Everything isnít what it seems in boxing. Fight fans have grown accustomed to accept the unexpected in the theater of the unexpected yet turn sour at times when the result doesnít fall to our liking. It is easy for boxing followers to fall victim to the emotions or the intensity of the moment during a fight. Referee Tony Weeks calls our plight ďthe short run versus the long run.Ē Weeks says fight fans use ďgut checkĒ reactions when throwing out criticism yet come to terms with the result of an event after giving it some thought during the ďlong run.Ē
Weeks learned to keep his composure during difficult fights when he worked at the federal prisons in Phoenix, Arizona as a recreational specialist, he informed me in a recent chat.
Weeks says he built his success on experience and instincts. He studies body demeanor more than anything and honed his craft under the theory that, ďreferees arenít made, they are born.Ē
Read on as Weeks enlightens us about the ďtotalityĒ of a boxing fight, and explains his approach during the classic encounter between Jose Luis Castillo/Diego Corrales and recent bouts between Canelo Alvarez/Alfredo Angulo and Floyd Mayweather/Marcos Maidana.
RM: Why did you decide to become a referee?
TW: Well, at the time, I was working with the federal prisons in Phoenix, Arizona as a recreation specialist. I decided to put on a boxing exhibition in the prison. We got the fighters and set the ring up there in the yard. And the guys got up there and started sparring. But then it dawned on me; I forgot to get a referee. So, I asked one of the trainers if I go in there and referee. They were fine with it. So, I got in the ring, and it felt natural. It felt really good.
RM: I see. So, how did you come into the professional ranks as a referee?
TW: Well, Bento Martinez referred me to the Arizona State Boxing Commission. Usually you start from the amateur ranks and work your way up.
RM: When did you get to Vegas?
TW: I moved to Vegas in 1995. But I didnít get on until 2000.
RM: How come it took so long?
TW: Well, you know, you just have to wait it out.
RM: You had to pay your dues?
TW: Yeah. I just waited for a position to open up and that was it.
RM: OK. How do you stand out as a referee? How can a referee draw attention yet stay neutral, and be in the big fights?
TW: Well, itís just like you noticed. Itís just about doing your job and not to do anything extra to bring attention to yourself. You just perform your job correctly and consistently. Nothing extra is needed. When you do something extra people start to know that, ďHey, this guy wants to be in the picture.Ē And that is just wrong.
RM: Can you take me through the process of how you get selected to referee a fight? Letís say the Mayweather/Maidana in May, how did you get selected to referee that fight?
TW: Well, the commission selects the officials for all of the fights.
TW: We have a great commission and they know what fights are good for certain officials and so forth.
RM: So, itís not really the fighters that choose?
TW: Well, I believe they give both camps two or three names and they could choose if they want this person or donít want this person. But itís ultimately up to the commission.
RM: OK. In boxing, referees get a lot of criticism. It comes with the territory. Does the criticism ever bother you?
TW: I mean, hereís the thing, we cannot expect the general public, fighters, or trainers, to think the way that we think. We are trained to officiate a fight fairly for both fighters. We are not taking any sides. There are fans and trainers that have a financial investment or emotional investment on a fighter and we (referees) cannot expect them to think fairly. It all comes with the territory.
RM: So, if itís a thankless job as you say, what motivates you to do it?
TW: Well, itís the love of the game. I do it for the love of the sport.
TW: I tell anyone, you canít do it for the money or the fame. You have to have a genuine love and respect for the sport. These fighters train hard. They put in hours of effort, and they deserve to have good officiating. And ultimately, we have their lives in our hands. Fighters deserve to know that we are competent.
RM: OK. This is might be a horrible comparison, but I used to be a teacher and it can also be a thankless job. I mean, you are there to help the kids and half the time they are not even paying attention to what you are saying.
TW: Right.
RM: So, teaching reminds me of the referee profession because at the end of the day, whether the kids liked it or not, I went home feeling like I did what was in their best interest. Do you feel the same way about refereeing?
TW: Oh yeah. You know, we cannot help what someone else thinks or feels. We can only control ourselves. A lot of times when a fan or fighter get upset at an official, itís usually during the short run.
RM: What do you mean by short run?
