SOME like to be noticed. Others don’t. The best, we’re told, are the latter kind, the ones who shy away from attention. But sometimes being noticed isn’t necessarily a choice.
Howard Foster, for example, is one referee who doesn’t like to be noticed. It’s not his thing. Never has been. Yet, at 8.20 pm on the night of November 23, 2013, he entered the changing room of George Groves, briefly interrupting the super-middleweight’s warm-up, and was all of a sudden noticed.
More than that, he was the centre of attention, just as he’d been moments before, when delivering in a different changing room the same instructions to Carl Froch, and just as he’d be at around 11 pm.
“Don’t hit him while he’s down,” Foster said to Groves as the boxer sat on a chair and the music playing on a speaker was turned down. “Go to the furthest neutral corner and the important thing is you must stay there. If you come out of that corner, I’ll stop the count. Okay?”
Groves focused on Foster but it was hard to tell if he was really listening. Akin to pre-flight safety commands issued by an air hostess, he waited for it to be over.
“When you’re in close,” Foster continued, “watch your heads. No holding. When I say ‘break’, you break. Again, if you’re holding and I tell you to stop holding, that’s when you stop holding. You can work inside or you can step back.
“No hitting the back of the head, keep your punches up, have a good fight and good luck.”
As Foster looked to escape, remove himself from the spotlight, his exit was thwarted by Groves’ coach, Paddy Fitzpatrick, who had some instructions of his own.
“I know you’re in a hurry so I’ll keep it brief,” he said. “I just want to remind you of something Froch said…”
“Look…” Foster interjected.
“No, please, listen to me. If he does get caught, accidentally, he said he will deliberately foul back.”
“I’ve spoken to Carl just as I’ve spoken to George. No fouls. A nice, clean fight, that’s all I want.”
“I understand. And the other thing is, please let them work inside, just as you said.”
“Absolutely,” said Foster, offering his hand to Fitzpatrick before fleeing.
Three hours later, Groves returned to the same changing room having been stopped to a soundtrack of boos in round nine. The boos, rather than directed at him, were instead aimed at Howard Foster, the referee, who sensed Groves was hurt in the ninth round, decided to stop the fight and inadvertently – regrettably – became noticed.
His decision enraged the bloodthirsty and confused those of a calmer disposition, while Groves, exhausted, carried the demeanour of someone who had both won and lost. There was a slight cut along the top of his head, seen to by a doctor and some stitches, and large welts beneath his eyes. There were also numerous scuff marks along his neck, shoulders and back, accentuated by translucent skin. But these battle wounds, a result of punches, head-butts and shoulder barges, were curiously juxtaposed by a wide smile, one associated with victory, as well as the upbeat testimonies of all who surrounded him.
“Two weeks ago,” Groves recalled, “Paddy said to me, ‘I’m a bit worried about Howard Foster because he has a habit of jumping in early.’”
“Howard Foster said to me that the reason he stopped it was because George was hurt,” added Fitzpatrick. “Now, Froch was hurt six times before George had even taken a solid shot. Being hurt isn’t good enough. This is a world title fight. This man didn’t even give him a chance, let alone a count. No benefit of the doubt whatsoever.”
“I thought the referee was breaking it up, not stopping it,” Groves said with a sigh.
A couple of weeks on, Groves sat down in his Isleworth apartment and analysed the fight, round by round. When the ninth began, his earlier bolshiness made way for a pensive silence.
“The only time I ever felt a shot was in the ninth, a bit before the stoppage,” he said. “That was the right hand that skimmed me behind the ear. I felt it and went in to tie him up. But it’s not as if I’m clambering or staggering about. You watch me in the Kenny Anderson fight and I’m f**king drowning compared to this.
“When there’s a stoppage, there’s usually desperation. But if you look at who is showing desperation, it’s Froch, not me. Even as the stoppage comes, he is punching out of desperation, not control or dominance. He is a desperate man. He knows this is his one and only chance to make something happen. And Howard Foster was equally desperate to stop the fight.”
With the fight over, the crowd complained and Groves, almost cradled by the referee, fought to wriggle his way out.
“Look at the face on that security guard,” said Groves, pointing at a man whose face resembled that of a child watching his sibling get the blame for something he didn’t do. “He’s at all the Matchroom shows. He probably works on all of the Froch shows. He might even be a Froch fan. But he knows. He’s not stupid.”
Following the initial commotion, Groves petitioned to the IBF for a rematch, and the rematch, set for the following May, wound up at Wembley Stadium, sold somewhere in the region of 80,000 tickets and secured Groves and Froch for life. It also ended conclusively, with Groves knocked out by a Froch right hand in round eight.
Howard Foster, meanwhile, the referee partly responsible for a great British boxing rivalry, remains one of the country’s best and more reliable officials. He’s also no longer a hot topic, much to his delight.
For as long as he’s licensed by the British Boxing Board of Control, this will always be the case. “The Board’s policy is that active officials should not talk to the media,” I’m informed by Robert Smith, the Board secretary, when exploring the possibility.
The protection makes sense. It prevents officials becoming the centre of attention and, better still, prevents them saying something they shouldn’t. But, equally, trusting the actions of grown adults responsible for the wellbeing of boxers in a prizefight becomes difficult when these same adults seemingly can’t be trusted to formulate an explanation for their actions.
We’re not talking immediately after the fact, either. That, an emotional response, would be reckless. It would benefit nobody. But surely a considered statement, written or otherwise, would go some way to pacifying the feeling that officials are not only protected but somehow hidden away in a witness protection programme, free from culpability. Moreover, to accept human error, which is supposedly all a bad decision ever is, doesn’t there need to at least be some understanding of the human being responsible for the error?
“No, I think the Board have it right,” says retired referee Mickey Vann, now able to speak. “They have to clean up the backlash. They’re the frontline. If anything goes wrong in boxing, you get on to the Board.
“After a fight, you’re like a fighter. You’re full of yourself, full of emotion, your adrenaline is flowing, and you might say something you regret. Also, you get so many referees who want to be bigger than the sport and they might say something to get headlines.”
For American officials, the rules differ slightly. When I first interviewed Kenny Bayless in September 2015, for instance, he was days away from refereeing a fight between Floyd Mayweather and Andre Berto and was therefore unable to discuss that particular subject. He was, however, happy to talk about everything else, including the one mistake he believes he has made.
“I’m just as human as anyone and I’ve done it,” he said. “The biggest blunder I’ve made was when Manny Pacquiao was fighting Shane Mosley and I was a bit out of position and got a little complacent and ruled a Pacquiao knockdown when it was more of a push. I didn’t get a good view and it was a mistake. I felt it necessary to apologise to Pacquiao afterwards, so I did. It happens.”
Richard Steele, perhaps second only to Mills Lane in the pantheon of iconic referees, has never had a problem speaking to the media. But he too sees the pitfalls.
“A referee can really hurt himself by speaking to the media too fast,” he says. “They should take some time to think about what happened and then address it.
“He has the whole world listening to him and he might not be telling the truth. He could be damn wrong. In those instances, it’s better if the referee doesn’t speak to the public.”
Some 25 years have passed since Vann, also a judge, joined Switzerland’s Franz Marti and Texan Jack Woodruff ringside at the Alamodome in Texas and controversially scored the WBC welterweight title fight between Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez a draw.
“I must have been comfortable with it because that’s how I scored it,” says Vann, asked if the fight felt like a draw at the time. “If I wasn’t comfortable with the result, I shouldn’t have been scoring it. Or I should have scored it differently.”
It’s then you wonder, having watched the fight and scored it comfortably in favour of Whitaker (116-112), whether being among 59,000 in San Antonio’s Alomodome, described as ‘Chavez Country’ by commentator Steve Albert, played any part in Vann’s verdict.
“None of that influenced my scoring,” he says. “You don’t even hear the crowd when you’re ringside. All you hear at the end of the round are the TV commentators saying what a great round that was for so and so. You think, what the f**k are they on about?”
The biggest bone of contention concerned Vann’s actions following round six, a round Whitaker appeared to win but a round in which he debilitated Chavez with low blows.
“Boxing News slaughtered me, but they were wrong,” he says. “Whitaker hit Chavez in the balls and then banged another one in.
“Joe Cortez, who was never the best ref, didn’t ask me to take a point off. But I was a former fighter and if I was hit in the balls twice it would have taken me a minute or so to recover. So there’s no way I could give that fighter, Whitaker, the round. Instead, I was the only judge who gave it to Chavez.
“Now, the last round was Chavez’s best and everybody said he won it. I gave it to Chavez, Marti gave it to Chavez, but Woodruff gave it to Whitaker. Nobody said owt about that.
“In the end, Marti had it a draw, I had the same score, and Woodruff had it 115-113 to Whitaker. But if he hadn’t given that final round to Whitaker, what would you have had? You’d have had a draw. Yet I got f**king crucified for it.”
Vann survived the backlash and was refereeing a world heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno just three weeks later.
“I never watched it (the fight) back,” he admits. “There was that much furore about it. I had to go in front of the senate committee and endure everything they could throw at me.
“I also had a skip business at the time and the geezer writing for the Washington Post called me a f**king ‘refuse collector’. He called me a dustbin man. They wanted to undermine me.
“I then went to Vegas after the Lewis and Bruno fight and in the hotel they had the magazine for what was on that week. In the magazine it said ‘…also staying at The Mirage this week is The Infamous Mickey Vann.’ It was so over the top.”
Robin Reid was able to relate to ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker the night he ventured to Nuremberg, Germany and seemingly outboxed IBF and WBA world super-middleweight champion Sven Ottke in December 2003. Judging the fight was Franz Marti, one of the men responsible for Whitaker drawing with Chavez, yet it was the scandalous performance of referee Roger Tilleman that left the biggest impression.
“That Ottke fight was a blatant robbery,” says Reid. “The guy had never refereed a world title fight before and was clearly way out of his depth. I was basically getting points taken off for punching my opponent.”
In addition to warnings for head-butts and holding, none of which made sense, Reid appeared to score a knockdown in round six that wasn’t counted and was constantly reprimanded for using the inside of his glove following the connection of a clean and correct shot.
“The referee was a master at ruining the flow of the fight and guiding Ottke to the finish line,” says Reid. “Every time I got near and threw a punch, I’d hear ‘stop!’ and we’d have a little pause. Despite that, even when I watch it now I struggle to give Ottke three rounds out of the 12.”
By round five, Reid was perfectly content. “What do you reckon, Brian?” he asked his coach, Brian Hughes, in the corner.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing, son,” replied Hughes. “This is going great.”
Easier than expected, it was only when Reid’s manager, Jess Harding, emerged at ringside that the magnitude of the task truly hit home.
“Rob, you’re being ripped off,” said Harding. “You’re four rounds behind. You’re going to have to knock him out.”
“At that point you just see my face drop as the reality dawns on me,” remembers Reid. “That’s the last thing you want to hear, especially when you’ve just been patting yourselves on the back for a game plan that seemed to be working. Now it was like an emotional roller-coaster. Do you stick with something we believed was working or try something different?”
Reid did a bit of both, yet still suffered the indignity of discovering two of the judges had scored the fight 115-113 and Marti had posted a 117-112 card.
“When they were reading the scores,” he says, “I remember thinking, wow, I’ve absolutely p***ed it. I didn’t think I’d get it this wide in Germany. Maybe this place isn’t as bad as they make out.
“Then all you heard was ‘And still…’ Ottke looked at me, with his bruised eyes and swollen cheekbones, and kind of shrugged as if to say, sorry, welcome to Germany.”
Tilleman died in 2012. He never had to explain his bizarre performance that night. Reid, though, has his own take on why Ottke appeared to have been so protected and why the result of the fight seemed decided before a punch was even thrown.
“Ottke made an absolute fortune in Germany,” he says. “I didn’t realise just how popular he was. He was everywhere: on posters, billboards, even on their version of This Morning.
“Germany wasn’t producing a lot of world champions at the time, but Ottke had a world title and they weren’t about to give it up. This is my theory, not fact. If he’s getting a million euros per defence, a percentage of that goes to the IBF or WBA as a sanctioning fee. So you can either have him as your champion or you can have Robin Reid, a guy who can only make 70-grand fighting Joe Calzaghe. I know who I’d want. Maybe that’s just my way of getting my head around what happened.”
As paydays dried up and his career petered out, Reid needed an explanation. He deserved that at least.
“That win was my ticket to the Calzaghe rematch,” he says. “If I had the IBF and WBA titles, there was no way he could avoid me anymore. Now I would have something to bring to the table; now I would be in a stronger position than he was. Also, the rematch would have been even bigger because it would have been a unification fight.
“That’s what devastated me more than the defeat. That rematch was all I ever wanted.”
Richard Steele’s moment of controversy arrived in March 1990 when he watched Meldrick Taylor accumulate rounds, as well as brain damage, in a WBC and IBF super-lightweight title fight against Julio Cesar Chavez.
“I made the right call at the right time,” says Steele, who stopped the fight when Taylor, upright but unsteady following a 12th round knockdown, was unable to answer his questions with two seconds left on the clock. “I only wish I could have made the call earlier to save the young man. Because of that fight, he was never the same again.
“This kid was a great fighter and a gold medallist at the (1984) Olympics. Not only was he winning the fight, I thought he had a chance to finish it.
“But Meldrick was winning rounds as if it was an amateur fight – on points – and Chavez was the one doing bodily harm. He was breaking bones. Meldrick swallowed four pints of blood. Man, that is something. All the bones were shattered in his right eye. He took a beating.
“When he got hit by that right hand, it was over. He didn’t know where he was. He couldn’t answer me.”
Plenty accused Steele of robbing victory from Taylor. He was too trigger-happy, they claimed, and should have taken into account the fight’s proximity to the finish line when halting the man in front. Yet Steele, 28 years later, feels his decision has been vindicated.
“At first, I was sick of it,” he admits. “But I had the privilege of getting some medical reports which explained why he couldn’t answer me. Not only was his body dehydrated, his brain was dehydrated. He had no liquids in his body or in his skull. That’s why he couldn’t answer me.
“After I got that information, I was very proud of what I did. Wherever I go, people ask me about that fight. But now they understand I did the right thing. It took the world a long time to realise I did the right thing.”
Howard Foster can’t talk because he’s not allowed to talk. Roger Tilleman can’t talk because he passed away. Meldrick Taylor, meanwhile, can’t talk because the damage he suffered in his fight with Julio Cesar Chavez left him unable to do so.
Thankfully, Mickey Vann does enough talking for the lot of them.
“I never, ever made a mistake. That’s me telling you,” he says. “But, of course, I did make mistakes. I’d just never admit them. Because that, to me, is a weakness. Never, ever admit you’ve made a mistake.”