Thursday, June 20, 2013

Q&A: Matching blows with international boxing judge, Las Crucen Levi Martinez

(International boxing judge Levi Martinez poses outside his garage with classic boxing posters adorning the walls. Around Martinez’s neck are boxing gloves signed by legendary fighter Manny Pacquiao/Photo by Robin Zielinski)

In terms of jobs and professions, Levi Martinez might have the most unique of all.

As an international boxing judge, Martinez could have lived a lifetime participating in such a craft. From worldly travels, to top-notch fight cards, to a high-profile position, Martinez isn't short on such stories.

Yet for all the hype, all the buildup, there's many unknowns pertaining to his craft. A judge for the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Organization and International Boxing Federation, Martinez said he works 60 to 80 fights a year, 11 to 12 of which are world title bouts, and eight to 10 of which happen abroad.

Less than a week after returning from Dallas (where he judged the Mikey Garcia vs. Juan Manuel Lopez fight), the Española native and Las Cruces resident sat down to shed light on what such a gig really entails:

Sun-News: How long have you been judging?
Levi Martinez: Twenty years.

SN: How does one become a judge? How did your career get started?
LM: “With me, it started when I was a little kid. I used to like to watch boxing on television. I'd sit with my dad and watch the fights, Friday Night Fights, when they used to be from Madison Square Garden. .... I would sit there, kind of look at it, I'd get a piece of paper and - I didn't know much about the scoring system or anything - but I'd sit there and I'd say 'OK, the guy in the black trunks, the guy in the white trunks - the guy in the black trunks won that round.' I started kind of doing that when I was young. By the time I was maybe 10, 11 years old, there were a bunch of guys at my dad's house watching the fights one night. I said, 'you know, one day I'm going to sit right there where that judge is sitting.' Of course everyone laughed at me, thinking 'get real. Here's a kid from Española, middle of nowhere, and he's talking like he's going to judge fights on television.' But I kept at it, I was always a boxing fan, I've always been a sports fan. Boxing just always stands out a little bit more for me.
“My wife and I would go to Vegas. .... We used to go all the big fights in Vegas we could get ticket too. We'd sit there all day long, from 2 o'clock in the afternoon at Caesars Palace, outdoors, waiting for the main event at 11 o'clock at night. There was like 15 fights on the card. We'd sit out there all afternoon long .... One day, I went to the fights up in Albuquerque, and one of the commissioners, Juan Nuñez who was instrumental in starting my career, said 'Why don't you become a boxing judge. You're a retired policeman. You're fair, you're impartial.' I said 'What do I have to do?' He said, 'Come on over to the fights. You'll have to sit in as a judge trainee.' So I started going to the fights, I'd sit there next to a judge and I'd score the fights. At the end of the fight, they'd have a post-fight meeting, and the commissioners would say 'You did really good on this fight. This fight we had a split decision.' You're supposed to do a one-year training, at that time. Luckily for me, by about the second or third card that I did, they said 'Your scorecards are good enough. We're going to put you as a regular judge, and you don't have to finish you're judge training.' So I started judging here in New Mexico.
“I did a few fights here in New Mexico, did a couple small championship fights. And one day there was a fight in El Paso. So I went to the fights down there, just as a spectator, and Dickie Cole, who was the executive director of the Texas Boxing Commission was there, and he says 'You're Levi Martinez?' So we started talking and he says 'How would you like to be a judge here in Texas? I need a judge here in the West-Texas area.' I said, 'What do I do?' .... I filled out an application for Texas. He says 'It'll be $100 for your license fee.' I gave him $100, he stapled the $100 bill to my application fee, reached in his brief case and pulled out some boxing cards. He said 'Here. Go sit over there. You're working tonight.' I just got on a polo shirt, not even a suit .... I worked that (night) out of the clear-blue sky. I got licensed in New Mexico and Texas, so I started doing the fights (there), whatever cards there were. Sometimes I'd get calls for a big fight, or just a small card. Then Stan Gallup, who was a commissioner here in New Mexico, he was also a vice president for the World Boxing Organization. He was one of my mentors .... (He) says 'Why don't you become a member of the WBO?' I said, 'What do I need to do?' He said, 'I'll get you an application.' So he got me an application, I filled it out, he endorsed it for me. He told the president 'This guy's a pretty good judge, I recommend him to become an international boxing judge.' So I started working with the World Boxing Organization.”

SN: What has been the more prolific, defining or significant fights you've judged?
LM: “People aren't going to know these names (because) I do international. .... I'm the rare judge. Most judges have most have most of their world title fights in their country. I'm the opposite. .... One of the big fights would be, like the Dariusz Michalczewski, (Graciano) Rocchigiani fight, which was in Germany. It was a light-middleweight title. It was a great fight. What stood out about it was Michalczewski, who was the world champion, was Polish. Rocchigiani was a true German and was revered by the Neo Nazi groups .... When the fight happened, the Neo Nazi's came in uniform .... We're already at ring side, and you hear this (rhythmic beat), the marching, in unison. You say, 'What the heck is going on?' And you look up and you see these military-looking guys marching down the stairs. They're cheering for Rocchigiani .... That was a memorable fight because of that.
“Jorge Arce and Michael Carbajal in Mexico was a great fight. Two legends. Michael Carbajal was given one last chance for a world title fight. He was going to retire, he was not the champion. .... So he goes to Mexico to fight Jorge Arce. And Jorge Arce is beating up Michael Carbajal for 10 rounds. It's a great fight. And I'm listening .... Michael's corner is just to my left. And I can hear their corner in between rounds. And Michael's brother, who's the trainer, says 'I'm going to stop this fight.' And Michael says, 'No you're not.' .... Michael says 'Every time he hits me with that overhand right that's just putting me to sleep, he drops his left shoulder just as he's going to throw it.' .... He says, 'In this round, I've got it timed. The moment he gets ready to throw this punch, I'm going to be faster than him and I'm going to knock him out.' .... The round's going to start, I start focusing back on the fight. .... They're really close together, and I see Jorge Arce's left shoulder drop just slightly. And Michael Carbajal throws a right. Right over the shoulder, knocks him out. He just predicted exactly what he was going to do.”

SN: Any controversial fights you've judged?
LM: “I did a fight in Germany, and that was Felix Sturm against Matthew Macklin. .... The saying is .... it's very hard for an opponent to win a world title fight in Germany. I'm the kind of judge, I don't care where I go, who's fighting. My job is to score a fight. .... It's a great fight. At the end of the fight .... They read the scorecard. They said 'judge so-and-so scores it,” and it was for Sturm. And the crowd was booing. And then they said 'judge Levi Martinez scores it for Matthew Macklin,' and the crowd cheers. And then the other judge scores it for Sturm, and the crowd is booing. They're mad at the decision. The next day on the radio, they're taking me back to the airport, the sports-talk shows are on. I ask the driver, 'What are they talking about?' He says, 'They're talking about your fight last night. .... Everybody's upset because everybody that they polled said that Matthew Macklin won that fight.' That was a big, controversial fight.”

SN: The crowd was still upset despite the German victory?
LM: “True boxing fans, they want to see who wins. .... I've probably had three or four that I can say were rough. We had one in Las Vegas which was (Gabriel) Campillo versus (Beibut) Shumenov, it was a light-middleweight title. .... In Las Vegas, they had a tendency to only use officials from Nevada. For a judge to come from outside Nevada to work a world title fight in Nevada is not common. .... I think this was a pivotal fight in my career. I had Campillo winning the fight. All the media, all the sports writers had Campillo winning the fight, but Shumenov ended as the victor. Every article that you read on the internet was , one judge had it right. And very rarely do you get noticed (positively), it's always the officials had it wrong. .... Matter of fact, right after that fight, I was recommended to judge the Manny Pacquiao, (Joshua) Clottey fight at Cowboys Stadium.”

SN: What about fighters? Who have been the the most memorable to judge?
LM: “The fighters that stand out are Roberto Duran, Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Johnny Tapia .... Manny Pacquiao .... Juan Manuel Marquez .... Juan Diaz .... Floyd Mayweather .... Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. There's been a lot of big names. And these are the names people recognize here in the United States. Then you go into other countries that have been great fighters, but they never came to the United States so people don't know them.”

