Not Fair, Not Firm: Joe Cortez Blows It

By Adam Berlin on September 20, 2011
Not Fair, Not Firm: Joe Cortez Blows It
Cortez was neither firm nor fair; instead he was weak and unfair, a derelict of a referee.

“I’m fair but I’m firm.” It’s a particularly ironic signature when looked at through the lens of his most recent poor performance…

The winds have diminished from the perfect shit storm that was the finale of the Mayweather/Ortiz fight. Not so pretty Floyd has retired to the comforts of his luxurious Las Vegas mansion to nurse his busted lower lip. Not so vicious Victor has returned to Oxnard to rest his aching head and, presumably, bruised ego. And irate fans, who squandered sixty bucks on yet another fight that ended without a clean catharsis, have posted their reactions, pro and con, about what happened late Saturday night. I’ve looked over dozens of comments and, when the racism and name-calling and too-easy biases are removed, one thing stands clear—this fight did nothing good for boxing.

But the ultimate blame does not go to the fighters. Their actions were clear illustrations of character is fate

Character issue 1: Floyd Mayweather’s love of his undefeated record, his win-at-all-costs attitude and perhaps even some doubts and fears propelled his arms forward when his opponent’s arms were down. 

Character issue 2: Victor Ortiz’s questionable head had him head-butting his opponent in desperation, an unsportsmanlike act that was overcompensated by over-effusive kisses and mea-culpa hugs. 

Character issue 3: Floyd Mayweather went off on the public, represented by Larry Merchant, in a tirade based on paranoid insecurity—all Mr. Merchant wanted was an honest interview and anyone that accuses Merchant of racism need only remember his tearful eulogy of the great Archie Moore and the respect he shows all fighters, black and white and Hispanic, who fight with heart. 

Character issue 4: Victor Ortiz seemed happy when he emerged from semi-consciousness, claiming “stuff happens,” smiling a meek, apologetic smile without a hint of anger and without a trace of hunger, reminiscent of his quitting words against Marcos Maidana. 

Both fighters behaved badly in their own ways.  Still, if the Protect Yourself at All Times credo applies to every minute of a fight, then, at worst, Ortiz was stupidly remiss while Mayweather was unsportsmanlike and callous. 

It’s a fighter’s job to protect himself from bodily harm, but it’s the referee’s job to protect the fighters from each other. A good referee will exert control when control is called for. And a good referee will remain in the background, unobtrusive, quiet and ideally invisible, when control is not called for. Joe Cortez failed on both counts. 

In the good old days, which in the case of boxing were good, or at least better than the days today, referees were truly third men in the ring. They didn’t have signature moves. They didn’t have signature lines. But then too many referees jumped on the Mills Lane bandwagon, working hard to come up with a memorable tag like Lane’s now-famous Let’s get it on. Lane became bigger than his role and moved the referee’s role from invisible to visible. (That’s a trend in boxing these days. All the extras in a fight seem desperate for bit parts, at least, starring roles, at most. Take Michael Buffer and his patented Let’s get ready to rumble—is that really necessary? Why must everybody surrounding the fight force their signature on the fight? The answer is ego, pure and simple and pitiful.) 

Enter Joe Cortez, who came up with the pre-fight line, I’m fair but I’m firm. It’s a particularly ironic signature when looked at through the lens of his most recent poor performance. Cortez was neither firm nor fair; instead he was weak and unfair, a derelict of a referee.

Let’s be very clear about what happened at the MGM arena on Saturday night:

Victor Ortiz, for whatever reason, blatantly head-butted Floyd Mayweather. Joe Cortez called time out. That was the right call. After an intentional foul, a good referee will separate the fighters, send them to neutral corners, stand in the center of the ring, signal to the judges that a point has been deducted, call time in, and then signal the fighters to come together and resume fighting. That is standard practice and the routine every boxing fan knows. 

But what did Cortez do? 

He didn’t fully separate the fighters. He signaled that a point was deducted. He walked back to the vicinity where Floyd and Victor were standing face to face. He never made any clear indication to the timekeeper to start the clock running. And he never made a clear signal to the fighters to resume fighting. In fact, Cortez never placed himself between the fighters and he didn’t even look at them. Just as a fighter should protect himself at all times, a referee should protect the fighters in the ring at all times. Clearly, Joe Cortez was not doing his job.

