The Wladimir-Joshua Showdown: Sizing Up The Referee and Judges

“The referee,” George Foreman once observed, “is going to be the most important person in the ring tonight – besides the fighters.”

And, for all that this is one of those Georgeisms that has drawn mockery, you know exactly what he means.

The referee is crucial, especially as regards the execution of certain aspects of strategy. In the richest fight of 2007, for example, the meeting of styles that was Floyd Mayweather versus Ricky Hatton, the referee’s take on the rules of boxing was important enough for Billy Graham, Hatton’s trainer, to ask Joe Cortez live on television if his man would be allowed to work inside. Mayweather was then at the peak of the second phase of his career, one which saw him slip, slide, parry, and glide outside but tie up his man on the inside. Hatton, on the other hand, was a come-forwards grinder with a decent long attack but who thrived up close and personal where he delivered a withering hook to the body.

Graham was concerned that Cortez would be too quick to break the two men and that Hatton wouldn’t be allowed to get his offense off. His concern was borne out; either by way of Mayweather’s genius or the referee’s preference for a clean early break, Mayweather controlled the action and the grinder became the grindee.

But this is a blade with two edges. Perhaps the most thrilling moment of the “technical mismatch” that was staged in 2002 between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson was when referee Eddie Cotton warned Lewis for holding and leaning, and the possibility that the ghost of Tyson would be allowed to throw punches at his mid-range reared its head. That wasn’t to be, but Cotton showed good instincts in insisting the possibility be allowed to play itself out.

The man in the middle, then, is crucial, and the man in the middle for tomorrow night’s showdown between Wladimir Klitschko and Anthony Joshua has been named: David Fields. A resident of New Jersey, Fields has been working as a professional referee for almost twenty years and as a one-time sparring partner for “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler he knows all about hurt in the ring.

Fields will be under pressure. A cornerstone of Wladimir’s style, displeasing to many, is the “jab and grab”, a single or double jab followed by a tangle of arms at which he is expert at inducing and which prevents the opponent from countering that jab should he have closed the distance. Closing that distance is not easy, because Wladimir employs the direct threat of the jab and the virtual threat of the right hand which discourages violations of his territory with extreme prejudice; see the surrender of the world-class Ruslan Chagaev from 2009 for a perfect example.

Different fighters seek different solutions to the problem of being handled on the inside. Kubrat Pulev refused to entertain it and volleyed himself at the champion for a shootout he was far too exposed to win. David Haye took a knee whenever he felt the champion’s weight upon him. Tony Thompsons exhibited a steady pressure while taking his medicine. None of these proposed solutions came anywhere near to the mark although Thompson’s was the most elegant and perhaps the least embarrassing.

This begged the question: should it remain a problem for the fighters? Perhaps, instead, it had become one for the officials.

“Excessive holding could lead to the fighter being disqualified,” explains referee Joe Cortez. “Those are the rules.  Klitschko has to be very careful.”

The last time Cortez refereed a Wladimir Klitschko fight was in 2008 when looked after he and Tony Thompson in Hamburg, Germany. There were ten clinches in the very first round, and although Cortez did offer up a “no holding” after one of them, when the fighters broke and immediately fell into another clinch, he said nothing. This is despite the fact that Wladimir Klitschko was clearly instigating the majority of these clinches, occasionally holding behind the head and exhibiting drag in clear violation of the rules. The problem is that holding is a foul in which both fighters often seem complicit. Referees are unsure who to punish and become used to seeing it; thereby it becomes accepted practice, for all that this accepted practice is against the rules.

But what can we expect from Fields?

Fields first refereed a title fight in 2005 when Antonio Margarito met the aggressive Argentine Sebastian Lujan but he didn’t run into a difficult title fight until 2012 when Miguel Vazquez met Ammeth Diaz. Vazquez, then a lightweight beltholder, loves a clinch, although his employment of this tool is more dynamic (if that’s the right word) than Wladimir’s in that he uses it whenever he feels something he doesn’t like rather than as strategy.

Fields ignored the numerous clinches that Vazquez initiated in that fight.

I do not wish to be overly critical of Fields here. The holding in that fight was marked, but I have seen much worse, and what the referee did do was warn Vazquez for fouling in the clinches where he repeatedly hit Diaz around the back of the head. Fields stamped this out quickly with a stern second warning early in the fight. In studying his refereeing performances for this article I also saw him exhibit a good eye for a slip over a punch and exhibit decent agility for a man of his size. He was in no way fooled by Bernard Hopkins in his recent confrontation with Sergey Kovalev when the old fox pushed Kovalev to the canvas and began celebrating a knockdown (another fight in which he issued a warning for hitting behind the head). But I suspect he will allow Wladimir to clinch, perhaps allow the fighters to work in that clinch, then separate them.

There is another possibility, however, which relates to a term that first came to my ear via Italian football (soccer for my American friends).

Roughly translated as “psychological subjugation” it is the practice of suppressing one’s own preferences in order that the expected status-quo is maintained. The theory works like this – a referee’s job is to maintain an even playing field. On an even playing field, the better football team (or in this case, fighter) will be triumphant. In Europe, Wladimir is a giant of a sportsman, in all sense of the word. It could be the case that referees have been favoring his approach because it is one that has made him the world’s pre-eminent heavyweight, a great in his field. Now that he has been deposed by Tyson Fury and with 90,000 rabid Englishman bearing down on his soul, could Fields find reasons to enforce rules that simply didn’t exist for him before?

Whichever way it goes, I think Fields is a good choice. He showed a steady hand in that difficult Kovalev-Hopkins confrontation and was excellent in Krzysztof Glowacki’s stoppage of Marco Huck. He shows good engagement with a hurt fighter and for all that he could have spared Huck a punch in the eleventh and final round of that fight, his instincts in letting the hurt champion continue his defense of his belt after the first knockdown was the right one. His size, strength and experience in marshalling Hagler certainly won’t hurt him when he steps into the ring with nearly five hundred pounds of heavyweight this Saturday, either.

Joshua and Fields share the problem of excessive holding where Wladimir is concerned and it will be interesting to see how each man handles it.

Judges for the fight will be American Don Trella, his compatriot Steve Weisfeld and Puerto Rican veteran Nelson Vazquez.

Trella recently found in favor of Gennady Golovkin over Danny Jacobs by a score of 115-112.  This was a little wide for me and probably bodes well for Joshua who employs a not dissimilar stalking style. Going back a little further, he worked the raucous, almost absurd confrontation between Amnat Ruenroeng and John Riel Casimero out in Bangkok. That fight was officiated atrociously within the ring but without it, Trella kept a steady hand, obeying the referee’s rulings as he is called upon to do by the rules and giving the fight to Ruenroeng by 116-110, again perhaps a little wide but in no way outrageous. He seems a steady hand, all be it one who favors aggression.

Weisfeld was also working the Golovkin and Ruenroeng fights and came up with identical scores to his countryman. His cards tend to be in keeping with those of his colleagues. He was also employed to score the meeting between Wladimir Klitschko and Bryant Jennings from 2015, finding 116-111 for the defending champion.

Vazquez, too, has a record that suggests competency although he was the odd man out in the majority decision for Rau’shee Warren over Juan Carlos Payano last year, certainly no crime in a close fight, but his 115-115 card from the 2013 draw between Roberto Vasquez and John Mark Apolinario raised a few eyebrows.

Overall though, we are in good hands.

Let’s hope it’s a good fight.

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