Jack Reiss is one of the sport’s most respected modern referees, known for allowing the fighters to work (particularly on the inside), which is perhaps more rare than it should be, and generally displaying impressive efficiency and competence under pressure. He’s also a professional boxing judge, providing unique perspectives from him on the sport from both official points-of-view.
Part 1 focuses on his work as a referee. Part 2, soon to come, focuses on his perspective as a judge.
Caryn A. Tate: So let’s start at the beginning. What made you want to become a referee?
Jack Reiss: As a kid growing up, I did a little bit of boxing, and kickboxing, and martial arts. Not a little bit, I did quite a bit, actually. And I always loved the sport and I wanted to stay involved. When you get old enough and you’re not gonna make it, you gotta earn a living, so I did–I went out and became a fireman in Los Angeles. And I used to go to all the fights at this country club, and I’d go to the Forum, and I loved it, and I wanted to be involved on a professional level somehow. And I was fortunate enough to work hard and get it.
CAT: And what kind of training did you have to complete to become a referee?
JR: My timing was perfect. I came at a really special time with the California Athletic Commission. Some of the referees that were reffing at that time were getting old. And the athletic commission reached out to those referees and said, ‘Look, we’re gonna need to start training people to replace you over the next bunch of years—we want you to train a class of people.’ I found it out on my own, but I just happened to start trying at this time when they were doing it. And I got into this school, and it was a 3-year program. The first year was classroom seminars once every three weeks or so, and then after the classrooms and the quizzes and the testing, we got to get in the ring while some of the professionals were sparring. And we had people who mentored us, some of the older officials. And then you had to take a big test and if you passed, in the second year, you got to referee and judge one fight a month—and the other officials donated 25 bucks apiece or whatever, so you got 50 bucks for the night, and you did one fight a month of refereeing and judging. And then in the third year, you were on probation, you signed a guarantee, and if you did anything wrong, no questions asked, you couldn’t say or do anything, couldn’t sue, you would be terminated, and you had no recourse. Thank God I passed it. 92 people started and I believe 8 passed—8 made it through. This was in 1998. Me, Max DeLuca, Tony Crebs, Ray Corona, we’re some of the products that are left from that era.
CAT: And is that something they still do? That 3-year kind of a program?
JR: Nah, they just don’t do it that way anymore. Now we’ve—myself and some other guys—have taken an interest in some amateurs that wanted to become professionals, and we’ve given our time—no money, no nothing—to help them progress. We’ve taken them to gyms, we’ve spent hours on the phone with them, we take them to amateur fights and watch them there, we let them referee the Police and Fire Olympics so we can give them bunches of rounds and critique them and help them out.
CAT: And—as far as just general refereeing, in your opinion, what does it take to be a good referee?
JR: I don’t want to give you a long-winded answer, but it takes a lot. It takes an absolute dedication, a passion for the craft of refereeing. It’s a craft, it’s an art—it’s like a martial art. You know, it looks easy—and the best people make it look easy. But there’s rules, and there’s mechanics, and then there’s an understanding of boxing. You’ve gotta understand what’s going on and what these guys are doing. You’ve gotta understand body language, difference between symptoms and signs in a fighter when he’s distressed. And you have to stop the fight, not too soon and obviously not too late. ‘Cause you don’t want to ruin the fan experience, but you also don’t want to let a guy get hurt. So there’s a lot that goes into it that can’t be learned from a book. And the other thing it takes is compassion. You’ve gotta understand you’ve got two guys’ lives in your hands, you’ve got their careers in your hands. And you’ve gotta really separate yourself from the fighters. It’s not about you. It’s about the fighters. And what I mean by that is—things will happen in that ring that make you very uncomfortable. You might be getting yelled at, you might be getting booed. And none of that matters. What matters is doing what’s right. Some refs want to be right, instead of do what’s right. I strive to do what’s right and let the world sort it out later. I don’t care about being right, I want to do what’s right. If that makes sense.
