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April 09, 2014

By Doveed Linder

In this interview, referee Steve Smoger discusses his experience as the third man in the ring for last Friday’s dramatic heavyweight bout between Steve Cunningham (27-6, 12 KOs) and Amir Mansour (20-1, 15 KOs), a fight that Cunningham won via unanimous decision after being knocked down twice. Smoger also discusses his experience as the referee for Roberto Duran-Vinny Pazienza II and the irony that several boxers he has worked with have had movies made about their life story.

DL: What stands out in your mind about your experiences as the referee of the Cunningham-Mansour fight?

SS: I had been in the ring with Amir “Hard Core” Mansour on two previous occasions. In one instance, his power was on display when he knocked out Alex Mejias in the second round. On another occasion, he went the distance with Dominick Guinn. So, based on that, I believed that an experienced boxer-puncher could go the distance with him despite his very, very formidable punching power. This was one instance where my pre-fight thoughts came to fruition. Amir was really strong in rounds one through five, and he dropped Cunningham twice in the fifth. Steve was hit with a significant three-punch combination and he went down, but he wasn’t flat on his back. The minute he hit the canvas, he had a startled and almost urgent expression on his face. He had a complete awareness of the situation, so I knew that he hadn’t lost his presence. I picked up the count at three. He was on his knee at five and up by nine. He probably could have gotten up sooner, but with his experience he knew to use a little extra time to recover. He was hit with another flurry of punches and he went down again. He got up and I said, “You’ve got to protect yourself.” He said, “I’m fine.” I said, “Walk to me.” He walked to me and as I was about to let him out when the bell rang.

From that point on, I saw a dramatic change in tactics from Steve. He started boxing and moving, and he began asserting his will and skill. Amir was very competitive, but he was looking for the one big shot, which wasn’t enough against a veteran like Steve Cunningham. According to the judges, Steve won [rounds] six, seven, eight, nine, and won ten emphatically. In the tenth round, as a result of a punch, Amir’s glove touched the canvas. According to the rules, that’s a knockdown. It was very impressive to see Steve Cunningham recover from the two knockdowns and rally the way he did. His recouperative powers were excellent and he demonstrated that he still has the heart and the determination to compete at the top level. This was one of the most memorable and competitive heavyweight fights in recent times, and it was encouraging for both fighters. Both guys gave everything they had and it will be exciting to see where they go from here. At forty-one years young, Amir Mansour demonstrated that he has true power in his punches. I’ve been in with some of the top heavyweights of recent times and Amir’s power is among the best I’ve seen.

DL: You once told me that Alex Stewart hits harder than any heavyweight you’ve been in the ring with.

SS: That’s correct. I was in the ring when he stopped Mark Young. He displayed unbelievable power. Mike Tyson displayed devastating power when he fought Brian Nielsen (a fight that Smoger worked), but Alex Stewart hit the hardest.

DL: It’s pretty interesting that you have also worked a Roberto Duran fight.

SS: I worked Roberto’s second fight with Vinny Pazienza [in 1995]. He lost both fights with Pazienza. It was in the later stages of his career. But even at that stage of his career, he was a relentless fighter. He was pressing the action and kept coming forward. I remember thinking what a thrill it would have been to work one of his fights when he was in his prime. I was there ringside when he beat Iran Barkley and he recaptured some of that old fire [Duran beat Barkley by split decision in 1989]. He was just an unbelievable fighter.

DL: Both Roberto Duran and Vinny Pazienza are having movies made about their lives.

SS: Exactly. Duran’s is in the completion stages and Vinny’s is just getting started.

DL: You have also been in the ring with Micky Ward, who had a movie made about his story – “The Fighter”.

SS: Oh, yeah. I had Micky’s fight with Emanuel Burton, which was the “Fight of the Year” in 2001. I also had his fight right before that when he knocked out Steve Quinonez in the first round with a body shot.

DL: Roberto Duran, Vinny Pazienza, Micky Ward, and even Mike Tyson have movies about their lives. Of all the other fighters who you’ve been in the ring with, whose story do you think would make the best movie?

SS: Bernard Hopkins, because of his longevity and the way he turned his life around. He went from being incarcerated to becoming a historic fighter and also a businessman. It’s somewhat similar to Amir Mansour who is forty-one years old. Amir spent several years behind bars, but he used boxing as a way to turn his life around. The way people transform themselves through boxing is something that makes our sport so inspiring.

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