Commentary

Cortez not the first referee to drop the ball in a big fight

Francisco Lorenzo took a beating from Humberto Soto, yet walked out of the ring a winner. Unheard of? Hardly. Graham Houston reminds us Lorenzo's DQ win wasn't the first decision that left boxing fans scratching their heads.

Originally Published: July 1, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Lorenzo SotoAP Photo/Isaac BrekkenNot so fast, Humberto Soto. Referee Joe Cortez has news for you.
The events of Saturday night in Las Vegas, where a boxer who had hammered his opponent into submission yet ended up getting disqualified by referee Joe Cortez, had fight fans outraged.

Yes, Humberto Soto hit Francisco Lorenzo with a stray shot when his opponent was on one knee, but the fight was essentially over at that point -- Lorenzo was battered, bloodied and thoroughly beaten.

It was, to me, a spirit of the law-versus-letter-of-the-law situation. No, Soto should not have thrown the last punch, but TV replays indicated little more than a glancing blow: The damage had already been done by legal punches.

If every fighter who hit his opponent when the other man was down was peremptorily disqualified, Rocky Marciano would not have left boxing with an undefeated record, Mike Tyson would have been DQ'd for clobbering Frank Bruno when the British heavyweight took a knee in Las Vegas and Nigel Benn would have been shown the door for nailing Iran Barkley when the Bronx middleweight was on the canvas in a wild one-rounder that also took place in Las Vegas.

In June, Andre Berto hit Miguel Rodriguez when the Mexican boxer was down, but Texas referee Laurence Cole sensibly realized that it was just a parting shot of no consequence and ignored it.

Here is a look at some refereeing controversies over the years, some famous, others more esoteric. It is not a definitive list. Referees are human. They have to make quick decisions and human errors are possible. A good referee can have a bad night -- a great referee does not have too many of them.

12. David Tua TKO10 Hasim Rahman -- Miami, Dec. 19, 1998

Rahman was clearly winning this USBA heavyweight title fight when he got hit by a big left hook that landed well after the bell to end the ninth round. Referee Telis Assimenios hesitated, but Tua's very experienced and quick-thinking cornerman Lou Duva was in the ring in a flash, yelling at the referee to the effect that he should have been in control of the situation. I believe the right decision would have been to call for a timeout to allow Rahman to recover and, perhaps, to have taken a point from Tua. But the moment passed, and Rahman was overwhelmed after 35 seconds of Round 10. I do think, though, that Tua's body punches were starting to wear down Rahman. Assimenios has since handled important fights in impeccable fashion.

11. Derrick Gainer TKO11 Freddie Norwood -- New Orleans, Sept. 9, 2000

My notes from this all-southpaw WBA featherweight title fight contain the line: "Ref simply loses control of this one." Referee Paul Sita gave Norwood three counts of 20 -- not 10 -- in incidents that included both fighters falling to the canvas and Norwood twice dropping from low blows. Absolutely bizarre.

10. Rocky Marciano TKO9 Don Cockell -- San Francisco, May 16, 1954

Marciano was rough and tough, to be sure, and he battered heavyweight title challenger Cockell with an assortment of fouls as well as punches. Cockell was butted, which caused a cut on his forehead, and in the ninth round the British boxer was hit by a head-swiveling right hand as he was down on one knee. Referee Frankie Brown waved the finish with Cockell on wobbly legs after 54 seconds of Round 9. Teddy Waltham of the British boxing board suggested that a British ref would have disqualified Marciano. In truth, the fight was more controversial in the U.K. than in the U.S. -- the London Evening News reported: "Marciano may not be the greatest world champion ever, but he is certainly the dirtiest."

9. Ruslan Chagaev TD3 Rob Calloway -- Detroit, Oct. 5, 2002

This was a weird one. Calloway, cut from a clash of heads in Round 2, was bloodied and under bombardment, out on his feet against the ropes in the third. Referee Ron Cunningham jumped in, but instead of stopping the fight, as he should have done, he gave Calloway a standing eight count -- and then took him to the doctor to have Calloway's cut examined. The doctor advised that the fight should be stopped. As Calloway had been cut in the earlier clash of heads he escaped with a technical draw. By rights, it should have been a TKO win for the Uzbek heavyweight Chagaev, who was destroying Calloway in Round 3. Chagaev knocked out Calloway in two rounds in a rematch in Germany.

