FEATURE: Surviving as a ring official: the plight of Ghanaian boxing referees

Author: Bernard Neequaye

Working as a boxing official remains one of the most difficult jobs in Ghana considering the abuses that such officials are subjected to. Often, it takes bold steps to effect some of the controversial moments in a bout, and such decisions sometimes attract many negative reactions from affected parties.

Of the many ring officials who ensure the sport’s progression, referees endure the biggest risk in the middle of the ring ensuring clean fights by competing fighters.

The work of referees as stipulated by boxing laws is to ensure a fighter’s safety to be able to fight another day, but the discretion given to them by the sanctioning bodies come with immense pressure whenever they are to apply some, especially when there is a need to stop a fight.

It has been described as one of the most courageous decisions in a referee’s career since it sometimes attracts verbal and physical attacks from affected boxers and their camps during bouts. The most recent case to have happened in Ghana was the experience of Beninois referee, Adorn Bertin, whose decision to end a bout between Wasiru ‘Gyatabi’ Mohammed and Isaac Sackey in October 2018 led to chaos at the Bukom Boxing Arena when Sackey’s corner and camp attacked him and rioted over perceived injustice.

To Bertin, he chose to stop the fight because Sackey had dropped to the canvas from a right hook by Mohammed and looked dazed an unable to continue, but the boxer and his camp felt they were given a raw deal because he was fit to continue the bout. This led to confusion between the two camps.

It was a bad spectacle, especially as armed policemen had to intervene to prevent coaches and supporters of Sackey from attacking the Beninois referee who had to flee the arena for his safety.

One thing that must be learnt as boxing enthusiasts is disagreeing with a referee’s decision without any verbal or physical attack because sometimes it is the beauty of controversies that bring the best out of sporting activities.



A referee’s ordeal

Enjoying great bouts in Ghana remains an interesting one and my coverage of boxing has taken me to the best of fight nights in recent times and I can testify to some of the abusive outbursts from fanatics whenever referees’ decisions do not favour them.

Nevertheless, referees are very important in boxing activities as they are responsible for maintaining clean bouts, as well as ensuring boxers survive to fight another day.

The verbal abuses Ghanaian boxing referees receive from these fanatics have, in a way, toughened them in the discharge of their duties.

Roger Barnor, arguably the best boxing referee in the country at the moment, admitted to the Graphic Sports that he had gone through so many difficult times with threats on his life in a career which spanned over 24 years.

He recounted how a decision to stop a bout in favour of Namibia’s Walter Kautondonkwa against Obodai Sai of Ghana sparked off verbal attacks on him by the boxer and his supporters.

Comparing his experience officiating in Ghana and abroad, Barnor advised authorities to consider educating boxing enthusiasts to desist from attacking referees when decisions didn’t go their way.

“My career has been through ups and downs, but I can say that officiating in Ghana is a very difficult one because of the verbal abuses and attacks whenever decisions are taken.

“It is very different abroad and I think the authorities must educate spectators to accept the outcomes of fights since referees are to help a course,” referee Barnor explained.

In the case of May Mensah Akakpo who has been a referee for the past 23 years, his fear of getting into the bad books of supporters has been his bane throughout his career.

He, however, described officiating in Ghana as one of the best in Africa and said the constant abuse of referees sometimes created fear and panic whenever he was in the ring.

“It has been a good one for me and I can confidently say that we are one of the best on the continent in terms of officiating.

“I have been through a lot in my 23 years as a boxing referee and sometimes the fear of getting into the bad books of supporters scare me,” he noted.



Handling criticisms

In boxing, like in any other sport, handling situations in the ring as a referee remains the toughest task, especially in grudge bouts.

It is in this light that referees go through a lot of criticisms whenever there is a controversial decision in the ring; but in all, the response to the spectators add volume to professionalism.

I remember a case in which the late referee Fred Ghartey was subjected to several criticisms while officiating a non-title bout between Braimah Kamoko (Bukom Banku) and Bastie Samir in 2017, with critics accusing him of siding with one of the boxers.

The late referee had failed to stop the fight when it was clear that Samir was dominating and on the verge of earning a deserved knockout. Rather, the referee opted to allow Bukom Banku be treated by the doctor for a cut even when the round was still in session.

After the bout, Samir’s trainer, Kwasi Ofori Asare, called on the Ghana Boxing Authority (GBA) to sanction the referee for what he described as “taking sides with Bukom Banku”.

Referee Barnor, Akakpo and Michael Neequaye told the Graphic Sports in separate interviews that every professional official must overlook happenings outside the ring by applying the rules of the sport.

They explained that the GBA and all stakeholders, after the bout, had the right to assess your performance and take a decision on whether to sanction you in controversial happenings.

“It is not up to the spectators to decide the rules of the game because in most cases, they are either being emotional or fanatics and the only important thing is to effect your decisions in accordance with the rules of the sport,” Akakpo said.




Positives

Despite the numerous attacks from supporters on referees, officiating has presented most Ghanaians with the chance to explore the world of boxing.
To them, boxing provided them the platform to meet new people and learn from some of the best officials around the globe.

Referee Neequaye said he had been able to officiate in China, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Mexico, South Africa and Kenya, overseas assignments he said motivated him to work harder.

He explained that after 11 years of officiating in a sport he loved and cherished, his career had been successful and was ready to give of his best to the sport.

“It has been a long journey for me but in all, I can describe it as successful because I have been able to officiate in so many countries within 11 years.

“I am more than motivated to give of my best to a sport I love and cherish so much in order to aid in its development,” he added.

Referee Barnor, having followed his passion, remains the only five-star referee from Ghana, which he said had helped him officiate at the biggest level in his career.

In the case of Akakpo, he had achieved so much by associating himself with the sport and was grateful to all who had helped him in his journey as a boxing referee.