By Ray Wheatley – World of Boxing
World championship referee Mark Nelson talks to Fightnews.com® about working as the third man in the ring for 102 world title bouts in 19 countries around the globe.
Where were you born?
“I was born and raised in St Paul, Minnesota, but now I live in the suburb of Roseville.
When did you become a referee?
“In 1989 I started in the amateurs which I still do and in 1992 I was granted a professional referee’s license. Then in 1994, my first overseas bout was in Italy for an IBF Intercontinental title. In 1988 I started going to IBF conventions with my father (former world championship referee Denny Nelson). The first one I went to was at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. The instructor for the seminar was Larry Hazard. I was an amateur referee at that time. I was 23 years of age. What was good was that I was absorbing all the information from the big-time referees before I even got my professional license – which made the transition for me a lot easier.
“Most referees start refereeing pros before going to conventions. I lived at home with my father while we were both refereeing and doing fights together then coming home and talking about it. It was beneficial to live in the same house with a referee who had worked world title bouts. My father would tell me not to talk at all or ask questions at seminars, which was the best advice. He said ‘We’ll talk about the seminar back in our hotel room. You can ask me.’ My father never pushed me into boxing. It was our Golden Gloves Director who encouraged me to referee. He said you come to all the fights to watch your dad referee and would you consider being a referee? My father suggested I should judge first then a couple of years later I became a referee. My father never dreamed that I would be doing what I am doing today.I see my dad every Monday night when he picks me up and we go for a beer and a bowl of soup. When I applied to become a professional referee, Jim OHare was the executive director and Scott LeDoux was the Chairman on the commission and made the move that the Board approve me. No one opposed and I got my license and worked on the next small show. That is the process. There are referees out there that just lack compassion. They don’t want training. They just want to be referees. That isn’t enough. Boxing is probably the most dangerous sport in the world. MMA is more violent but boxing is more dangerous so they should be careful who the referees are.”
You have refereed 102 world title bouts. Which is the most memorable?
“Probably the Manny Pacquiao v Jeff Horn fight in Australia that had a record attendance of over 50,000 people screaming. It was a close fight. Round nine was a 10-8 round to Pacquiao without a knockdown. There is a difference when working a world title bout and a four round preliminary bout. You are going to protect them a little more. One of my mentors was Joe Cortez. When I worked in Las Vegas he would invite me to stay in his home. He would say to me that you let the corner know that the fighter should show me something or I am going to stop the fight.
I also had the privilege to referee three of Joe Calzaghe’s WBO title bouts in Cardiff, Wales. Calzaghe went through undefeated and now he is in the Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame referees Mills Lane and Steve Smoger passed away in December. Your thoughts on both all-time Boxing greats? Were they mentors to you?
“I didn’t know Mills well but I went to two of his IBF seminars and he just had a lot of common sense and no BS. Mills’ style of refereeing was great he never got in the way and very good with voice commands and did not take any BS. I got to know Steve at conventions and he was a lot of fun. We worked three or four shows together in different states. Steve always did good seminars. I would videotape both Mills and Steve when they did seminars at boxing conventions I still watch them. Mills Lane said if it takes a fighter nine rounds to win one he is in the wrong business.
Are there many shows in Minnesota?
“David Morrell (WBA 168 pound champion) has been boxing here. Big-time boxing has just started to pick up in Minnesota about five years ago at the Minneapolis Armory. I refereed 95 world title fights before I did one in my own state. Other referees from California and Las Vegas have a lot of activity. They aren’t traveling around the world to do world title bouts because they are doing world title bouts at home. Las Vegas gets world title bouts appointed by their commission. When a referee gets an assignment like in Australia, it’s a really good feeling to know that they have enough confidence in you to invite you to their country. Once you get the assignment it is pretty much been approved by the promoter, the trainers, and the commission.
Your father Denny was a good amateur and professional boxer before becoming a world championship referee?
“My dad was a Golden Gloves fighter in the 1950s. He loved that and it was his dream to win the national Golden Gloves. He fought in the Chicago National Golden Gloves and Cassius Clay boxed the same night. In the program, Clay and dad had their pictures in it. I found the same program on eBay for $5,000. My father only had a handful of professional fights but was unbeaten. My dad did everything in boxing, other than promoting. Dad’s health is still good today.
In 2019 you were referee for middleweight contender Maciej Sulecki vs. Hugo Centeno Jr and showed you had a granite chin when in round seven you were accidentally punched flush on the chin. Do you remember that fight?
“What happened there, it didn’t hurt, the back of my neck hurt a bit because it whiplashed. I went to the corner after and toweled off and I didn’t know the camera was on me. After the fight, I got out of the ring and a reporter asked me, ‘Hey man have you got anything to say about getting punched in round seven?’ I paused and I said, ‘Actually yes. I got two things to tell you. Number one, if a referee gets hit it’s usually the referee’s fault. It means he wasn’t in position. Number two, if I knew I could take a punch like that I probably would have fought pro.”
Do you attend WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO conventions each year?
“I have been to 98 conventions including the WBC, WBA, WBO and IBF where I have done seminars. I haven’t missed a convention with the IBF since 1998. Also I have done seminars for the ABC. I have probably instructed 50 seminars worldwide. The only organization I haven’t done seminars for is the WBC. My father and myself have done tandem seminars for the IBF.
How do you stay in shape to referee world title bouts?
“I don’t like to run so I don’t but I like to walk so I get out there and walk. I have a heavy bag in my boxing gym. I should use it more. I stay active and try to live a clean life. That’s how I stay in shape. I could do two twelve-round fights back-to-back. I went to Germany and did a WBA flyweight fight that went twelve rounds and then done a European heavyweight title fight that went twelve rounds and felt 100% afterwards. I did the same thing in Russia with a female title bout and then a men’s world title. Michael Buffer was in the ring and I didn’t even get out of the ring between fights. My father always said he liked referees who looked like referees. You have to look the part. How you look like as a referee is how people think you perform. Pressed shirt and trousers etc.
Are you a full-time referee?
“I am now but I worked at a printing company for 34 years. Right before Covid they closed. I worked for DeLuxe Printing Corporation. I was a press operator, a printer by trade. They closed our building. Covid pushed it along. After 34 years I took the severance package. Today I own a picture-framing business. I work from home.
GREAT referee and GREAT human being. Such a fantastic ambassador for the sport of boxing. Thank you for the interview.
Mark Nelson is my favorite ref. Always relieved to see him as the third man in the ring. Just an absolute professional who knows his role, it was a pleasant surprise to see an interview with him on the site.
– That was an outstanding interview.
– Thank you, FightNews…..
One of those guys whose faces you’re certainly familiar with and you see quite regularly, but know absolutely nothing about. Do more of these, please and thank you.
Mark is a very good solid referee. Always know the fighters I work with are in good hands when he is refereeing.
Mark did some work for me in Canada at Casino Rama. First class referee and a great guy.
Mark speaks highly of you.
Thanks for the nice words
Great article on Mark Nelson. He is a excellent referee – both amateur and pro. It’s been a pleasure to work ringside with Mark and to know both he and his dad.
If integrity, knowledge, honesty and class are quality’s of a great referee and a person than Denny and Mark Nelson are two of the best.
Having taken one of Mark’s seminars I can tell you I feel like I learned from the best. He was the ref for my first show I ever promoted in a small town in Iowa. Mark took it as serious as a world title.
Denny and Mark are good friends and very good, humble and classy people in life. Joe Calzaghes and Pacquiao are two of my all time favorites.
Proud to know Denny and Mark.
You won’t find a better referee or person!