The role of the referee in any sport is to function as the neutral arbiter of the rules and regulations of the relevant game that they are overseeing. Be it at the amateur or professional level, the rule of thumb is that they remain firmly in the background of the action being played out while keeping control of events which unfold in the demarcated field of play.
This line of thinking applies also to the world of professional boxing. Most, if not all, would subscribe to the point of view that managers, trainers, cornermen and hangers on, while servicing the physical and psychological needs of the fighter, should never deign to hold themselves out as equals to the boxers in so far as which party is the centrepiece of the show.
This is also certainly the case for those who state athletic commissions or boards of control appoint to officiate at the contests which they sanction; this notwithstanding the high level of visibility a referee may potentially command within the relatively small confines of the squared ring.
It is a line of thinking that still holds true despite the theatrical aspects which, over the course of time, have become attached to the fight game. Fighters embark on a ring trek often decked out in fineries to the accompaniment of raucous music and the not too infrequent displays of pyrotechnical prowess.
But of course, the element of celebrity manages to extend to other ‘stage’ actors. The ring announcer Michael Buffer’s pre-fight exhortation to “Let’s get ready to rumble” has achieved for Buffer an iconic status as well as the privilege of registering the phrase as a trademark which has bequeathed him a fortune.
Such is not expected to be the case with those charged with the duty of ensuring fair play and the safety of fighters in the ring.
Yet, it has in recent times become almost de rigueur for referees ranging from the highly competent to the mediocre to invent signature phrases in an attempt to forge a kind of a ring personality.
Mills Lane, the Nevada-based ex-marine and judge, solidified his reputation for adopting a no nonsense approach to officiating by ending his ring instructions with the phrase “Let’s get it on!”
Whether Lane’s now famous call to arms provided the spark which has inspired a multitude of referees to adopt a rash of sometimes tediously manufactured phrases remains a bone of contention.
But there is a case to proffer that in contemporary times, talent and hard work at whatever vocation or occupation being pursued is not enough.
One needs to operate within a working environment with a personalised brand.
If the aura of a laboured attempt at self-promotion was found in the catchphrase “I’m fair but I’m firm”, coined by Joe Cortez, as well as in the rhyming approach favoured in Kenny Bayless’s “What I say, you must obey”, there are nonetheless exemplars provided by a number of referees whose pre-fight instructions convey the appropriate level of detachment and sense of dedicated professionalism required of the third man in the ring.
Since the 1990s, Ron Lipton’s sober instructions in the centre of the ring to the likes of Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones and Oscar De La Hoya testify to the belief that a referee can calibrate his words in a personally distinctive, yet professional manner, which need not traverse the boundaries of decorum and enter into the realm of the hyperbole and doggerel suggestive of a flea circus announcer:
I have given you my instructions. I remind you now, obey my commands. Respect each other and let’s keep this strictly professional
For around 23 years, Lipton’s advice to the fighters to maintain their actions and attitudes in the ring on a “strictly professional” footing remained to the best of his knowledge a unique expression among those in the fraternity of referees.
When while taking charge of the Luis Collazo-Victor Ortiz bout on January 30th of this year the referee Benjy Esteves used the words “Let’s keep it strictly professional”, some fight fans were stirred to comment on what appeared to be the appropriation of a fellow referee’s turn of words.
Happenstance perhaps? Well, not really. On May 8th of 2014, on a bill at New York’s Turning Stone Casino, similar instructions, albeit modified, were issued to the contestants by Esteves.
Lipton was inundated with a barrage of e-mails from fight aficionados who again had been struck by the same referee issuing mid-ring instructions which included Lipton’s enduring phrase of keeping things professional.
While Lipton contented himself by stating that he felt that it was “an honest mistake”, some fans reacted with outrage even asserting that his colleague’s actions had amounted to a brazen form of plagiarism.
Lipton, who had worked with Esteves at Resorts World Casino in Queens on 20th December 2013, played this down by insisting that Esteves was a friend and that he considered it to be a compliment.
It was Charles Caleb, a 19th Century-era English writer and cleric, who issued the famous saying that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. The addendum offered by George Bernard Shaw that imitation was not merely flattery but in fact the “sincerest form of learning”, appears to be apt in the circumstances of a younger man purloining the words of an older and vastly more experienced colleague.
Polite rationales aside, if the aforementioned development by which professional referees through the words they contrive during their mid-ring instructions is widely accepted as a legitimate tool aimed at carving out their distinctive professional identities, then what Esteves has done can be persuasively argued to have breached the standards of professional etiquette.
It is conduct which certainly amounts to a species of plagiarism for which he should take responsibility by issuing an apology and refraining from using the words which have become associated with Ron Lipton.
A sense of basic decency demands that he do no less.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He is the author of Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula and Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal.