Referee Joe Cortez, left, calls a time out after Victor Ortiz, top right,… (Eric Jamison / Associated…)
Life can work in such cruel ways.
Saturday night, Joe Cortez was the man in the middle of one of the more controversial moments in boxing in recent memory. He was the ring referee for the huge pay-per-view show at the MGM Grand Garden Arena that pitted unbeaten veteran Floyd Mayweather Jr. against fast-rising Victor Ortiz.
From the day they announced the matchup, this one was a ticking bomb.
Mayweather is brash and vain. He recently changed his nickname from "Pretty Boy" to "Money." Whenever he fights, the other guy is the fan favorite because a large portion of the public hates just about everything about Mayweather, something he uses like an energy drink. He also remains one of the best boxers ever to strap on the gloves.
The other guy on this night was 24-year-old Victor Ortiz. He smiles a lot, is naturally friendly and comes from a well-documented background of parental abandonment in Garden City, Kan.
This was classic good versus evil, the kind that only boxing can love. Not since cowboy movies of Gene Autry vintage did one participant so clearly wear the black hat and the other the white hat. It was hard to tell how many fans truly wanted Ortiz to win, but it was not hard to tell how many truly wanted Mayweather to lose.
Into this ring of flaming emotions stepped Cortez, a veteran of so many big pro fights that even he has lost count. Suffice it to say that Cortez is one of a handful of referees in the world equipped to officiate in the middle of this kind of high-profile mayhem.
A nice, tactical fight, building to an exciting ending, would have been fine with Cortez.
No such luck.
After Mayweather had demonstrated superior speed, tactics and punching ability through the first three rounds, Ortiz got him in the corner in the fourth, pounded away in an effective flurry and then, inexplicably, went out of character.
As Cortez said Tuesday, "Victor went dirty."
Ortiz lunged forward and head-butted Mayweather, cutting Mayweather's lip.
"All week, I had been warned about Mayweather being dirty," Cortez said. "Victor's people kept telling me to watch out for this and that. And then Victor did that. He is such a nice kid. It was so out of character."
Cortez immediately stopped the fight, his signal stopping the clock as well. He gestured to the three judges at ringside that they should take a point away from Ortiz, a big penalty in a fight he was already losing. At the same time, Ortiz went to Mayweather, who was still standing in the corner, dabbing at his bloody lip, and kissed him on the cheek, a boxing apology, apparently.
Then it got even stranger. What happened in the next several seconds has fans still in an uproar and Internet message boards exploding with theories and anger.
Cortez guided the fighters to the center of the ring and then made the hand signal, long used and distinguished in boxing, as meaning "time to box." Cortez agreed in an interview Tuesday that the signal is exactly like a baseball umpire calling a player safe.
The verbal component of that action to restart the fight is less clear. Mayweather fans have insisted that they heard — apparently on the telecast because you couldn't hear yourself think in the arena — Cortez say "Let's go," or "Let's fight." Mayweather was asked several times afterward whether he heard something like that and, to his credit, he never admitted to hearing anything.
Apparently, nothing was said, as Cortez indicated Tuesday.
"I made the signal," he said. "You don't have to say anything. These guys know the rules."
Apparently, Ortiz did not. Or wasn't paying close enough attention.
As Cortez looked to the timekeeper's table at ringside and away from the fighters, Ortiz approached Mayweather to make a second apologetic gesture. Mayweather accepted a quick hug, then let Ortiz, hands still at his sides, separate from him for a split second before blasting him with a left hook. A stunned Ortiz started to fall back and Mayweather finished him with a straight right.
"Victor made two mistakes," Cortez said. "His first one was being a bad boy, and his second one was being too much of a good boy."
Ortiz was unable to get up. Cortez counted him out and the place shook with the emotions of happy fans and angry ones. Boxing experts seemed to immediately know it was a legal punch. The less-versed immediately saw it as a sucker punch.
Turns out both were right.
Cortez was asked whether he would accept the description of Mayweather's attack as legal sucker punches.
"I would agree to that," he said.
The other element of the moment that got some attention among the fans was that there were only nine seconds left in the round when Cortez called timeout to assess the penalty to Ortiz. Then, perhaps five more seconds would have elapsed during Ortiz's second peace-offering, meaning there wasn't enough time in the round for Ortiz to be counted out with a 10-count.
"You can't be saved by the bell anymore," Cortez said. "Not in any round, and not in the last round. That's a rule from the old days of boxing."
In summary, Cortez, proud of his work, said, "I didn't lose control. Victor Ortiz did."
Long after the noise abated and the controversy had decreased to a simmer — and after he had met with Nevada State Athletic Commission officials and been assured that he had done a good job — Cortez got in his car and drove home. There, he was met with the news that, during the fight, his 98-year-old mother had died.
Talk about a sucker punch.