Visit to Italy

May 25, 1986

I got the assignment to referee my first world title fight in Italy shortly after the bombing of Tripoli. The fight was between Reyes Cruz and Gary Hinton for Aaron Pryor’s abdicated International Boxing Federation title. Friends and others warned of the dangers of the trip. People will always tell you what you can’t do. They used to advise me of the ills of my profession when I was a young boxer. The plane carrying the officials left New York at 8:30 P. M. on a Wednesday bound for another place and another time.

The airport to Milan was scary. Shrouded in a morning mist it was virtually empty except for stern-faced soldiers with small machine guns and big dogs. The “we” consisted of judges Gene Grant, Frank Cairo, Phil Newman and Bob Lee, the I. F. B. president. Sleepily, I pictured German and Italian troops trekking the rugged countryside as the small bus followed a winding river. Four and a half hours later we arrived at our hotel in Lucca, Italy.

Thursday night was the first dinner feting the American officials at one of the city’s unpretentious (the only kind they have) four star restaurants. After a superb meal, we were given a walking tour of the city with some of the local dignitaries (we were considered foreign dignitaries). The streets we walked were built by the Romans and the cathedrals we gaped at were I00 years old.

In the middle of the city’s central square, one of our escorts is admonished, “In America you build something that lasts 40 years, then you build another. Over here we build things to last!” The nature of the trip and the feelings of the evening caused one member of our party to observe, “Being here it seems strange that a country with a 200 year history is talking about banning a sport that predates Lucca’s roadbuilders.”

At the Friday afternoon rules meeting, we had a discussion of the rules governing the bout with the opposing camps. It has always struck me as odd that fighters seldom attend these sessions. I guess it shouldn’t as they are rarely consulted by the associations and legislatures who rule their lives. These confabs can be quite lively as some seconds see them as an opportunity to practice pre-fight one upmanship. This one was calm until Marvin Gordon, Hinton’s trainer, stood up and, with a thundering voice, said to me: “I have been watching tapes of Cruz and he likes to come and grab the head after a flurry of punches. What are you going to do about that?” I responded: “I will enforce the rule against pulling down on an opponent’s head just as I will enforce all of the other rules we have discovered here today.”

Establishing control of a fight can begin long before the opening bell.

Gary Hinton, from Philadelphia, is a slick, stand-up boxer.

Reyes Cruz of the Dominican Republic is a strong walk-in southpaw and a pretty good puncher. What was this fight doing in Italy? That has to do with the business of boxing, which is spelled t-e-l-e-v-i-s-i-o-n. American promoter RusseI Peltz, had signed the fighters for purses of $30,000 and $20,000. Since you draw that kind of money with a live gate these days you must peddle your wares electronically. In America, the people at the tube are more interested in putting on a “name” than they are in putting on good fights. Since neither Hinton nor Cruz are yet household commodities, Peltz could not make a sale stateside so he called Italy. The Italians were only too glad to broadcast the fight.

The fighters marched to the ring through an army of pompom girls while the Public announce system reverberated the rafters with disco music. As the gloves were put on, the tension mounted. The crowd hankered for a real fight. The first round was a get acquainted session without much action. The fans responded with whistles and stamping of feet. The next 14 rounds were studies in just what a marvelous physical and mental chess game boxing could be. When two highly skilled, well conditioned fighters go at it hard (and get out of it themselves), the referee has the best seat in the house. His main function is to stay out of the way.

That’s how it was through the middle rounds. The punching was crisp, the movement fluid, and the pace torrid. The fans went crazy, as they had not before seen this caliber of fight in their Palazzetto Dello Sport. As I flew around the ring (fighters who weigh 140 pounds move quickly) I was glad a referee no longer scored fights. I was concerned with the well being of the fighters and enforcing the rules rather than worrying about who was ahead.

In the middle rounds, I had to become more involved. When fighters tire they clinch to rest. A referee must move and motivate them to either punch while inside or get out. Also, as Hinton’s trainer observed at the rules meeting, Cruz began grabbing his opponent’s head after a flurry of punches. When I was a fighter, I prayed for opponents to grab my head. It left one less hand for punching and some wonderfully exposed ribs. I gave Cruz a few warnings, but I believe Hinton’s hard shots to the ribs had more to do with Cruz abandoning that tactic.

After the 10th round, fatigue took its effect. Both fighters laid in the clinches a little longer and looked for “hidden’ opportunities, like wrestling for position in a clinch, hitting at the break or hitting after the bell. In order to maintain control you must be proactive not reactive. You must he aware of something. like a late punch, before it happens. With a little direction from the referee, the fight was completed without mishap. At the end of a very close, truly outstanding fight, I had the pleasure of raising the hand of the champion, Gary Hinton.

The day after the fight was wind down time, spent shopping, sight-seeing and discussing the fight. I didn’t feel the excitement of victory or the frustration and deep disappointment of defeat that I felt as a boxer in a big fight, but I did feel a real sense of accomplished having been the third man. A great fight is like great drama. Powerful forces are pitted against each other, but in boxing there’s no script. Not knowing the outcome adds excitement. After the fight, knowing the outcome adds relief. That’s why fighters eagerly embrace after a fight.

The bus ride back to the airport was a lot better than the ride from It. The bus was big, not small. We were well rested, not exhausted. And we had lots of company-the fighters’ camp replete with trainers, managers, wives and sparring partners. The officials were last to board and sat up front. The Hinton faction was in the middle and the Cruz group in the rear. There was little chatter during the first hour as it was very early and everybody was still half asleep. But as the sun rose and the bus rolled along the winding road, things loosened up.

By the halfway mark, both camps were freely mingling. To a non-boxing person it might appear odd that two groups of people who had faced each other in a heated battle 30 hours before were now acting like old friends. To a boxing person, it’s not odd. The thinking is something like: “We were at the top of our game before the fight. We shared something special during the fight. We made a few bucks. We’re still at the top. Life is good.”