The image we have of Joe Cortez at the precise moment when Mayweather delivers his sucker-punch combination is a man completely out of control. Where the hell is Joe Cortez looking? He’s not looking at the fighters. He’s not even looking in the direction of the fighters. His head is turned to the side, his eyes out of focus and perplexed. Cortez seems to be looking at someone past the ring apron—maybe a judge, maybe the timekeeper. When Cortez senses movement to his left, he turns to see Victor Ortiz laid out on the canvas. So what does this fair but firm man do? He starts counting. It’s his first reaction, but not the right reaction. He was derelict in his duties to exert control when needed and instead of remedying his action, he figured he’d count to 10 and, like a miracle, his problem would disappear. 

Here’s Joe Cortez defending himself, “Everything was about why did Ortiz lower his guard? I called time in. Time was in. Why would he lower his guard again to apologize was to my surprise. That’s where inexperience fell in and Mayweather took advantage with his experience. He said ‘this is an opening for me. Nobody told him to put his hands down’ and he capitalized on it as a fighter.” 

I called time in.

Time was in.

Can anybody say, The lady doth protest too much, methinks?

Joe Cortez blew it. By rights, this fight should have ended by disqualification. By rights, Joe Cortez should have been man enough to step up and say he’d made some mistakes. But instead he decided to take the coward’s way out, to not admit to his poor judgment, to defend himself with empty words. He puts blame on Ortiz. He echoes the first excuse he hears, which are Mayweather’s words about a fighter’s need to defend himself at all times. And then Cortez walks away from the fight without care, pretending he was right all along.  oe Cortez was very present in the pre-fight instructions, savoring his moment of fame under those bright lights, enunciating his signature I’m fair but I’m firm nonsense, but when things became difficult in the ring, the spotlight stunned him. He was blinded by the moment and instead of grace under pressure he looked the fool.

Boxing has enough problems without the arbiters of order in the ring creating unnecessary chaos. Unfortunately, poor refereeing has become more norm, less exception. It’s only been a month since the last case of gross negligence by a third man in the ring. In the Joseph Agbeko vs. Abner Mares bout, Russell Mora refused to penalize Mares for repeated and blatant low blows, which cost Agbeko his bantamweight title. Like Cortez, Mora refused to acknowledge his mistakes. Even on the undercard of Mayweather/Ortiz we saw a premature stoppage in the Saul Alvarez vs. Alfonso Gomez bout. Gomez’s assessment of referee Wayne Hedgpeth was particularly sad because Gomez readily accepted his fate, stating, “I think the ref was looking for an opportunity to stop the fight. He hit me hard but I was okay. The ref asked me and I said I was fine. It is what it is. You take the opportunity. I wanted to go the distance, I wanted to continue.” Gomez was hurt, but he was still in the fight. So why did the referee stop the contest? Because Alvarez was supposed to win this fight and the referee, instead of being neutral, saw what he was supposed to see with biased eyes. Joe Cortez’s eyes, when they were open and focused, were also biased. Had Mayweather been sprawled on the canvas, one wonders if the fair but firm man would have started his 10-count, or if he would have paused to consider his next move more carefully.

I’d be curious to know whether the timekeeper for the Mayweather/Ortiz bout restarted his clock before Mayweather delivered his final two blows. I’m guessing he didn’t. But we’ll never know. Just as all the videos that show those final seconds have been removed from YouTube, lest controversy stay red hot, so too will the timekeeper’s truth be silenced. But we, the ones who watch boxing, should not be silent. Next time you’re ringside and Joe Cortez tells the crowd how fair and firm he is, let him know you’re not buying his line. Maybe then, he’ll work harder. Maybe then he’ll earn his pay. Maybe then a fight will end fairly under his watch. 

Ironically, Dana White, president of the UFC, seems to be one of the few men who have publicly criticized Cortez. “You can’t blame the fighters. The ref is in there to stop that shit from happening! That is the worst reffing I’ve ever seen in boxing, ever. Boxers are always going after each other. The ref is in there to keep it safe, clean and from turning into a real fight.” It’s a sad day for boxing when an MMA guy calls out boxing for its “shit.” But White is right. Joe Cortez turned the beauty of boxing into something far less than beautiful. All in all, it was an ugly night.

What happened between Mayweather and Ortiz was a travesty. Ortiz should be angry because he didn’t get a fair shake. And Mayweather should be angry too. His victory is tainted. It’s not all about the money with Money May, no matter what he says. Had the referee done his job, had Mayweather continued to school the kid from Oxnard, Floyd Jr.’s undefeated record would not be shit stained. 

Blame Joe Cortez.

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  1. eddie 12:09am, 09/28/2011

    Cortez should be a policeman


  2. FukiSlam 08:08pm, 09/27/2011

    Am I the only one who saw Cortez give the hand signal for the fight to proceed? After the point deduction Cortez stretches his arm out between Ortiz and Mayweather and waves ... Ortiz and Mayweather come together to touch gloves, they touch, Ortiz continues to try and hug mayweather, backs up with his hands down even tho he sees mayweather with his guard up and gets caught .. once .. instead of reacting by defending himself he looks at Cortez to save him .. then he gets hit again. Seriously am I the only one? ... i’ll probably be called a dick rider for this one but i dont care .. your blind if you didnt see it .. or just so biased you refuse to.

  3. jesse 11:53am, 09/27/2011

    you hit the nail on the head with this article. i really cant believe there’s such a sharp divide in the boxing world over what happened in this fight. joe cortez’s incompetence and floyd mayweather’s lack of sportsmanship and concern for his own legacy teamed-up and robbed millions of their hard-earned money and the chance to watch what should’ve been an intriguing fight. anyone who says different is misguided.

  4. Bob 02:45pm, 09/26/2011

    I agree. I can’t stand Cortez. He always has to be part of the fight.

  5. eddie 11:09am, 09/26/2011

    Cortez.what a waste of time he is.

    Please be fair Cortez and disappear from boxing.

  6. Bruzer 03:38am, 09/26/2011

    LOL, some here are saying the fight was GOOD? PERFECT? c’mon man… that fight was not even close to saying professional. yeah, blah, blah, blah here and there… words are easily spoken. Referee is dumb. That’s all. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a boxer taking an advantage to CHEAP shot an opponent. If it was a good fight, then we won’t be seeing this article. I would say, if the referee was GOOD… gayweather won’t have any chance to cheap shot anyone.

  7. Big Boss Man 06:57pm, 09/25/2011

    I am posting for the first time and will state that I think Mayweather did the right thing.

  8. Jeremiah 03:55pm, 09/25/2011

    I like the article…Joe is ok but I guess He gave too much respect for Floyd..Floyd will always be floyd. You can’t trust him to be gentleman or something. He disrespects everybody.. It is Joe’s job to keep an eye on the fight at all times and somehow contain that ugly beast in both fighters esp. Floyd..We only want to see the Boxer in both fighters..

  9. Ghost 08:03pm, 09/24/2011

    Cortez told both fighters “Let’s go”. The fighters came together to touch gloves-well Floyd put his gloves out to touch -Victor gives him another hug, steps back and gets nailed as Cortez is looking at the time keeper. Merchant tells Floyd that he unfairly took advantage of Victor’s inexperience. Floyd goes off on Merchant. Merchant counters. Merchant ask Ortiz soft questions then Merchant asked Ortiz “why are you apologizing”....I can go on but you get the picture…..This was one short exciting mess of a fight all around. This didn’t hurt boxing, this just elevated boxings’ viewership.

  10. Chosen 10:25am, 09/23/2011


  11. raxman 05:07pm, 09/22/2011

    adam - if you can’t see cortez standing between both fighters and make the hand signal for them to reengage you need your eyes checked

  12. bergmuff 12:12am, 09/22/2011

    you are the only boxing scribe who wrote it like it is. most boxing scribes are just riding floyd’s dick without thinking that if it was ortiz who did that to floyd and floyd got knocked out am sure ortiz would be disqualified. keep em articles coming. as far as joe cortez is concerned, he is one of the floyds dickryder, hatton had to fight him as well as floyd so no mystery there, he is a has been incompetent ref.

