“BROWN envelopes? Don’t make me laugh!” exclaims Ian John-Lewis, and then he does laugh at what he sees as an absurdity.
Rightly or wrongly, boxing is seen as a corrupt sport, with a business end staffed by gangsters, frauds, dastardly promoters and officials on the take. And one official who’s had to face such allegations more than once is John-Lewis, a vastly experienced referee and judge who’s made a number of high-profile controversial calls on both sides of the ropes.
Most recent, and most controversial of all, was his scorecard in last February’s world super-welterweight title fight between Josh Taylor and Jack Catterall. Taylor’s arm was raised after a bout in which seemingly the only people who thought he’d won were two of the judges – one of which was John-Lewis.
Such was the stink kicked up by this result that he never again worked for the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBofC). First, he was demoted from Star Class to A-Class, meaning he would no longer be allowed to officiate major title fights. Then, having been offered no further work since Taylor-Catterall, John-Lewis handed in his licence in September.
Some fans might say this was overdue. The 60-year-old from Strood in Kent had made a reputation for himself as someone who had “got it wrong” a few too many times. Those of a less diplomatic nature have questioned his integrity, and never more so than after Taylor-Catterall.
John-Lewis’s response to those who’d call him crooked?
He adds, sarcastically: “I wish I was being passed brown envelopes. People think referees get paid a fortune. I just think ’you wankers’. I’ve come back some nights, after being away for two days, sat down and counted my money and I’ve come home with less than a hundred and fifty quid.
“And I’ve stayed in some right shit-holes. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been put up in some very nice places, but for some I’ve had to take my own food, make sure I’ve got some chocolate in my bag and a spare blanket in the car.
“The worst was in Hartlepool one winter. It was a right dive. It had no central heating and the window wouldn’t close. It was absolutely freezing. I had to sleep in my coat.
“When I was made a Star referee, I thought that’s it, I’ll quit my job and travel the world. But nah… There’s not one official who makes a living from it. That’s what most people don’t understand. It’s no more than a paid hobby. You have to do it because you love boxing.”
What John-Lewis does make a living from is the full-time job he’s held since 1996. He’s a detention officer for Kent Police. “When you’re booked in, I take your prints, photo and DNA if needed,” he explains, “then I put you in your cell and look after you until your interview.
“It’s a horrible, difficult job, because obviously nobody who’s there wants to be there. But sometimes they recognise me. ‘Are you that referee? Fucking hell, what are you doing here?’ I tell them I’ve got a mortgage to pay! When they recognise me, they’re cool. I’m a cool guy, and also a tough guy if need be.”
The latter self-description is fair, because John-Lewis was once a boxer himself, something that evidently remains a source of pride. He is most animated when recalling his fighting days, re-enacting the moves and punches that formed the key moments, by which point I’d already unintentionally ingratiated myself with him by bringing up his boxing career before he’d mentioned it.
“You know your stuff,” he says. “A lot of these young reporters don’t even know I boxed. They’re surprised when I tell them.”
Some of the boxers he’s refereed were also unaware of this, but John-Lewis always makes sure to let them know. “I tell them in the dressing room when I give them their instructions. Then they respect me as an ex-fighter.”
That respect has occasionally been lost, though. A recurring theme in his refereeing career has been of seemingly stopping fights prematurely, triggering some animated protests from the boxers he’s “saved”. But John-Lewis says he understands, as an ex-fighter, that such reactions are often face-saving measures.
“When I got stopped against Trevor Smith [l rsf 8 in 1989], even after I got up for the fourth time I said to the ref ‘I’m all right!’, but I knew I wasn’t,” he says.
“Sometimes the fight gets beaten out of us, but we’ve all got bravado. You sometimes see [as a referee] the fighter wants you to stop it, but they can’t say so, so they kick off [when you do stop it] and then later they thank you. Then you know you’ve done a good job.”
But while even the harshest of critics will concede the difficult balancing act referees face in making split-second decisions, there’s no sympathy when a judge gets it “wrong”. They do, after all, have the best seats in the house, and the luxury of watching a fight without any distractions.
When debate follows a decision, there is always talk about the subjectivity of scoring boxing, that it comes down to “what you like”. For John-Lewis, what he likes is a boxer who “makes the fight” – and perhaps one who reminds him of his old fighting self.
“I was a pressure fighter, I was on you from the first bell,” he says. “That’s what you should be doing. You do get some lovely counter-punchers – if you make them miss, that’s great, but you have to counter as well.
“If you hold, that’s my pet hate. Okay, if you get hit with a good shot and need to get your bearings, that’s fair, but holding for the sake of it, that’s a foul. It ruins it for the spectator and the opponent. The referee should be on top of that, but if he isn’t, we [judges] pick up on it.”
And apart from “what you like”, John-Lewis also argues there is a human tendency to reward what’s fresher in the memory: “Crafty pros have that clock in their head and after two minutes will up their game, and some judges will think that was a good round. But if the other guy won the first two minutes, I’ll give him the round.”
Ultimately it was his judging rather than refereeing that got John-Lewis in trouble with the Board, the Taylor-Catterall verdict being the “final straw”. But he believes it was not so much the accumulation of his own controversies that led to his demotion, but rather that the wider Board itself was under pressure after a series of uproarious calls by a variety of officials, and had to be seen to do something.
While John-Lewis doesn’t wish to criticise his peers or discuss their decisions, what he’s likely referring to is a run from October 2020 to that fateful night in Glasgow last year, which began with Lewis Ritson’s highly debatable split decision over Miguel Vazquez, continued with Hamzah Sheeraz evading a disqualification despite hitting a downed Bradley Skeete three times, and reached a denouement with Taylor-Catterall.
All three were televised by major broadcasters and, accordingly, triggered an outpouring of outrage online. Of course, controversial decisions have been rendered for as long as the sport has existed, but social media has increased fan engagement and intensified the demand for accountability.
“I was scapegoated, no doubt about that,” John-Lewis says. “I can’t believe the Board bowed under social media pressure. But they’ve picked on the wrong guy.”
This is referring to how he is fighting back, legally, by lodging a discrimination case against the BBBofC with an employment tribunal. While John-Lewis cannot discuss the specifics of ongoing legal action, he is claiming victimisation, defamation and loss of earnings.
“I’m not worried, because the truth will come out,” he says. “I’m looking forward to the hearing – not to slag people off, but to get the facts across and have people think of things a bit differently.”
The spectre of corruption has never been helped, it has to be said, by how Board reacts to controversy. A meeting will be held, the official will explain their rationale, this will almost invariably (with John-Lewis being a vanishingly rare exception) be accepted, and that same official will be back on the beat soon after. It is all conducted behind closed doors and the Board bars referees and judges from discussing their work with fans or journalists.
But now, freed from the BBBofC yoke, John-Lewis is glad to offer insight into his methods. Taylor-Catterall is off-limits for legal reasons, but there’s nothing stopping him from talking about some other notorious nights (see sidebar).
“I appreciate being able to talk about these fights,” he says. “You might not agree with me, but the way I’ve explained it, it’s at least given you something to think about, hasn’t it?
“A lot of officials do feel aggrieved when they can’t explain a decision. We do all moan about that. We can understand where they [the Board] are coming from – they don’t want us to dig a bigger hole for ourselves, or let reporters put words in our mouths – but we’re not stupid, and we know it looks bad, that not talking to the press looks like there’s something to hide.”
John-Lewis promises the upcoming tribunal (no dates are yet set) will lay everything bare. But even if he wins, he doesn’t want his old job back, as he’s now picking up work as a free agent, and was back on TV on March 4 handling bouts on a Misfits promotion, that divisive outfit leading the “crossover boxing” charge.
“It’s a different sort of boxing, and the purists hate it, but the punches are real,” he says of the genre which puts novices in the ring because of their social media presence rather than their skill. “They train hard and they fight to the best of their ability, but they’re beginners so they don’t know better than to punch lumps out of each other. You need an official with good experience to look after them.”
That Misfits show (in)famously featured the first ever tag team boxing match, which John-Lewis judged.
“I did a double-take… tag team? Like the wrestling? Shut up, no!” he says. “I was very dubious. But you know what? It actually bloody worked! I was mesmerised.”
And how on earth do you score tag team boxing? “It’s just the red and the blue corner, exactly the same. You score the team as one; same criteria.”
John-Lewis has actually been back in the ring since December, having first been licensed by the British and Irish Boxing Authority (BIBA), and then by the Professional Boxing Association, which sanctions Misfits and other events. He’s also picked up work on semi-pro, white collar and charity shows.
“Before, if you left the Board, there was nothing,” he says. “It’s a completely different world now; there’s all sorts of boxing everywhere. I still love boxing and I still want to be involved, regardless of what it is.”
While the aforementioned organisations are all perfectly legal, none are recognised by the BBBofC, BoxRec or Boxing News and, with the exception of the Misfits shows, are all on a much smaller scale than what John-Lewis had been accustomed to, having officiated some of the biggest names in some of the grandest venues.
“It’s grassroots boxing, but they are tomorrow’s champions. You need that; it’s good to get back to that,” he says.
“Once they heard I’d left the Board, these people started contacting me. At the veteran stage of my career, it’s nice to be involved in the next generation, it’s nice to be wanted. It’s all really positive; I’m really happy.”
It’s often said that money can’t buy happiness, and John-Lewis is proof of that, as he sits, contentedly, in the cosy living room of a modest cottage, with Julie, his wife of 28 years, and their seven dogs.
Money also can’t buy you love, because it’s not for thick brown envelopes that he is drawn to boxing, but for the love of the sport.
And what money most certainly cannot buy, John-Lewis assures us, is him.