Richard Steele is considered the best boxing referee of his generation after officiating the biggest fights of the 1980s and 1990s.
Steele was the third man in the ring for 167 world title bouts and was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014.
But many forget the Henderson resident was also a judge. Steele scored 14 world championship fights, including the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes bout at Caesars Palace in 1980.
On some nights, he was the referee and a judge for the same fight.
“I was a good judge, not a hell of a judge, but I did OK,” Steele said. “No promoter or manager ever had a problem with me.”
Steele didn’t consider himself the best judge in the sport — that was Jerry Roth, in his opinion — but he felt he belonged with the upper tier judges.
Steele was skeptical when the proposal to remove officials from judging and refereeing simultaneously first came up more than 25 years ago.
“I was at the convention, and at first you have to put pride away, my friends they told me, ‘Richard, we need you to go along with this,’” Steele recalled.
“I was saying no because I’m thinking about the new guys, and I’m saying, let them do it the way that I did it. I had to do both. They said, ‘Go along with us.’ Thank God that I did because it made a better referee out of me.”
The proposal passed and it helped referees focus on keeping the fighters safe.
“What I have to worry about is the safety of the fighters,” Steele said. “I didn’t realize how much it was taking away from my refereeing trying to keep score. I have two fighters’ lives in my hands. I’m so glad that we made this change.”
The officiating improved, but removing the closest person from the action might have hurt the scorecards in the long run.
“I see where you’re going with this,” Steele said laughing.
The outcry against inept judging resurfaced after Adalaide Byrd’s highly criticized 118-110 scorecard in favor of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez during the split draw against Gennady Golovkin last month at T-Mobile Arena.
Many want Byrd banned from judging another championship fight again, similar to what happened with C.J. Ross after her controversial scorecards for the first Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight in 2012 and the Floyd Mayweather-Alvarez bout in 2013.
Others just want changes to the judging system. Anything that will avoid another lopsided scorecard.
Moving the judges
Joe Cortez is also a former referee and judge. Cortez said the best judges tend to be the referees because they see the full extent of every punch thrown.
“I had the luxury of seeing the fight much better than the judges because when the fighters wiggle around I was always in the center of both fighters,” Cortez said. “So when you’re at the center, you had more of a view and can see both fighters.”
Cortez understands the safety of the fighters comes first and going back to the old way isn’t an option. But Cortez, passionate about the sport he officiated for 35 years, wanted a way to help the judges. He was tired of everyone blaming the judges for the bad outcomes.
“It breaks my heart when someone says a judge is corrupt or boxing is corrupt,” Cortez said. “That’s not the case. These are my close friends. I know them. They just can’t score what they can’t see. I have the solution.”
Four years ago, Cortez had six judges score simulated four-round fights. He had three sitting at their usual positions and had the other three sitting eight feet above the ring.
He gave the judges clickers and asked them to press the button every time they missed a punch. The ones sitting high above didn’t use the clicker often.
“I asked the judges sitting at the top how many punches they missed, they said, ‘One, two, one,’” Cortez recalled. “Ok, now the judges at the bottom, ‘Nine, 19, 12.’ Then I asked them to switch and every time the judges at the top saw the fight much better.
“The judges have the worst spot to see a fight. People at home watching on TV see the fight much better.”
Elevating the judges isn’t the perfect solution. It would block the view of many fans in attendance. Cortez said he’s working with a manufacturer to construct chairs with transparent acrylic.
The World Boxing Council is considering using Cortez’s method for fights in Mexico. The executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, Bob Bennett, said he has heard Cortez’s proposal but it’s not under consideration at the moment.
Giving judges monitors
Bennett said the commission is strongly considering giving judges monitors like they allow in the UFC.
“We’ve been getting good results from the UFC,” Bennett said. “That’s one change I can see in boxing soon.”
Promoters like Bob Arum would like to see more than one change. Arum, the CEO of Top Rank, said he wants the commission to listen more and take the promoters’ concerns seriously, especially during the selection of judges.
“The commission sent us a list of potential officials and the only one we objected to was (Byrd),” Arum said about last year’s Vasyl Lomachenko-Nicholas Walters bout. “They asked us what our grounds were, and we said, ‘We don’t think she’s a good judge and she shouldn’t be judging an important fight like that.’ They said, ‘That’s not good enough and you have to give us a reason.’
“(Top Rank vice president) Carl Moretti said, ‘What was a better reason than she’s not competent?’”
Arum has told reporters he thinks the commission shows favoritism to Nevada judges. Most high-profile bouts in Las Vegas often feature one official from Nevada. Arum said the best three judges in the world should always score the biggest fights.
Bennett denied any favoritism or rotation to please Nevada officials.
“There’s absolutely no rotation,” Bennett said. “The best of the best judge fights in Las Vegas. I try to find the best three judges and look at their track record and see if they’re the right fit for that particular fight.”
Bennett said he utilizes the Pod Index, a percentage method that evaluates the performances of judges worldwide.
Another option many have brought up is to increase from three judges to five like they do at the amateur level. Bennett said that would “complicate matters.”
Bennett said Byrd is still on break from judging and isn’t sure when she’ll return.
“She’s not on suspension,” Bennett said. “We’ve rewatched the fight (Alvarez-Golovkin) together and we went over her scorecard. We decided it would be best if she took a break. We’re expecting her back soon.”
Bennett said he’s not sure if Byrd will judge championship fights in the near future.
“That’s undecided at this point,” he said. “It was one bad night. We want her to be OK mentally and then we’ll move on.”
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