Forgotten Legends: Mitch Halpern

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By: Steve Gallegos

In this segment of Forgotten Legends, we’re gonna switch gears and focus not on a fighter, but on a referee. The life of a boxing referee can be a difficult one. The “3rd Man” inside the ring is criticized regularly for his actions in a very brutal sport. The sole purpose of the referee is to protect the fighters and most times, the lives of the combatants rests solely in the hands of the referee.

The state of Nevada has been known to produce the best boxing referees in the world, most notably Mills Lane, Richard Steele and Joe Cortez. In the mid-late 90’s there was another referee that was on his way to joining that elite class. His name was Mitch Halpern.

Halpern was a hard nosed, no nonsense referee who refereed some of the biggest bouts in Nevada during the end of the 20th Century. He was known to maintain order while letting the boxers fight their fights. Mitch Halpern began refereeing bouts in 1991. He was mentored by the legendary Nevada referee Richard Steele, who taught Halpern everything there was to know about being a boxing referee.

On 05/06/95, Halpern would referee a bout between Gabriel Ruelas and Jimmy Garcia. It was the co-feature on a big Pay Per View card held at the outdoor arena at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was a fight in which Garcia absorbed alot of punishment over the course of 11 rounds, before Halpern stopped the fight. Moments later, Garcia collapsed in his corner and was taken to the hospital, where he would later die due to injuries sustained in the bout.

It was a tragic event on a big stage and many in the boxing media criticized Mitch Halpern for Garcia’s death. This didn’t stop Mitch from refereeing and he continued on with his career.

On 11/09/97, Halpern would referee the biggest fight of his career, which was the first bout between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. It was a tough, physical fight which included a lot of clinching, holding and hitting on the breaks. Halpern had to call time several times to warn the fighters and he did so in a very authoritive way.

Near the end of the 10th, Holyfield caught Tyson flush and put a pounding on him. Halpern almost stepped in to stop the fight, however he let the round come to a close. He would then stop the fight in the 11th after Holyfield again battered Tyson.
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Halpern was chosen to work the Holyfield Tyson rematch seven months later, however the Tyson camp hotly contested Mitch Halpern being the referee; therefore Halpern stepped down and was replaced by Mills Lane.

Tyson would be disqualified in the third round after he bit Holyfield twice on his ears. Had Mitch Halpern been the referee, Tyson wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to bite Holyfield a second time. Halpern would have disqualified Tyson immediately.

Halpern would close out 1997 by refereeing the next two mega bouts in Las Vegas when he worked the highly anticipated showdown between Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero as well as the Heavyweight Championship unificiation bout between Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer. Halpern would close out the millenium by working the last two mega bouts of the 1990’s when he refereed Oscar De La Hoya vs Felix Trinidad as well as the second bout between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, which crowned the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. Halpern would start the new millenium by working another highly anticipated bout when he refereed the first bout between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera which was an all out war.

Mitch Halpern was at the top of his game and was considered the best referee in Nevada; however it was all about to come to a tragic end. On 08/20/00, Mitch Halpern was found dead from to a gunshot wound to the head, that was ruled a suicide. It was a huge loss and many within the boxing community that were close to Halpern were shocked as he appeared to be very cool and collect.

On 08/26/00, an HBO Boxing After Dark card was held at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. All the referee’s working, wore a patch on there sleeve in honor of Mitch Halpern. The main event was a heated battle between Fernando Vargas and Ross Thompson, which was refereed by Joe Cortez. During the pre fight instructions, Cortez said “This one’s for Mitch. Mitch, we love you, we miss you”.

Mitch Halpern was a special referee, who didn’t put up with any nonsense from any fighter, regardless of who they were. As I stated earlier, the life of a boxing referee can be a diffictult one. Did the pressures of being a boxing referee get to Mitch Halpern? In the end he was a very good referee who was on his way to greatness, only to have his life ended too soon.

Forgotten Legends: Danny Romero

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By: Steve Gallegos

When you think of Boxing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the late Johnny Tapia probably comes to mind; however Albuquerque also had another world champion in Danny Romero. Nicknamed “Kid Dynamite” for his explosiveness inside the ring, Romero provided boxing fans with a lot of good memories in the mid 1990’s.

