The Night the Referee Hit Back

By Mike Silver on June 11, 2014
The Night the Referee Hit Back
"How I had ever managed, purely by instinct, to dodge his right I will never know."

“I had no intention of letting it go unreturned,” said Luftspring. “His next was a left lead, which I slipped, and punched him one on the heart…”

The date is January 27, 1970. Sammy Luftspring, a 54-year-old one-eyed former welterweight contender, is assigned to referee a 10-round main bout in the ballroom of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel between Canada’s Clyde Gray and a Panamanian fighter named Humberto Trottman. During the course of the fight Trottman became angered at what he thought was Luftspring’s biased officiating. Seconds before the start of the sixth round, without warning, Trottman threw a sucker punch right hook to Luftspring’s jaw!

In his very readable and informative 1975 autobiography Call Me Sammy, Luftspring describes what happened next: “What was going on in my head was that I was in a boxing ring with a boxer who had just thrown one punch and probably intended to give me a sample of a few more. How I had ever managed, purely by instinct, to dodge his right I will never know. But I had no intention of letting it go unreturned. His next was a left lead, which I slipped, and punched him one on the heart. And the next thing I knew, I had popped him three or four more times without getting touched again myself.

“For those few split seconds, thirty years had magically vanished and I was a boxer again, doing my thing. Then a swarm of people—George Chuvalo, and several other heavyweights among them—came swarming over the ropes and the impromptu match was over.” Fans agreed that the old welterweight contender had scored another (albeit unofficial) victory. Sammy also kept his record intact of never having been floored in over 140 amateur and professional bouts.

Trottman was of course immediately disqualified and issued a lifetime suspension. On only two other occasions had a boxer ever turned on a referee, both times in Europe. But only one referee has ever hit back. The incident was reported in newspapers throughout Canada and the U.S. Sammy hadn’t seen that type of attention and publicity in years. But there was far more to his story than an impromptu match with an unhinged Panamanian boxer.

Sammy Luftspring began his boxing career in 1932 at a Toronto Jewish community center. Over the next four years he established himself as one of the best amateur boxers in Canada, compiling an outstanding 100-5 won-lost record that included Golden Gloves titles from bantamweight to welterweight. He was Canada’s best hope for a gold medal at the upcoming Olympics in Berlin, Germany. But Luftspring and his buddy, Norman “Baby” Yack, another outstanding Canadian Jewish boxer, decided to boycott the Nazi Olympics to protest Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population.

After their decision was made public both Luftspring and Yack were invited to participate in an alternate Olympic Games planned for Barcelona, Spain. They were on their way to Barcelona, waiting for a boat to take them from the southern coast of France to Spain, when the event was abruptly cancelled due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Luftspring returned to Canada and turned pro.

From 1936 to 1938 Sammy won 23 of 27 bouts, including victories over Baby Salvy Saban, Billy Townsend, and a 13th round KO of Frankie Genovese for the Canadian welterweight title. In January 1939 he moved his base of operations to New York City where Al Weill became his manager and Whitey Bimstein his trainer. The young fighter was in good hands. Weill was a brilliant and influential manager and Bimstein had already trained scores of top pros and several champions. Over the next year Sammy won eight of 10 fights. Victories over Phil Furr, Johnny McHale and Andre Jessurun earned him a rating among the top five welterweights in the world. His only losses were by decision to middleweights Steve Mamakos and Vic Dellicurti.

By 1940 Sammy was on a fast track to a title bout with the great Henry Armstrong when disaster struck. In a tune-up bout against Steve Belloise, in front of 12,000 fans crammed into the Bronx Coliseum, he was unintentionally thumbed in the left eye.

Despite fighting half blind for the next seven rounds against the murderous punching Belloise, Luftspring pressed the action and appeared to have won the eight-round decision. But two of the three judges voted for Belloise.

The loss was a serious setback for Luftspring but worse news was in store for the 24-year-old fighter. He had suffered a detached retina and within weeks lost total vision in his left eye. The injury was permanent. Sammy’s career as a professional fighter was suddenly over. His final stats: 31-8 (13 KOs).

The young fighter was devastated. His dream of winning the welterweight championship of the world was gone forever. Now unemployed, and recently married, he had to find a new career that could support his family. After a few false starts, including stints as a cab driver and liquor salesman, he eventually found his niche as a partner in a successful Toronto supper club. With Luftspring acting as its congenial host (he often took the microphone to croon sentimental ballads) “The Mercury Club” quickly became a Toronto landmark and a popular destination for locals, tourists, and visiting celebrities. The club operated successfully for 21 years.

While running the club Sammy remained involved with the boxing world as a referee. He officiated in hundreds of amateur and professional bouts, including the heavyweight title bout between Ernie Terrell and George Chuvalo in 1965

Luftspring remained a very popular figure in his native Toronto for most of his life. In 1985 he was inducted into the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2000 at the age of 84.

Boxing historian Mike Silver is the author of the The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science (McFarland Publishers, 2008). The critically acclaimed book has just been reissued in paperback and in kindle version.

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  1. Evan W 03:08pm, 06/14/2014

    Hey, Pierre. Great write up! I never knew you were a boxing writer when we trained together with Dom. I hope you’re well,  my friend!

  2. Tex Hassler 07:17pm, 06/13/2014

    Sammy was a good fighter and an excellent referee. I had read about this fighter getting punched by the referee many years ago. Sammy had no choice after getting punched, and fell back on his training in order to defend himself. Excellent article by a first class writer and one who has a genuine knowledge of boxing.

  3. Mike Silver 03:25pm, 06/13/2014

    Thank you Mike C. and Dan.

  4. Dan Cuoco 10:15am, 06/12/2014

    I meant to say, he fought the balance of his fight with the hard-punching Bellloise with one good eye.

  5. Dan Cuoco 10:10am, 06/12/2014

    Mike, I love it. A nice story about Sammy. He was one hell of a fighter - more remarkable when you consider he fought with one good eye.  I also remember seeing the film clip of Mueller many times over the years. Referee Frankie Van was dropped by Pajarito Moreno in his KO win over Tommy Bain in 1957. The photo of Van on the canvas appeared in The Ring Magazine.

  6. Eric 09:31am, 06/12/2014

    teehee. That Peter Muller vid was hilarious. Looks like Muller didn’t take his meds that day.

  7. Mike Casey 08:42am, 06/12/2014

    Lovely, Mike! Great article!

  8. Eric 08:02am, 06/12/2014

    Arthur Mercante Sr. while not a big man, seemed to always be in shape, and guys like Richard Steele and Randy Neumann were ex-fighters, but some of these referees are in pretty sad shape. I remember the referee for the Lewis-Tyson fight, a very big man, but he was grossly out of shape. Clearly they wanted a big man to be able to separate and take charge over two large men like Tyson and Lewis, but I thought the guy was going to have a heart attack. I’ve never seen a referee sweat so much in my life, he was sweating more than Tyson or Lewis. Of course being an ex-fighter doesn’t always make for a competent referee,  just look at Joe Louis officiating the second Quarry-Frazier bout.

  9. Bob 01:57am, 06/12/2014

    Was unfamiliar with this referee/fighter or this story. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. Very interesting.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:18pm, 06/11/2014

    “Protect yourself at all times”....goes to show….. some of the ridiculous shit that is foisted on the paying boxing public when referee Sammy Luftspring does a better job of protecting himself than Victor Ortiz.

  11. Robert Ecksel 06:51pm, 06/11/2014

    Some photos of Sammy Luftspring in his heyday can be seen here: http://boxrec.com/media/index.php?title=Human:45804

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