SN: Explain the scoring system?
LM: “First of all, there is a scoring zone. .... From halfway of your body, the front-half is the only thing that's the scoring area, from the navel (belly button) to the top of your head. Your arms are not a scoring area, the gloves are not a scoring area .... The back is not a scoring area. It takes it's toll. If you hit someone in the back, in the kidneys .... A judge cannot use that as a scoring criteria. The scoring criteria consists of four things, the same four things throughout the history of boxing: Hard, effective punches in the scoring zone; effective aggressiveness; ringmanship; and defense. .... (Judges) can't take notes. We don't have instant replay. You are scoring the fight as the round is progressing. .... When the round starts, both fighters have 10 points. If fighter A hits fighter B with a right hand in the face, pretty flush, at that point (you say to yourself) fighter A, slight 10-9 (advantage) .... What I use for scoring is, you have a 10-10 to start the round, then you have a 10-9 slight, then you have a 10-9 moderate, then you have a 10-9 decisive, then you have a 10-9 extreme decisive. .... The fighter A continues to hit fighter B, now he goes into the moderate range, and fighter B still hasn't done anything. Fighter A then hits him a few more times, now it's going to the decisive 10-9. Now there's 30 seconds left and fighter A just hits this guy with six, eight shots, and fighter B hasn't hit this other guy at all. Now, because of those six, eight shots in the last few seconds, you could go to extreme decisive and go 10-8 without a knockdown. Which is very rare. .... We don't give 10-10 rounds. Or we try not to .... We try to find something that distinguishes one fighter from the other. Now you go to, fighter A's punches were just a little crisper, more impact. And you use that as a tiebreaker.”

SN: Does the scoring system differ state to state, country to country? If so, how much?
LM: “No. The scoring system is a 10-point scoring system, and the same scoring criteria is used all over the world.”

SN: There's obviously a stigma that the profession is corrupt. Is it?
LM: “Boxing is not corrupt. There are people that are corrupt. And sometimes things are done because they want a certain fighter to win, because they've got something already planned down the road for him to meet with somebody else. But it's not the judges that are influencing or making the bad decision. It's the people that already come up with things. Sometimes a promoter can tell a fighter, 'I'm not asking you to lose. But if you happen to lose, I can put you on the next card as a semi-main event.' The judges and the referees themselves, I do not know of, have ever heard, or have ever suspected of a person being corrupt.”

SN: Sometimes the scores come in, and you wonder 'how did the judge see it that way?'
LM: “You got three judges sitting in three different positions .... You're the judge, you're sitting there (with an unobstructed view), you're seeing the punches coming. You can score them. You can see them perfectly. Now the judge sitting back here (with an obstructed view), what are you seeing? .... You cannot score what you cannot see. For that exchange, you have nothing to put .... This judge sitting here, watching the fight perfectly, and he says 'fighter B controlled that exchange.' The other judge sitting over there probably has the same view that this guy did. If he's sitting over here opposite you, he might have a little bit of an angle, if he moves a little bit of an angle if he moves a little bit he might be able to see a punch connect. Those two judges are going to score what they saw, and it might not be as much as this judge will give. This judge gives it a 10-9, this judge gives it a 10-9 the other way. When the fighters are moving, the referee stands in front of you at the moment, one of the best punches of the night is thrown, you never see the punch.”

SN: What can be done to mitigate that stigma or eliminate it? Or will there always be that perception?
LM: “I think there'll always be that perception. The true boxing fans, the ones that understand it, that watch the fight, they understand the scoring system, they understand the judges positions, they understand who's being brought up. HBO has fighters signed up under contract. If you're the commentator for HBO, and I'm fighter B, and you've got (the opposing fighter) under contract, who are you going to praise and who are you going to make look good no matter what? .... The public is getting smarter and they're really getting good at it, but they're still influenced. What we hear, the media can't be wrong, the commentators can't be wrong, the judges are always wrong. The media makes us look like we don't know what we're doing.”

SN: There's more attention on judges because of TV and media. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
LM: “Both. There are some officials who probably shouldn't be judging, don't have the experience. Sometimes when you come into a state and the local commission assigns the officials, and they assign their favorite, or their cousin .... they don't have that experience. Then we have a bad decision because of that one judge. And the media picks it up. And .... they say 'the judges.' And then the organization says 'Well wait a minute, we didn't even get a chance to assign our officials, you assigned all the local officials.' But the media will move things around and make it seem like the judges are unqualified. And some of them aren't.
“There's a lot of pressure. Everybody says, 'Well, I could sit at home and score the fight.' Well there's a big difference between sitting at home and scoring the fight and sitting at ringside in that judge's chair where $40, $50, $60 million are at stake. .... The pressure of making sure you score it correctly, the decisions and scores that I make that night will determine, do I get to work another title fight next week? .... The ones like myself, we have to make the best decision possible with what we've got, what we see, that's fair and as impartial as we can. Have I ever been wrong? I'll be honest with you, no I haven't. I have always been right. I score what I see, I vote based on the facts. Now you may not agree with my scorecard. But I know I've never been wrong.”