I don’t know how this strikes you, how important this is—but when I go in the dressing room to give pre-fight instructions, I don’t go over the rules. That’s for the rules meeting. Fighters know what the rules are. I go over—this is what you can expect from me, and this is what I expect from you. If this situation comes up, this is what I’m gonna do, this is what I expect you to do. So there’s no confusion in the ring. If I gotta tell a guy don’t hit a guy in the groin, that guy shouldn’t even be in the ring.
CAT: I’ve wondered about that. That makes total sense. Going back a little bit…you mentioned that you see refereeing as a martial art. Do you mean it’s a martial art because you need to understand why the fighters are doing what they’re doing, be sure you’re in position, that kind of thing?
JR: Yes and no. It’s a martial art because it’s theoretical. You know, you go to a martial arts school to learn the art of fighting. And you learn all these moves, in case things happen to you. It’s the same thing as a referee. You get in there and you gotta learn movement, and you gotta apply the rules to what happens in front of you and then there’s a mechanic to apply to each rule. So it’s the same thing. All this theoretical and book knowledge turned into a practical application based on what’s happening in front of you. And your interpretation and understanding of what’s happening.
CAT: Do you think that also helps explain why different referees do things so differently from each other?
JR: Yes, and there’s different rules and mechanics in each state on how you do things.
CAT: So thinking about training for being a referee—where are you registered as a referee?
JR: Nevada and California, I go to Alabama from time to time, wherever they get a need. I’ve traveled a lot of the world doing this as well because the sanctioning bodies, they sanction world title fights all over the world. To level the playing field they’ll bring in an outside judge or possibly an outside ref.
CAT: As you continue on and you get more experience, are there requirements for continued training for referees?
JR: Yes—that is getting better. There is an organization that’s trying to make things more standard. It’s called the ABC—Association of Boxing Commissions. Whenever there’s a championship fight, mostly everywhere in the world, it’s gonna be twelve rounds in duration, three minute rounds with a one minute rest, and the unified rules. That same organization holds trainings throughout the year—and it gives some pretty standard basic training, but consistent. It’s very comprehensive training, but it’s just not enough time for them to get really detailed. You need days to go through all the situations that can come up in the ring and understanding it.
I’ll give you one example. Fighter A punches fighter B. Fighter B goes reeling back towards the ropes. Fighter A thinks he’s going down. So Fighter A stops. So Fighter B hits the rope, regains his balance, but doesn’t go down but is very hurt. So now Fighter A starts charging in, but as he does, Fighter B doesn’t want to take any more punishment, so Fighter B takes a knee. And while he’s on the ground, Fighter A was coming in throwing punches, and that first punch he was already throwing as the guy was gonna go down, and hits him when he’s on the ground. Was it intentional, was it accidental? What was the effect, do you want to disqualify him? I can give you 10 scenarios off of that right there. They don’t have the time to teach all of that at every ABC seminar. That’s advanced stuff. Is it Fighter A’s fault? No. Fighter B decided he didn’t want to take any more punishment and suddenly takes a knee as Fighter A is coming in, but Fighter A can’t stop—he’s doing what a fighter does. So these are all the things you’ve gotta consider.
CAT: It seems to me you make decisions on the fly really well, you think on your feet and make quick and solid decisions…
JR: Thank you—but it’s not because I’m so talented that I can just do this. This comes from so much hard work that I can’t even tell you. And I have what I call my “brain trust.” I have five officials that I speak to on a regular basis about my performances, their performances, and other officials’ performances. We constantly go over what happened, what could we have done better or different to do what’s right for the sport and the fighters. So when a scenario happens to me, I’ve got a bunch of tools in my tool chest, and I pull one or more of them out.
