Cortez's judgment shows in, out of ring

If a major championship prizefight is being held, Joe Cortez likely is right in the thick of it. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Very few kids dream of becoming a referee one day. But in those rare cases when the dream of a boxing career meets a thirst for justice and fairness, a path may be found into the prizefighting game -- the biggest fights on the biggest stages in the world.

And in the world of boxing, it doesn't get any bigger than this:

"It was the night in which I refereed that fight with Julio Cesar Chavez at Aztec Stadium," said Joe Cortez, the instantly recognizable referee who has been a staple on major boxing cards for more than 25 years, when asked about the most joyful moment of his career. "To me, that was one of the greatest and happiest nights for me."

But even that audience of more than 135,000 chanting their idol's name in a fight against Greg Haugen pales in comparison with a lesser-known night in the boxing world that Cortez nevertheless holds close to his heart.

It was the fight between Gaspar 'Indio' Ortega, a top-rated Mexican contender in the 1960s and Cortez's mentor and father figure, and titleholder Emile Griffith. "Even though he lost," Cortez said, "it was as if I was seeing my father fighting for a world title, and I was so happy that day."

Sometimes, fans rush to conclusions that are unbelievable. I don't see races or colors -- I treat every fighter as if he was my son. I am there to protect them and care for them, and also to enforce the rules. But I am never biased towards anyone. It would be unethical for an official to do something like that.

-- Joe Cortez

Born in New York's Spanish Harlem to Puerto Rican parents, Cortez, who was raised along with his three brothers by his single mother, had a difficult upbringing. But his rough childhood had a new beginning after he met Ortega, who would guide Cortez's first steps in the sport that would one day make him famous.

"I started fighting as an amateur in New York in 1960," Cortez said. "That's when I won my first championship. I won a total of six Golden Gloves tournaments in my years as an amateur. Then, I became pro in '63 in an undercard with Gaspar Ortega, and I continued fighting in Hawaii, Mexico and other places. I had a total of 19 fights as a professional."

The boxing scene in those years wasn't as vibrant as the current scene, in which a successful amateur career serves as a springboard for greater glories in the professional realm and an Olympic medal holds weight in the paid ranks.

"Our managers told us, 'Joe, don't waste your time with that, go pro, forget about it,'" Cortez said of any Olympic ambitions. "And we followed that advice. When I became 18, I went pro. But there was no money in those days. When I was 21, I was already married. And when I was 23, I had two kids and I decided to look for a job to support my family."

He soon found work, and it came with a privileged view: Cortez moved to Puerto Rico to take a managerial position with the Conquistador Hotel in Fajardo, a paradisiacal corner of the island where his parents were born. He lived there for eight years, returning to New York to become the head of casino operations for the same company.

"When I returned to New York in '77, that's when I became an amateur-level referee," said Cortez, who quickly moved up through the ranks. "The New York [Athletic] commission called me up and told me that they had seen qualities in me that would be suitable for professional boxing, and I became a professional ref in New York and New Jersey."

It was the beginning of a 15-year stint as a referee in New York, and at the same time Cortez was starting his own business in the food industry. After a successful run as an entrepreneur in several other endeavors, he semi-retired in 1988, having invested his earnings in real estate. But the best had yet to come.

"In '92, the Nevada [State Athletic] commission was looking for a referee with a good name and reputation, and they gave me the chance," Cortez said. "That same year, I moved to Las Vegas."

Before long, Cortez was meeting movie producers and actors who frequently attended prizefights and recognized the ubiquitous referee. "That's how I started this other career," Cortez said.

His "other career" has landed Cortez multiple roles in movies such as "Rocky Balboa," "Play it to the Bone," "I Spy" and "Undisputed." They all depict Cortez doing what he does best: working as the third man in the ring of an important boxing event. And rather than settling on the occasional cameo appearance, he has ventured out on his own in the industry.

"I now have a company called Dream Network TV," Cortez said. "We do commercials, special features and documentaries." One project is a film focusing on his personal life and journey through boxing -- a daunting task given the number of fights he has worked, including what he considers his first major accomplishment.

"Roberto Duran against Iran Barkley," Cortez said. "I was already doing my 17th world championship bout, and after that fight I started doing bigger and bigger fights."

It's an impressive list that includes Chavez-De La Hoya, Tyson-Holmes, Camacho-Leonard, Holyfield-Bowe and Foreman-Moorer. Still, it hasn't been a bed of roses throughout Cortez's long career. The most unpleasant part of a referee's job description has to be making life-or-death decisions on the fly, and when the situation goes sour the impact can be devastating.