8. Oliver McCall TKO2 Lennox Lewis -- London, Sept. 24, 1994

[+] EnlargeLewis v McCall
John Gichigi/Getty ImagesDown and … out? Lennox Lewis looked as though he could continue in his title defense against Oliver McCall.
Mexican referee Guadalupe Garcia had to make a snap decision when Lewis, dropped by a right hand, got up but lost his balance and stumbled into the third man. Garcia ruled that it was unsafe to allow Lewis to continue, and stopped the fight. Lewis spread his arms in astonishment; his manager, Frank Maloney, was apoplectic with anger. In a heavyweight championship fight, and considering Lewis' vast experience, it looked a quick stoppage.

7. Michael Dokes TKO1 Mike Weaver -- Las Vegas, Dec. 10, 1982

Weaver, who was defending his WBA heavyweight title, was known to be a slow starter. Dokes jumped right on him, dropping the champion with a left hook. Weaver went to the ropes after the eight count, covering up as if letting Dokes expend some energy by hitting arms and gloves -- then referee Joey Curtis jumped in and waved the finish at 63 seconds of the first round. The crowd at Caesars Palace chanted "fix" and Curtis was escorted out of the arena by security guards. Some wondered if Curtis had overreacted due to the death of Duk Koo Kim in his fight with Ray Mancini a month earlier in Las Vegas. The sports editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Glenn White, wrote: "After seeing the film 10 or 12 times, I am of the unshakable opinion that referee Joey Curtis erred when he decided the fight should be stopped."

6. John Ruiz W12 Evander Holyfield -- Las Vegas, March 3, 2001

[+] EnlargeJohn Ruiz v Evander Holyfield
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images"You can get up now, John Ruiz. Cortez is buying it."
In the 10th round of this heavyweight title rematch, Holyfield landed two left hooks to the body -- one borderline, the second more powerful and obviously legitimate -- sending Ruiz to the canvas. Instead of counting over the fallen fighter, referee Joe Cortez called for a timeout, took a point from Holyfield and gave Ruiz several minutes to recover. The fans at the Mandalay Bay casino resort jeered when the knockdown incident was replayed on the big screens at the Event Center -- the "low" blow seemed perfectly fair. In his book "The Holyfield Way," Holyfield's longtime friend and lawyer Jim Thomas has scathing and accusatory things to say about Cortez's handling of the fight, although in Thomas' recounting, Ruiz was dropped by a left hook to the chin that followed the hook to the body. Veteran boxing writer Michael Katz noted in the now-defunct Web site House of Boxing that Ruiz "went down in a heap from a left hook to the belly. The hook immediately before that was perhaps a tad low, on the beltline, but did not warrant a point deduction and certainly not Ruiz's reaction. That came from the legit blow and Ruiz did a similar acting job in their first meeting."

5. Danny Williams TKO7 Konstantin Airich -- Bilbao, Spain, June 30, 2008

[+] EnlargeDanny Williams and Konstantin Airich
M.A. Sayer/Arena Box-Promotion Incompetent or inexperienced? No matter, Danny Williams took matters out of referee Alfredo Garcia Perez's hands by stopping Konstantin Airich in seven rounds.
The wild heavyweight fight between Londoner Williams and Airich, a German-based Kazakh, has been much discussed among fight fans, the general view being that Spanish referee Alfredo Garcia Perez was massively biased against Williams. I took the kinder view that this was an inexperienced referee who was completely out of his depth and never really in control of the fight -- a view shared by Pennsylvania commissioner Greg Sirb. True, Perez took points from Williams and constantly shouted at him, but by giving the British boxer two standing eight counts in Round 3, the referee compromised Airich's chances of finishing off the wobbly veteran. A clumsy job of refereeing, undeniably, but not a corrupt one.