Let me give you a great example. Did you see the Bernard Hopkins [vs. Joe Smith] fight? When a fighter is knocked out of the ring, he has 20 seconds to get back into the ring. Unassisted by anyone. So Bernard Hopkins gets knocked out of the ring, and when he fell I was two steps away from the ropes, so I didn’t see him hit his head on the ground. I saw him go down hard but I was moving in and I wasn’t sure what I had. So I walked over to see what I had, if I was just gonna wave the fight off. Obviously if he was on the ground with his eyes closed, I’m waving the fight off. But when I got to him, I couldn’t see him, because the judge sitting there, the cameraman, and the inspectors, he was being assisted. They did the humanistic thing because this guy took a fall on his head. It was chaotic. I couldn’t tell if he was unconscious, or…finally when they split apart, I could see his eyes were open. I picked up the count. When I reached 20, instead of waving it off and saying it’s a knockout, I said, I don’t know if it’s a knockout or a technical knockout because I don’t know if the punch did the damage or if the fall did the damage. So if the fall did the damage, it’s a technical knockout, if it’s a punch, it’s a regular knockout.
So I had to consider what’s the right thing to do for boxing. In that sense, if he would’ve got up on his own and been able to get back in that ring, I would’ve let him continue. But then when the guys started touching him, were they helping him up or holding him down? So I had a lot of decisions to make.
So because of my experience, I just called time. I counted to 20 to call time to straighten it out. Time is your best friend. Better to get it right. There was no rush anyway, we knew the fight was over—he didn’t get back in. You have to make all these decisions on the fly, like you said. And I’m fortunate because I share this “brain trust”—these five guys from all over the world, calling me, texting me, emailing me, sending me things they did or somebody else did. So I’m constantly analyzing this stuff so when it comes up for me, I’m fortunate that I’ve got a lot of tools.
CAT: Thinking more about specific fights and your thoughts on them—since you’re based out of California and you’ve reffed several Andre Ward fights, can you tell me about the Andre Ward-Edwin Rodriguez fight and the refereeing in that one? It was such a singular situation, having to take a couple points from them, docking their pay, and everything. What was that like, and have you ever been in that sort of situation before or did you just have to make those decisions on the fly?
JR: It totally was not on the fly. Me and Bob Byrd, Kenny Bayless, John McCarthy, and others—we discuss scenarios even before those guys were involved, I always put myself in a situation. When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear, when the Fan Man flew into the ring. I was a fireman for 31 years. My mentality is “what if.”
When that situation arose, I was prepared for it. I had some options. And the only thing I did on the fly was I pulled one of my tools out. I had other tools but that’s the one I chose. But it was thought out years before, written down in a journal I keep from the first day I ever did a fight till now, I write notes to myself. And before I ever get into the ring I review those notes and go through those scenarios in my head.
So let me tell you the background. I get to the arena that night, and you could’ve cut the tension with a knife. When I went in the dressing room, both camps were extremely agitated about the other guy. I knew it was gonna be spirited, I knew it was gonna be heated walking in.
My goal when I get in that ring is not to take points. My goal is to do everything I can, to use every one of my people skills I possibly can, to coerce both guys to fight fairly so I don’t have to take points. Because every time a referee takes a point, it brings possible controversy to our sport, and it has the potential to rob the guy who should’ve won and change the outcome of the fight. I seriously work extremely hard not to take points.
You’ve got two of the highest trained athletes in the world, in tip-top condition at their peak, about to get in the ring. And their adrenaline is spiked. Second, you add if they don’t like each other, then you’ve got emotion involved. The first four rounds aren’t gonna be pretty. Every time a blow goes astray and goes a little bit low, or a little bit excessive holding or shoving, or a little rabbit punch that had no effect—if I jump in and I start, “Stop it, don’t do that!”—I’m gonna look like a chatterbox, everybody’s gonna be focused on me, and I’m gonna over-officiate. So I do everything I can not to get involved, and I whisper to them a lot, and I go into the corners between rounds to coerce them a lot, and I try to get them through to where that adrenaline spike drops off and they settle into a good fight.
With the Ward-Rodriguez fight, I was doing everything I [could] to settle those guys down. And it kept getting worse. The reason I took action is because there were a lot of little fouls that had no effect. They looked bad to the public and the commentators. They annoyed the fighter that received the punch, but they weren’t damaging blows. But it was making the fight spiral further out of control. The reason I took action when I did is because both fighters and both corners between rounds had been respectfully requested and warned that I’m reaching that point where I’m gonna do something, and in that particular case, Rodriguez initiated a headlock. Ward came in low, moving left and right and trying to throw one of those looping left or right hands, and Rodriguez, in protection of himself, wrapped his arm around Ward’s head. Nothing good can come out of that, so I immediately said, “Let him go. Stop.” Rodriguez put a choke hold on Ward and lifted Ward, and started walking backwards. So I repeated, “Stop, stop, stop.” And Andre saw that it was gonna take a few seconds, and this guy wasn’t stopping, so he took matters in his own hands and he retaliated by throwing punches over the top after I said the word “stop.”
So now in my mind, they both did egregious fouls. So after all the warnings, the subtle warnings, the not-so-subtle warnings, two egregious fouls, I had to do something to take control or this fight was gonna get out of hand. So that’s why I did what I did. I took two points from each of them to let both of them know they’d reached my limit of tolerance, they need to get back to fighting within the rules, this is not a playground, you’re on HBO, the whole boxing world is watching you—conduct yourself like a professional. And then I tried to hit them in the pocket to drive home that point.
So this was pre-planned. Not that particular thing on that particular night, but…if I was refereeing some other fights that have been crazy like that, what would I have done?
After I did what I did, did I not set up that whole crowd, you, the commission, everybody watching that fight—did I not set all of you up so that if somebody did another egregious foul, you would be saying, “Oh, freaking disqualify him, Jack!”?
JR: That’s exactly why. Completely different story, if Fighter A did an egregious foul and injured Fighter B, and caused a disadvantage. You might have to disqualify a fighter. But in the Ward-Rodriguez fight and many others, it was egregious without long-lasting damage that debilitated one of the fighters.
The corners see what’s going on. And if I identify to everybody by going to the corners and warning them, and talking to the corners, and doing it with subtle and not-so-subtle warnings, by the time I disqualify a guy, everybody in the arena knows I’m gonna disqualify him.
CAT: Right. And nobody’s gonna be upset that you did it because they know you gave him every chance to rectify it, right?
JR: Exactly. And the only difference is injury. Intentional and an injury forces your hand. But this rough each other up shit, you don’t have to disqualify right away. You draw that line.
It’s like having children and you have your son and daughter in the house, it’s a rainy day and nobody can go out. You’re trying to watch the football game. And they’re in the living room with you, and there’s toys and crap all over the place, and they’re playing with each other. And they’re getting loud. So you’re sitting on the couch and you go, “Hey, guys. Keep it down.” And they keep it down for a little bit, then another little outburst, so you say it again. You keep warning them and warning them and getting a little bit more stern each time, and finally you say, “Look, don’t make me get up off this couch.” And then by the time you get up off the couch, they know they’re getting their ass whooped. It’s no different in the ring!
CAT: What’s the most difficult fight you’ve ever refereed?
JR: Sakio Bika-Anthony Dirrell. Their styles were such that it wasn’t intentional, but they just were fouling each other constantly. There would be one punch and a hold. Neither guy was initiating, but they just got into this rhythm. And it was just the most challenging because I was trying to make some kind of fight out of it. The fans came to this beautiful arena—it was Stub Hub, outdoor. It was frustrating because were they doing anything egregious? No, it was just their styles. And it was very difficult not to take multiple points and disqualify somebody. And there was no one guy to warn. You know? It was just difficult, challenging.
CAT: And you try not to insert yourself but it’s that sort of fight where you feel like you have to keep inserting yourself?
JR: Exactly. And the word you used is perfect. I say the same thing. “Inserting myself.” And let me tell you why else–I felt self-imposed pressure. I had in my mind, I’d like the fans to have a good fight. They’re putting me in that ring, they’re putting the two fighters in that ring with their money, for the love of boxing I’d like to give them a good fight. But sometimes you just can’t.
CAT: Can you tell me about the difference in difficulty when you’re refereeing really small fighters versus really big fighters?
JR: Small guys are like being in the ring with two tornadoes, spinning around each other sometimes. They’re so fast and they’re going in this fast circle, and they stop and go the other way. You’ve gotta be on your toes, you’ve really gotta have your movement down, you’ve really gotta anticipate what these guys are doing so you don’t bump into them and cause problems or accidentally hurt one of them because they stepped on you or you stepped on them, or they tripped over you, or vice versa. With the heavy guys, the challenges are they throw a lot less punches per round, and they hold a lot more. And sometimes they’re holding to take a break and they don’t want to let go, and you’ve gotta separate them.
CAT: When you’re refereeing a fight, if it’s very one-sided and one guy is taking a lot of damage and the corner won’t stop it, how do you assess when a fighter has had enough?
JR: I’m watching the fight, and when I’m a judge I’ve got a scale in my head of who’s scoring. When I’m reffing, I’ve got a scale in my head of who’s taking the most damage. Before the fight ever begins, I look at the fighters in the dressing room—if it’s a championship fight I know a lot about them anyway because I did my research. But I know what’s normal for that fighter. How that fighter moves and carries himself without taking any punches. So now I get to watch the deterioration when I’m in the ring. So when I start feeling this might have gone too far, I’ve gotta think about stopping it, I ask myself 5 questions. #1: Can the guy taking the damage mathematically win this fight on the scorecards without knocking the guy out? #2: Does he have a real puncher’s chance? I’m talking about a real puncher’s chance. #3: Does he really want to be there or is he just fighting for pride? #4: Does he have any visible physical damage? #5: What’s the best thing for me to do for boxing?
So when I answer those questions and if I get the answers I want, I find a way to pull him out.
CAT: That seems very thoughtful.
JR: There’s a lot of thought that went into this process. With that brain trust of guys, you know, and we challenge each other to be the best we can be.
CAT: I’ve heard it discussed that there are two main schools of thought about the referee’s positioning in the fight: one is to move and stay right on top of the fighters; the other is to maintain distance and view the action at range. What are your thoughts on that?
JR: There’s three basic positions that a referee should be in. Picture this. The two fighters are walking around in a circle, at distance, where one or both have to take a step in to be able to land on the other guy. Their lead gloves are at least a foot apart. That’s position 1. The referee should be as far away from them as possible—I’d say ten feet. Because there’s nothing happening, nobody can hit the other guy without taking a step in. That’s the time when they’re on the balls of their feet, they’re at their highest level of adrenaline or tension, so they’re gonna move very herky-jerky and very quick and get on their bicycles. And if you’re too close you’re gonna get hit and you’re gonna get involved. If you’re too close, especially if it’s a righty-lefty, your peripheral vision will be cut off and you miss one of the fighters stepping on the other guy’s foot when he hits him, or tripping over the other guy’s foot when he hits him, because you were so close. If you were too close and your peripheral vision was cut off, that one guy’s foot contributed to the guy going down, you wouldn’t even see it because you were too close.
The second position is when they’re closer, and they’re just right in front of each other, and they don’t need to take a step to hit each other, maybe like a half step or just throwing their arms out. From there you should cut that distance to about 5 or 6 feet instead of 10.
And then the third position is when they’re on the ropes, where one guy’s back is on the ropes and they’re on top of each other, clinching and holding, bobbing and weaving. And just throwing. Then yo
u should be like 3 feet away from them because that’s where all the shit happens. That’s where you’ve gotta watch the heads before the hands, the elbows as well. And if you’re not close enough you’re gonna miss everything.
To be continued in Part Two…