SN: Can judges tend to favor a fighter?
LM: “That's where you distinguish the good judge from the other judge. .... I'm the kind of person, I could actually sit down with you and have dinner with you that night, not discuss the fight but (ask), 'how's the family? How are things going?' .... And at the end of the dinner, walk up, shake your hand and tell you 'good luck tomorrow.' And I can distinguish between a friendship here, knowing you here, casually knowing you, and my job. .... And I've had fighters come up after the fight and say 'What did I do wrong Mr. Martinez?' 'Well, you're not listening to your corner, because I can hear your corner telling you .... And if you had done what they had told you, you would have won the fight.' There's some judges who will look at an assignment and they'll say 'Oh, I'm doing the Floyd Mayweather, Canelo fight. I've always been a Floyd Mayweather fan.' But you know what? We're not fans. We know people, we know the fighters. But we're not fans. If you go in there with, 'Oh, I'm going to do this fight,' and you're all excited, well you have now become a fan.”

SN: How hard is it to develop a reputation that you don't have bias'?
LM: “It's very hard. Most judges can get influenced by who they're working. They're trying to build their reputation by working fights and favoring the promoters fighter. They think, 'If I vote for this guy, the promoter's going to tell the commission, 'I want this guy to judge my fight.'' I don't want anyone in the world to ever say, 'I want Levi Martinez to judge my fight,' because they think I'm going to help them. I want them to say 'I want Levi Martinez as a judge because, if my fighter wins, we win.'”

SN: How do you get picked to judge a particular fight?
LM: “In the international fights - the WBO, the WBA and the IBF - the president of the organization will sign off a contract on fighter A and fighter B. They'll say, 'OK, this fight is in Japan, I'm sending so-and-so, so-and-so and so-and-so to judge the fight.' .... He submits the names to the Japanese commission, he says 'These are the officials that I'm assigning for this fight.' Now the Japanese commission receives this assignment sheet, and they let both camps know, these are the officials working the fight. A promoter can go as far as saying 'No, I don't want him to be an official in my fight.' The commission then says, 'Why?' You have to have a valid reason as to why you don't want them. Not because I don't like them, or he voted against my fighter on the last fight. It takes a lot for a judge to be removed once he's been assigned.
“The president assigns you and says you're going here. Then you get a phone call, or an email, or a text, 'Are you available on such and such a day to go to Osaka, Japan?' You answer back, 'yes I am.' The next thing you do, the promoter will either contact you or you contact them. And you say, 'I'm Levi Martinez, I'm assigned to work your fight. I need to fly out of the El Paso International Airport.' .... We need to be (at the fight location) three days before the fight, to get used to the jet lag and stuff like that .... The next thing you know, a travel agent might call you, or the promoter himself might send you a text saying here's your itinerary.”

SN: Where's the job taken you? What's the most exotic places you've been to, where they've really rolled out the red carpet?
LM: “I'll just give you a quick rundown: I've been to the Ukraine, Germany, France, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Argentina, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Canada. Outside the United States, we're always treated with the utmost respect.”

SN: Have you ever been to a place where you've felt in danger?
LM: “I did a fight in Managua, Nicaragua .... General admission was 10 cents. Nicaragua was a poor country in those days. .... There was a guy from Nicaragua fighting, a world champion, and a guy from Mexico. You had very rich people and very poor people in Nicaragua in those days. The rich people were all sitting at ringside in their nice chairs and drinking champagne and scotch or whatever .... And the poor people bought a 10-cent general admission ticket and were in the bleachers. And they had this little barricade around the ring, that the military, with their AK-47s or whatever, lined up in the corners (along) the ring. .... They announce the officials, bring the fighters to the center of the ring, and all of a sudden, everybody from general admission just came forward. .... I was sitting like this (in a crouch). I had people here, here, people over my back. I couldn't move. The guards disappeared. They wanted nothing to do with the crowd that had just swarmed the ring. .... It was a heckuva fight. It was a bloody mess .... You're boxed in .... You get your scorecard, (write down) 10-9, and the guy above you goes 'He wrote a 10-9!' I'm saying, 'All I need is one of these guys to pull a knife, slip it right in your back, no one would ever know who did it.' .... The fight ends, you're surrounded, and you're going 'If they don't like the decision, they're going to hit you with a beer bottle over the head, they can do whatever they want.' And you can't move. You can't get out of there. The announcer goes up and says, 'We have a decision.' Judge so-and-so scores the fight, whatever it was. Judge Levi Martinez scores the fight 115-113. And (the third judge) scores it 118-110. And the people are going 'What fight is (the third judge) watching! He was watching with his heart, not his eyes.' And people are patting me on the back, 'You had the right score Mr. Martinez. Can I buy you a beer?' .... You feel you're life is in danger. And then when it's all over, it's a sigh of relief.”

