Following Friday’s fight, Joe Cortez made his way through the casino relatively unnoticed. While he may have looked familiar to some, it is safe say that most sports fans have seen Cortez – whether or not they’ve noticed him.
Cortez was the third man in the ring Friday night for the Ray Edwards-T.J. Gibson boxing match at Grand Casino Hinckley. For both Edwards and Gibson, it was their first professional boxing match. By his own best estimate, it was somewhere around his 5,001st.
Cortez has officiated some of the biggest fights in recent history. He has been the referee in more than 170 world championship fights and, when venerable referees Mills Lane and Richard Steele retired, he became the referee of choice for fights in both Las Vegas and at Madison Square Garden in New York.
He officiated nine fights with Mike Tyson, the first match between Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez, the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe title fight and was the ref in the match that made 45-year old George Foreman the oldest champion in history – a mark that was broken when 46-year old Bernard Hopkins won a championship fight last night.
Perhaps a microcosm of the current state of boxing, he was the third man in the Edwards-Gibson fight. While he said Edwards was understandably raw in his professional debut, considering he didn’t have an amateur background, Cortez was a bit taken aback by Edwards’ in-ring savvy.
“For a first outing, I was pretty impressed,” Cortez said. “Most boxers get their start when they’re teenagers, not when they’re in their mid 20s. They also don’t typically start off against someone with the kind of experience (Gibson) had. He had a lot of ring experience, not in boxing, but in mixed martial arts and kickboxing. He may have thought he was going to just put him away, but that’s difficult to do with someone with ring experience.”
He said that, in the current downward trend in sports popularity that boxing is currently enduring, any influx of talent – whether viewed by the public as a gimmick or not – is good for the sport Cortez loves and has devoted his life to.
“It’s good for boxing because you have a celebrity in the ring who isn’t known as a boxer and can bring additional interest to the sport,” Cortez said. “For boxing that’s good because we have to generate new fans. For a lot of the people here [on Friday night], this was their first live boxing event. You could tell that they were impressed with some of the things they saw.”
In many ways, boxing throughout the United States has been reduced to events like the one held in Hinckley, Minn., Friday night. For years, Minnesota governed a boxing and wrestling commission to oversee the sport of boxing and the “sport” of wrestling. Wrestling used to be conducted in the dimly-lit, smoke-filled arenas that every state seemed to have in abundance. Boxing has become the “new” wrestling.
The advent of mixed martial arts and big promotions like UFC, the crowd that used to enjoy the “sweet science” is now more attuned to the cage fighting of Romanesque history in the Coliseum. At a time where boxing is waiting for its next set of young superstars to emerge, Cortez said the sport is looking to maintain its hold on the paying sports public until the “next big thing” explodes on the horizon.
“There is still a fan base for boxing, but I think the world of pay-per-view has splintered the audience somewhat,” Cortez said. “When there is a big fight, there are still going to be a lot of people that want to watch it. However, the introduction of MMA has forced boxing to take a back seat. It’s happened before. Boxing needs to develop a star. Mike Tyson was that type of boxer. He came to prominence at a time when the interest in heavyweight boxing wasn’t that high. Suddenly, that changed. Everyone wanted to see him fight and he made other boxers famous along the way.”
When is comes to Edwards, Cortez said he felt Gibson was an ideal opponent for his debut match. With a distinct height and reach advantage, Edwards could pile up points by throwing stiff jabs that could make contact with his Gibson’s head, but not get involved in inside exchanges of heavy punches. At times during Friday’s fight, Gibson swung wildly over his head in hopes of making contact with an “end-game shot” – the one wild hope-and-a-prayer punch that would silence the pro-Edwards crowd. It never came, which Cortez said was to Edwards’ credit.
“In many ways he reminds me of the [Wladimir and Vitali] Kilitschko brothers,” Cortez said. “He is a big man who is very muscular. He has the ability to impose his will on people. He has a ways to go to get to that level, but he has the tools to be successful.”
Whether Edwards continues his foray into the world of punch-induced concussions or sticks with his “day job” as an NFL player will likely be decided in the next few months. When the current lockout ends, Edwards will likely be a free agent in line to sign a huge contract. Once that happens, his toe in the water of boxing will be pulled back and it will end almost immediately – chances are his contract will include a proviso requiring that. Cortez said that Edwards’ skill in the NFL will likely take precedence to boxing, but, if he did pursue his second sporting love, he would likely be successful.
