Part III: The Examples
IT was somewhat fitting that for the next part of the process a gaggle of potential referees – 43 had now become 10 – found themselves sitting in an upper-floor room at the new Peacock Gym in Epping, their thoughts disturbed by the sounds of punch bags being struck by boxers beneath them. It was there each of them would wait, on high, and from this vantage point later look down from the viewing gallery and see everything: the boxers hitting the bags, the boxers sparring in rings, and any of the other seemingly minor details which are more important for a referee to spot than anyone else.
Prior to that, the 10 candidates sat around a table and listened to not only the sounds of hard work coming from below but also the advice given to them by three referees licenced by the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC). This, having come through the initial interview stage of the process in December, was for most of them their first introduction to the club; the first time, that is, they will have heard a professional referee speak and tell them about their own journey.
It was vital to hear such stories, too, particularly given the arduous and extensive nature of the process, explained to them at length by Dennis Gilmartin (Southern Area Secretary) and Robert Smith (General Secretary) back in December. For them to now be able to listen to men like Marcus McDonnell, a Star-Class referee who will retire this year at the age of 65, and Mark Bates and Lee Every, two referees who went through the same process as this latest batch seven and a half years ago, gave the wannabe referees some insight, yes, but also, more than that, a template, a road map; something tangible; proof it can be done.
“I haven’t got any amateur background, whether as a boxer or referee,” said Mark Bates. “Seven years ago, I was sitting exactly where you are, and yet last Saturday I was in Wembley sitting ringside for (Artur) Beterbiev vs. (Anthony) Yarde, with Tyson Fury not far from me. I was living the dream basically. To go from here to there in such a short space of time is just mind-blowing. This job, or this vocation, is a privilege. It’s an honour to be in there. You don’t do this for the money. It’s purely something we all love doing.”
Of the 10 candidates in the room that morning, only two of them had experience as professional boxers, yet far more common was experience as amateur boxers or referees. Even so, Bates was keen to stress that there is no correct grounding or preparation for the role of referee. Whatever the background, there are always pros and cons.
“On the plus side, I had no negatives to bring with me,” he said. “I didn’t have to change my game from the amateurs to the pros. I was just learning from a blank piece of paper and starting afresh from day one. For me, it was a positive, but I’ve got nothing to compare it to. It’s certainly not detrimental to have no boxing background. I’m proof of that.”
Marcus McDonnell, of course, has had a tighter bond with the sport throughout his life. Brother of Jim, a former European featherweight champion and a top trainer, the official from Twickenham has had to have his wits about him during the course of his commendable 35-year career as an official and has had to develop both a nose for danger and a thick skin.
“I’ve had situations where I’ve got into the ring, Jimmy’s there helping out some other team, and I’ve had to say to someone like Mark (Bates), ‘Get in for me, will you?’” McDonnell explained. “I’d be Jimmy’s worst nightmare (as a referee). I would be so strict on his guy to avoid being accused of favouritism.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be very careful, especially if you’ve been connected to gyms before or have relationships in the sport. You try to be independent in those situations but it’s very difficult.”
Aside from the possibility of making an error in such a scenario, by avoiding those situations referees are merely protecting themselves from later being accused of bias and skulduggery. This was something Lee Every made clear when he told the candidates that day, “Everyone wants to be your friend if you’re a referee. You’ll have boxers coming over and saying, ‘Hello, mate, how are you?’ You shouldn’t really accept it, though, not on Facebook or in person. You don’t do this job to make friends with boxers.
“It’s tough in there. Then afterwards you get home and think, Did I do something wrong there? You have a little look back at the fight on the telly and that throws it up differently. Watching a fight on telly is completely different than being in that ring. It always is. You only see what you see.”
Unfortunately, given the way the world has both evolved and, in some ways, regressed, no longer do referees have the luxury of transitioning from being laser-focused to blissfully ignorant in the aftermath of a fight. Now, instead, whether they require it or not, they are reminded of their performance every time they switch on the television, look at their phone, or visit the local shop to buy milk and bread.