Romero began boxing at the young age of five and his father/trainer Danny Romero Sr. guided his son through a 13 year amateur career. After failing to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic boxing team, Romero would turn pro in September, 1992 and would go 23-0 with 20 knockouts before facing IBF flyweight champion Francisco Tejador in April, 1995.

Romero shined well, taking a unanimous decision and winning his first world title; however the glory would be short-lived. After defending his title once, he faced journeyman Willie Salazar in a nontitle bout. Romero would suffer a serious eye injury and the fight would be stopped in the seventh round, putting Romero’s future in question. After surgery and rehabilitation, the eye healed well and he returned to the ring.

After winning two fights, he challenged IBF Jr Bantamweight champion Harold Grey in his hometown of Albuquerque, NM on 8/24/96 and would score a sensational second round KO. Once again, Romero was a world champion and he was voted as 1996’s comeback of the year by Ring Magazine. By this time a hometown rivalry was brewing between Romero and Johnny Tapia. It was one of the most anticipated fights of 1997 and the event was so hot that it had to be moved from Albuquerque to Las Vegas.

Before they met on 7/18/97, the boxing world was in serious jeopardy due to Mike Tyson’s ear-biting of Evander Holyfield and Henry Akinwande’s DQ loss to Lennox Lewis due to excessive holding. Boxing appeared to be on life support and it was hoping that Tapia vs Romero would rescue the sport.

The fight itself wasn’t the all action slugfest that many fans were expecting; however it did have drama. After losing the early rounds, Romero adapted well in the middle part of the fight and turned boxer, landing many good counter right hands; however Tapia would gain the edge in the later stages of the fight and would win a unanimous decision which temporarily saved boxing.

Although Romero was disappointed and thought he won, he shook the loss off well and moved up to Jr. Featherweight and after winning his next 3 fights, he was back in line for another title shot.

This time he faced long time Super Bantamweight champion Vuyani Bungu on 10/31/98. The fight would be the co-feature for “Prince” Naseem Hamed vs Wayne McCullough and the winner was hoping to land a fight with “Naz”.

Romero fought beautifully, boxing well and appeared to get the better of Bungu in many exchanges. When the final bell sounded, Romero appeared to be the clear winner, even winning the fight convincingly on HBO’s unofficial scorecard; however the judges would decide otherwise awarding Bungu a Majority Decision.

Romero continued to fight on and would win nine out his next eleven bouts before facing Cruz Carbajal in September, 2002 for the WBO Bantamweight title. The fight was stopped in the fourth round after Romero suffered an injury in the first round.

He would fight three more times from 2003-2006 before retiring from the ring with a record of 45-5-2 with 38 KO’s. While he didn’t appear to receive the same level of respect as his cross town rival Johnny Tapia did, Romero should look back on his career with a sense of accomplishment and not a sense of resentment.
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Beyond the Ropes: Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson

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By: Heath Harlem
Follow Heath @PittGrad0214

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(Photo courtesy of Mysanantonio.com)

The 2012 International Boxing Hall of Fame class was headlined by the induction of Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns.  The Hit Man is a household name to both fight fans and general sport fans due to his success winning titles at five different divisions over the course of his career.  Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson was also on the program that day and to many fight fans he was the “other” American fighter inducted that day.  It was fitting for Johnson to be “other” fighter inducted that day, since throughout his career Mark was often seen as the “other” fighter in his own division and in the larger fight world.  However, when we take a look back at the career of Mark Johnson we find a trailblazing fighter who dominated a division like no American had ever dominated before.  Unfortunately, due to politics of the game, fight fans missed out seeing how great Johnson really was.

Born in Washington D.C on August 13, 1971, Mark was the son of a boxing trainer.  Being born into a fight family, it didn’t take long for Johnson to join the family trade.  Mark entered the ring for the first time at five years, and quickly became a dominant amateur.  Mark was given the Nickname “Too Sharp” by his best friend, and his amateur career was capped off with a U.S. Amateur championship in 1989.

