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Chatting With #CottoCanelo Referee ROBERT BYRD

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The best referees in sports are more complex than mysterious. Their agenda to keep an even playing field is often what any fan would expect, but their preparation is at times overlooked.

Boxing referee Robert Byrd thinks it’s best to stay out of the equation. The veteran referee might be the perfect referee for any fight fan because he has built a reputation to, in his own words, “let fighters fight.” Maybe that is why he was chosen by the Nevada State Athletic Commission to referee the big fight between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez on Saturday night.

Or maybe it is because Byrd is a World Boxing Hall of Fame referee with over 100 world title bouts on his resume and 34 years of experience. Some of the most recent title fights Byrd worked include Floyd Mayweather vs. Robert Guerrero, and Timothy Bradley vs. Juan Manuel Marquez.

We spoke with Byrd on Wednesday about his preparation for Cotto vs. Canelo, his reputation in boxing, and the importance of positioning.

Ray Markarian: What’s going on Robert?

Robert Byrd: Well, I am at the gym. I am just waiting for the guy to get here and open shop…

RM : Are you going to work out?

RB : Well, I am going to work some sparring before I really have to go to work.

RM : Do you work at the boxing gyms often before fights?

RB : Well, I try to get in a couple times a week, whether I am working a fight or not. I am a strong believer in you practice the way you play. I can go out and run four or five miles, or do some push ups or sit ups, but that doesn’t get me into fight shape. I think that you are doing the fighters a disservice if you don’t do your best to prepare to get into fight shape.

RM : Do many referees get into fight shape before fights?

RB : I know a few. But I don’t know. It’s maybe one or two refs that get in shape.

RM : Is it something you think they should do?

RB : Yes, I do. You have to get into fight shape. You can run miles or do other types of workouts but that doesn’t allow you to work on your positioning, or to work on your voice command, and it doesn’t help you work on being in the proper position in the ring during a fight. I can definitely tell when a person doesn’t do a lot of exercise in the ring. You can see it.

RM : Do the fighters see it too?

RB : Oh yeah. And I think the fighters, managers, and trainers appreciate when you come to the gym and work with them because it creates a realistic atmosphere. They are used to the third man in the ring. So, when they see it in the gym, it makes them comfortable. It also gives me an opportunity to educate fighters.

RM : You have been a referee for 34 years. If you can go back to 1981 and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

RB : I would never want a fight to end too late. I can live with a fight ending too soon. But I never ever want to be guilty of stopping a fight too late.

RM : That’s a referee’s worst nightmare, right?

RB : That’s right. It sure is.

RM : And, have you ever lost sleep over a decision you made in the ring?

RB : No. Never.

RM : No?

RB : Nope.

RM : OK. I have played competitive sports. And obviously, I have never refereed professionally, but when I play sports, and I make a mistake during a critical moment in the game, it sticks with me. I still think about it afterwards.

RB : Yeah…

RM : So, do you get that feeling as a referee? Do you ever feel regret or anxiety about a decision?

RB : Well, I can’t speak for other guys but for me, it’s all about preparation. I prepare the best I can. And I go in the ring and do the best I can, and I move on. I learn from my actions. Sometimes I think back and say maybe I could have used an alternate option, because nobody is perfect. You always want to learn. That’s why I still go to the gym. People ask me why I still go to the gym. It’s because I continue to learn. Once you get to a point where you feel like you know it all, you need to quit.

RM : So, you are working the fight coming up between Miguel Cotto and Canelo Alvarez. Are you studying their fight styles at all?

RB : No not really, I have worked with many of the fighters in the past, so I already have a good idea of what their styles are. And styles don’t really matter because, once you get hit upside the head, styles change. They can change in a hurry. My real focus is to be in shape physically and mentally so I can react to anything that happens in that ring, or I can anticipate better. Most of our profession comes down to being physically and mentally ready for the job you are going to do.

RM : You have to stay sharp…

RB : Yeah.

RM : What is the most important role for a referee in the ring?

