If you have Showtime, or are creative with Internet streams, you most likely saw Golden Boy Promotion’s card from Carson, Calif. last Saturday night. It was supposed to be another showcase for two of the company’s up and coming stars: junior featherweight Leo Santa Cruz and featherweight Abner Mares.
Mares was in tough against veteran Jhonny Gonzalez. With 40 seconds left in round 1, Mares got clipped with a perfect left hook and dropped flat on his back. He rose on shaky legs, but after giving him a count, checking his eyes, and having him walk forward, referee Jack Reiss let the bout continue. Gonzalez jumped all over his dazed opponent and put Mares down hard again just seconds later. This time, however, Reiss waved off the fight after counting to three, as Mares was attempting to rise no less, deciding that Mares was done.
According to my DVR, 10 seconds remained in the first round when Reiss waived it off. Had he performed his count and tests in the exact same manner as the first knockdown, the bell would have sounded as Mares was walking toward him. Abner Mares was 10 seconds away from getting a one-minute break. Ten seconds away from possibly regaining his equilibrium and attempting to get back into the fight. He was denied that opportunity. The timing seemed premature.
In life, timing is everything. It’s the reason you ask your girlfriend to marry you at the end of a perfect date after several years together, not while she’s praying to the porcelain god after too much tequila on your fifth date. It’s the reason you delay starting a family until you are financially stable and can afford one. It’s the reason you ask the boss for a raise after securing a new account, not when you’ve just lost one. It’s why you buy low and sell high. You plan what you can, and when the right moment presents itself, you act.
It is the same in boxing, especially for a referee. In their case however, we are discussing when they decide to halt a fight. And their decision has more immediate consequences. Get it right, you save a fighter possible injury. Get it wrong, you’ve risked a brave young man’s health, or cheated him from the chance to get back into a fight. When is the right time? How does one decide? When the timing of a stoppage is in question, a legion of Armchair Angelo Dundees, Recliner Ray Arcels, Futon Eddie Futches, Couch-bound Cus D’Amatos, Message board Manny Stewards, and Twitter Teddy Atlases trot out the time honored cliché: “Better one punch too early than one punch too late.”
Who could argue against such perfect reasoning? Disagree and you are admitting that you actually want to see a fighter get hurt. And what kind of bloodthirsty asshole wants that? What kind of complete degenerate would dare to challenge this axiom?
Well, with your indulgence, I will be that bloodthirsty, degenerate asshole. Not because I actually am a bloodthirsty degenerate asshole (depends on who you ask), but because there is a third option in this equation that the straw man defenders do not allow for: stopping the fight at the right time. Giving a fighter every chance to work his way out of trouble and back into the fight. Letting his track record be a testament to his mettle, and not saving him before he actually needs to be saved.
Basically, option three is being Steve Smoger.
Yes. That Steve Smoger. The one who is either beloved or reviled. The one who lets fighters fight, doesn’t break clinches if they are still working, and only calls a halt when one fighter is clearly done. The one who has apparently not updated his wardrobe since he was two to three weight classes lighter. Do a quick search and you’ll find that he’s the same man that has been a professional referee since 1983. The same man who works cards up and down the East Coast, as well as in over a dozen countries. The man with the notoriously long leash.
To determine why he is such an outstanding/polarizing referee, allow me to walk you through some of his most high profile fights. Why high profile? It’s pretty simple: They are easier to get video of. However, if you look through his incredibly long resume on BoxRec.com and search for write-ups on the undercards he works, and you’ll find the work of a ref who consistently lets the fighters settle who wins and who loses.
For the sake of argument, I will present four different types of stoppages.
Let us proceed then, in reverse chronological order. Starting with Gennady Golovkin TKO7 Gabriel Rosado.
By the 7th round, a great many people wanted this fight to end, including Rosado’s corner. His trainer, Billy Briscoe, finally threw in the towel and ended the beating his man was taking. Rosado was an absolute mess, and his entire face was stained crimson. He hadn’t won a single round.
So, why didn’t Smoger step in and end the fight earlier? Better one punch too early than one punch too late, right? It’s pretty simple: The ringside physician had examined Rosado between rounds and said he was OK. Rosado was still moving, defending, and throwing punches back. In fact, at the moment Smoger steps in to pull Golovkin away, Rosado was punching. He was fighting. In this case, it was Rosado’s corner who was under obligation to save their man. Rosado protested the stoppage, albeit briefly.
Next, we step back in time just slightly less than one year ago, to September 8th, 2012. Andre Ward TKO10 Chad Dawson.
If you don’t like Dr. Dre and Eminem, probably best to watch this highlight video on mute.
This was a surprisingly easy, one-sided drubbing by Ward. Dawson was down in rounds 3, 4, and 10 and hurt several times throughout. Dawson was never in this fight. He landed 29 punches. TOTAL. As we say in the South, Dawson was carrying his ass in a sling by the end of that fight. Ward is known for being a clincher, mugger, butter, etc. His fights can be ugly, but this one wasn’t. One reason is that it was very one-sided. Another reason is that Smoger doesn’t break clinches quickly. He lets fighters work. A great many fighters have unfortunately fallen into the trap that all they need to do is clinch in close and wait for the ref to break them (See: Khan, Amir). At times, Dawson seemed to do just that.
So, what about the stoppage makes it Smogerific?
Watch what he does in the 10th when Dawson is dropped (again) and hurt (again). He administers a full count to Dawson, visibly assesses his state, and asks him if he can continue. When Dawson indicates that he’s had enough, Smoger asks him a second time, to confirm. Dawson says he wants no more, and the fight is waived off. As Hemingway said, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” Dawson was defeated, and his confidence was destroyed. He was given every opportunity to finish the fight, and that’s more than a great many fighters (including Chad Dawson himself in his next fight) can say.
So, does Smoger ever stop a fight with a guy on his feet?
Yeah. Turns out he does. Amir Khan TKO11 Paulie Malignaggi.
Feather-fisted Malignaggi went into this fight without his two normal advantages: speed and reach. Khan was taller, rangier, hit harder and was faster of hand and foot. Devoid of any measurable advantage (other than his sturdy chin), Malignaggi took a pasting for 11 rounds. Malignaggi had survived a knockdown and a broken jaw against Miguel Cotto, and been saved by his corner from taking more punishment against Ricky Hatton, but Buddy McGirt was not there to rescue him on this night. Instead, visibly hurt, caught against the ropes, totally out of the fight, and lacking the power to dent even Khan’s porcelain chin, Smoger stepped in to save Malignaggi from any more damage. Before he did though, he gave Malignaggi every opportunity to get back into the fight. Malignaggi complained after the Hatton stoppage that he was “better than being stopped.” No such bitches were issued after this fight.
In case you need another example of why giving a fighter a long leash is often the best course of action, I will provide one (I have to, it’s my article). What is the Smogeriest Smoger fight that I can think of:
Kelly Pavlik TKO7 Jermain Taylor.
Few give this fight the credit it is due. It was a great deal of fun while it lasted. Pavlik and Taylor came out throwing heat. Early in the 2nd round, the two were locked in a chippy clinch. Smoger called break, but they fought their way out instead, and Smoger did exactly as he should. He stayed the hell out of the way and let them fight (can anyone imagine Joe Cortez doing such a thing?).
With just less than two minutes remaining in that same round, Taylor caught Pavlik with a looping right hand just above the ear and knocked him squirrelly. Bravely, or foolishly depending on your perspective, Pavlik tried to show that he wasn’t hurt and absorbed several more hard shots before finally falling to his knees.
What happens next?: Smoger gives Pavlik a count, has him step forward and asks if he’s all right. He was. Pavlik spent the next minute of the round clumsily staggering around the ring taking hard shots as Taylor clumsily chased after, looking to end the show. There are several moments in that 2nd round when many refs would have stepped in and ended the fight, giving Taylor a TKO victory. Steve Smoger didn’t do that. He let them fight.
So, why didn’t Smoger step in and end the fight earlier? Better one punch too early than one punch too late, right? In this case, no. During the next four rounds, Pavlik worked his way back into the fight, finally exerting control in the 7th. With a minute left in the round, Pavlik stunned Taylor with a 1-2 driving him into the corner and unleashed a fusillade of chopping rights, left hooks and uppercuts. Smoger positions himself near the corner, and when Taylor’s hands dropped, he jumped in and waived the fight off.
Why does he stop this one and let others go? Again, it’s simple: Taylor was defenseless. At the moment Smoger jumped in, Taylor crumpled to the canvas in a heap. Done.
Now we have four fights that exemplify the refereeing style of Mr. Smoger. I am not suggesting that he is the best ref in the sport. Tony Weeks, Kenny Bayless, and a few others are certainly just as good. However, Steve Smoger is the most fan- and (more importantly) fighter-friendly ref currently getting big assignments. No matter what Joe Cortez and Arthur Mercante Jr think, no one watches boxing matches to see a ref.
Boxing is a dirty business. It always has been. Promoters, managers, state commissions and TV networks are all looking to do what is best for them, regardless of how it affects the fighters. The one place that fighters should be guaranteed a fair chance is between the ropes. Steve Smoger is the kind of ref that makes sure that they have that chance.
Vive Le Smoger.