If you haven't been to a professional boxing match, you've probably seen a fight on TV -- and while the focus is on the powerful punches each competitor throws, it's the third person in the ring who calls the shots. This is a day in the life of a professional boxing referee.
For 29 years, Steve Smoger has refereed matches all over the world. To date he has officiated 162 World Title championships and hundreds of undercard events. His work has been viewed by millions on numerous networks including ESPN, HBO and CBS. In 1997 he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame and in 2001 was named top referee of the year. "I have been blessed with a wonderful career," he says, adding, "Everything is with humility, everything is as a gentleman; it's an honor to be their third person."
A long and eventful career
Smoger has stepped in the ring with boxing's greatest fighters and has been a part of some of the most exciting moments in boxing history. "When you start out you want to be noticed," Smoger says. "As you develop, you just want to get in and get out and know you've done the right job."
Entering the ring suited up and ready to go, Smoger performs his job for as long as the boxers can fight. This high-profile position takes precision, concentration, confidence and skill. All eyes are on the calls Smoger makes. During the match he has the ability to issue warnings, end a fight and take away points. He must adhere to the rules, all the while being aware of each boxers' health.
In the world of boxing, Smoger is known as a referee who allows the competitors to fight. During a bout, a referee can make or break a fight and Smoger is well aware of his important responsibility. "Refereeing is a very humbling activity; they say you're only as good as your last fight," he explains. With his experience, intuition and expertise, he says he knows the difference between watching fighters display their boxing skills and knowing when it's time to step in because a competitor can no longer defend himself.
During his career, Smoger says there is one amazing aspect that continues to astonish him: "The ability of a human being after being knocked to the ground, to arise within a 10-second count." The key to this ability, he says, is training. "Conditioning is the answer in this sport; you've got to be ready."
Widely known in the industry by his nickname "Double SS" or "SS," his work has taken him to the exotic locations such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Dusseldorf, Germany; Panama, Panama City; Tel Aviv, Israel; Astana, Kazakhstan; Santa Fe, Argentina; Chelny, Russia; Kanagawa, Japan and Karlstad, Sweden.
"If you would have told me in the mid-70s that boxing would take me three quarters of the way around our beautiful world, I'd say you've got to be off your rocker. The only continent where I have not refereed -- and it's just by circumstance -- is Australia," he said of his busy schedule and extensive traveling.
Training and dedication
A typical conditioning day for Smoger begins at 6 o'clock in the morning when he rises for a jog on the boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean. Back at his home gym, he lifts weights then starts business in his home office, checking to see if he has been asked to officiate any fights. Next he eats a light breakfast followed by a swim in an indoor pool, which he does four days a week. Working out helps him prepare for upcoming matches. Smoger then does work on his computer, responding to referee jobs and researching fighters and approaching bouts.
His schedule changes drastically on fight day. He arrives at his destination early to adjust to the local time; there are absolutely no workouts in an effort to rest for the bout. After meeting with each boxer, Smoger inspects the equipment and follows the unified rules that govern professional boxing. He says it's necessary to have a clear head and eats a light meal around 3PM. He then reports to event organizers to receive his assignments unless it's a world title match. In that case, he already knows his assignment and follows the standardized pre-fight instructions where he inspects each competing boxer's equipment consisting of a mouthpiece, protective cup and hand wraps. During the match he referees the fight. After the bout, one winner is announced and Smoger raises the hand of the champion, displays him to the public and the press, than exits.
An lifelong passion
At an early age, Smoger had a fascination and admiration for boxing. "I got involved in boxing because fighters were always the heroes," he recalls.
His fond memories of watching matches with his father remain with him today. "My Dad would say this is a true sport, it's the last vestige of man against man, no timeouts, no teams; it's who can project their will and skill one person on another person."
Smoger boxed at the amateur level and in intramurals while attending Penn State. He continued with workouts in various gyms in the Washington, D.C., area while enrolled at the George Washington University Law School. But he soon realized his limitations as a fighter and in 1974 began participating as a judge in amateur boxing bouts before settling in as a referee. He continued to referee matches on the amateur level until 1982.
With the advent of casino gaming in Atlantic City, N.J., Smoger got his big break. During the 1980s, professional boxing began a longstanding relationship with the resort. Smoger remembers, "literally overnight professional boxers start visiting and training at the Atlantic City P.A.L."
Smoger responded to the demand by receiving the proper credentials to start his professional and international career. He shares, "I have more licenses than any referee in the world."
Meanwhile, Smoger also enjoyed success with his day job as assistant prosecutor of Atlantic City before clenching the title of prosecutor. In 1992, Smoger was elevated to the bench and served as a municipal court judge until 2002, when he became solicitor for Atlantic City until his retirement in 2005. Now, Smoger maintains a small practice and devotes a majority of his time to his passion.
Unforgetable boutsFor over a quarter of a century, Smoger has experienced many milestones in boxing; however there are three bouts he will never forget.
In August 2001, Smoger accepted a middleweight bout between Bernard Hopkins and Felix "Tito" Trinidad scheduled for Sept. 15, 2001 at Madison Square Garden. The event sold out in a day and a half, but the fight did not take place on the 15th, as the country was still recovering from the devastating Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The match-up was postponed until Sept. 29. On fight night, 22,000 people packed into the arena. "That is the most emotional event I have ever been associated with," Smoger recalled.
The atmosphere was remarkable, Smoger says, "The electricity and the guarded optimism were coming out of sadness. That was the first major sporting event in the world after 9-11."
Smoger recalls the fight: "A lesser fighter would have fallen a lot earlier. Bernard overwhelmed Tito, but Tito kept trying and trying. Finally, the last round his father called it off -- Tito's father stopped it. I was about to move in, he only had a little bit to go. He [the father] knew he couldn't win and significant shots were coming."
Smoger has refereed some amazing fights at times, even ducking hooks and jabs himself. But in 1991 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, during the United States Boxing Association Heavyweight Championship between Carl Williams and Tim Witherspoon, Smoger wasn't so lucky. He remembers that Williams threw a 6-inch baby left hook that suddenly caught him in the back of his head. "I saw stars!" Smoger says. "My first realization is, I'm awake." He circled, recovered and continued to referee the fight.
In 1999, Smoger experienced his most unusual and serious injury -- known as the famous chair incident. It was Oleg Maskaev vs. Hasim Rahman, and Smoger was assigned as the alternate referee during the fight, remaining outside the ring. His responsibility was to begin the 10-second count if a fighter was knocked down.
He remembers the evening vividly. "Oleg Maskaev knocked Hasim out of the ring. I got up to protect him from hitting his head on the table," he recounts, "and one of Hasim's Muslim backers was so distraught over seeing their hero being knocked out of the ring, he took a big steel chair folding chair, threw it in the ring and it hit me -- and again, stars. I thought the roof fell in!" Showing his dedication, Smoger finished out his duties despite having a big gash in his head from the incident. Later that night the ringside doctor checked him out and told him had the chair struck a different spot, he would have been killed.
Reflecting on his adventures around the world refereeing boxing matches, Smoger sums up his journey: "My lot in life: blessed to have been on the bench, blessed to have been solicitor, first full-time city prosecutor; but I'm a referee -- while it's counted as an avocation, it's been my vocation."
It's an atmosphere he craves, a sport he adores, a skill he possess and a job he loves; for Smoger it's all in a day's work as a professional boxing referee.
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