SN: Is it a livable salary to be a judge?
LM: “You don't make any money in judging. You do it because you love to do it. .... Off the top of my head, a good official, international and everything, could probably make $20,000, $30,000 a year.”

SN: Because you're from New Mexico, could you get assigned an Austin Trout fight?
LM: “Yes. I've actually worked Austin Trout fights here in New Mexico. And I could be assigned. (One time Martinez was assigned a Trout fight) in Panama, he was fighting a Panamanian, (and) I thought, you know, so there won't be any issue (I'm going to remove myself). As a professional, can I sit down and enjoy the fight? Yes I can. But if you can eliminate controversy, you might as well do it right away.”

SN: Did you watch the Austin Trout vs. Canelo Alvarez fight. Did you think it was well-scored?
LM: “Yes I did. This is how I explain it to people: If you have a very, very close round, Round 1, so close that one little thing gave it to fighter A, and the score was 10-9. And the second, you've got another very close round. Fighter A threw that one punch again that gave him the round. Now you've got two rounds for fighter A. You could easily have nine or 10 rounds that are very close. Because most rounds are close. As a judge .... You're not saying, 'OK, that's seven I've given for one guy.' You don't even know that. You're mind is completely someplace else. And, at the end of the fight, they go judge Martinez had it 118-110, the other judges had it 115-113. .... It's three rounds. If those three rounds, you gave them to fighter A, for whatever reason like I said, you're sitting in the position where you saw it but the other guys didn't, they gave it to fighter B and you gave it to fighter A, those three close rounds you gave it all to one fighter, then you've got it to 118, the other guys have it at 115. That doesn't mean you were right or wrong. It just means you scored what you saw, they scored what they saw.”

SN: What's the day of a fight like for a judge? How do you prepare?
LM: “My day of the fight is a ritual. I do it everywhere that I go. I get up in the morning, natural wakeup, 7 o'clock, 6 o'clock, whatever it is. I get up, take a shower. I go downstairs, I go eat breakfast. I'm a slow eater, so it takes me an hour and a half, two hours to eat breakfast. .... I'm getting ready to go to work, I'm getting myself in the zone. .... I get up, I go outside the hotel, I walk a few blocks .... walk a little bit more. Look at the time. Come back to my room .... I just kind of lay there, relax a little bit. About 1 or 2 o'clock, I go back downstairs, eat lunch, come back up .... I call (his wife Linda Jo) and say 'I'm going to take a nap. It's now 3 o'clock in the afternoon. They're going to pick us up at 6:30 to take us to the arena. I'm going to take a nap from 3 to 5, wake me up at 5 o'clock.' I call downstairs for a wakeup call. If there's an alarm, I set the alarm. I get on my phone, I set my alarm on my phone. .... I turn off the lights, I get under the covers, and I try to go to sleep. At 5 o'clock the phone rings, I get up, take a shower, shave, get dressed, go downstairs, get in the van, it takes me to the arena, you walk in. Sometimes we're there early in the show, sometimes we show up just a couple fights before the main event .... What I try to do is, if we're there early, I try to watch a fight or two, just to kind of get into it. .... (Then) I walk out, go to the back, go walk around back there by myself, start thinking .... Relax, big fight coming up. Say a little prayer .... You come back out, you stand in the back .... When the fighters from the previous fight (leave), then I walk up. I go stand behind my stool. .... When you walk into the arena .... It starts becoming smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And by the time you're standing behind your stool, all you see is the ring.”

No comments: