Steve Smoger Bigger's Better

By Steve Smoger as told to Doveed Linder

In this interview, veteran referee Steve Smoger discusses his appreciation for heavyweight boxing, the impact Jersey Joe Walcott had on his life, and a recent heavyweight tournament that he worked in France called “Bigger’s Better”. –Doveed Linder

“ When I was growing up, the heavyweight championship was the most prestigious prize in all of sports. The man who held that title was viewed as Superman. He was the man of steel.

I first became aware of what a heavyweight champion was at a very young age. It was September 23, 1952 at the Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia. Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in the thirteenth round to become the new heavyweight champion and the place went nuts. At the time, I didn’t recognize the significance of what had happened. What I did know is that I lived in New Jersey and that the champion was “Jersey” Joe. When I learned that Jersey Joe had been knocked out, it brought me to tears.

While everyone in the stadium was swarming Marciano, I said, “Dad, I want to see Jersey!”, so my father brought me over to the former champion and I reached out and touched his robe just before he disappeared into his dressing room. Ironically, it was Jersey Joe who issued me my license as a professional referee in the state of New Jersey on September 23, 1982, on the thirtieth anniversary of his first fight with Marciano. I was supposed to be licensed that June, but I had told Jersey Joe the story of how I saw his fight with Marciano and he got such a kick out it that he deliberately delayed my licensing until September 23.

By today’s standards, Rocky Marciano was small for a heavyweight. In fact, he wouldn’t even be a heavyweight if he were fighting today. But back then, he was this towering image of an indestructible man. At that time, I started watching old 8 millimeter films and I began to learn about Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis. Jack Johnson was more than just a heavyweight champion. For an African-American man to step into the spotlight and stand up to racism the way he did was unheard of. The same can be said of Joe Louis [Editor’s note: although Louis did it in his own low-key way]. Louis fought at a time when many considered African American men to be inferior. Adolf Hitler, the German leader in the 1930s, himself said that Germany’s Max Schmeling was the son of God… but this black man from inner-city Detroit came along and destroyed his ass!

And let’s not forget about Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in the Vietnam War and was very outspoken about his political views. These are men who elevated, not just the sport we love and cherish, but the whole world that we live in today.

As long as we’re talking heavyweight boxing, let’s bring up Larry Holmes for a minute. I became a staunch Larry Holmes fan when Renaldo Snipes almost took his title. Renaldo knocked him down in the seventh and had him just about out of there. Holmes somehow made it to his feet and not only survived, but went on to stop Renaldo in the eleventh. How does a man do that? Fighters were always the heroes of my household growing up. For me, that moment when Holmes made it to his feet epitomizes what makes these men so heroic. This image I have of Larry Holmes has been with me ever since and it didn’t change when Mike Tyson knocked him out in Atlantic City in 1988. I was there ringside. When Holmes fell for the last time, his head was one foot away from me.

Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, and Larry Holmes were the best heavyweights of their time. Throughout my career as a referee, I’ve been fortunate enough to share the ring with some of the best heavyweights of recent years. My first televised fight was actually a heavyweight bout. Carl “The Truth” Williams scored an upset over James “Quick” Tillis in a fight that went the distance. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with all of “The Big Three”, meaning Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and Mike Tyson. When I worked with Lennox, it was in the very early stages of his career and it was his first fight on American soil. We spent less than six minutes inside the ropes together, because he knocked out Bruce Johnson in the second round. I worked with Evander in his third fight with John Ruiz and I remember there was a lot of clinching in that fight. Johnny had a tendency to fall into a clinch very readily, so I had to work close and break them to keep the fight flowing as much as possible.

I worked with Mike Tyson when he fought Brian Nielsen in Denmark. If you recall, shortly before this fight, Mike had a little incident in Scotland during his fight with Lou Savarese when he knocked referee John Coyle down and made quite a scene. I spoke with Mike before the Nielsen fight and I said, “When I’m not working, I’m one of your biggest fans. But when I put on the bowtie and come into the ring as your referee, I must tell you that I will not tolerate the conduct you displayed in the Savarese fight.” Mike followed the rules beautifully, and there wasn’t a single incident. Now, I am not a big man by any means. These guys tower over me, so I always have to establish a mutual respect beforehand. I’ll give you an example. You talk about two mammoth men… Jacob Javits Center, New York City, 2001. Mount Whitaker and Jameel McCline. I walked into their dressing rooms and I said, “Now, gentlemen, I’m going to give you verbal commands during the bout. Please pay attention to what I say, because there is no way I can physically separate specimens such as yourselves.” I keep it very light and friendly. Fortunately, I have never had a problem with any heavyweight I’ve worked with.

I’m proud to say that throughout my career, I have worked in more countries than any other referee in the history of the sport. Just recently, I had the privilege of going to France to work a heavyweight tournament called “Bigger’s Better”. It’s a very interesting concept. Have you ever heard of Eurosport? It’s the European equivalent to ESPN. They are working with a promoter by the name of JC Courreges, who is a terrific fight person. JC is in partnership with Jean-Philippe Lustyk and Stephane Cabrera and together they have created “Bigger’s Better”. The purpose of this tournament is to develop talent in the heavyweight division with the idea that one or more contenders will emerge from this series of fights and challenge for the heavyweight title. They put together eight fighters from a variety of combat sports. Kickboxing, MMA… Some of them are pure boxers, just as this tournament is purely boxing. It’s on a point system with a quarter finals, semi finals, and then the finals. Each competitor has three three-round bouts.

It’s almost like a European version of “The Contender” and these fights do go on the fighters’ pro records. The first year was an enormous success and they are now into their second year. The finals take place in December, and the overall winner will have the opportunity to train in North Carolina at the camp of Don Turner, the former trainer of Evander Holyfield.

I was the only American involved in the production and I worked with a terrific group of guys. The fight of the night was between Claus Bertino from Denmark and Agit Kabayel from Germany. It was an excellent three-round bout. There were uppercuts, overhand rights… Definitely what I would consider to be Madison Square Garden quality. For some of the guys in the tournament, it was their pro debut. Other guys who fought have had some experience, but maybe not the best of records. The guy who won is a young man by the name of Evgeny Orlov. He has a record of 16-12-1, so by today’s standards, he would be considered tainted. Who’s going to book a 16-12-1 guy, other than to use him as an opponent? I grew up at a time when boxing was much different. In the golden era of boxing, you could have a guy with a record of 10-10 who is an absolute killer. So what, if a guy loses a few fights on his way up?

Look what’s happening in the heavyweight division today. Some of these so-called hot shots aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. David Haye wore a shirt with Wladimir’s and Vitali’s severed heads and he blamed his non-performance against Wladimir on a toe injury. Then you’ve got an undefeated Kevin Johnson who goes over to challenge Vitali and he throws five punches in twelve rounds. No wonder the public is fed up with the heavyweight division!

I actually think the Klitschko brothers don’t get the credit they deserve. They silenced all the loudmouths and they’ve overcome all the obstacles put before them. What the heavyweight division needs is competitive fights. That’s why I think “Bigger’s Better” is good for boxing. There was a time when bigger WAS considered better, but now people look to other divisions for the glory and excitement that heavyweight boxing used to bring. “Bigger’s Better” is a unique program to try to fill the void for what is perceived as a very devastating time in the heavyweight division, and it may open some doors for these guys, who wouldn’t ordinarily get the exposure. At some point, as this series progresses, I firmly believe that someone will emerge from this tournament who will eventually be a serious contender for the heavyweight championship of the world “

Source: Boxing Talk