Was the Referee Right or Wrong?

By Adam P. Short on March 12, 2012
Was the Referee Right or Wrong?
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) found Henry Cooper a good deal tougher than he expected

The third man in the ring sometimes makes blunders. Let’s take a look at some of the most controversial correct refereeing decisions of all time…

Refereeing controversies are as old as boxing itself, but the magic of film allows us to look back for ourselves and ask which ones were truly blunders by the third man in the ring, and which were much ado about nothing. Let’s take a look at some of the most controversial correct refereeing decisions of all time.

#5 Octavio Moran: Buster Douglas’ “Long Count”

The Situation

A badly underprepared Iron Mike Tyson showed up in Tokyo expecting to face a lazy, undisciplined second-tier challenger named James “Buster” Douglas. Instead, he ran up against an uncharacteristically motivated boxer/puncher with quick hands and no apparent fear of the supposedly unstoppable Tyson. Douglas outclassed and confused Tyson, nearly closing his left eye and beating him soundly in almost every round.

Then in the eighth, Tyson appeared to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat with a horrific right uppercut that sent Douglas crashing to the canvas. Douglas rose at the count of nine to the ringing of the bell to end the round, and it took him only two more rounds to knock Tyson out and claim the heavyweight crown. 

The Controversy

Based on the fight film, Douglas was down on the canvas for about 13 seconds, and seemed to need all of it. Had Octavio Moran counted properly, Tyson would have retained his crown and Douglas would never have earned the dubious honor of becoming one of the least noteworthy fighters ever to hold the heavyweight title. 

The Reality

Too bad we’ll never know if Douglas REALLY could have arisen in time to beat a correct count, but to compare Moran’s slow count to the famous “Long Count” in the Gene Tunney/Jack Dempsey fight is absurd. Moran did not wait several seconds to begin the count—on the contrary, he jumped to the canvas instantly to begin the count and did everything in his power to ensure that the count was correct. He was off by a few seconds, but a review of the film clearly shows that the duration of Moran’s nine-count is well within the range of normal. 

Moran reacted swiftly and decisively despite the sudden surprise knockdown of a fighter who seemed until that moment to be in complete control of the fight. No count is perfect, but Moran’s was close enough.

#4 Ferd Hernandez: Muhammad Ali TKO’s Ron Lyle

The Situation

Challenger Ron Lyle was ahead on the cards at the start of the 11th round of a scheduled 15 in a fight for Ali’s world title when suddenly Ali landed a quick right hand to the jaw that sent Lyle reeling into the ropes. In the ensuing minute, Lyle was peppered with shots, and Hernandez waved the fight off.

The Controversy

Lyle, a tough and powerful brawler/puncher who in his career waged many a brutal war with much harder punchers than Muhammad Ali, did not appear to be seriously hurt in the aftermath of the stoppage, and almost certainly could have continued. The referee’s quick trigger deprived Lyle of his chance to derail the Ali legend and claim the heavyweight crown.

The Reality

Lyle’s lead on the scorecard was real enough—Ali had given away almost all the early rounds while trying to bait Lyle into punching himself out. But Lyle wasn’t really winning the fight—Ali had been tagging him with sharp right hands at will since the seventh round. Lyle wasn’t stopped on the basis of his reaction to this single punch, but because the accumulation of dozens of clean blows had eroded his reflexes to the point that he was incapable of defending himself. In the 60 seconds before the stoppage, Ali threw 45 punches, almost all of which landed. Lyle threw none.

#3 Frank Cappucino: Lennox Lewis TKO’s Shannon Briggs

The Situation

One of the least anticipated lineal heavyweight title fights of all time, Briggs was not thought to have much of a chance against Lewis, but in Cappucino’s capable hands the fight turned into a classic. He established a rapport with both fighters and his cranky commands can be heard on the fight audio throughout the early rounds, keeping the fighters busy and ensuring that this would be no typical modern heavyweight clinchfest. 

The Controversy

In the fourth round, Briggs was floored by a punishing right hand and rose on unsteady legs, but Cappucino exhorted Briggs “It’s time to go to work” and go to work he did, battering Lewis and almost taking control until Lewis began to beat Briggs into submission at the end of one of the best action rounds in recent heavyweight boxing history. 

In the fifth Briggs was floored again, but Cappucino saw some life in him yet, allowing the fight to continue through yet another brutal knockdown until finally Briggs fell over while trying to throw a left hook and Cappucino waved the fight off. If Cappucino was willing to let Briggs continue through so much punishment, why stop it once Briggs managed to recover enough to go on the offensive?

The Reality

Many observers have called this a blunder, since Briggs actually slipped and was not knocked down, but in reality Briggs’ shocking lack of balance was the final signal Cappucino needed to end a brutal fight at exactly the right time. A fighter who cannot throw a punch without falling over is in no fit state to fight.

#2 Tommy Little: The “Torn Glove” Delay

The Situation

In an attempt to use international notoriety as leverage to gain a shot at Sonny Liston’s heavyweight title, Cassius Clay traveled to London to face the British champion, left hook artist Henry Cooper. 

Clay found Cooper a good deal tougher than he expected, catching repeated hooks to the face in the early part of Round One. Eventually Clay seemed to subdue Cooper by feeding him a steady diet of jabs and right crosses, cutting him badly over the left eye. 

But in the fourth round momentum shifted again as Clay stepped backward carelessly and Cooper unleashed a world-class left hook to Clay’s jaw, flooring him as the bell sounded to end the fourth. Unfortunately for Cooper, Clay recovered and stopped Henry on cuts in the fifth to survive the scare.

The Controversy

Tommy Little is rarely named in discussions of this controversial fight. Instead the accounts focus on Angelo Dundee’s famous “torn glove” ruse in which he hid a partially torn glove from the referee until the end of the fourth round, then showed the split leather when he thought it could help him buy time. The resulting delay has been described as giving Cassius Clay “an extra minute” to recover from the knockdown.

The Reality

In fact the film of the fight is available and undamaged for anyone who wants to watch it. Little, who had every incentive to make sure Cooper got a fair shake (the fight took place in London, Cooper’s hometown) never lost command of the fight and disposed of Dundee’s stalling tactic deftly. The fight resumed after a “delay” of only six or seven seconds. As for the stoppage itself, the cut is described variously by the British announcer as “appalling,” “dreadful,” and “shocking” in the moments before Little waves things off. No controversy there.

#1 Richard Steele: Julio Caesar Chavez TKOs Meldrick Taylor

The Situation

Meldrick Taylor was WBC light welterweight champion; Julio Caesar Chavez was IBF junior welterweight champion and widely considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of all time. Their long-anticipated unification bout in 1990 proved to be an all-time classic that went the distance—minus two crucial seconds.

The Controversy

Meldrick Taylor controlled the fight with his movement and hand speed, building a solid lead on two of the judges’ scorecards, but as the fight wore on he began to take more and more punishment. By the 12th round he was in survival mode, but trainer Lou Duva, not knowing the situation on the scorecards, exhorted Taylor to go out and fight to win.

Instead Chavez got the better of Taylor, flooring him with just seconds to go in the final round. Taylor arose and would have needed only to stand up for two more seconds to win the fight, but Richard Steele inexplicably stopped the contest and awarded the win to Chavez. 

The Reality

Though Steele’s decision was indeed shocking, it was by no means inexplicable. Taylor was in visible medical distress, his face sickeningly bloated into a horrific swollen mask from several serious head injuries. Steele, realizing that the fight was almost over and that Chavez was entitled to try to finish his man, actually completed his standing eight-count with a full seven seconds left to fight. 

At that point Steele tried to quickly ascertain Taylor’s condition by asking Taylor if he was all right to continue. When Taylor didn’t reply, Steele quickly asked again, but Taylor again failed to respond verbally, managing only a feeble and ambiguous nod. 