“He has a lot of things going in his favor,” Cortez said. “But the thing about boxing is that it is either a passion or it’s something you do. Right now, from what I saw in the ring, he has the desire to be a good boxer. Does he have the passion for it? Only time will tell, but he has a lot of the qualities that good boxers have. You can’t teach that. You either have it or you don’t. The issue for him is going to be whether he dedicates himself. He isn’t the first football player who has entered the ring.”
Several NFL players have given boxing a try. Mark Gastineau of New York Jets fame gave boxing a try. He posted a 15-2 record before a “60 Minutes” report claimed several of his opponents “took a dive” – whether true or not remains subject to speculation. Ed “Too Tall” Jones fought six times in three months against what boxing purists call “Tomato Cans” – things you set up with the intention of knocking them down. Is Edwards in that class?
“I don’t think so,” Cortez said. “He is young, athletic and in phenomenal condition. He is someone that could work his way up if he committed to being a boxer. But that progress would take time.”
Therein lies the rub. If Edwards becomes an NFL free agent, he is likely to walk into a contract that will not only be a $10-million-plus deal, but will likely include a big guarantee. What he made Friday was a borderline five-figure deal – he was guaranteed $5,000 and reportedly got a solid percentage of the live gate. If he was restricted free agent, his tender offer for 2011 would be in excess of $3 million.
Cortez said that may be the biggest obstacle facing Edwards at this point in his professional life.
“I think Ray could develop into a very good boxer,” Cortez said. “But, most boxers who make it to the top are ones that have dedicated their lives to being a boxer. He has other options that are very lucrative and he has a lot of experience in that field (football). Most boxers don’t have those options.”
Will Edwards make good on his claim to stick with boxing? That will be determined shortly after the current NFL labor impasse comes to an end. The unofficial betting line puts Edwards’ retirement from boxing within 72 hours of NFL free agency opening, but, from a guy who should know, he’s got the goods.
“I’d like to see him stay in boxing,” Cortez said. “But, I’m sure other people will disagree with that. There were a lot of Vikings fans here.”
One angle that may play against the Vikings stadium issue is the lack of fan enthusiasm in the local sports market. The Vikings fell flat in 2010 after getting within a potential game-winning field goal to get to the Super Bowl in 2009. The Twins have had the worst record in baseball for most of the month of May. The Wild have collapsed like a house of cards and, even in the generous NHL playoff pool, they weren’t within sniffing distance for the last month of the season. The Timberwolves had more balls in the hopper (again) for the NBA draft lottery because they have stunk ever since Kevin Garnett left town. The University of Minnesota football and men’s basketball teams were running jokes in the second half of their respective seasons. Perhaps never has the fan climate been as tepid to Minnesota sports as it is right now. Not exactly the best time to get residents to sign off on a new stadium proposal – or convince fence-riding legislators to potentially face voter ire by voting in favor of it.
The Vikings have been rumored to be interested in Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton (for as much as a second-round draft pick), which begs the question “why?” For a guy who split time with regrettable first-rounder Rex Grossman, he is likely best suited to stay in Denver. While hard-core Bronco fans – the types that wear orange hoop barrels held up with suspenders – believe Tim Tebow is the second coming of John Elway – he is more accurately a poor man’s Steve Young. Plays will be called to “take advantage” of Tebow’s running ability. Unfortunately, in the modern day of the NFL that is a recipe for disaster.
Daunte Culpepper’s career was cut short thanks to a called quarterback draw. On that fateful day against the Carolina Panthers, the coaches called a QB draw. It was executed to perfection. Culpepper broke off an 18-yard run, more than likely was expected. What wasn’t drawn up on the “X” and “O” board was that cornerback Chris Gamble was going to have a 20-yard running start to make contact with Culpepper. Giving up 40 pounds to Pepp, he went low – and tore three of the four ligaments that held Culpepper’s knee together. For all intents, his career ended on that play.
Orton wants to be a starter for a long time to come. He has that chance in Denver. Tebow is one hit away from being Kelly Stouffer. Orton’s best long-term hopes remain in Denver or a half-dozen other NFL cities. The Vikings don’t look like a good fit, despite the rumors to the contrary.
A ritual of many boxers with markedly more experience than Edwards is to abstain from sexual activity prior to a fight. When asked if he was among those believers, Edwards cited some of the boxers he has tried to learn from and said he agrees with that mantra – despite needing to have the term “abstain” clarified. He observed the ritual, saying that boxers who don’t observe abstinence rituals can lose stamina and weaken their legs. There isn’t any medical evidence to support that claim – sparring is sparring, right? – but Edwards took his first step to becoming a real boxer by observing the traditions.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.