He is not supposed to win or lose. He is not even supposed to be noticed in the ring.
But if the referee doesn't do his job properly, everybody notices and boxing ultimately loses.
So last week's announcement that referee Richard Steele is retiring should cause great concern because Steele becomes the third prominent referee, all-Nevada-based, in the last three years to leave the scene. Mills Lane retired in 1998 and Mitch Halpern, a rising star, committed suicide last year.
"We have lost three of the top referees in the world," said Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. "But people like Joe Cortez, Jay Nady and Tony Weeks now have a great opportunity to move in."
It is Ratner's unenviable task to keep his refereeing rotation top notch in a state that hosts most of the major fights. A couple of years ago, Ratner had eight referees he felt confident to call on for major title fights. That list is now down to five.
"It's not like college football," said Ratner, "where a couple of officials quit and you've got 500 guys vying for the spots. For guys to come up as a referee, they have to put in plenty of time at the amateur level, get in lots of action there for maybe three or four years, they have to work in gyms, then they have to start with a lot of four-rounders [at the professional level] and move on up. Referees are not quite as easy to groom as football officials.
"And even then, a championship fight is nothing like they've ever done before. The glare of the lights can be different. Until Mitch got the first Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight, nobody knew how good he was."
Lane, a veteran referee who also has been a judge, a frequent figure on television and now a promoter, admits that, for all his experience, he felt his bow tie tighten when he did his first big fight, a 1978 heavyweight title match between Larry Holmes and Ken Norton.
"I was spitting cotton," Lane said. "I thought, 'The big apple is on the line tonight and I'd better not screw up.' "
But even that night couldn't prepare Lane for the most mind-numbing moment of his career, the instant in 1997 when he saw a piece of Holyfield's ear lying in a bloody splotch on the canvas and had to decide how to discipline the man who had bitten it off, Tyson. Lane was criticized for allowing the round to continue until Tyson bit Holyfield's other ear, resulting in Tyson's disqualification.
"It was all so out of the norm," Lane said, "but I reacted as quickly as I could, as best I could. I got so many calls from people over all the world. I remember telling one guy, 'The British leaving Hong Kong was a big deal. This ain't no big deal.' "
But, of course, it can be a very big deal.
"There was a fight in another state last week," Ratner said, "where a fighter was on the ropes and the referee went to stop the fight, but balked and froze. Because of that, the fighter took three or four extra punches and could have gotten hurt because the referee made a bad decision."
That's all it takes to ruin even the best of refereeing careers. Ruby Goldstein was a respected ref beginning in the 1940s. When Joe Louis fought Jersey Joe Walcott the first time, in 1947, both judges gave the fight to Louis, making him the winner. But Goldstein, at a time when referees also scored fights, had Walcott winning.
Said Louis, showing his regard or Goldstein, "I know Ruby. He calls them like he sees them."
But Goldstein didn't call it right on a fateful night in 1962 when he allowed Emile Griffith to pound away far too long at Benny "Kid" Paret, who was trapped on the ropes. Paret died from the blows.
After one more fight, Goldstein retired. His one lapse in judgment was too much to bear.
Ratner knows about decision-making in his secondary capacity as a Division I college football official. He also knows the difference.
"If I make a bad holding call, nobody is going to get hurt," he said. "But if a [boxing] referee makes a bad call, somebody could definitely get hurt."
The question is: With Lane, Halpern and Steele gone, will boxing get hurt?
ANOTHER NEW FACE FOR OSCAR?
Oscar De La Hoya's new promoter, Jerry Perenchio, who was in Las Vegas on Friday to get his promoter's license from the Nevada commission, told commissioners that he plans to talk to former HBO executive Lou DiBella about becoming De La Hoya's matchmaker.
Plans are going forward for De La Hoya's fight March 24 against Arturo Gatti at Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena, even though it is uncertain who will televise the match. It is supposed to be HBO under the terms of a contract that calls for the cable network to show De La Hoya's next four fights.
But last week, when HBO officials still hadn't received assurances from De La Hoya that he would honor the contract, those officials went into a New York courtroom to ask for a declaratory judgment on the validity of the contract.