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Boxing Judge John  Stewart’s Career Scorecard Worthy of Commendation

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  • Boxing Judge John  Stewart’s Career Scorecard Worthy of Commendation

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    By Bernard Fernandez

    The announcement came without fanfare. There was no laudatory tribute in his local newspaper, no testimonial dinner, no gold watch presented for 43 years of dedicated service to his sport, 42 if you consider that his most recent appearance at ringside was on March 7, 2020, because of, perhaps not entirely, the global pandemic that has changed so many lives.

    “I’m retired now,” boxing judge John Stewart, 79, informed an acquaintance of long standing (me) in a recent telephone conversation. “I’m making it official. Really, it was time for me to step away. I’d done headliner shows for a long time, but for the last three in New York I was assigned walkout bouts. I found myself still in the arena at 11:30, a quarter to 12, with nobody there but the judges and the families of the fighters. Sometimes that’s the handwriting on the wall. Anyway, 40 years of doing anything is a long time. It’s like that Kenny Rogers song. You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them.”

    If Stewart sticks to his vow to remain away from boxing, which does have a way of luring back longtime riders who periodically choose to exit the carousel, let the record show that the last fight he worked was a third-round technical knockout scored by Big Apple welterweight Arnold Gonzalez over Traye Labby of Pittsfield, Ill., at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, in support of the concluded heavyweight main event in which Robert Helenius stopped Adam Kownacki in six rounds. Not that anyone knew then it was Stewart’s last fight. The man himself wasn’t sure at that point.

    “The joy of it began to go out about five years ago,” the Philadelphia native and longtime South Jersey resident told me. “I had been made president of the Chinese boxing commission, and I enjoyed that because for 30-plus years of having bosses telling me where to go and what to do, I finally had become the boss. It was my job to assign and train the officials, to bring in the fighters and the announcers. I had a very good matchmaker (Jack Crowder), which helped. Melvina (Lathan) was my consultant and my wife (Jasmien) even got involved in timekeeping over there.

    “I brought people in like (referees) Tony Weeks from Vegas, Benjy Esteves from New York. We even brought Mike Tyson over there and he did some things with the kids that they enjoyed, and Mike did, too. See, the Chinese love boxing people with familiar names. The organization was called the IPBU, for International People’s Boxing Union. A gentleman named Zhang Tao was its founder. I remained president for five years, which were the last five years of my career.”

    But, ironically, the deadly virus that originated in China not only nudged Stewart toward the exit, it all but shoved him in that direction. And even if it hadn’t, the seemingly endless flights to and from the other side of the planet had begun to wear on a veteran traveler who was edging ever closer to 80.

    “The pandemic stopped a lot of things we were doing over in China,” Stewart noted. “The organization basically folded. We haven’t called them and they haven’t called us. It just sort of faded out, for now. Well, for good in my case.

    “And beside that, I can’t take those 13- to 15-hour trips overseas. I’ve filled up three different passport books. That’s a lot of traveling, and that part of it isn’t fun anymore.”

    To be sure, John Stewart, a highly respected boxing judge and an even better person, enjoyed his lengthy association with boxing so much that any disappointments he endured in the latter stages of his career did not come close to negatively tipping the scales. Even though Stewart had a day job – he was self-employed, operating a limousine service for 35 years – he said that “boxing can take a hold of you and not let go. Before I became a judge I was going to the PAL (Police Athletic League) gym every day after school, 23rd and Columbia, in North Philadelphia.”

    Rudy Battle, the longtime referee who is now the chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, was instrumental in bringing Stewart – who had judged amateur bouts since the early 1960s until moving up to the pros in 1978 -- into a more prominent role. He considers it to be one of the best things he’s ever done in the sport where brickbats are as common, and probably more so, than kudos.

    “It’s wisdom and professionalism that comes with experience,” Battle said of the reputation for integrity he believes his friend has earned. “I remember picking him up (at Stewart’s home in Lawnside, N.J.) during a snowstorm in New Jersey and taking him to his first assignment in Atlantic City. After all this time, I can’t remember him being called into question as a central figure in any controversial decisions. He has always conducted himself as a gentleman and I rate him among the top judges in the world. I don’t know if he is recognized as much as he should be, but then John doesn’t go around telling anyone how good a judge he is, and has been. If it’s true John has judged his last fight, he’ll be missed.”

    Among the elite fighters whose bouts Stewart has been up close and personal for are Floyd Mayweather Jr., Bernard Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr., James Toney, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Andre Ward, brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, Pernell Whitaker, Riddick Bowe, Thomas Hearns, Juan Manuel Marquez, Naseem Hamed, Michael Spinks, Azumah Nelson, Meldrick Taylor, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Nonito Donaire, Deontay Wilder and Mikey Garcia. And that’s just a partial list.

    Oh, and those three passport books that were fully stamped? Although most of the fight sites where Stewart and his pencil were ringside regulars were in Atlantic City, New York and Philadelphia, international assignments took him to, in addition to China, Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Israel, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Thailand and Canada.

    Perhaps the most prestigious gig on Stewart’s resume was Tyson’s 91-second crushing of Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988. “The atmosphere was electrifying,” Stewart said of a night when he didn’t even have to use his pencil. “I don’t know if any other fight I did really compares to it. What a lot of people don’t remember is that it took longer for the fighters to come out of their dressing rooms than for the fight to take place. There was some kind of dispute over who would be introduced last. They had to go in there to nearly drag out Mike, as I recall.”

    The kind of recognition that sometimes is accorded top referees, and mediocre-to-bad ones as well, comes easier because they are in the ring and moving around with the fighters, in full view of spectators and television audiences. Marc Ratner, former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said Nevada-based ref Mills Lane gained fame almost on a par with the champions whose fights he worked, and not only for his familiar “Let’s get it on!” catch phrase. “It almost seemed like he worked all the Super Bowls of crazy fights,” Ratner said of Lane, who was the third man in the ring for the Holyfield-Bowe II “Fan Man” fight in 1993, Oliver McCall’s bizarre crying jag against Lennox Lewis and, most notably, the Holyfield-Tyson II “Bite Fight.”

    Judges tend to be far less conspicuous, unless they submit a scorecard that is egregiously wrong and, worse, contributes to a decision that smells worse than dead fish left in the sun. There are no obvious red herrings on Stewart’s resume, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t question himself at times.

    “I’ve been very fortunate in that there haven’t been many instances where somebody said, `That Stewart guy is dead wrong.’ But whenever the ring announcer reads the decision, you heart palpitates a little bit. You always hope you made the right call, the correct call. That anxiety is probably a bit higher when you’re doing big fights, and I’ve done my share of those.

    “I hate to sound like a goody-goody two shoes, but I remember when I started out Russell Peltz (the longtime Philadelphia fight promoter) told me, `John, call it like you see it.’ And that’s what I did. I always called it as I saw it.”

    Stewart has been inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame, which to my mind is wholly appropriate. Despite the many fights he has judged in New York, he is ineligible for the New York Boxing Hall of Fame because the rules for induction stipulate that possible candidates either have to have been born in the state or lived a significant part of their career there. But his credentials would seem to be worthy of a close look from the Pennsylvania and Atlantic City BHOFs, and the International Boxing Hall of Fame would not seem to be beyond the realm of possibility.

    Enjoy your retirement from boxing, John. Not only have you merited a respite, you merit so much more than that.

    Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

  • #2
    I was always proud to referee fights with John as one of the judges. He was always a class act and I wish him the best.


    • #3
      John Stewart was one of the best. We did not always agree, but I always knew he knew what he was doing. You couldn't influence his scoring and that's the way it should be.