By Ray Wheatley – World of Boxing
Hall of Fame referee Joe Cortez spoke to Peter Maniatis about growing up in New York’s Spanish Harlem, winning six Golden Gloves titles, having a 19-1 professional record, becoming a Hall of Fame referee, refereeing Mike Tyson and Jeff Fenech fights, how he would be honored to referee the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones exhibition bout, and much more.
Joe Cortez: “I am originally a New Yorker but I live in Las Vegas – the boxing capital of the world – for the last 29 years. I was born in Spanish Harlem New York. I went to school in the Bronx and lived there for a while. I started boxing back in the 1960s and became Golden Gloves champion when I was sixteen years of age. I was Golden Gloves champion on six occasions. I won the Spanish Golden Gloves, the national Golden Gloves, the Open Golden Gloves championship. I was involved in many championship fights in the amateurs.
“I knocked out two guys in the national titles on the same night at Madison Square Garden. I won the national title along with my brother Mike. It’s been a great career. I then turned professional when I was eighteen years of age, and in my fifth professional fight, I lost a decision at Madison Square Garden. My brother Mike won that night. I got discouraged and went into the US Army. When I came out of the army, I resumed my professional career. I had an 18-1 record and was a bantamweight and featherweight. Back then they weren’t going anywhere. At 26 years of age, I gave it up for three and a half years and moved to Puerto Rico and got into the hospitality business working in hotels.
“I got the bug to fight again, so I got into boxing in Puerto Rico. I won again over a Dominican fighter in 1971 but I said ‘you know what? I’m doing okay in the hotel industry, the family don’t want me to fight no more. You did it all.’ I gave it up. Eight years later I came back as a referee.
“My catchphrase was, “I’m fair but firm.’ You have to be fair with fighters but at the same time you got to be firm with them. I had a copyright on that.
“When you go into the ring you have a massive crowd with millions of people watching around the world but you must focus on what you are doing that night. You cannot believe you are doing these mega fights. I would have been happy doing one world title fight when I got the fight with Aaron Pryor vs. Miguel Montilla in Atlantic City in 1982.
“When I was a referee in the amateurs, I was only doing it for six months when deputy commissioner Frank Morris said he wanted to see me in his office. He said ‘I have been watching you referee two championship fights in Madison Square Garden in the Golden Gloves Championships with about fifteen thousand fans watching the fights. You look more like a professional referee than an amateur referee. We like your style.’
“I said I have only been doing this for six months but Frank said, ‘I understand but you have the talent. Good ring mechanics and your commands are good. He said they would put me on every show. They gave me four rounders and six rounders. A year and a half later, they gave me my first main event on national television in New York City.
“I took it, but as I said, my dream was to do one world title fight. When I retired in 2012, I did Canelo vs. Lopez. People said ‘Joe why are you retiring?’ I said, ‘I did thirty-five years – got inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with Mike Tyson who I refereed on eight occasions. Also Julio Chavez and Sylvester Stallone who I was referee for in the Rocky Balboa movie. I said to myself, I did it all. I did 176 world title fights. Let me now help the young referees coming up. I have no ego. I love helping people.
“I got a call to be a trainer for Conor McGregor on the rules of boxing when he was scheduled to fight Floyd Mayweather. He wanted to make sure he doesn’t make any mistakes. Things you can do in the MMA you get disqualified in boxing. I worked with him for five weeks. Four or five days a week. I would referee when he sparred and gave commands to break – stop – no punching behind the head. If he didn’t comply to the rules, I would stop the action and took two points from him. He didn’t win the (Mayweather) fight but he lasted ten rounds.
“No one complained or ask for their money back. It was a good fight. Not bad for his first pro fight. I took a lot of pride in helping him out. I congratulated him on a job well done. He was more exhausted than anything else. He made a cool one hundred million US dollars. Mayweather made about two hundred million dollars. Not a bad paycheck for a beginner.
“Mike Tyson and Roy Jones will have to be checked out by doctors to make sure their hearts and brains are okay. You don’t want anyone getting hurt. It is an exhibition. To be an exhibition is I am not going to try and knock you out. It’s for charity. We don’t want to make it into a war. We know Mike Tyson can still punch. We don’t want a black eye for boxing. You’ve seen Tyson working out on the YouTube channel. He can still punch. He looked like he did in the early days of his career. The referee will have to take full control and make sure they abide by the rules. No one to get hurt seriously. If I was asked, I would be honored to be the referee. I did eight Mike Tyson fights. I never did a Roy Jones fight, but I know his style. I will be there that night, September 12 in Los Angeles.
“I refereed Jeff Fenech on two occasions. Once in Melbourne and once in Las Vegas against Azumah Nelson. It was a draw but there were a lot of fans who thought Jeff Fenech pulled it out. That was a very tough fight. It was like one hundred and ten degrees that night outdoors at Caesars Palace. Watching the replay later on it looked like Jeff Fenech pulled it out. It was a good fight. There was a rematch and I think Jeff Fenech got stopped. I love Jeff Fenech. He is a good man. He was ill recently but he is okay now. He trained Mike Tyson for his last fight. I was the referee. Jeff Fenech asked me to stop it. He said Joe – that’s it in the sixth round and I had to stop it. I took Mike Tyson to the corner and Jeff Fenech could see I was concerned.
“I refereed Mike Tyson at the beginning of his career. He came up to me when he was thirteen years old and said ‘Mr. Cortez, I am a young fighter coming up in New York.’ I said, ‘You do the right thing young man and do the right things in life, you will be champion one day.’ He did become one of the best champions of all time. I refereed him against James ‘Quick’ Tillis and against Larry Holmes when he knocked Larry out. I did his last fight against Kevin McBride. Mike Tyson was not in condition. He wasn’t hurt he was just fatigued.
“I remember when I went to Melbourne I visited one of the best steak houses there. Great steak in Melbourne. They had a nice wine cellar there. I had my steak well done. I loved Melbourne. Australia is one of my favorite countries. I refereed Jeff Fenech who stopped his opponent in a late round. Australia is beautiful and Melbourne was impressive. People were so nice and caring. Australia and Italy are two of my favorite countries.
“Boxing is on the downside because of COVID-19. We have to keep our guards up all the time. I tell the fighters ‘protect yourself at all times.’ We have to win this battle. We got to give it all we have.”