And Justice for All: How does it feel to be a referee or judge connected with a boxing controversy?

By Elliot Worsell

SOME like to be noticed. Others don’t. The best, we’re told, are the latter kind, the ones who shy away from attention, but sometimes being noticed isn’t necessarily by design.

Howard Foster, for example, is one referee who doesn’t like to be noticed. It’s not his thing. Never has been. Yet, at 8.20 pm on the night of November 23, 2013, he entered the changing room of George Groves, briefly interrupting the boxer’s warm-up, and was all of a sudden noticed.

More than that, he was the centre of attention, just as he’d been moments before, when delivering in a different changing room the same instructions to Carl Froch, and just as he’d be at around 11 pm.

“Don’t hit him while he’s down,” Foster said to Groves as the boxer sat on a chair and the music playing on a speaker was turned down. “Go to the furthest neutral corner and the important thing is you must stay there. If you come out of that corner, I’ll stop the count. Okay?”

Groves focused on Foster but it was hard to tell if he was really listening. Akin to pre-flight safety commands issued by an air hostess, he waited for it to be over.

“When you’re in close,” Foster continued, “watch your heads. No holding. When I say break, you break. Again, if you’re holding and I tell you to stop holding, that’s when you stop holding. You can work inside or you can step back.

“No hitting the back of the head, keep your punches up, have a good fight and good luck.”

As Foster looked to escape, remove himself from the spotlight, his exit was thwarted by Groves’ coach, Paddy Fitzpatrick, who had some instructions of his own.

“I know you’re in a hurry so I’ll keep it brief,” he said. “I just want to remind you of something Froch actually said…”

“Look…” Foster interjected.

“No, please, listen to me. If he does get caught, accidentally, he said he will deliberately foul back.”

“I’ve spoken to Carl just as I’ve spoken to George. No fouls. A nice, clean fight, that’s all I want.”

“I understand. And the other thing is, please let them work inside, just as you said.”

“Absolutely,” said Foster, offering his hand to Fitzpatrick before fleeing.

Three hours later, Groves returned to the same changing room having been stopped to a soundtrack of boos in round nine. The boos, rather than directed at him, were instead directed at Howard Foster, the referee, who sensed Groves was hurt in the ninth round, decided to stop the fight and inadvertently, regrettably became noticed.

His decision enraged the bloodthirsty and confused those of a calmer disposition, while Groves, exhausted, carried the demeanour of someone who had both won and lost. There was a slight cut along the top of his head, seen to by a doctor and some stitches, and large welts beneath his eyes. There were also numerous scuff marks along his neck, shoulders and back, accentuated by translucent skin. But these battle wounds, the result of punches, head-butts and shoulder barges, were curiously juxtaposed by a wide smile, one associated with victory, as well as the upbeat testimonies of all who surrounded him.

“Two weeks ago,” Groves recalled, “Paddy said to me, ‘I’m a bit worried about Howard Foster because he has a habit of jumping in early.’”

All-knowing rather than happy, the boxer’s ever-present smile suggested he and his coach had seen the controversy coming.

“Howard Foster said to me that the reason he stopped it was because George was hurt,” added Fitzpatrick. “Now, Froch was hurt six times before George had even taken a solid shot. Being hurt isn’t good enough. This is a world title fight. This man didn’t even give him a chance, let alone a count. No benefit of the doubt whatsoever.”

“I thought the referee was breaking it up, not stopping it,” Groves said with a sigh. 

A couple of weeks on, having had time to ruminate, Groves sat down in his Isleworth apartment and analysed the fight, round by round. When the ninth began, his earlier bolshiness made way for a pensive silence.

“The only time I ever felt a shot was in the ninth, a bit before the stoppage,” he said. “That was the right hand that skimmed me behind the ear. I felt it so went in to tie him up. But it’s not as if I’m clambering or staggering about. You watch me in the Kenny Anderson fight and I’m f**king drowning compared to this.

“When there’s a stoppage, there’s usually desperation. But if you look at who is showing desperation, it’s Froch, not me. Even as the stoppage comes, he is punching out of desperation, not control or dominance. He is a desperate man. He knows this is his one and only chance to make something happen. And Howard Foster was equally desperate to stop the fight.”

Upon doing so, the crowd complained and Groves, almost cradled by the referee, fought to wriggle his way out.

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