YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Boxing referee Gwen Adair picks her battles, fights the good fight

The former actress' career as a pro boxing referee has broken down barriers for women and earned her induction to the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

November 22, 2009|Jerry Crowe
  • Hall of Fame boxing referee Gwen Adair at the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles.
Hall of Fame boxing referee Gwen Adair at the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Gwen Adair never set out to be a pioneer.

Opening doors for other women was not her mission, blazing a trail for feminists the furthest thing from her mind.

Her only interest was in following her heart.

"I love boxing," she says.

She loves it so much that for years the 70ish former actress was professional boxing's only female referee, doggedly pursuing her passion for the sport despite its leaders' discriminatory skepticism.

Her perseverance was rewarded June 5, 1998, when Adair officiated a bout between junior-middleweights Pedro Ortega and Luis "Yory Boy" Campas at Auditorio Municipal in Tijuana, becoming the first woman to referee a world title fight.

So novel was the idea of a woman entering the ring in Mexico, she notes, that she was asked to show her passport.

The daughter of Lovie Yancey, founder of the Fatburger restaurant chain, Adair officiated only one more world championship bout after that, eventually turning her attention to judging.

But her drive and determination were enough to warrant her induction into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, the California Boxing Hall of Fame and the California Boxers Assn. Hall of Fame.

"She had chutzpah," says former referee Marty Denkin, a veteran of 180 world title fights. "What she went through to overcome the attacks and the criticisms was unheard of. She climbed a hill not many would have climbed."

Adair says she stuck it out, twice suing the California Athletic Commission for what she perceived to be discrimination based on her gender, because she found nothing more enjoyable than climbing into a ring and officiating fights.

"I really feel that if you have a dream, you should pursue it; don't give up," she says during a lunchtime interview, pausing to chat between spoonfuls of tomato soup. "I think in boxing they realized, to use the terminology, I was a fighter.

"I wanted to pursue my dream -- and that's what I did."

Thrice-divorced and a mother of four, Adair says her love affair with the fight game started at an early age. Her mother, who dated a boxer named Suitcase Simpson, took her to fights at the Olympic Auditorium, where the youngster was smitten.

"People started screaming, and I was getting goose pimples," she says. "You see people getting beat up, some are bleeding. It's like, 'Wow, this is really something.' "

Years later, after she was married, Adair remained a regular at the Olympic, moving from the balcony to ringside.

"I was very verbal," she says. "I used to holler at the fighters."

One time, as she shouted out high-decibel commands -- "Get off the ropes, stick and move" -- she noticed that the fighter she was yelling at was actually following her instructions.

When he won -- and after Adair later was awarded a plaque as the Olympic's "female fight fan of the year" -- she decided to become a manager. She found a kickboxer turned boxer, Howard Jackson, and during their 18 months together, he won 14 of 15 bouts.

When Jackson returned to kickboxing, however, Adair says all she could find as possible replacements were ex-cons.

Known at the time as Gwen Farrell, she turned to officiating. It was 1979 and she had met an LAPD detective named Frank Adair, who later became her third husband.

The detective, who ran a boxing program for kids, showed her how to handle herself in the ring.

Living in Beverly Hills at the time, she ran a lucrative Fatburger franchise of her own in West Hollywood. The Dorsey High graduate also collected residuals from her roles in movies and old television shows. Adair, who says she had speaking parts in 18 episodes of "MASH," is one of the nurses shown running to meet an incoming helicopter in the show's opening credits.

Those things paid the bills, but boxing brought her joy.

She refereed more than 100 amateur bouts before earning her pro license in 1980 and launching a two-decade career in the ring. (It's believed that before Adair only one other woman, Belle Martel in 1940, had officiated pro bouts in California.)

Reviews were mixed.

"She wasn't the best referee," longtime promoter Don Fraser says of Adair, "but she was far from the worst."

Holding Adair back, Denkin says, was a lack of confidence, which the longtime official blames on undue pressure from overbearing administrators scrutinizing her every move.

"She would always try to be right because she knew everyone was looking at her," Denkin says, "so she was hesitant."

Still, he notes, the ex-actress left a remarkable legacy.

"What she gave to boxing was the realization that a female could be an official," Denkin says. "Hanging in there, showing the guts she did, was what she was all about."

Sparkle Lee, a Bronx-based female referee and retired New York City police officer, says of Adair, "Somebody had to lead with the torch. She started it all, and I'm thankful for that."

Adair, still judging two or three fights a month, wishes she'd been cut more slack. She regrets that, other than her two world title bouts, she wasn't given more high-profile assignments.

"I never said I was the greatest referee," she says, "but when I worked consistently, I got better. If they'd gotten off my back and let me do what I was supposed to do, I would be OK."

They seldom did, she says, but she still had a blast.

Los Angeles Times Articles