Ed Graney

Refs face untold pressure

Referee Toby Gibson was doing some of his best work shortly before he took his own life. Photo / Golden Boy Promotions

The guy was taking a beating. Getting pummeled. Hurt to the point that Barry Druxman feared for his life. So between rounds Druxman suggested to a fellow referee working the bout that he stop it, that allowing the battered fighter to continue would be a senseless and potentially hazardous choice.

The fight went on. The guy who was supposedly this close to a coma or coffin came out the next round, threw one punch and knocked his opponent out.

And that's when Druxman knew.

“I was running scared,” he said. “My judgment was impaired. I wasn't making good decisions. I had to get out. I just didn't want to be the guy where a death or serious injury happened with me in the ring.

“If you stop it too soon, you're a buffoon. If you stop it too late, you can be (labeled) a murderer.”

A definition: Stress is a fact of nature, forces from the outside world affecting an individual that are related to both external and internal factors.

A position in sports it might affect most: Boxing referee.

***

Richard Green killed himself with a handgun in July of 1983. He was 46. Mitch Halpern ended his life the same way eight years ago at 33. Toby Gibson sat in his car with the engine running and garage door closed and took his life by way of carbon monoxide poisoning on Nov. 25 of this year. He was 61.

Twenty-five years.

Three boxing referees from Nevada.

Three suicides.

Any connection?

You could begin searching beyond their profession and not discover a connection years later. Never, really. Most agree the fact they were all referees in boxing's most influential state is more fluke than clue leading to any troubling outline about how far stress in the ring can push those calling a fight to make deadly decisions out of it.

Most also agree that there is no more difficult job in sports.

Druxman has been a boxing official and judge for 38 years and in 2001 founded the International Professional Ring Officials organization, which offers annual training seminars and clinics, which allows those who live the kind of loneliness a 20-by-20 padded square can produce to gather with peers and swap stories and suggestions and, most of all, share support.

Druxman knew all three referees who took their lives, knew that Green blamed himself for allowing the Ray Mancini-Duk Koo Kim fight to go too long in 1982, which resulted in Kim's death four days later; knew that while Halpern worked the fight in which Gabriel Ruelas delivered the punches that resulted in the death of Jimmy Garcia in 1995, never accepted having the Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield II fight taken from him at the last minute in 1997 and had been denigrated for his work three years later when David Reid fought Felix Trinidad, he also suffered from deep personal issues away from boxing; knew that Gibson was about to start a new business and seemed entirely content the day he turned on his car and closed that garage door.

He knew them all.

Or, like so many, thought he did.

Reluctant to confide in others. Odd or strange beliefs. Has no close friends. Often late or absent from responsibilities. Often lies or is conning for profit or pleasure. Lacks remorse. Fears showing signs of embarrassment. Unwarranted sense of entitlement. Displays shallow expressions of emotion.

They are just a few of the multitude of traits frequently associated with those who commit suicide. The three boxing referees could have owned all or none of them. They could have also been three bread makers. Or doctors. Or musicians. Or fill-in-your-profession-of-choice-here.

“Who's to say why people (commit suicide)?” said Dr. Margaret Goodman, a licensed ring physician from 1994 to 2005 and former chairman of the Medical Advisory Board in Nevada. “You could say that certain types of people gravitate towards such a choice. But other than (Green), there is probably no correlation at all between boxing and the decision each made. But that doesn't change how difficult the job is or the stress that comes with it.

“All eyes are on you. Someone could die or have a career-ending injury based on how you handle the fight. You have an amazing control and influence, and that comes with great pressure. Like anything, it can also be thrilling. It's a very seductive job, like watching an opera play out before your eyes. It becomes spellbinding. Hard to give up.”

****

His wife answered all the threatening telephone calls at home. She went to the supermarket alone, stood in line and listened as others slandered him. Heck, she finally asked the same question as everyone.

Why in the world did you stop it?

Richard Steele has heard it, thank you very much. A million times and counting. He was for years Bill Murray waking up in Punxsutawney day after day, only it wasn't some comedy about a weatherman.