4. Gene Tunney W10 Jack Dempsey -- Chicago, Sept. 22, 1937

[+] EnlargeDempsey-Tunney
AP PhotoJack Dempsey's hesitance to retreat to a neutral corner might have cost him the fight against Gene Tunney, right.
The famous "Battle of the Long Count" was one of the most controversial in ring history. Dempsey was accustomed to standing over opponents after he had knocked them down so that he could immediately pounce when they regained their feet, but a rule had been introduced that required a boxer to go to the farthest neutral corner in the event of a knockdown being scored. Dempsey, after knocking Tunney down in the seventh round of the heavyweight title rematch, remained standing directly above his fallen opponent. Referee Dave Barry frantically signaled to Dempsey to go to the neutral corner. By the time Dempsey realized the situation and rushed to the neutral corner, valuable seconds had elapsed. The count resumed and Tunney got up at nine; it was estimated he had been down for 14 or 15 seconds. Tunney quickly recovered and boxed his way to victory. Dempsey's manager, Leo Flynn, argued that Tunney had been cleanly knocked out in the seventh and told reporters, "This is the biggest injustice I have ever seen in a ring." However, referee Barry had merely been applying a recently introduced rule.

3. Max Schmeling DQ4 Jack Sharkey -- Yankee Stadium, New York City, June 12, 1930

[+] EnlargeMax Schmeling and Jack Sharkey
AP PhotoJack Sharkey, left, couldn't have imagined he'd lose his heavyweight title to Max Schmeling via a DQ.
The perception today of this famous heavyweight title fight seems to be that Schmeling gained the title in an opportunistic fashion. But reporters on the scene were somewhat sympathetic toward the German boxer, believing that he had not been feigning injury in a fight he was losing. Legendary writer Damon Runyon reported that Sharkey's left hand, an upward-traveling hook, landed "at least six inches below the German's waist line." Nat Fleischer wrote in "The Ring" that the disqualification was justified, noting: "It was a blow that sank into the groin with the full force of the shoulder and body behind it."

It was a confusing finish because referee Jim Crowley hadn't seen the low blow. The round ended and Schmeling was carried to his corner, while, according to columnist Westbrook Pegler, the fighter's manager, Joe Jacobs, "raged along the ropes, screaming at press row and calling on the world to witness that his fighter had been foully dealt with." After consulting with judge Harold Barnes, the referee made his decision that Schmeling would be declared winner by disqualification. Was Schmeling all that badly hurt? Former champ Gene Tunney thought so, telling reporters: "It was a blow that will cause excruciating pain and there is no doubt in my mind that Schmeling was incapacitated."

Apart from initial indecision, the ref ultimately did the right thing under the rules of the day that did not have a "no contest" provision.

2. Julio Cesar Chavez TKO12 Meldrick Taylor -- Las Vegas, March 17, 1990

[+] EnlargeMeldrick Taylor and Julio Cesar Chavez
Ken Levine/Getty ImagesHad Meldrick Taylor, right, been allowed to continue fighting against Julio Cesar Chavez, he could have clinched a split-decision win.
Many disagreed with referee Richard Steele's decision to stop the junior welter title fight between Taylor and Chavez with two seconds remaining. Had Taylor been allowed to continue, he would have won by split decision. This was a very difficult call for Steele, though. Referees aren't timekeepers, and Taylor looked in a terrible state after getting up from a knockdown. One or two more full-impact punches could have done lasting damage -- yet the final bell was so close to sounding. Looking back at it, I cannot be too harsh on Steele, but he must have known the fight was nearly over. The bell would probably have sounded before Chavez had got into position to land another blow. The prevailing opinion was summed up by reporter Stan Hochman in the Philadelphia Daily News: "Richard Steele should have factored in how little time was left, how bravely Taylor had fought, and let compassion and common sense dictate his actions. He did the wrong thing, and he did it too swiftly."

1. Sandy Saddler TKO13 Flash Elorde -- San Francisco, Jan. 18, 1956

[+] EnlargeGabriel
Bettmann/CorbisSandy Saddler used a variety of dirty tactics to stop Flash Elorde, facing, in their rematch.
We touched on this fight in the recent "Filipino five" article. Referee Ray Flores allowed featherweight champion Saddler to get away with numerous fouls in his title defense against Filipino Elorde. These included using his head and glove laces to worsen the terrible cut over Elorde's left eye that eventually caused the fight to be stopped. The New York Times reported: "The champion continually massaged Elorde's face with his head whenever they were in the clinches. He spun Elorde, held him, hit him on the break a couple of times and in general had the pro-Elorde crowd booing all night." Nat Fleischer, editor of "The Ring," wrote a blistering condemnation of Flores' refereeing. If ever a champion deserved to have been DQ'd, it was surely Sandy Saddler on that bloody night in San Francisco.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.