Seeing a fighter clearly in no fit state to continue, Steele waved the fight off. It was a bold and unusual decision, and the controversy surrounding the fight will likely haunt Steele forever. However, he can always comfort himself by remembering that he may well have saved Meldrick Taylor’s life that night. Any punch landed by Chavez at the end of that round would have been as likely as any punch ever thrown to result in a fatality in the ring. Richard Steele delivered an all-time great championship fight and held true in the crucial moment to the most important trust a referee can uphold—protecting the life of the fighters. For his trouble he gained a lifetime of notoriety as the guy who robbed Meldrick Taylor of the title.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Classic Tyson. Mike Tyson v James Buster Douglas part 1 of 3

Classic Tyson. Mike Tyson v James Buster Douglas part 2 of 3

Classic Tyson. Mike Tyson v James Buster Douglas part 3 of 3

Muhammad Ali vs Ron LYLE knock out TKO SWEETFIGHTS.COM

Lennox Lewis vs Shannon Briggs 1/3

Lennox Lewis vs Shannon Briggs 2/3

Lennox Lewis vs Shannon Briggs 3/3

Cassius Clay vs Henry Cooper I - June 18, 1963

1990 - Julio Cesar Chavez Vs Meldrick Taylor 1 Fight of the year 90

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  1. Joe Chemo 03:40am, 11/30/2016

    Re: Richard Steele: Julio Caesar Chavez TKOs Meldrick Taylor
    If there’s still time left in the round for the fighters to continue fighting, and one of the fighters is not fit to defend himself after being knocked down, he loses. That’s the rule. To act differently just because the fight was nearly over would have been unfair to Chavez. Steele was in the best position to see if Taylor could continue, so it’s pointless to second guess him.

  2. mehmet demir 04:08am, 06/05/2016

    Octavio Meyran has big wronged while counting and was a very bad referee.

  3. The Fight Film Collector 12:36pm, 02/08/2013

    Good article and arguments, Adam. But I notice you side with the ref in all your chosen examples.  Is your message that the ref is always right?

  4. eddie holloway 03:48pm, 08/28/2012

    Ali and Dundee cheated Henry Cooper

  5. Darrell 05:04pm, 08/22/2012

    If you say so Jethro…he looked more like he was sulking to me & certainly not staggering about.  I have no doubts that Dundee would “bend” or break the laws of the game to get his man back out there in fighting shape…I don’t believe he needed to though.  Ali was always very resilient.  I guess that’s boxing!

  6. Jethro's Flute 09:52pm, 08/21/2012

    Ali was hurt by the hook, quite badly in fact. He walked back to his corner like a drunk man and Angelo Dundee used illegal smelling salts on him in the corner - I have this on tape.

  7. Darrell 04:52pm, 08/21/2012

    Steele showed good sense really…in any other round but the last there would’ve been no controversy about the stoppage at all.  He did right by Meldrick there.

    As for Cooper-Ali, there was no controversy at all.  Hardly any time was taken up by the torn glove.  Ali wasn’t hurt by the hook at all…aside from his pride as he dropped his lip & had a bit of a tantrum in the corner.  Henry got punished from thereon in.

    As @Jethro’s Flute says, and as my memory tells me also, Buster had his wits about him after being knocked down…Mike was in wonderland, no doubts.

  8. Jethro's Flute 04:36am, 08/21/2012

    The counts for both Tyson and Douglas were exactly the same length and Douglas was awake and listening to the count during his while Mike Tyson was in such a terrible state when he got up that my mum could have knocked him down with a feather duster. Just an average punch from Douglas would have meant that Tyson would never have fought again.

    The referee did get it right in Tyson vs Douglas and Joe Layden’s ‘Last great fight’ book showed that Octavio Meyran did nothing unusual and, in fact, did a great job.

  9. eddie holloway 06:19am, 08/16/2012

    Dundee cheated. Ali would have been defeated.

  10. Luca 10:03pm, 03/18/2012

    At last: excellent review of the Chavez-Taylor controversy. One of the toughest decisions ever to be taken in split seconds and in the heat of the moment; in my opinion the right one. Steele deserves a lot of respect for protecting the fighters at all time, unlike some of his peers (Mills Lane, Mercante Jr, anyone…?)

  11. the thresher 09:30am, 03/15/2012

    Also maybe in Taylor-Chavez

  12. the thresher 03:54pm, 03/12/2012

    Maybe wrong in the Cooper deal

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