“It was pretty bad for a long time,” said the retired Steele. “At a point in your life like that, God is your only friend. You are completely alone in the world.”

There are controversial stoppages in boxing and then there is March 17 of 1990 in Las Vegas. There is the first Julio Cesar Chavez against Meldrick Taylor fight.

There is Taylor leading the undefeated Chavez on the scorecards and yet Steele stopping the fight with two seconds remaining in the final round, allowing
Chavez to remain perfect after 69 fights.

Two seconds.

A lifetime of grief.

“When you are in that ring, it's you against the world,” Steele said. “You just have to come to the conclusion very early that you can't please everyone. Have everything in the proper perspective — believe in yourself, your family, your God, your commission.

“It was years and years before slowly some people began to come around to my side about (the stoppage). It was never about who won the fight. I was protecting a guy in Taylor that I felt could have died with one more punch. It has to always be about the safety of the fighter. I wasn't thinking about the time. I was thinking that he had just been knocked down, wasn't responding to my questions and was in serious trouble.

“Toughest job in the world, man. Toughest job in the world.”

The day before Green killed himself, he was set to move in with Steele while a house he purchased in Las Vegas was being prepared. There was no hint of sadness in Green's actions and words, Steele remembers. Nothing to suggest such a tragic ending.

The day before Halpern pulled his own trigger, Steele spoke to his fellow referee on the telephone. Halpern had just returned from a trip to Atlanta and
was in a cheerful mood, looking forward to the next fight he would work.

Two days before Gibson inhaled a final breath of poison, he stopped by Steele's gym in Las Vegas to request help with filling out business tax forms. Gibson looked great, sounded great, acted fine. He had lost 20 pounds and stopped smoking and was by all accounts doing the finest work of his career in the ring.

“I have now buried all three of them,” Steele said. “I saw nothing, heard nothing, that tells me anyone could have prevented what happened. I knew these three as well as anyone and never saw a thing. That's the worst part. Could we have done more? Could we had picked up on something?

“No one will ever know.”

***

The eight or nine boxing referees used by the Nevada commission are independent contractors and not eligible for the counseling other employees are offered in times of bereavement. Not eligible to sit and talk and vent their feelings to a professional therapist on the commission's dime.

Margaret Goodman would like to see that change. So too would Steele. So too would countless others who understand the stress a referee encounters and how they might be affected when one (or three) of their own end up killing themselves.

“If you saw some evidence that the job might have been directly related to the final action, I think you would look at the (stress factor) a lot harder,” said Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. “That wasn't the case with Mitch or Toby, but supposedly was with Richard because of (Kim's death), but that was way before my time.”

Joe Cortez knows stress. He lives it daily. His wife has battled breast cancer twice and his daughter is a paraplegic from an automobile accident 11 years ago. Oh, yeah. Cortez has fought his own war against prostate cancer.

Stress and Joe Cortez go together like Vegas and empty wallets.

He has also refereed more than 170 world title bouts and received large doses of criticism about how he handled some fights, how he wouldn't let Ricky Hatton hit and hold Floyd Mayweather Jr. but then allowed Bernard Hopkins to employ the same strategy against Joe Calzaghe. How he should never have disqualified Humberto Soto in his fight against Francisco Lorenzo earlier this year.

But disapproval from the masses about how a boxing match ends is one thing. Taking your life over it is another.

“I really think it comes down to each individual and how he can manage all that is happening in his life inside and outside that ring,” Cortez said. “I've been at this 31 years. I don't fold that easy. You have to have some pretty thick skin. Some can cope. Some can't.

“I was with Toby Gibson two days before he (committed suicide). We took a group photo. We were joking around about sucking in our stomachs, talking about life and refereeing and our families.

“Maybe I could have put my arm around him a little longer. Maybe if we all had better communication with each other, talked more to each other about what is going on in our lives, things like this can be avoided.”

Maybe there is no answer.

Just sadness, and stress.

This much is certain: You could try forever and not discover a direct connection between three Nevada referees who took their lives the past 25 years, but immeasurable stress for the third man in any bout is like death itself.

Inescapable.

Ed Graney is a sports columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal

Around the web