"One time, a boxer died after a fight that I refereed," Cortez said somberly. "The fighter's name was Robert Wangila. He was an Olympic champion from Kenya. He was winning the fight when I stopped it. He was fighting a Latino, a Mexican guy [David Gonzales]. I stopped the fight because I thought that Wangila was taking too much punishment. Even though he was winning up to that point, I saw some reactions to punches that I didn't like and I stopped the fight. I had to explain the situation to the corner, but I was sure I had done the best for the well-being of the fighter."

After the fight, Wangila collapsed and had a seizure. He was taken to the hospital for surgery and died from his wounds two days later.

"To me, it was the hardest thing," Cortez said. "In all my other fights, people always came to complain to me because I deducted a point from one guy or the other, and so forth. But after I stopped the fight and the kid died, to me that was a huge shock. But I know I did the right thing."

Even so, he suffered criticism for the early stoppage because of suspicions he favored the Hispanic fighter. And they wouldn't be the last accusations of bias leveled against him.

"Sometimes, fans rush to conclusions that are unbelievable," Cortez said. "I don't see races or colors -- I treat every fighter as if he was my son. I am there to protect them and care for them, and also to enforce the rules. But I am never biased towards anyone. It would be unethical for an official to do something like that."

Cortez, tragically, was proven right for his ruling in Wangila-Gonzales. But in fights such as John Ruiz versus Kirk Johnson (Johnson was disqualified for repeated low blows) and Francisco Lorenzo-Humberto Soto (which ended in a controversial stoppage), some fans remain convinced that the outcome was adversely affected by Cortez's decision.

"In the [Lorenzo-Soto] fight, I consulted the doctor and he told me to stop the fight because of a rabbit punch, and that's what I did. I felt really bad for Soto, a good boxer and a great guy. Fortunately, he got the rematch and won by decision, claiming the title."

And for Cortez, there are far more serious and personal matters of concern beyond his job. A few years ago, one of his daughters suffered a terrible car accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down. Instead of being crushed by the pain of such a blow, Cortez -- who, along with his wife, is a cancer survivor -- found wells of strength to overcome the situation. He credits boxing for giving him the necessary mental and spiritual toughness.

"Outside of boxing, the greatest thing in my life is my daughter," Cortez said. "She is the most important part of my life, and I am glad she is still alive, that she is still with us. That is a great joy for all of us.

"After working so many tough fights during all these years, and after being a fighter myself, I know all the sacrifices one has to make to try to improve and see everything on the bright side. Boxing made me a stronger person. Seeing my daughter in a wheelchair every day of my life has made me a stronger person. People don't know what I go through, what I suffer when I see her like that. But my daughter is so strong that I can only think positive all the time, never be negative. That's why I say that if people knew how hard boxing is, they would never say that I made a wrong decision in the ring."

Cortez is similarly passionate about his relationship with and role in the Hispanic community, which includes participation in many charity organizations, visits to schools and the mentoring of children whose circumstances mirror his own as a boy. Although his Puerto Rican profile is indelible, Cortez considers himself part of an even bigger family that encompasses all Latinos.

"I have Mexicans in my family," Cortez said. "I have two Mexican godsons that I am helping through college, and I am very proud to be able to help them just as Gaspar did with me. That's why I say that the worst thing someone can tell me is to say that I make decisions in favor or against a certain fighter for being Mexican, or Puerto Rican, or even American. I don't think that way. I am hurt when someone in the audience says that Joe Cortez is against Mexicans. Because I know how much love I have for my people, especially for Mexicans, because Gaspar raised me as his son and he is Mexican."

Through his Web site and his refereeing seminars in Las Vegas, Cortez solidifies his legacy as one of the best referees of all time. Even so, his ambitions have little to do with the inevitable plaque that will bear his name in the Boxing Hall of Fame.

"I would like people to remember Joe Cortez as someone who has earned everyone's love, especially Latinos, all over the world," he said. "I am a cancer survivor, and my wife has survived cancer twice, and I am still involved in helping the community. I don't do this for money -- I just do it to lend a hand and to let everyone know that Joe Cortez is making a difference and helping to improve the Hispanic community, so that we can earn everyone's respect all over the world."

Diego Morilla is a contributor to ESPN Deportes.