  13. amayseng 05:36pm, 09/21/2011

    this is an excellent article.  he is right, cortez did not follow the proper rules of boxing, the can not continue until time in is called and then the fighters are lined up with the ref between them in the middle of the ring to begin fighting again.  it makes no sense, in retrospect floyd should be disqualified.  should he not?  it is his duty to know the rules of the sport as well.  i do not condone the lunging headbutt from ortiz, but there is a reason for it, rewatch the fight and look for all the elbows floyd put into ortizs throat, thats why he was getting frustrated.  i think a rematch is in order, i had floyd winning rounds 1,3.

  14. Kyle 02:57pm, 09/21/2011

    15 minute interview with Cortez on the fight!

  15. Tochtli 07:40am, 09/21/2011

    I have to say this is one of the best pieces written about the debacle on Sat. In real time I would have bet Mayweather was going to get DQd then I saw Cortez counting…. I felt I was sucker punched.

  16. Pin Galarga 07:21am, 09/21/2011

    He should of told Mayweather: If I was 50 years younger I would kick you azz.
    Cortez was accurate, far and firm.

  17. David Slater 03:42am, 09/21/2011

    I agree with Berlin’s analysis that the ref should have done a better job at separating the fighters and timing them back in. But in the end it was ultimately Mayweather who was wrong for sucker punching Ortiz.  It was a dirty low blow.  If the review shows that the fighters had not been timed back in by Ortiz, Mayweather should be disqualified.

    The comments about Merchant being a racist are ridiculous. Such comments are coming from individuals who play the race card and always support the black guy even when he’s wrong.  They are the real racists.

  18. "Old Yank" Schneider 05:46pm, 09/20/2011

    Adam—I liked your piece a lot.  Does a ref ever have a right to EXPECT top-flight, sportsmanlike behavior from elite fighters?  Mayweather showed remarkable restraint under repeat fouls in the Zab Judah bout.  Ortiz has performed like a pro in his last 5 or 6 bouts.  These are elite and near elite fighters we are talking about.  Perhaps Cortez was “sucker-punched” by Ortiz’s inexplicable, long and drawn out, hands-at-his-side, unprotected apology and equally “sucker-punched” by Mayweather’s unwillingness to let the apology play out.

  19. The Thresher 03:38pm, 09/20/2011

    MODI, I truly believe that Merchant has a prejudice against Latinos as well, Remember his quasi-scandal with the De La Hoya mariachi band. Merchant suffers from th dreaded disease Engageitis. He engages his mouth before his brain..

  20. The Thresher 03:35pm, 09/20/2011

    At one time, Joe was a great referee. But I think the “fair but firm” crap went too far and he began to see himself as more than a referee. He has now made way too many blunders to be considered an elite level performer. Time for Joe to smell the roses. IMO

  21. MODI 01:52pm, 09/20/2011

    Reffing was atrocious… as per character issue #3… it is simply not fair to base Floyd’s reaction to Merchant on “paranoid insecurity”.  Regardless of Merchant’s eulogy to Moore, any consistent viewing of Merchant over the years shows that he has a double-standard toward African-American fighters not reserved for Latino or white fighters. There is no one single “smoking gun” but a 30 year record of differential and disrespectful treatment that most notably includes Mayweather, Hopkins, Roy Jones, Jr.. RJJ and Foreman also get disrespected as co-announcers that go beyond the bounds of professional disagreement.  Floyd has called out Merchant’s racial double-standard in the past, and so have others. I don’t even know a single black boxing fan who is not convinced about Merchant’s racism (which is a bit more nuanced than he simply dislikes ALL black folks including Moore). Now to dismiss it as “paranoia” would be to dismiss Merchant’s post-fight interviews for the last 30 years. Taken in its isolation to a new viewer, Floyd would seem to be on the defensive in this last fight, but many longtime viewers knew EXACTLY what Floyd was reacting to when he was reacting to it. And finally, Floyd’s reaction was only supported and reinforced by Merchant’s kid gloves treatment of Ortiz just one minute later after Merchant lost his professional cool. It was truly amazing that Merchant did not equally press Ortiz on his headbutt. Even worse, he actually did the opposite!!! Merchant asked Ortiz “why are you apologizing”....As Jose Canseco once proved, it is not wise to disregard the message just because we don’t like the messenger…

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