We call them judges, those officials who sit around the perimeter of a boxing ring and tally rounds in the column of one fighter or the other. They serve an important purpose, similar to that of judges in figure skating or synchronized swimming competitions – they are scorers; they decide who has won when neither contestant takes the initiative to retire his opponent prematurely. Even so, they’re not really judges. The real judge in a boxing ring is the referee, because it’s the referee who keeps protocol as the match unfolds by interpreting intent when infractions occur, issuing warnings to malefactors, and doling out appropriate punishments when necessary. The referee is responsible for keeping the pugilistic developments statutory and the combatants treading on the path of righteousness. The referee must interpret every action that he witnesses in the ring through the matrix of the rules and regulations of the sanctioning body, and he must act or react correctly in every circumstance to ensure that neither contestant gains an unfair advantage or suffers an unfair disadvantage. Most importantly, the referee is the neutral third party who has absolute discretion to decide when one fighter has had endured too much punishment or can no longer defend himself, and to stop the fight in an instant. In Minnesota there is one boxing referee who has achieved international stature, and that’s Mark Nelson of Maplewood.
In the Beginning
Mark Nelson is the product of a boxing household. His father, Denny Nelson, is a longtime figure in both amateur and professional boxing circles. Denny was a fighter in the amateurs and pros, a coach and a trainer in the amateurs, a referee in the amateurs and pros, and he is still one of those functionaries with the misappellation of judge, formerly in the amateurs, but now only in the pros. Denny Nelson has been assigned to more than 60 world title fights as a referee and as a judge, and that’s where the Mark Nelson story really starts.
Mark explains: “When I started to referee amateurs in ’89, my dad had already started to work the high-profile pro fights. So I started to go to the conventions and seminars with him, and I would be absorbing all this knowledge and I would listen to Mills Lane, Larry Hazzard, Steve Smoger and Joe Cortez, and I was gathering all this knowledge. And then once I had all that knowledge, it made an easy transition for me when I got my pro license in Minnesota.” How does one get into refereeing the pros? “I did the amateurs from ’89 to ’92, and then one of our pro referees in the state dropped out – back then there were only six officials in the state – I told my dad that I thought it would be a good idea [for me] to apply for the pro license and he said he thought I should wait. But nobody else applied for it, so I put together a letter and went before the board, and they granted me a professional referee license in 1992. That’s where my career started, and as soon as the meeting was over they told me I was working a show the next week.”
The progression of Nelson’s career to date is the result of a combination of talent and ambition. “When I joined the WBA, I went to the convention and met with the president, I gave him my resume, and I waited. A whole year went by and I thought, ‘well, they didn’t accept me.’ But then I received an invitation to their next convention, in Bali Indonesia, and I wasn’t there an hour before someone came and asked me to do a presentation in a seminar. And what happened was that Chris John was fighting for the WBA world title on the final night of the convention, and I get a call in my hotel room at the convention asking me if I’d like to referee the Chris John fight. I didn’t have my referee shoes or my referee clothes with me, I didn’t even know there was going to be a fight at the convention! It was just an honor, the fight was good, it went 12 rounds, and it was a clean fight.” And what happened next? “Less than a month later I got assigned to a fight in Korea. And since then the WBA has been pretty good to me. They’ve sent me to work in Germany, Japan…but the IBF appointed me to my first overseas world championship fight, in Italy, I think that was in 1994. I actually judged that fight while I refereed it. I was the third judge. That was the protocol back in the ’80s, but my dad and I kind of talked them into stopping that in Minnesota – we were one of the last states to have that, though we still see them do that in some foreign countries.”
For a boxing fan like Nelson the job of a referee has obvious benefits, but it requires compromises, too. “I love boxing, and I love everybody in boxing. I’ve got so much love and respect for our local fighters. But I can’t socialize or party or even have a cup of coffee with fighters.” That means that every day of the year and especially on fight night – even after the fights are over – the ref has to maintain an aura of absolute neutrality. “You’ve got to be cordial and shake hands and take pictures, but you have to stay neutral.” Another place a referee must show restraint is in lobbying for assignments. “I’ve never asked for an assignment or asked to work the main event or anything,” Nelson says. “I just want to be assigned for my ability.”
