four or five miles, or do some push ups or sit ups, but that doesn’t get me into fight shape. I think that you are doing the fighters a disservice if you don’t do your best to prepare to get into fight shape.
RM : Do many referees get into fight shape before fights?
RB : I know a few. But I don’t know. It’s maybe one or two refs that get in shape.
RM : Is it something you think they should do?
RB : Yes, I do. You have to get into fight shape. You can run miles or do other types of workouts but that doesn’t allow you to work on your positioning, or to work on your voice command, and it doesn’t help you work on being in the proper position in the ring during a fight. I can definitely tell when a person doesn’t do a lot of exercise in the ring. You can see it.
RM : Do the fighters see it too?
RB : Oh yeah. And I think the fighters, managers, and trainers appreciate when you come to the gym and work with them because it creates a realistic atmosphere. They are used to the third man in the ring. So, when they see it in the gym, it makes them comfortable. It also gives me an opportunity to educate fighters.
RM : You have been a referee for 34 years. If you can go back to 1981 and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?
RB : I would never want a fight to end too late. I can live with a fight ending too soon. But I never ever want to be guilty of stopping a fight too late.
RM : That’s a referee’s worst nightmare, right?
RB : That’s right. It sure is.
RM : And, have you ever lost sleep over a decision you made in the ring?
RB : No. Never.
RM : No?
RB : Nope.
RM : OK. I have played competitive sports. And obviously, I have never refereed professionally, but when I play sports, and I make a mistake during a critical moment in the game, it sticks with me. I still think about it afterwards.
RB : Yeah…
RM : So, do you get that feeling as a referee? Do you ever feel regret or anxiety about a decision?
RB : Well, I can’t speak for other guys but for me, it’s all about preparation. I prepare the best I can. And I go in the ring and do the best I can, and I move on. I learn from my actions. Sometimes I think back and say maybe I could have used an alternate option, because nobody is perfect. You always want to learn. That’s why I still go to the gym. People ask me why I still go to the gym. It’s because I continue to learn. Once you get to a point where you feel like you know it all, you need to quit.
RM : So, you are working the fight coming up between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez. Are you studying their fight styles at all?
RB : No not really, I have worked with many of the fighters in the past, so I already have a good idea of what their styles are. And styles don’t really matter because, once you get hit upside the head, styles change. They can change in a hurry. My real focus is to be in shape physically and mentally so I can react to anything that happens in that ring, or I can anticipate better. Most of our profession comes down to being physically and mentally ready for the job you are going to do.
RM : You have to stay sharp…
RB : Yeah.
RM : What is the most important role for a referee in the ring?
RB : Positioning is the most important. But that is true with any sport. If you are not in the proper position, you cannot make the proper call. If you are not in proper position, you might not see something that you should have seen, like a low blow.
RM : Do you get nervous before fights?
RB : A little bit. But it’s just like any athlete, after that first pitch or when the bell rings that all goes away.
RM : How would you describe your referee style?
RB : I tend to let fighters fight. I think that’s my reputation in the business. All of these managers and trainers have a book on officials. They have a book and know about our tendencies.
RM : I’m sure they do.
RB : Oh yeah. They do. So, my reputation is that I let fighters fight. And I can live with that. I am happy with that.
RM : So, why is it your style to let fighters fight?
RB : Because the fighters are the most important people. The fans don’t come to watch me. They come to watch the fighters.
RM : And when you go in the corners in between rounds to speak with fighters, what types of questions are you asking?
RB : Well, normally I am telling them something.
RM : OK.
RB : If I ask them anything it will be something like, “Are you ok?” “How do you feel?”… But most of the time I am telling them something like, “If you are not going to defend yourself, then I will have to take appropriate action.” And they know what I am talking about. I always focus on the fighters. I don’t pay attention to their corner because most of them (corner men) are very brave. But they ain’t taking any punches. After a while, you get to understand who some of the better trainers or managers are because they take care of their fighter. The good trainers make my job easier. But there are those corners that act recklessly at times, and force a referee to take care of their fighter because they are not going to do it themselves.
RM : When you are in the middle of the round and you do not get opportunity to speak with a fighter, how do you know when to stop a fight?
RB : It’s a judgment call. You look for muscle control. You look for their ability to defend themselves. If a fighter is not intelligently defending himself, then they are out of it. I usually look for what a fighter is doing to help himself or herself. Are they thinking in the ring? If I can see that they are thinking, then I will give them an opportunity to work through it. If a fighter is taking some shots and he is trying to grab the opponent or move intelligently, then it tells me that you are thinking. But if I don’t any of those things then I have to make a decision.
RM : Protecting the fighters first, right?
RB : Absolutely. That’s the number one priority.
RM : You don’t care about the outcome of a fight.
RB : No I don’t. I don’t give a damn who wins. That’s up to the fighter. My job is providing an even playing field. I don’t want to determine the outcome. I don’t have a problem stepping in if I have to as an official. But I don’t want to determine outcome the fight unless it’s necessary.
RM : How did you get good at letting fighters fight?
RB : Well, it’s not something you learn overnight. It takes time. It’s experience.
RM : What else can we learn about Robert Byrd?
RB : I am just happy to be a part of this game. And I mean that sincerely. It is a blessing to be a part of this game. It’s a beautiful game. And it’s a game that has given me an opportunity to see things that I would have never seen, or meet people that I would have never seen. Boxing gives me an opportunity to be an inspiration to kids. I am truly blessed to be a member of this game in any capacity. I truly feel that way.