Larry O’Connell, a strong man in the ring.

Being one of the best known and most recognisable British referees we have ever had, it is sometimes easy to forget that Larry O’Connell had an exceedingly prolific amateur boxing career before he became the third man in the ring.  When I put that point to him at a recent meeting of the London Ex Boxers Association, he treated me to one of his kindly smiles that we all know and love.  “I had about 155 fights in total, and I won 130 of them.  I was 11 years old when I started boxing, and I never finished until I was 29.  I had so many amateur title fights when I was young.  Then I went in the army.  I was in the Royal West Kent Regiment in Maidstone, and I was Army Light-Welterweight Champion.”

“I boxed for the Fitzroy Lodge during the 1960s.  I boxed Dick McTaggart three times, and I beat him once.  That was a non-title fight.  But he stopped me from becoming ABA Light-Welterweight Champion twice.  He beat me in the finals in 1963 and 1965.   The thing was with Dick, you’d fight him and you’d miss him by just that much every time, and that would put you off because he was very, very fast, very quick thinking.  He’s a lovely man.  Every year, the first Christmas card I always receive is from Dick.  I get a Christmas card from him in November!”

“When I packed up boxing, I decided to become a referee.  The first fight I ever refereed was in November 1976 in London, and the last one was in 2007 in Berlin.  I wasn’t nervous or anything going in to referee my first fight.  If you’re not ready for something like that, don’t do it.  But I was ready for it.  One of the most important factors in being a good referee is you have to be a good mover on your feet.  You must use your feet to be in time with what’s going on in the ring, and, you have to remember, I was fit in those days!  I believe also that you have to have had experiences of your own to take into account.  I really do believe a good referee needs to have boxed himself.  Another thing is you learn from other people and listen to what people say.  I was very fortunate to have people looking after me and thinking after me, because it’s not easy.”

“Doing a fight that’s very, very close, and you know you’ve got to give a decision on it, that’s one of the worst jobs of the lot.  But, having said that, you shouldn’t be frightened of that.  You make a statement, and that statement has got to stand.  Integrity is more important than anything else.  And, if the crowd gets partisan, you should never be intimidated by people like that.”

“If you stop a fight early, you must know there is something going wrong.  What you do is you look after the boxers’ health, and that’s the most important thing of all.  If you let people stand up there and get knocked about, then you should be asked questions, definitely.  The main thing is, if something is going wrong for a fighter and you want to stop it, you want to get close well before it gets that bad.  You mustn’t run at anybody.  That’s the most important thing.  Don’t let a man get hurt.  When a boxer is really hurt, he hides it and tries to come back out, and he get hurts again.  So you finish it.”

“When it comes to a trainer throwing in the towel, the first thing you must do is take that out of the way, obviously to avoid any accidents, and then you should stop the fight straightaway.  You’ve got to do that.  If the trainer doesn’t want his boxer to fight on, he knows him better than I do.  In other words, what I’m trying to say is that, if the trainer feels that I’m being too long with his fighter and he wants him saved, I’d stop the fight immediately.”

“Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn, I refereed the two of their fights and I got a lot of fun out of them.  They were both very professional and they both had so much talent.  When they boxed at Old Trafford in October 1993, that was one of the best fights I ever handled.  That was terrific, that was.  Quite frankly, I know Eubank talks an awful lot, but he’s really a lovely guy underneath.  Eubank was a bit special, and he treated me like God.  When I walked into a show and he was there, he would never walk in front of me and he would never call me Larry.  It was always Mr O’Connell.  I talked to Eubank very well, very easy.  Benn was, in his own way, a bit of a character.  He was a nice guy, but he was hard.  It didn’t do him as much good as it should have done, you know, but he was a certainly a character.”

“I’ve made a lot of friends in the boxing game, and I’m often surprised by the way people always seem to speak so highly of me.  The only problem I ever remember was when I was judging the first Lennox Lewis versus Evander Holyfield fight.  I think a lot of people thought, because it was in Madison Square Garden, that I bowed to the Americans.  Well, that’s a load of absolute nonsense.  It wasn’t like that at all.  I never, ever thought about anyone else outside, people calling and shouting and bawling.  There’s always somebody who doesn’t like what you did at one particular time.  When it came to judging that fight, Stanley Christoudoulou called it for Lewis, Eugenia Williams called it for Holyfield, and I called it right in the middle.  So how can that be such a bad place to be?”

“Honestly and truthfully, the best thing I ever done was to go refereeing, and I’ve been very, very fortunate.   I’ve done 1,700 fights as a referee and judge, and 200 of those were World Title fights.  I’ve done six World Title fights in Las Vegas.  I think that’s where I felt that I’d done very well, to get that far.  One of my favourite places that I ever refereed was on the Caribbean island of Saint Maarten.  That was Pernell Whitaker’s split-decision win when he defended his WBC Welterweight Title in April 1996 against Wilfredo Rivera.  That was such a beautiful place.”

“I had a wonderful time.  Mind you, I was always strong.  By that, I mean, when the fighters came in, I was strong with them.  Even with people I knew very well, it made no difference.  But I think I done all right.  I met some wonderful people, and it took me all over the world.  I might have made mistakes.  There may be something I didn’t see obviously, because I only see what I see.  Honestly and truthfully, I think there are an awful lot of very, very kind people who actually do a bit too much, if you know what I mean.  But I feel that British referees over the years gone by have been very, very good, and I hope I’m one of them.”

If Larry O’Connell had an official fan club, it would be fully subscribed in five seconds flat.  The late, great Joe Somerville, a jovial journeyman and booth boxer back in the day, once told me, “Larry O’Connell was one of the best referees I have seen.  You wouldn’t know he was in there, unless you tried to pull a fast one!”  Another London Ex Boxers member who was fully prepared to second that emotion was former British and Commonwealth welterweight champion, Sylvester Mittee (pictured with Larry below), who declared, “With Larry O’Connell, there was an open sincerity about him.  So, when he told you off, you never felt like you were being scolded.  You simply felt like you were being reminded that this is the way you should be doing it.”