RB : Positioning is the most important. But that is true with any sport. If you are not in the proper position, you cannot make the proper call. If you are not in proper position, you might not see something that you should have seen, like a low blow.

RM : Do you get nervous before fights?

RB : A little bit. But it’s just like any athlete, after that first pitch or when the bell rings that all goes away.

RM : How would you describe your referee style?

RB : I tend to let fighters fight. I think that’s my reputation in the business. All of these managers and trainers have a book on officials. They have a book and know about our tendencies.

RM : I’m sure they do.

RB : Oh yeah. They do. So, my reputation is that I let fighters fight. And I can live with that. I am happy with that.

RM : So, why is it your style to let fighters fight?

RB : Because the fighters are the most important people. The fans don’t come to watch me. They come to watch the fighters.

RM : And when you go in the corners in between rounds to speak with fighters, what types of questions are you asking?

RB : Well, normally I am telling them something.

RM : OK.

RB : If I ask them anything it will be something like, “Are you ok?” “How do you feel?”… But most of the time I am telling them something like, “If you are not going to defend yourself, then I will have to take appropriate action.” And they know what I am talking about. I always focus on the fighters. I don’t pay attention to their corner because most of them (corner men) are very brave. But they ain’t taking any punches. After a while, you get to understand who some of the better trainers or managers are because they take care of their fighter. The good trainers make my job easier. But there are those corners that act recklessly at times, and force a referee to take care of their fighter because they are not going to do it themselves.

RM : When you are in the middle of the round and you do not get opportunity to speak with a fighter, how do you know when to stop a fight?

RB : It’s a judgment call. You look for muscle control. You look for their ability to defend themselves. If a fighter is not intelligently defending himself, then they are out of it. I usually look for what a fighter is doing to help himself or herself. Are they thinking in the ring? If I can see that they are thinking, then I will give them an opportunity to work through it. If a fighter is taking some shots and he is trying to grab the opponent or move intelligently, then it tells me that you are thinking. But if I don’t any of those things then I have to make a decision.

RM : Protecting the fighters first, right?

RB : Absolutely. That’s the number one priority.

RM : You don’t care about the outcome of a fight.

RB : No I don’t. I don’t give a damn who wins. That’s up to the fighter. My job is providing an even playing field. I don’t want to determine the outcome. I don’t have a problem stepping in if I have to as an official. But I don’t want to determine outcome the fight unless it’s necessary.

RM : How did you get good at letting fighters fight?

RB : Well, it’s not something you learn overnight. It takes time. It’s experience.

RM : What else can we learn about Robert Byrd?

RB : I am just happy to be a part of this game. And I mean that sincerely. It is a blessing to be a part of this game. It’s a beautiful game. And it’s a game that has given me an opportunity to see things that I would have never seen, or meet people that I would have never seen. Boxing gives me an opportunity to be an inspiration to kids. I am truly blessed to be a member of this game in any capacity. I truly feel that way.

You can follow Ray on Twitter @raymarkarian or email him here raymond.markarian@yahoo.com

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A Paean to the Great Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon Who Passed Away 50 Years Ago This Week

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“Of all his assignments,” said the renowned sportswriter Dave Anderson, “[Jimmy] Cannon appeared to enjoy boxing the most.”

Cannon would have sheepishly concurred. He dated his infatuation with boxing to 1919 when he stood outside a saloon listening to a man with a megaphone relay bulletins from the Dempsey-Willard fight in faraway Toledo. His father followed boxing as did all the Irishmen in his neighborhood. For him, an interest in the sport of boxing, he once wrote, was like a family heirloom. But it became a love-hate relationship. It was Jimmy Cannon, after all, who coined the phrase “boxing is the red light district of sports.”

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Jimmy Cannon’s death. He passed away at age 63 on Dec. 5, 1973, in his room at the residential hotel in mid-Manhattan where he made his home. In the realm of American sportswriters, there has never been a voice quite like him. He was “the hardest-boiled of the hard-drinking, hard-boiled school of sports writing,” wrote Darrell Simmons of the Atlanta Journal. One finds a glint of this in his summary of Sonny Liston’s first-round demolition of Albert Westphal in 1961: “Sonny Liston hit Albert Westphal like he was a cop.”

In his best columns, Jimmy Cannon was less a sportswriter than an urban poet. Here’s what he wrote about Archie Moore in 1955 after Moore trounced Bobo Olson to set up a match with Rocky Marciano: “Someone should write a song about Archie Moore who in the Polo Grounds knocked out Bobo Olson in three rounds…It should be a song that comes out of the backrooms of sloughed saloons on night-drowned streets in morning-worried parts of bad towns. The guy who writes this one must be a piano player who can be dignified when he picks a quarter out of the marsh of a sawdust floor.”

Prior to fighting in Madison Square Garden the previous year – his first appearance in that iconic boxing arena – Moore had roamed the globe in search of fights in a career that began in the Great Depression. Cannon was partial to boxers like Archie Moore, great ring artisans who toiled in obscurity, fighting for small purses –“moving-around money” in Cannon’s words —  until the establishment could no longer ignore them.

Jimmy Cannon was born in Lower Manhattan. He left high school after one year to become a copy boy for the New York Daily News. In 1936, at age 26, the News sent him to cover the biggest news story of the day, the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping trial. While there he met Damon Runyon who would become a lifelong friend. At Runyon’s suggestion, he applied for a job as a sportswriter at the New York American, a Hearst paper, and was hired.

During World War II, he was a war correspondent in Europe embedded in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. When he returned from the war, he joined the New York Post and then, in 1959, the Journal-American which made him America’s highest-paid sportswriter at a purported salary of $1000 a week. His articles were syndicated and appeared in dozens of papers.

Cannon was very close to Joe Louis. He was the only reporter that Louis allowed in his hotel room on the morning of the Brown Bomber’s rematch with Max Schmeling. Louis, he wrote, “was a credit to his race, the human race.” It was his most-frequently-quoted line.

In an early story, Cannon named Sam Langford the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time. Later he joined with his colleagues on Press Row in naming Sugar Ray Robinson the greatest of the greats. As for the fellow who anointed himself “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, Cannon profoundly disliked him. He persisted in calling him Cassius Clay long after Ali had adopted his Muslim name.

It troubled Cannon that Ali was afforded an opportunity to fight for the title after only 19 pro fights. Ali’s poetry, he thought, was infantile. He abhorred Ali’s political views. And, truth be told, he didn’t like Ali because certain segments of society adored him. Cannon didn’t like non-conformists – hippies and anti-war protesters and such. When queried about his boyhood in Greenwich Village, he was quick to note that he lived there “when it was a decent neighborhood, before it became freaky.”

Cannon’s animus toward Ali spilled over into his opinion of Ali’s foil, the bombastic sportscaster Howard Cosell. “If Howard Cosell were a sport,” he wrote,” it would be roller derby.”

Cannon frequently filled his column with a series of one-liners published under the heading “Nobody Asked Me, But…” His wonderfully acerbic put-down of Cosell appeared in one of these columns. But one can’t read these columns today without cringing at some of his ruminations. He once wrote, “Any man is in trouble if he falls in love with a woman he can’t knock down with one punch.” If a newspaperman wrote those words today, he would be out of a job so fast it would make his head spin.

Similarly, his famous line about Joe Louis being a credit to the human race no longer resonates in the way that it once did. There is in its benevolence an air of racial prejudice.

Jimmy Cannon was a lifelong bachelor but in his younger days before he quit drinking cold turkey in 1948, he was quite the ladies man, often seen promenading showgirls around town. Like his pal Damon Runyon, he was a night owl. As the years passed, however, he became somewhat reclusive. The world passed him by when rock n’ roll came in, pushing aside the Tin Pan Alley crooners and torch singers that had kept him company at his favorite late-night haunts.

Cannon’s end days were tough. He suffered a stroke in 1971 as he was packing to go to the Kentucky Derby and spent most of his waking hours in his last two-plus years in a wheelchair. Fortunately, he could afford to hire a full-time attendant. In 2002, he was posthumously elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category.