TW: Well, they are usually mad during the fight or immediately after the fight. Thatís when people have a gut check reaction. But in time, in the long run, when people sit back and analyze a fight in a different state of mind, thatís when people tend to understand why a referee made a particular move.
TW: And thatís the same thing with teachers, Iím sure you will have students come up to you later on in life and say, ďHey, Iím glad you did what you did. And if it wasnít for you, I wouldnít be where I am today.Ē
RM: True. So, boxers usually acknowledge your decisions after the fact?
TW: Oh yeahÖ It always happens.
RM: OK. Can you give me an example of how you keep your emotions out of a fight?
TW: Well, itís really simple. My mother can be in the ring and I will still call it down the middle. I have no investment whatsoever. I respect the fighters. But there is no financial or emotional investment for me to sway either way. When I see a foul, I am going to react to it. When I see one fighter taking an illegal advantage, I am going to react to it. OK. Here is the most important thing about refereeing, itís even the same in life; people want you to be fair. You know, sometimes it may not appear that we (referees) are fair, but that goes back to what I was saying about ďthe short run.Ē Most fighters and people that understand boxing know that referees are there to keep the fight fair.
RM: Speaking of fairness, you just reminded me of the Canelo Alvarez/Alfredo Angulo fight a few months ago. Did you ever talk with Angulo after you stopped the fight? I know Angulo thought you stopped the fight prematurely.
TW: Yeah. Itís on camera. I did go to the corner and speak to him. I allowed him to vent, you know. He deserves that. If he was mad at me, thatís ok. I can live with it. I cannot be in his head or in his body to see what is going on. I just see what is going on from the outside. I just wouldnít be doing my job if I let that fight go on any further. I wouldnít be competent in doing my job.
RM: I hear you.
TW: But here is the one thing about it, fighters respect referees. And that respect is earned over the course of time. When I went over to Anguloís corner he could have said anything to me, but the first thing that came out of his mouth was, ďI like you. I respect you. But tonight you were wrong.Ē And, thatís fine with me.
RM: Yeah.
TW: A fighter can say whatever they want to say. They are in the ring taking punishment. But it makes a big difference when the respect is there from both parties.
RM: Itís interesting because referees have so much authority in the ring. I mean, you have the authority to decide when to end everyoneís night. How do you handle that responsibility?
TW: No. I mean, first of all, you have to have the ability and courage to know when to enforce that ruling. Thatís all it is. Once again, I refer back to ďthe short run versus the long run.Ē Thereís always going to be an immediate reaction.
RM: YeahÖ
TW: Listen, when you go back to the Angulo fight, if I had allowed that fight to go on and Angulo would have gotten hurt, the same people who booed me for stopping the fight would have chastised me and said that I should have stopped the fight.
RM: Yeah. Good point.
TW: I mean itís darned if you do and darned if you donít. You know, you just have to have the ability to make the call and have the courage to make the call. When I first started refereeing in Phoenix, an old referee named Al Munoz that passed away told me something that I didnít fully understand at the time. He said, ďReferees arenít made, they are born.Ē And that is so true. Anybody can learn the rules and regulations. But not everyone can effectively apply those rules and regulations in the right circumstances.
RM: Interesting.
TW: Bottom line, itís either in you or itís not. Itís like anything in life.
RM: ďThe short runĒ is like basketball. Basketball players never think that they are the one that commits a foul.
TW: Right. They just canít see it fairly. Competitors canít see it straight down the middle when they are trying to win.
RM: And fans or promoters canít think like a referee because they have an investment on one particular side.
TW: Exactly. And they are not trained to officiate like we are trained.
RM: Right. Hey, I have to ask you about the first Mayweather/Maidana fight. Mayweather kept looking at you after he got cut in the fourth round. It seemed as though he was looking to you for help. Did you notice that or was it just me?
TW: Well, I donít know if he was asking for help or not. But I believe it was the first time that he was ever cut in a fight.
RM: Yeah.
TW: Fighters react differently to cuts. I donít think he was asking for help. But the cut was definitely bothering him.
RM: After the fight the Mayweather camp said, ďTony Weeks will never referee another Mayweather fight.Ē How do you respond?
TW: I donít. I donít respond to it. That is just someoneís opinions. They might be the minority.
RM: Right.
