Rules of the Game: Jack Reiss on Refereeing Rungvisai-Estrada

By Caryn A. Tate on March 13, 2018
Rules of the Game: Jack Reiss on Refereeing Rungvisai-Estrada
“They threw 1550 punches. Which is about two punches every three seconds.” (HBO)

“The leather tears the skin; a butt is like hitting somebody with a ball-peen hammer and it just makes the skin explode. It’s usually vertical and jagged…”

“It was an extremely difficult fight to officiate,” said referee Jack Reiss. “It might not have looked that way, but it really was.”

Reiss was referring to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai vs. Juan Francisco Estrada from late February. The California-based ref is an experienced and well-respected official in the sport, so on the rare occasion he makes a statement like this, one tends to sit up and pay attention.

He explained, “They threw 1550 punches. Which is about two punches every three seconds. But what really happens is there’s a five second gap, and then there’s eight punches. And they’re moving, and it’s fast.

“They were righty against a lefty, so…sometimes a righty against a lefty, things work out really well, but other times—and this was one of these examples—it’s disastrous. Four times they hit the canvas due to their feet getting tied up, they bumped each other, or their heads collided. And there must have been at least—I’m not exaggerating—60 to 100 times throughout the fight that had some kind of effect where they stumbled, tripped, almost fell.”

One of the reasons Reiss is so respected as a referee is because he tries not to insert himself into the action unnecessarily. Hearing Jack elucidate his thought process, it becomes clear he’s intentional about his actions in the ring.

“It was really getting ugly and I had to decide—when am I gonna step in and say something, and when not? And you’ll notice, from about the fourth or fifth round, I stopped warning them. ‘Cause nothing I was gonna do was gonna make a difference. It was just their styles. And all I was gonna do was take away from [the fight]. So I just backed off and let it happen.

“What I had to do in this fight to overcome that challenge was I stayed back a little bit further than normal. When I’m watching them, I’m looking right in between both of the fighters at the shoulder level to watch the punches. I’m really focused on who’s hitting who. I’m also—with my peripheral vision—watching their heads, but in this case I stepped back a little further so I could see their feet as well. I didn’t want to miss their feet.”

Much like a skillful fighter, a referee must make adjustments to their standard way of operating depending on the match.

“There were a ton of times where they were stepping on each other’s toes, their knees were getting caught up, they were lunging in with punches so their bodies collided,” Reiss said. “In the first or second round, the first time Rungvisai went down, it was from a head butt. He was stepping in to throw a punch, and Estrada bent down with his head—he didn’t head butt him on purpose, but Rungvisai ran into him with his head. It totally took his left foot out from under him, and of course, after his left foot comes out from under him, Estrada hits him with a punch. People don’t understand he was already on the way down.”

Jack detailed another example of having to think on his feet and prevent a potential controversy.

“In the tenth round, the guys were tired. It was hot. I was sweating under the lights. And both fighters’ corners were just dumping water all over them. When they came out to the center—’cause they were fighting mostly in the center—as soon as one of them got hit or threw punches, all that water was spraying on top of that decal that was in the center of the ring. And that became like ice. And Rungvisai slipped just moving in on a punch. So I go, shit, now he’s gonna get hit and he’s gonna slip at the same time. What the hell am I gonna call that? That was going through my head too.

“So I had the inspector jump in the ring between rounds and wipe it up. And I directed the inspectors to stand there with a towel and make sure Rungvisai’s back, his shoulders, his hair are dry before he walks out for the next two rounds. And they did.”

Reiss added, “After all those times he went down, can you imagine Estrada hitting him with a punch and he loses his balance ‘cause the water’s on the mat—and I gotta make a decision, was it the punch or the mat? My first instinct is to say, well, the mat’s wet for both of them, so it’s fair—it’s even. If it comes from a punch, I’m gonna call it a knockdown. But I didn’t want that because it mars the beauty of that fight.”

In this type of fight, where it can be hard for the viewer at home to tell what caused a fighter to go down, Reiss clarified what he’s looking for when making the call in the moment.

“I’m looking at the fighters and I’m trying to see why he’s falling. If a guy gets hit, let’s say, with a right hand and his knees buckle, and he starts vertically falling…he’s losing his muscle control. And if he touches the other guy’s foot, it’s a knockdown.

“What happened with [Rungvisai and Estrada] is they were throwing winging, hard punches with their power hand. A lot of times they’d do it with their front hand too, throwing a hook, and they would totally miss. And from the miss, their body weight is over their front foot—so their body was already off balance, then they would hit the other guy’s foot and start tripping as well.

“So I’m standing back far enough to watch the effect of the punch—or, what’s hitting first? A punch, then a trip? Or a trip, and then a punch? That’s why I’m back far enough. I’m watching the whole picture.”

Reiss illuminated a simple way to tell whether it was a punch or a head butt that caused a cut and/or swelling, after the fact.

“Rungvisai’s left cheek was swollen up. A glove can’t do that. A glove will make a certain type of scarring—when the leather hits the skin and it twists it, it tears the skin and makes a very straight line cut. Usually it’ll go along with the lines on your face. But a butt will make a vertical cut because it splits the skin. The leather tears the skin; a butt is like hitting somebody with a ball-peen hammer and it just makes the skin explode. It’s usually vertical and jagged.

“Well, none of that affected this fight, but what did happen is a glove will create swelling but it’s usually a gentle swelling that’s even—like a larger area. If you looked at Rungvisai’s left cheek, he looked like someone hit him with a hammer. It was just swollen in one area. That’s from bone hitting bone. That’s never from a glove.”

Jack provided insight into one of the many challenges a referee has to deal with on fight night. “As a referee, you never know what you’re gonna get,” he said. “Because I wasn’t at their training camp. I don’t know if they had a fight with their wife and their wife hit him over the head with a bat and they’re already concussed. I’m kidding around, but you don’t know what kind of training camp they had, you don’t know what kind of personal problems they had, and there’s guys that come in sometimes—they over-train, sometimes they under-train, they take a guy lightly. You don’t know what guy you’re getting that night. You hope you’re getting the best, but you just don’t know.

“So when I go in there, I have a tool chest around my belt, and I have all these tools in it for situations. But you’ve gotta make a decision while it’s happening to try not to over-officiate. By the fourth or fifth round, I said, Nothing I do is gonna change this. They’re not gonna calm down, they’re not gonna stop stepping on each other’s feet, and all I’m gonna do is over-officiate if I keep warning them. So I shut up and didn’t warn ‘em anymore. I let whatever was gonna happen happen, and I let those two settle it.”

Reiss addressed the fact that even the slightest change in his decisions during the bout would have had dramatic impact. “If any of those four times those guys went down from the tripping? If I’d have missed it and called it a knockdown, it would’ve changed the fight. The whole fight would’ve been different.”

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  1. Rebecca 01:11pm, 03/15/2018

    How do I find out when Mr. Reiss referees? I truly like his style than any other. Thank you.

  2. Bob 05:22pm, 03/13/2018

    Very informative and interesting article. Incredibly unique. Mr. Reiss is not only a great referee, he’s a terrific articulator and this was very well written. A delight to read.

  3. Lucas McCain 04:01pm, 03/13/2018

    Yes. The different categories of cuts and swellings was grim but fascinating, and best of all was the concern he had not to mar the beauty of the fight.  Reminds me of some writer—was it Norman Mailer?—who commented on Ali following Foreman around, but not hitting him again, as big George went down in Zaire, because he didn’t want to ruin the perfect beauty of his spiraling descent

  4. Koolz 03:11pm, 03/13/2018

    very interesting!  Illuminating!

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