Doyen of boxing

2013-08-23 00:00

RENOWNED as one of the world’s best referees and judges, Christodoulou has been in the game for 50 years and has no signs of going on the defensive any time soon.

“It started in 1963. I was working in a bank in Johannesburg when Willie Toweel, brother of Vic Toweel, South Africa’s first boxing world champion, came in to sell insurance,” said Christodoulou. “We started chatting and he soon picked up my interest in boxing, inviting me to a tournament in Springs the following night.

“I was all in and went along where I was exposed to boxing in the townships. It was an unreal experience for me and Toweel mentioned another tournament, the next night, in Standerton.”

After getting permission from his mother to go, as Standerton was about 100 miles (160 km) away, Christodoulou settled in to watch the nine-bout programme. “A few officials from the then Transvaal Boxing Board were in attendance and as the tournament was about to begin, a problem arose with a shortage of judges and referees who had not arrived,” said Christodoulou.

“Seeing how keen I was, George Owen-Davis, chairman of the board, asked me if I knew how to judge. I had no choice regardless of my answer and after a quick crash course in what it was about, I judged all nine bouts.”

Christodoulou had obviously impressed. Owen-Davis asked him to report to the board’s offices in Johannesburg the next week if he was interested in taking his brief turn at officiating further and the young Christodoulou needed no second invitation.

“I was more than keen. This was real and no longer a dream. I could get involved in something I had always been keen on, spending whatever pocket money I had on boxing magazines,” said Christodoulou. “I sailed through the exams, getting 98 and 99% and refereed my first fight in 1964, in Soweto, Joseph Mabena taking on Joseph Maphala.

“It sounds ludicrous now, but back then, most tournaments were in the townships and as a boxing referee I had to get a special permit from the boxing board to allow me to go into the townships,” said Christodoulou. “That is where the talent was in those days.”

Since those humble beginnings, Christodoulou has travelled the world, refereeing 133 world title fights across all 17 weight divisions, and judged at 67. He has officiated on all six continents, in 39 countries, controlling clashes involving some of the greats of the sport.

When asked to recall some of the highlights of his career, Christodoulou has no hesitation in travelling back to the 1970s, when he was the man in the middle at what he describes as two of the greatest world title fights ever fought.

“My first world title fight, on 3 November 1973, is one I will never forget. The Rand Stadium, the WBA Bantamweight title, South Africa’s Arnold Taylor against Mexican Romeo Anaya. It was 15 rounds in those days and I have never seen a fight like that in my life,” said Christodoulou.

“It was out and out war, give and take in 14 rounds of mayhem. Taylor was knocked down three times in the eighth round — in today’s three knockdown rule it would have been all over but that was not in effect then — and he got up every time. In the 14th round, he landed a sledgehammer right hand, which felled Anaya and saw Taylor become South Africa’s second world champion. Ring magazine voted the fight as one of the greatest of all time.”

A few years later, on May 23, 1976, Christodoulou was at the same venue, dealing with Argentinian Victor Galindez defending his world light heavyweight title against American Richie Kates. Again, it was 15 rounds and a reminder of the brutal contest hangs in the SA Boxing museum in Johannesburg — the shirt Christodoulou wore, which was covered in blood after he counted out Kates at 2.59 of the final round.

“My shirt was more red than white. This was the bloodiest fight I have ever refereed. The fighters clashed heads in round three, resulting in a deep cut above Galindez’s eye,” said Christodoulou. “I gave five minutes for it to be repaired and allowed the fight to continue. Of course, the blood kept coming and every time I broke the fighters from a clinch, Galindez wiped his brow on my shirt.”

Christodoulou’s instinct on being able to recognise when a fighter is in trouble and can no longer continue a bout has gained him international acclaim. He has a “sixth sense” when it comes to determining a fighter’s condition, looking particularly at muscle tone, neck strength and demeanour.

“Adrenaline and natural instinct will send a message to the fighter to continue, no matter what condition he is in. I have to control that, look beyond that and make the call, taking safety into consideration,” he said.

“Boxing is dangerous and there have been deaths in the ring, thankfully not when I have been in control. It’s a tricky business as sometimes a cut and swelling looks gruesome, yet the actual damage is minimal.”

When he started refereeing world title fights, Christodoulou only did WBA (World Boxing Association)-sanctioned clashes. However, the organisation suspended his membership in 1986 due to apartheid and for four years, Christodoulou had no title fights.

“In that time, other bodies were created [WBO — World Boxing Organisation; IBF — International Boxing Federation] and I started refereeing for them. On re-admission to international sport, I was back with the WBA, but they agreed to let me officiate across all organisations,” said Christodoulou.

These days, Christodoulou is the WBA Africa representative, establishing boxing in sub-Saharan Africa through workshops and clinics. He is respected as one of world boxing’s most astute figures.

Not bad for someone who does it all “for the love of the sport”.

CHRISTODOULOU FACTS

• He boxed at club level, barefoot, winning 12 fights before a knuckle injury stopped his progress.

• His all-time favourites are middleweight great Sugar Ray Robinson and heavyweight Joe Louis. Best South African is Brian

Mitchell.

• He enjoys golf (played off a 24 handicap), tennis and bowls.

• He follows soccer and rugby, being a Pirates and Sharks fan.

• Surprisingly for a boxing man, he is not good with his hands. He likes a braai and prefers to delegate when it comes to cooking and maintenance.

• Red and white wine go down well, while a Jack Daniels and a beer also satisfy the palate.

• He has a great appetite, trying local favourites wherever he goes. His favourite though is spinach pie, which he has whenever he returns home.

• Inducted in the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004, Canastota, New York.

• Inducted into SA Sports Hall of Fame 2007.

• President Mandela Award 1996.

• WBA Official of the Decade 2007/08, Argentina.

• First South African to handle a world title bout.

• Has refereed more than 2 500 fights and judged in excess of 3 500.

• Handled two world title bouts as a referee in three days — in Korea and Japan.

• Worked at SA Boxing Board for 29 years, resigning in 1998 as executive director.

• Some fighters he has been involved with: Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Charlie Weir, Tap-Tap Makhathini, Mike Schutte, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Oscar de la Hoya — the list is long.

• Numerous awards and accolodes.

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