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Mangled ankles, broken legs, exploding boats and 1,000 fights: The completely true story of referee Lee Cook

Lee Cook
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In own words Lee Cook describes a career packed with incident

I’VE essentially had two careers as a referee and have been privileged to have accomplished what I have considering the rocky road I’ve travelled. After 10 years developing my refereeing career, I was forced to retire in 2006 when a childhood accident caught up with me. It was devastating. We all have dreams and ambitions but sometimes they don’t turn out how we had planned. We all have our setbacks, but it’s how we overcome them that defines us.

Let me take you back to 1966. At the age of seven, I was lying in a road after being hit by a van and was left with a mangled right leg and ankle. For two months I was frightened and alone in hospital, a little boy terrified he would lose his right leg.

Following numerous operations, the ankle eventually healed, and my childhood ambition of being involved in professional sport remained.

Accidents were a feature of my childhood. As an 11-year-old I was about to step on to a cabin cruiser on the River Thames. Next thing I know the whole thing blows up in front of me. A few steps nearer and that would have been the end of this story! After breaking my leg playing football at 14, two years later I crashed a motor bike, resulting in my chin hanging off and the gaping injury requiring 20 stitches.

For most of my childhood I only remember unhappiness and pain as my dad seemed to delight in beating the crap out of my mother and me. Perhaps it was the numerous occasions of having to defend myself that led to my interest in boxing. As a result of the regular fatherly attacks I developed a great deal of anger. I needed a way of releasing this aggression so took it upon myself to go to Titchfield Amateur Boxing Club, which I believe still exists today.

I enjoyed the discipline and regime of training and was desperate to have my first fight. Something I’ll never forget was the encouragement and praise I received from one of the trainers there. He gave me a sense of worth and really built me up. I am one of many troubled kids whom boxing has helped along their journey through life. Boxing has many detractors, but I dread to think where I would have been without it.

Unfortunately, it was here that I found out what many people joke are the best qualifications for refereeing – I was short sighted! After three failed attempts at the eye test, any dreams I had of becoming a fighter were gone. Around this time, my mother finally summoned the courage to leave my dad. She was in my flat and my dad was threatening to come through the window to get her. I said he would have to come through me first. SMASH! Glass everywhere. My nerves were running amok. As it turned out, I had called his bluff and I pinned him down. It felt like Buster Douglas defeating Mike Tyson.

I kept my interest in boxing and had started to go to some big shows such as the Michael Watson-Nigel Benn fight in May 1989. The referee that night was John Coyle. I never thought seven years later I would be working with him.

Unfortunately, further trauma was on the cards for me and it was late at night when the police called on November 13, 1989. My brother had been found, dead at 21. The memory is still permanently etched in my mind 30 years later. I was the first to see him lying in the mortuary still looking so alive. A young guy full of life suddenly taken and you can only ask yourself why.

At the time, it was total devastation, but became a catalyst to change my life. A few weeks later I applied to the British Boxing Board of Control to become a referee. Five years passed before I finally received an interview to start my journey as a referee.

Following scoring tests, I completed my first contest as a triallist referee on September 26, 1996 at Walsall Town Hall. I was working with John Coyle and Terry O’Connor that night. My next show was at the Drill Hall, Lincoln in October 1996 working with Paul Thomas. On this show I refereed future champions Jason Booth, Esham Pickering and also Dave Coldwell, now a top trainer.

Lee Cook

After only four fights I was given my ‘B’ licence in January 1997. One of the features of my first career was that there were not many shows. I waited five months for a show once and as a new referee, being out of the ring for so long was a real disadvantage.

My first show as a ‘B’ referee was refereeing Clinton Woods, who went on to become IBF light-heavyweight champion. Later on, I twice refereed Carl Froch who one or two of you may have heard of. The most extraordinary fight was David Walker-Spencer Fearon which was 2003 Fight of the Year and deservedly so. I also refereed Herbie Hide, Darren Barker and Nicky Cook, all world champions.

In late 2006, after an eventful 10 years and officiating in 370 contests, the clock finally caught up with my ankle injury. I took the decision to get expert medical advice to resolve the pain and two operations followed. I figured I would be back refereeing after about six months, but who would have thought it would take nearly eight years.

I stayed involved with the sport and was invited to be a Midlands Area Council member and was their representative on the referees committee for a couple of years.

After seeing numerous specialist consultants over many years to resolve my ankle problem I had a nerve test in September 2014. After this, it suddenly started to improve. During my time out I blew up to 16 stone, I lost my dear mum, but I was determined to get back to refereeing.

The unexpected recovery to my ankle made the prospect of being in the ring once again a reality. I applied and received support from the Board and Southern Area Council and was given a ‘B’ licence to resume my career. My first show back was at the Camden Centre, London in April 2015 and five fights for me. The show went well with no reaction from my ankle and I felt fit as a fiddle.

To finally get back felt great. All the years of hospital visits, tests, investigations and physical suffering were behind me at last.

There were a number of differences to the rules which I had to adapt to. Now there was a no foul rule which I had to learn and understand how to correctly interpret and fighters could no longer be saved by the bell. There were also definite guidelines for scoring a contest, particularly knockdowns and 10-8 rounds, which had changed since I was out of the ring.

Apart from the rules I noticed a distinct contrast in the amount of shows. In my earlier career, if I had two shows a month, I was busy. This time there were many more shows and also the number of contests per show had increased. Previously I averaged two fights per show. On my return it was five fights in a night. Big shows used to be seven fights – now I have been on shows with more than 20 contests.

This was a marked change and one which gave me the opportunity to gain a great deal of experience in a short space of time. One decision I made was to be available to do as many shows as possible, as I wanted to make up for lost time.

A few months later in July 2015, I was upgraded to ‘A’ class and I was back at the level I was when I had to retire.

Another change I had noticed was mobile phones everywhere. Everyone seemed to be filming and the proliferation of social media was striking. In my first career there was not a great deal of filming unless you were on a TV show. Now almost every fight is on You Tube and you have to be mindful that every look, word, or action can be captured and shared in an instant.

The Southern and Western Areas had been combined which made this geographical area vast. I have travelled to shows from Norwich to Plymouth and pretty much live out of my car most weekends.

The number of female boxers is now significantly more than during my first career. It is a regular part of boxing now to see women fighting and the standard is improving all the time.

In my previous career there were not many opportunities to judge other than being outside the ring to score for trialist referees. It was rare for ‘A’ Referees to judge any other contests.

Upon my return I made a conscious decision to take every chance to judge that was available. The number one change for me was to be able to judge title fights. Due to the introduction of three trialist referees in my area I was able to score 88 fights and 33 other title fights. I’ve done 121 in four and a half years compared to just 14 contests in 10 years before.

John Coyle always used to say the referee always sees more than anyone and that is spot on. It takes many years to skilfully handle fighters and there is no substitute for experience. Richie Davies said “refereeing is an art”. You have to learn your craft, and serve your apprenticeship, which in this country, is the most arduous in the world. Even then you don’t always get it right.

In the four years and 10 months I have been back I have officiated in 807 contests which is double the number I did in the first 10 years of my career. Since my return I have officiated in more contests than any other referee in the country.

It’s been a long and convoluted road for me to finally reach 1,000 fights as a referee, but it’s been all the more rewarding for me as it came almost 30 years to the day that my brother died and also in the year when I turned 60 and married a wonderful woman, Michele. The end of a brilliant year for me.

I would encourage anyone to not let setbacks or a troubled background hold you back – it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, but what you’ve got inside.

I’m still standing, after all.

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