One of the hallmarks of Nelson’s career is his professionalism. Nelson explains it this way: “I really take this refereeing business seriously. And I think that by taking it seriously and having a passion for it, it’s really paid off. When these sanctioning bodies appoint you to work in a foreign country, they’re really putting a lot of trust in you. They’re trusting that you’re going to represent them in a professional way from the moment you leave your house to the time you arrive at the show and through the fight.” One official I spoke with had this to say about Nelson: “The number of…assignments [that Nelson receives] speaks to the level of expertise Mark brings to the ring.” This same official adds, “Mark is all business long before the opening bell. He makes sure he is mentally and physically prepared before he arrives at the arena. He does a walk-through at ringside and confers with the ring set-up crew regarding rope tension, etcetera. This is something that most commissions do as well, but Mark wants to cover all the bases.” Why take this part-time job so seriously? Nelson again: “It’s a high-stress business, but if you block it all out and do things professionally, they know who’s good.”
In the Ring
When you watch Nelson work a fight, you will note that he’s quick and decisive in his adjudications, and always maintains his position of authority. “Fighters are going to commit fouls, and I’ve got to be stern, I’ve got to be strict. But I always have to do what’s right, what’s fair, and what’s protocol.” Sometimes the unexpected happens, and Nelson has to think fast. “[When I started working] I started using all this knowledge from the seminars and conventions, what to do in different situations – I had already been trained what to do in most situations. Sometimes, though, something happens that there’s no rule for, and you’ve got to think fast and do the fair thing.” Examples? “A parachutist lands in the ring [Bowe-Holyfield 2 – Mills Lane reffed that one] or one guy goes down from a punch and lands on the other guy, and the other guy gets hurt.” [Laffin-Miner – Nelson worked this fight in November ’08] Nelson is quick to point out, though, that his foremost concern in the ring is the health and safety of the fighters. Nelson explains the moral and philosophical dilemma that a referee faces during a fight: “The hardest decision for a referee is when – or whether – to stop a fight before the scheduled distance. Why have a kid keep going on and suffering if there’s no chance he can win? So a referee has to anticipate, judge how long the fight is going, and stop it if you have to, to protect the young man.” This can be a tricky job, and it can also lead to misunderstandings, as when some fans thought that the end of the Andy Kolle/Tony Bonsante fight on March 28 was too quick. “A lot of times when we stop fights, people don’t know why. But I always tell people that our main goal is to protect a fighter from unnecessary punishment…I’m in there for the welfare of the fighters and their families. There’s no reason for a fighter to ever take unnecessary punishment.”
It’s natural for an ambitious, successful, and relatively young referee like Mark Nelson to wonder how much more active and profitable his career might be if he lived in a more conducive environment. “It’s been an honor for me to be connected with these major sanctioning bodies. Once you’re there it’s mostly a matter of location. Most of the major title fights I’ve worked have been overseas, but I’ve been invited to judge in Las Vegas and to referee in Missouri.” Minnesota isn’t exactly a boxing wasteland, but… “Yeah, I guess the only next step for me is whether I want to relocate to somewhere where there are more fights. I’ve visited with Marc Ratner (former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission) and gave him my résumé, but the thing about that is that you’ve got to move to Las Vegas first before you can get licensed there.” For the time being, at least, no move to Vegas is imminent. “I’m happy with where I am. There are enough events locally to keep me busy, to keep the ring rust off.”
Joe Cortez – “He really is fair but firm. He’s passionate about helping young referees. If I’m in Vegas and call him to say hi, I’m always invited over to work out with him, to go over scenarios, and to figure out how to deal with things. He lives in the hotbed of boxing where he’s going to referee a lot of high-profile fights and he’s subject to a lot of criticism because of it, but I don’t think he’s ever done anything to be embarrassed about. I talk to him at least once a week, and I always talk to him before I go overseas.”
Elmo Adolph – “Elmo has always been a very positive role model. Elmo is one of the only referees I can think of who refereed a world title fight in the Olympics and then went on to do a pro world title.”
Mills Lane – “He is real knowledgeable about the rules in the ring. I went to two seminars that he put on in the ’90s for the IBF. I took videos…and watch them often. I also had some videos of fights that he refereed and I would watch those over and over. He was actually shorter than me, but he was definitely in charge in the ring. He was a court judge, too.”
Denny Nelson – “My dad was really my first role model. He would typically say ‘You did a good job,’ but he never really had a negative thing to say. We might be watching a fight on TV and he would say ‘Don’t do that.’ He was a three-time Upper Midwest featherweight Golden Gloves champion in the ’50s and then he decided to turn pro. He fought four or five times and won them all, but decided in his heart that it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. So he started coaching, training some fighters, started refereeing amateur fights first, and then later got licensed to officiate pro fights. Then in the early ’80s he got out of the amateurs. He retired as a referee about three years ago. But he’s still actively judging and I think he’s worked I think 67 world title fights as a referee and as a judge.”
About Mark Nelson