A Closer Look at the Officials in the Mayweather-McGregor Fight

No matter one’s feelings about the integrity of the Mayweather-McGregor fight, this is a huge international sporting event. By my loose calculation, the match has already shattered the mark set by the Johnson-Jeffries fight for the most words showered on a boxing match. That 1910 bout at Reno was promoted by Tex Rickard who named himself the referee, theoretically working gratis, and saw no reason to employ any judges. What a contrast from this coming Saturday when three judges and a referee will haul away a combined $85,000.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission named the four officials at their monthly meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 16. Referee Robert Byrd and judges Dave Moretti, Burt Clements, and Guido Cavalleri were graced with the prized assignment.

In Nevada, the officials are picked by the commission’s Executive Director, currently Bob Bennett. His selections are open to discussion and must be approved by the panel of five commissioners, but this is a mere formality as the choices are invariably rubber-stamped.

Nevada has 10 licensed referees. Six are Nevada residents, respectively Kenny Bayless, Tony Weeks, Jay Nady, Vic Drakulich, Russell Mora, and Byrd. It’s an aging pool, which prompted the commission to pro-actively go after world-class referees from out of state, netting Jack Reiss (California), Mark Nelson (Minnesota), Benjy Esteves Jr. (New York), and Harvey Dock (New Jersey). However, although all four have worked important bouts in multiple jurisdictions, none has yet been tabbed to work a big fight in Nevada. (Reiss came closest, refereeing the IBF welterweight title tilt between Randall Bailey and Mike Jones underneath Pacquiao-Bradley I in 2012.)

Reluctant to appoint an out-state referee as that would be interpreted as a slap in the face to the Nevada contingent, Bennett was left with few choices.

Nevada’s top referee, Kenny Bayless, inadvertently took himself out of the running with his candor. In a conversation with a video reporter last year, Bayless disparaged the matchup, saying it was pointless and something he had no interest in seeing.

As a rule, the commission doesn’t use the same referee in back-to-back mega-fights. This worked against Tony Weeks who handled the Ward-Kovalev rematch and was widely criticized for failing to give Kovalev a warning for illegal rabbit punches and, more egregiously, failing to penalize Andre Ward for a spate of low blows.

This whittled Bennett’s choices down to the 69-year-old Nagy, who doesn’t move around the ring with the same dexterity as his colleagues, Mora, whose work has been spotty, Drakulich, who looked completely befuddled in his most recent assignment (Rigondeaux-Flores), and Byrd.

Had one known that the out-of-town refs were off the board, one could have foreseen that Robert Byrd (pictured refereeing the Klitschko-Brewster fight) would get the nod. And this isn’t to suggest that he got this plum only because the field was weak. To the contrary, Byrd, an ex-Marine who moved to Nevada in 2001 after a 34-year career with the California Highway Patrol, is a fine referee.

In a conversation with former Las Vegas Review-Journal boxing writer Royce Feour, Byrd elaborated on what it takes to be a good referee: “conditioning, a knowledge of the rules, being fair and having good mechanics are the keys.” Conditioning is obviously a big part of his daily regimen, as is true of Nevada’s referees in general. Byrd turns 75 this year but carries himself in the ring like a much younger man.

Few sports officials are as naked as a boxing referee. Stay at it long enough and one will inevitably toss in a clunker, no matter how distinguished one’s overall body of work. Robert Byrd is no exception. Award-winning writer Thomas Hauser, who holds boxing referees to a high standard, thought Byrd’s work in the first Kovalev-Ward fight was shoddy.

“Byrd let Ward lead with his head and grapple for much of the fight. He overlooked Andre’s low blows, elbows, and forearms to the throat, and seemed more prone to break clinches when Kovalev had a free hand and was pumping blows to Ward’s body. Byrd was also out of position for much of the fight,” said Hauser.

Quoting an unidentified source said to be close to the Nevada commission, Hauser informed his readers that Byrd was on the shelf for nine months following back surgery in late December (or thereabouts) of 2015. Hauser speculated that the Kovalev camp would have pressed for a different referee had they known about it.

Nevada has 22 professional boxing judges, seven of whom are also certified to judge MMA and kickboxing competitions. Dave Moretti, who is one of the double-dippers, is considered the best of the bunch, at least on the boxing side. A professional boxing judge since 1977, Moretti, who turned 73 this month, has judged 11 of Floyd Mayweather’s title fights, including the last five in a row.

Although Moretti keeps getting the most coveted assignments, he too has turned in scorecards that courted controversy. He scored the famous Leonard-Hagler fight 115-113 for Sugar Ray Leonard which still doesn’t sit right with many people. More recently, he scored the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight 118-110 for Mayweather, which many people thought was too wide, and the Pacquiao-Vargas fight 114-113 for Pacquiao, which many people thought was too narrow. (The other judges had it 118-109 for the PacMan.) Overall, however, his bonafides are stronger than his former colleague Jerry Roth who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this year. Thirteen years ago Kevin Iole wrote that Dave Moretti “is one of the top judges in modern boxing history.”

Reno’s Burt Clements, 65, and Italy’s Guido Cavalleri, 64, will occupy the other high stools. Clements scored the first Kovalev-Ward fight 114-113 for Andre Ward, which invited derision, but one could argue that he was vindicated when the two other judges turned in identical scores. The well-travelled Cavalleri is no stranger to Las Vegas. He previously worked three big 12-round bouts here that lasted the distance, none of which ignited controversy.

The lucrative payday that the four officials will receive is in line with the benchmark set in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Referee Kenny Bayless got $25,000; each of the judges got $20,000. Prior to that, the ceilings for a single fight were $15,000 for a referee and $10,000 for a judge. Former NSAC Executive Director Marc Ratner, who had left the agency for an executive position with the UFC, pushed to raise the bar. With the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight corralling such an insane amount of money, Ratner thought it only fair that the officials get a larger piece of the swag.

I’m not troubled so much by the aggregate, $85,000, as I am by the 5/4 ratio.

There’s a reason why the doctor makes more than the receptionist and the commercial airline pilot makes more than the flight attendant. The higher paying position required a special skill, more extensive training to hone that skill, and there’s more responsibility involved; i.e. the repercussions of a foul-up are so much greater. And trust me, in these examples the ratio is a lot wider than 5/4.

It’s true that boxing judges have a great responsibility. A bad decision can be life-changing for both combatants. But their responsibility pales by comparison to a referee whose bad judgment could prove fatal.

I have long argued that the skill required to properly judge a boxing match is a very mundane skill. A person of average intelligence can learn how to do it — and do it right — in a matter of hours, which doesn’t mean that he will get it right every time. The hue and cry for more frequent refresher courses that erupts after every bad decision might be better served by focusing on the selection process. Throughout the history of boxing, judges — unlike referees — have secured their posts more by who they knew than by what they knew.

No, we don’t want to return to the days when the referee was the sole arbiter, nor return to the more recent days when there were only two judges, the referee acting as the third. A referee doesn’t need that distraction. But if a judge is to receive $20,000 for work that consumes roughly an hour, perhaps we have allowed the pendulum to swing too far.

Mr. Moretti, Mr. Clements, and Mr. Cavalleri are fine upstanding citizens, of that I am quite certain, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the Nevada Athletic Commission has gifted them with a license to steal.

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