By Ray Wheatley–World of Boxing
World championship referee Steve Smoger has been the third man in the ring on several ring classics including the Hopkins versus Trinidad, Mosley versus Forrest and Pavlik versus Taylor bouts. Steve talks to Fightnews and comments on the infamous “chair incident” the big fights he has worked and also his career as Municipal Court Judge in New Jersey and his career in the Air Force Reserves.
You were the referee when Bernard Hopkins clashed with Felix Trinidad in Madison Square Garden for the WBC, IBF, WBA middleweight title, 18 days after 9/11. Trinidad was a hot favorite to win but Hopkins upset the odds. Round ten was ring Magazines “Round of the Year”. Please give me your thoughts?
The pre-fight atmosphere was somber at first. This was the first major sporting event in the World after 9/11. As I entered the ring I noticed NYC Police and Fire Personnel that had participated in the 9/11 activity sitting near ringside. They were the guests of Don King. Madison Square Garden was packed, more than 22,000 attended. As the fighters entered the ring, the electricity and emotion was the most I’ve ever experienced. When the Irish NYPD Officer sang the National Anthem, chills and goosebumps!
The fight: the most technically dominated performance by one fighter over another fighter, that I ever refereed. Hopkins systematically broke Tito down. A lesser man would have fallen much earlier. Tito hit Bernard with a clean overhand right in round seven, Bernard took it with no reaction. I saw the look on Tito’s face, “My best shot and Bernard’s still there.” Tito absorbed tremendous punishment, but his will and great heart kept him going until the stoppage in round 12.
Future Hall-of-Famer Shane Mosley was dominated by the late, great Vernon Forrest in their first bout when you worked as the third man in the ring on January 26, 2002 in Madison Square Garden. I was fortunate to be ringside with leading Aussie boxing scribe Grantlee Kieza. It was Shane’s fourth defense of the welterweight crown. Please give me your thoughts?
In my opinion, Shane never fully recovered from the knockdowns. Shane was literally one punch away from being stopped. It was a tribute to his conditioning and stamina that he went the 12 round distance. He gave a good account, but was truly out of the fight after being down.
Kelly Pavlik stopped Jermain Taylor in seven rounds when you were referee in the best fight for 2007 on the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Taylor dropped Pavlik in round two but he came back amazingly to stop Taylor in a great win. Please give me your thoughts?
Everything in life is timing. I had the good fortune to referee Kelly Pavlik versus Edison Miranda in a WBC title eliminator on May 19, 2007, in Memphis, TN, four months before Kelly challenged Jermain for the middleweight title in Atlantic City, NJ.
In round four of Pavlik versus Miranda, Edison hit Kelly with two clean right hands, right on the chin. Kelly took the shots and continued to walk Edison down. Kelly dropped Edison hard in round six and stopped him in round seven.
Fast forward four months and I’m blessed to have been assigned to ref Taylor vs. Pavlik. In round two, Jermain dropped Kelly, Kelly was in serious trouble. I remember Kelly’s chin and stamina versus Miranda and say to myself, “Maybe this kid can weather this storm.” Kelly managed to hang in there for the final minute of round two and the rest, as they say, is boxing history. In my opinion, Kelly was at the height of his career when he KO’d Jermain in September, 2007.
Shane Mosley’s first world title bout was against Philip Holiday for the IBF 135 pound title. He captured the championship after 12 rounds. Did you think at that point that Mosley had a future great?
Shane entered his first world title bout with a record of 22-0, with 21 KOs. Quite frankly, based on the pre-fight hype and Shane’s record, I expected more from him. Holiday fought gamely and made it a close fight. I saw nothing in that fight that would indicate the great career that Shane continues to have.
Interesting side comment: that fight was televised on HBO. Before the fight I was speaking with Larry Merchant. He was very high on Shane and said that he (Merchant) would compare Shane to Sugar Ray Robinson at the same stages of their respective careers. I told Merchant clearly that nobody compares to Sugar Ray at any stage of their career! Merchant didn’t like my comment regarding his “expertise.”
You were involved in the infamous “chair incident” involving heavyweight contest between Oleg Mascaev vs. Hasim Rahman when a chair was thrown. Can you give details?
This fight took place in Atlantic City, NJ on November 6, 1999. I was the alternate referee and I was assigned to do “knockdown” time for the in-ring referee. In round eight, Oleg knocked Hasim through the ropes on to the NJ Commission table. A disgruntled Rahman fan (idiot) hurled a steel reinforced folding chair with a padded seat and back (heavy) toward the ring. It hit me on the top of my head. I truly thought that the Casino Ballroom roof fell in!
I was stunned, but I didn’t lose consciousness. The chair caused a deep cut in my scalp. The late Dr. Charles Wilson, an excellent ringside Physician, treated me at ringside. He said that if an object that heavy had hit me in a more sensitive cranial area (like my temple), it could have been very serious, even fatal. He told me to expect decreasing head and jaw pain for a few days and he was correct.
Just think, I’ve had the distinct pleasure to have been in with the best heavyweight fighters of our generation: Lewis, Tyson, Holyfield, T. Witherspoon, L. Holmes, A. Stewart, C.Williams, L. Whitaker, J. McCline, J. Ruiz, A. Golata, etc., and it takes a chair to almost KO me!
You are a Municipal Court Judge in Atlantic City. How many years have you worked on the bench? Have any high profile boxers been summoned to appear before you?
In 1978 Casino gaming came to Atlantic City, NJ. As a result, The City of Atlantic City elevated the entire Court System from part-time positions to full-time positions: judges, prosecutors, Ppublic defenders and all support staff. The Mayor and City Council appointed me as the first full-time City Prosecutor in the history of the city. I served in that position from 1980 until 1991. In 1991, the governing body appointed me to the Municipal Court of Atlantic County, NJ. I served in that position until 2005 when I became eligible for the “Early Retirement Program” of the State of New Jersey.
My dear friend, Mills Lane and I would say that he and I were in a very exclusive “Club of Two”. We were the only two people in the world who were both duly sworn jurists: Mills was the Superior Court of the state of Nevada and I the Municipal Court of the state of New Jersey and both of us professionally licensed boxing referees.
During my tenure as City Prosecutor and Municipal Court Judge, I had many persons involved in the fight game in one capacity or another come before me. Most notably, two former light heavyweight champions of the world: Mike Rossman and Matthew Saad Muhammed.
You are a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves. Please give details.
When I graduated from Law School, the USA was in the late stages of the Vietnam Conflict. Therefore, I was subject to a military obligation. As a brand new Attorney-at-Law, I was eligible to apply for a legal position with the US Air Force Reserve instead of being drafted into the US Army. After several interviews and physical training tests, I was the fortunate candidate to be selected. I received a Direct Commission to the rank of Captain and I was immediately assigned to the 177th Fighter Interceptor Wing at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. I was the Staff Judge Advocate (Chief Attorney) for the 177th Fighter Wing.
I served in various Command Legal positions throughout the USA and in the United Kingdom. The US Air Force Reserve afforded me the great opportunity to serve my wonderful country and travel extensively in the USA and the UK.
When did your involvement in boxing begin?
I began my officiating career in the sport of boxing as an amateur official with the United States of America/Amateur Boxing Federation (USA/ABF) in 1974. I received my Professional Referee License in 1982 from Commissioner Jersey Joe Walcott(former heavyweight champion of the world) of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. I have refereed 160 world title bouts in North America, Central America, South America, Europe and Asia. I’m still waiting for my first assignment to Australia!