The American fight game historically has been dominated by fighters in the 140lb and higher weight classes.  Mark turned pro in 1990 and despite the historical trend; “Too Sharp” took the Flyweight division by storm, winning 38 straight fights at the flyweight division.  While most fighters with Mark’s type of talent prefer to take safe and easy fights in their hometown, Mark took a different route.  Mark had a desire to face the best in the game on the biggest stages.  This competitive fire took Mark away from D.C. and he became a regular fighter on the West Coast at the Great Western Forum when the Forum was the biggest stage in boxing.  Despite fighting many big fights outside of D.C., “Too Sharp” never wanting to be away from his family, never held a training camp.  Instead he trained in his own gym in D.C. and that training formula turned wildly successful.  On May 4, 1996 Mark defeated Fransisco Tejedor via an impressive 1st round KO to become the IBF Flyweight Champion.  No African American had ever held a Flyweight Championship before Johnson accomplished this historic feat.

Mark successfully defended the IBF Flyweight Title seven times before moving up to the Super Flyweight division.  In his first fight at Super Flyweight, Johnson defeated Ratanachai Sor Vorapin via a 12 round unanimous decision on April 24, 1999 to win the IBF Super Flyweight title.  Johnson defended this title three times before moving to Bantamweight.  Mark’s 3rd and final Super Flyweight defense was declared a no contest when an all-out brawl broke out due to low blows.  The fight was called in the 4th round and Mark was ahead three rounds to none on all three judge’s score cards. 

Johnson moved up to Bantamweight and after two easy wins, stepped into the ring to face Rafael Marquez on October 6, 2001.  Mark lost via split decision in what is considered one of the worst refereed fights of all time.  Referee Robert Gonzalez took 2 points away from Johnson for holding and that proved to be the difference in the fight.  Mark then lost the rematch with Marquez four months later via knockout.  Many fight observers thought that after the 2 fights with Marquez that Johnson was finished as a top level fighter.  However, Mark had different plans and dropped back to the Super Flyweight weight class and on August 16, 2003 Mark defeated Fernando Montiel via a 12 round majority decision to become the WBO Super Flyweight champion.  Mark successfully defended the title twice before he lost it to Ivan Hernandez on September 25, 2004.  Johnson fought one last time in February 2006, suffering a final defeat at the hands of Jhonny Gonzalez.

Throughout his career fight fans were consistently entertained by Mark’s charismatic personality and exciting performances.  Johnson never had a consistent style, instead he had an incredible ability to adapt to his opponent’s style.  Fighting in an age where tape study was a key part of most fighter’s training camps, Mark never watched a minute of tape during his career.  He simply had natural instincts that allowed him to scientifically box when needed or simply start a slugfest with his opponent if that was in his best interest.  This natural boxing ability made Mark one of the most dangerous potential opponents for his contemporaries.  Throughout his career, Mark called out the best in the game including Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, and Michael Carbajal.  Top Rank promotions owned the promotional rights to many of the top fighters in Johnson’s weight class and they kept their fighters away from Mark.  Due to the top name fighters ducking Johnson, Mark was never able to secure the marquee fights he deserved or fight fans wanted to see.  This cost Johnson millions in personal income as well as left a void when his career ended; disappointed that he never got to show the world how much better than the other “names” he really was.

Boxing has always been in Johnson’s blood and when he retired he continued to be part of the game.  He began training young fighters, sharing his love of the game and keeping the kids off of the streets at the same time.  He also worked as a fight commentator, a job he simply loved and can’t wait for the next opportunity.  Mark is best known for his historical accomplishment of  becoming the first African American Flyweight Champion as well as a two time Super Flyweight Champion.  Despite these accomplishments, when Mark first retired he felt that he didn’t get his just due, since he never got the marquee fights due to the politics of the game.  However, that all changed in 2011 when Mark got the call from International Boxing Hall of Fame letting him know he was going to be inducted into the hall of fame in his first year of eligibility.  It isn’t often that fighters are voted in on their first year of eligibility.  Despite not making the millions the marquee fights would have brought, Mark’s career was capped with the boxing writers acknowledging to him and the fight world just how great of a fighter Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson really was. 

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