TW: Like I said, people can look at something, but really donít understand what is going on. You should never criticize somebody, or in this case an official, until you have been in that ring. Most of these people have never been in that position to make a critical call. My body of work speaks for itself.
RM: Yeah.
TW: For someone to disrespect a whole body of work and judge it by one night is self-explanatory.
RM: OK. Personally, I donít think you did a bad job. I was just wondering if you are sensitive to the criticism.
TW: Look, I was a fan before I became a referee. I understand the way they think. But it has no bearing on me whatsoever. They donít make me or break me. When something major happens, the media picks up on it. And there hasnít been anything in the media to really substantiate anything from the Mayweather camp. It was a hell of a fight. No one has ever seen Mayweather in that type of fight. So it is definitely going to influence everybody.
RM: I hear you. So Mayweather had never been in that type of fight and people donít know how to respond or whom to blame.
TW: Right. And they are only looking at one side. You know, we as referees are looking at the totality of the fight. We are looking at what both fighters are doing. We are not just looking at from one side.
RM: A fair and impartial refereeÖ
TW: Thatís all.
RM: Yeah, you also worked the Mayweather/Cotto fightÖ
TW: Yeah.
RM: Some people complained about rough-housing in the Mayweather/Maidana fight, but the Cotto fight had some similar action.
TW: Yeah, well, hereís the thing about Maidana, heís a street guy, and he is a street brawler. Heís very awkward. He throws punches from all angles. And of course there are times he has a tendency to do some unsportsmanlike conduct. And a lot of times that (unsportsmanlike conduct) stands out more to people than anything else. Sometimes people only focus on the unsportsmanlike action but true boxing people know whatís going on.
RM: So if most people are focusing on the street brawling action, what are you focusing on?
TW: The totality of the fight.
TW: I look at what Fighter A is doing and what Fighter B is doing. One guy can be doing something unsportsmanlike that is completely obvious. And the other guy might have the ability to do something (unsportsmanlike) also, and make it look as though he isnít doing anything wrong. Fighters have the ability to do things that donít stand out to the crowd.
RM: So, do you study styles of fighters before the fight?
TW: Yeah. I study their styles to see what they are doing before they do it. But I donít let that history influence me in a way where I try to anticipate something to happen.
RM: What do you mean?
TW: Well, for example, you might have a fighter that has a tendency to hit low. But I still have to call my fight fair. I am still going to react to any punch the same way to where if itís a legitimate low blow or if itís marginal. In other words, I am not going to jump the gun because a fighter has the tendency throw a low blow.
RM: I hear you. So you know the fighters but you still have to play your game the way you are supposed to play it.
TW: Thatís right. Itís a new fight. You canít hold a fighterís history against him. Itís no different than a football coach scouting the opposing team. Referees study to see the strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of the fighters. It is just good information.
TW: But I still react instinctively. It goes back to what I said about ďReferees arenít made, they are born.Ē You just have to have a natural gift to sense certain things. For example, itís like when I worked in a prison. I could be on a rec yard and there could be anywhere from 500 to 1000 inmates on the field at anytime. If I look across the field and see a group of inmates grouped together, I could pretty much sense and feel what is going on by their demeanor, and by their body action. I can tell if itís an argument or if they are drinking wine, or whatever it may be. Just being on the yard helps you feel the tension. If you suddenly walk in a quiet room you can sense when there is an argument. You can sense if something is happening. So, itís just a natural instinct. You either have it or donít.
RM: Yeah. OKÖ
TW: Yeah. Weíre always learning, man. Itís like the late Bruce Lee said, ďAbsorb what is useful and discard what is useless.Ē
RM: I hear you. Letís talk about the Jose Luis Castillo/Diego Corrales fight. Can you take me through your mind process during round 10 of that fight?
TW: Well, that fight comes to my mind at least once a day. It is definitely the highlight of my career. Going into the 10th round it was a tremendous fight. It went back and forth. Each fighter took equal punishment. Corralesí eye was swelling up bad. When Corrales went down for the first time in the 10th round and I started counting, I looked at him and I could tell he was focused. He was still alert. Then the mouthpiece came out. I decided to let the fight continue and put the mouthpiece back in. Almost as soon as I let it continue, he (Corrales) went down again. Iím looking at his demeanor. He is still alert. He is still focused on me. Once again, the mouthpiece comes out. But that time I deducted a point for the mouthpiece and let the fight resume. Then all of a sudden the tide just turned. It was like a light switch. One second I am watching Corrales, on the verge of maybe stopping the match. Then Corrales comes back and hurts Castillo. Now, my focus turns to Castillo. And the next thing you know, Iím stopping the fight. It happened that fast.
RM: Then what helped you make the correct decision so quickly?
TW: Well, when I was doing the Corrales/Castillo fight, I didnít understand how big the fight was in terms of what happened in the fight, until afterwards.
RM: I got you.
TW: As a referee you look at a fighterís demeanor. You look at their physical reaction to the punches and analyze the punishment they are taking. It was clear that Castillo was hurt by a right hand that Corrales threw. Then he took a barrage of punches. His hands stopped moving and his head went limp, that was it for me.
RM: So, youíre always looking at the fighterís demeanor first before anything else?
TW: Always. Itís always about safety. Nothing comes before the safety of the fighters.
RM: OK. Are there any other fights that you think about everyday?
TW: Yeah. I think about my first big fight in Vegas. It was a Friday night fight between Bernard Hopkins and Antuwn Echols. And everyone was in town because the following night was the big match between Tito Trinidad and Fernando Vargas.
RM: OhÖ Great fight.
TW: RightÖ So, everyone was at my fight. And there were all types of fouls. You know how Bernard can be. I was really tested that night. But fortunately everything went well. It kind of put me on that map because it showed that I could handle a tough fight when Iím in one. So, that fight really stands out.
RM: Was that the fight where Hopkins fell through the ropes?
TW: No, that was the fight where Echols picked up Hopkins and slammed him on his shoulder. So, Hopkins had to fight the remainder of the fight with a hurt shoulder.
RM: Oh yeah. So, it gets you excited when more people are at the fights?
TW: Well, no not really. Iím already pumped to be in the ring. I donít pay attention to the crowd because it takes a lot to stay focused. The fight just feels a lot different when you are going through it in the moment. It looks and feels a lot different when you watch it afterwards. You just get a different perspective.
RM: OK. Hereís a question - How many times out of ten do you watch a fight afterwards and listen to the commentary or read about it and think Ė ďMan, these guys donít even know what the heck they are talking about.Ē
TW: Well, you know itís like I already said, I donít listen to the commentary. There are times when I do listen, but it doesnít bother me because I understand what I am doing and I understand the way they may be thinking.
TW: A referee cannot allow the media to affect him because it can take away from our natural ability to think and see what is really happening. If we listen too much to the commentary or the media then we can go into the next fight and try to compensate for what they (the media) are saying.
RM: So, in your opinion do some referees listen to the media too much or try to please the crowd?
TW: Well, of course that has happened. But we referees have a brotherhood. We all support each other. We critique each other. If someone does something wrong we are going to let you know. We cannot sugarcoat anything because it wonít help. But most importantly, itís private. The conversations are between us. It is not something that I would broadcast. If you arenít a referee then you donít know what we go through. We as referees are the only ones that understand. So it is more important to have support from one another.
RM: So itís like a fraternity. Referees have each otherís back.
TW: Thatís the bottom line. We are on our own.
RM: Yeah. And you like it better that way.
TW: Yes of course. We (referees) respect each other and support each other. We are the best qualified to console that person and help to try to get better the next time. We have an obligation to be supremely confident in what we do.
RM: Well, how did you gain that confidence?
TW: I just have a natural ability and instincts to perform my job. Every time I get a fight I gain more and more experience. Through experience comes confidence. You gain more experience and confidence with every fight especially a difficult fight.
RM: Do you gain more experience from high-profile fights over a club show?
TW: No. You cannot put a distinction between the two. It doesnít matter if itís a high-profile or small ballroom fight. Itís the same fight. You have to have the same approach. One thing I used to do when I started out in Phoenix, Arizona, we used to do fights in small ballrooms. I used to pretend I was in the big fights. I used to pretend Jimmy Lennon or Michael Buffer was announcing my name. At the time, I was just having fun with it. But it actually helped me because when I got to Vegas and actually did the big fights; I was already in that frame of mind. So, everything became natural. Everything became second nature.
You can email Ray at raymond.markarian@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter @raymarkarian