Jimmy Cannon once said that he resented it when someone told him that his stuff was too good to be in a newspaper. It was demeaning to newspapers and he never wanted to be anything but a newspaperman. He didn’t always bring his “A” game and some of his stuff wouldn’t hold up well, but the man could write like blazes and the sportswriting profession lost a giant when he drew his last breath.

To comment on this story in the Fight Forum CLICK HERE

Arne K. Lang is a recognized authority on the history of prizefighting and the history of American sports gambling. His latest book, titled Clash of the Little Giants: George Dixon, Terry McGovern, and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910, was released by McFarland in September, 2022.

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Ryan “KingRy” Garcia Returns With a Bang; KOs Oscar Duarte

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It was a different Ryan “KingRy” Garcia the world saw in defeating Mexico’s rugged Oscar Duarte, but it was that same deadly left hook counter that got the job done by knockout on Saturday.

Only the quick survive.

Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) used a variety of stances before luring knockout artist Duarte (26-1-1, 21 KOs) into his favorite punch before a sold-out crowd at Toyota Arena in Houston, Texas. That punch should be patented in gold.

It was somewhat advertised as knockout artist versus matinee idol, but those who know the sport knew that Garcia was a real puncher. But could he rebound from his loss earlier this year?

The answer was yes.

Garcia used a variety of styles beginning with a jab at a prescribed distance via his new trainer Derrick James. It allowed both Garcia and Duarte to gain footing and knock the cobwebs out of their reflexes. Garcia’s jab scored most of the early points during the first three rounds. He also snapped off some left hooks and rights.

“He was a strong fighter, took a strong punch,” said Garcia. “I hit him with some hard punches and he kept coming.”

Duarte, an ultra-pale Mexican from Durango, was cautious, knowing full well how many Garcia foes had underestimated the power behind his blows.

Slowly the muscular Mexican fighter began closing in with body shots and soon both fighters were locked in an inside battle. Garcia used a tucked-in shoulder style while Duarte pounded the body, back of the head and in the back causing the referee to warn for the illegal punches twice.

Still, Duarte had finally managed to punch Garcia with multiple shots for several rounds.

Around the sixth round Garcia was advised by his new trainer to begin jabbing and moving. It forced Duarte out of his rhythm as he was unable to punch without planting his feet. Suddenly, the momentum had reversed again and Duarte looked less dangerous.

“I had to slow his momentum down. That softened him up,” said Garcia about using that change in style to change Duarte’s pressure attack. “Shout out to Derrick James.”

Boos began cascading from the crowd but Garcia was on a roll and had definitely regained the advantage. A quick five-punch combination rocked Duarte though not all landed. The danger made the Mexican pause.

In the eighth round Duarte knew he had to take back the momentum and charged even harder. In one lickety-split second a near invisible counter left hook connected on Duarte’s temple and he stumbled like a drunken soldier on liberty in Honolulu. Garcia quickly followed up with rights and uppercuts as Duarte had a look of terror as his legs failed to maintain stability. Down he went for the count.

Duarte was counted out by referee James Green at 2:51 of the eighth round as Garcia watched from the other side of the ring.

“I started opening up my legs a little bit to open up the shot,” explained Garcia. “When I hurt somebody that hard, I just keep cracking them. I hurt him with a counter left hook.”

The weapon of champions.

Garcia’s victory returns him back to the forefront as one of boxing’s biggest gate attractions. A list of potential foes is his to dissect and choose.

“I’m just ready to continue to my ascent to be a champion at 140,” Garcia said.

It was a tranquil end after such a tumultuous last three days.

Other Bouts

Floyd Schofield (16-0, 12 KOs) blitzed Mexico’s Ricardo “Not Finito” Lopez (17-8-3) with a four knockdown blowout that left fans mesmerized and pleased with the fighter from Austin, Texas.

Schofield immediately shot out quick jabs and then a lightning four-punch combination that delivered Lopez to the canvas wondering what had happened. He got up. Then Scholfield moved in with a jab and crisp left hook and down went Lopez like a dunked basketball bouncing.

At this point it seemed the fight might stop. But it proceeded and Schofield unleashed another quick combo that sent Lopez down though he did try to punch back. It was getting monotonous. Lopez got up and then was met with another rapid fire five- or six-punch combination. Lopez was down for the fourth time and the referee stopped the devastation.

“I appreciate him risking his life,” said Schofield of his victim.

In a middleweight clash Shane Mosley Jr. (21-4, 12 KOs) out-worked Joshua Conley (17-6-1, 11 KOs) for five rounds before stopping the San Bernardino fighter at 1:51 of the sixth round. It was Mosley’s second consecutive knockout and fourth straight win.

Mosley continues to improve in every fight and again moves up the middleweight rankings.

Super middleweight prospect Darius Fulghum (9-0, 9 KOs) of Houston remained undefeated and kept his knockout string intact with a second round pounding and stoppage over Pachino Hill (8-5-1) in 56 seconds of that round.

Photo credit: Golden Boy Promotions

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Jordan Gill TKOs Michael Conlan Who May Have Reached the End of the Road

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Fighting on his home turf, two-time Olympian Michael Conlan was an 8/1 favorite over Jordan Gill tonight in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Had he won, Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn was eyeing a rematch for Conlan with Leigh Wood. Their March 2022 rumble in Nottingham was a popular pick for the Fight of the Year. But the 29-year-old Gill, a Cambridgeshire man, rendered that discussion moot with a seventh-round stoppage. It was Conlan’s third loss inside the distance in the last 18 months and he would be wise to call it a day. His punch resistance is plainly not what it once was.

It was with considerable fanfare that Conlan cast his lot with Top Rank coming out of the amateur ranks. Tonight was his first assignment for Matchroom and his first fight at 130 pounds after coming up short in two world featherweight title fights. And he almost didn’t make it past the second round. Gill had him on the canvas in the opening minute of round two compliments of a left hook and stunned him late in the round with a right hand that left him on unsteady legs.

He survived the round and for a fleeting moment in the sixth frame it appeared that he had reversed Gill’s momentum. But Gill took charge again in the next stanza, trapping Conlan in the corner and unloading a fusillade of punches that forced referee Howard Foster to waive it off, much to the great dismay of the crowd. The official time was 1:09 of round seven.

Released by Top Rank, Conlan trained for this fight in Miami, Florida, under Pedro Diaz, best known for rejuvenating the career of Miguel Cotto. But the switch in trainer and in promoter made no difference as Conlan, who won his first amateur title at age 11, was damaged goods before he entered the ring. It was a career-defining victory for Jordan Gill (28-2-1, 9 KOs) who was not known as a big puncher and was returning to the ring after being stopped by Kiko Martinez 13 months ago in his previous start.

Semi-wind-up

In the “Battle of Belfast,” undefeated welterweight Lewis Crocker seized control in the opening round and went on to win a lopsided decision over intra-city rival Tyrone McKenna (23-4-1). Two of the judges gave Crocker every round and the other had it 98-92, but yet this was entertaining fight in spurts. McKenna had more fans in the building, but Crocker, seven years younger at age 26, went to post a 7/2 favorite and youth was served.

Other Bouts of Note

Belfast super welterweight Caoimhin Agyarko, who overcame a near-fatal mugging at age 20, advanced to 14-0 (7) with a 10-round split decision over Troy Williamson (20-2-1). The judges had it 98-92 and 97-93 for Agyarko with a dissenter submitting a curious 96-94 score for the 31-year-old Williamson who wasn’t able to exploit his advantages in height and reach.

Sean McComb, a 31-year-old Belfast southpaw, scored what was arguably the best win of his career with a 10-round beat-down of longtime sparring partner Sam Maxwell. Two of the judges gave McComb every round and the other had it 99-88. McComb, who has an interesting nickname, “The Public Nuisance, successfully defended his WBO European super welterweight strap while elevating his record to 18-1 (6). The fading, 35-year-old Maxwell, a former BBBofC British title-holder, lost for third time in his last four starts after winning his first 16 pro fights.

Photo credit: Mark Robinson / Matchroom

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