“When I started it was easy,” said McDonnell. “You guys have got it so tough now. Reason being, social media is the worst thing ever – especially for our sport. When I started, if I did something wrong, I’d get told off by the Board but you wouldn’t hear about it after that. Next week there would be a report in Boxing News and they might have the odd letter in there complaining as well. But that was it. Now, as soon as you get out the ring, within two minutes it’s all over the world.
“When you go to a show and the TV people are there, they’re not your friends. They hope that something happens and it goes wrong. It’s great TV for them. They’re not interested in you getting in there and doing a great job.
“As soon as it goes wrong, people love it. They get on their podcasts and they get on social media and it becomes exciting for them. These people are not your friends. By all means be pleasant to them but keep to yourself.”
To then lighten the mood, McDonnell, a fine storyteller, told the candidates, “I was in Glasgow once walking round the back of the arena and someone shouted out, ‘Foster, you’re a s**t referee.’ So I turned around and said to them, ‘I’m not Howard Foster, I’m Marcus McDonnell.’ He then went, ‘You’re even f**king worse.’
“Look, usually when I tell people I’m a referee, they say, ‘Who are you?’ I tell them my name and they say, ‘I’ve never heard of you.’ I’m the most senior referee we have at the British Boxing Board of Control, but the only reason people know you is because something has happened and your name has come to people’s attention. You don’t want to be that referee. You don’t want to be known.”
Ultimately, controlling the reaction of fans is not a power any referee will possess. All they can control, in fact, and again it has limits, is what goes on inside the ring between first bell and last bell. What’s more, it is only with time and experience that they come to understand the methods and machinations of professional boxers and therefore the flow of a fight.
“What I left behind from the amateurs was hand signals,” said Every. “Boxers are very clever, especially when they’re getting paid to box. This is their living. They need to bring the money home. If they see you do a hand signal, and the other boxer looks at you while you’re doing that motion, they will try something while the opponent is watching you. They are very clever and they don’t miss a trick.
“They try all sorts of naughties in the ring. That’s when you come in. If they complain – ‘Ref, he’s holding,’ or, ‘He’s hitting the back of my head,’ or, ‘He’s pulling me down’ – they might just be looking for a reaction from you to throw you off your concentration. Just watch out for anything like that.
“Try to always be on the open side of the boxing. Look where they are. Always give them free rein in the ring. Let them move around. Also, get used to the crowd. Become comfortable with people watching you. You might get a little bit of gyp from the crowd but that’s all part of it.”
Part IIII: The Decision
FOR the next stage of the process the 10 candidates sitting around the table were asked to answer six questions on a piece of paper, with each question concerning some hypothetical situation they could potentially encounter in the ring. After that, they were then given scorecards and told to turn their attention to the television screen in the room on which round 11 of the 2014 fight between Tommy Coyle and Daniel Brizuela would soon play.
“Brizuela is in the red shorts and Coyle is in the gold and I’d put that on my (score) card as well,” said Marcus McDonnell, introducing the fight. “Also, Coyle has come out of the blue corner and Brizuela has come out of the red. You want as much information on that card as you can get. We had a situation once where the scorecards came in from an American and I thought, This ain’t right. It was obvious something had gone wrong because in the fourth round one of the two boxers had been put down and yet he had that same boxer winning the round. He didn’t realise which boxer he was watching. He got them the wrong way round and it was up to the supervisor to sort that out.
“Also, when you score for an organisation like the IBF (International Boxing Federation), you are not allowed to score drawn rounds. You have to try and find a winner in every round. When you watch the TV commentators and you see their scoring, you’ll see that they often put a load of even rounds to play it safe and we then get criticised for our scoring. But if they were to change those three even rounds into winning rounds, their scorecard would look completely different. We have to try as hard as we can to find a winner in every round. In a 10-round fight you effectively score 10 different fights. So, try and find a winner in each of them.”
For the next three minutes the candidates watched what was happening on screen with all the intensity of a first-time mother watching her newborn navigate the sharp edges of their living room. Not wanting to take their eyes off the screen, for fear they might miss something, they were also each conscious of making sure they marked down on their cards everything that had occurred in an eventful three minutes: two knockdowns, for example, as well as a point deduction.
“Scoring is one of the most important things,” said Lee Every. “If you can get a scoring system in your head it will help you when you’re refereeing a tough fight with a lot of naughties you’ve got to concentrate on. Hopefully, the scoring of the contest will then come free and easy in your head.”
Mark Bates agreed, saying, “My advice to whoever gets through is to do as much scoring as you can. Basically, this job is all about experience. The more scoring you do, the more scenarios and situations you are going to see and experience. You can then call upon those experiences when you’re in the ring yourself. It’s all about scoring first. We scored for the best part of three years before we got in the ring. That’s a long time, but it’s all valuable experience. Also, ask the Star refs what they would do in certain situations. That will help you as well.”
Round over, the candidates, having made up their minds, returned the pens and scorecards and most, if not all, then sat back in their chairs and began mulling over whether what they had written down was correct. Rocky Muscus, a former pro whose aim is to become the first Board-licenced referee of Greek heritage, could be seen counting on his fingers the number of key incidents he had observed before nodding his head, certain he had the right score.
Another pro, meanwhile, Lewis van Poetsch, was elected to be the first of the referees in the ring that day, which meant heading downstairs and entering one of the two rings in Martin and Tony Bowers’ plush Peacock Gym. No stranger to any of this, of course, being both in a gym and a boxing ring, the only surprise for Van Poetsch that day came when, during the round he was chosen to officiate, he witnessed a knockdown and had to act accordingly. Quite the shock, Van Poetsch’s reaction to what had happened was at the time being assessed by a number of Board officials situated around the ring, as well as referees McDonnell, Bates and Every, and it was, to his credit, given both the shock of the incident and intensity of the pressure, a situation he handled with all the composure of a man who had been there before.
The rest of the rounds were less eventful, thankfully, much to the delight of those candidates who had to follow Van Poetsch. Some were given heavier boxers to officiate, which appeared to make the sparring rounds more interesting and gave the referees more to do, whereas later on, when the sparring partners were smaller, many of the sparring rounds whizzed by with the referee no more than a bystander at times.
For some of them, like Muscus and Van Poetsch, the only new aspect of the experience was the fact they were in a ring not throwing or taking punches. For others, however, this was the very first time they had ever set foot in a boxing ring, the novelty of which certainly showed on the faces and in the movements of one or two.
Still, they all got through the ordeal and eventually left Epping replaying in their minds myriad things they could now do nothing about. They wondered, first, whether they had answered the six questions correctly. Then they wondered whether they had scored round 11 of Coyle vs. Brizuela correctly. Finally, with the experience still fuzzy, they wondered whether they had missed anything in the three minutes they had spent inside a ring with two boxers whose names they would never know.
In other words, theirs would be an evening like any other for a referee; one of reflection, one of overthinking, one of uncertainty. The only difference here, perhaps, was that each of the potential referees also went home with the words of the professionals acting as either consolation or motivation.
“It’s a long process for a reason,” Mark Bates earlier said. “It’s a massive responsibility you have refereeing a fight. You need to have that experience to get to that level.
“Also, you need an understanding partner. This is part of my life. There’s no such thing as a Saturday night for us. My family knows that. We get a list (of dates) from the Board and if there’s a spare Saturday in that month that’s when we will decide to do something as a family. It doesn’t work the other way round. Unless there’s a wedding, or I’m on holiday, I’m available every Saturday. I had to sit down with my wife to explain that and get her on board. Because it’s a big commitment, not only for you but your whole family.”
“I’ve been doing it for 35 years now and I have loved every single minute of it,” said Marcus McDonnell. “When you make it to 65, that’s not the end of the road, either. What happens then is you become a world title judge until you’re 73. So, it’s a career for the rest of your life.
“But not all of you are going to make it. It’s like joining the army or the police force. You have good times and you have bad times. There will be times when people are shouting at you as you get out the ring and gobbing on your back, but you have to be able to take that.”
Later, with only the licenced referees left in the room, all now sitting around the table along with members of the Board, the 10 departed candidates were whittled down to four. Each was judged one at a time, judged on the answers they had given to the six questions, their scoring of Coyle vs. Brizuela, and their performance in the ring, and the decision of the Board, in the end, turned out to be unanimous; a welcome relief for a group of men accustomed to contentious calls and the harsh criticism that follows.