Wayne Kelly (1948 – 2012): No Gimmick Necessary

(Wayne Kelly, with Tony Danza)

He needed no gimmick and drew no attention to himself. It was modesty, perhaps, that overshadowed his merits, as his name was oft overlooked in casual discussions of the United States’ best officials.

For veteran referee Wayne Kelly, who passed away last Wednesday due to heart attack at age 63, this mattered none. Of his peers in the fight community, Kelly commanded great respect.

Twenty years playing the third man inevitably saw his involvement with some major incidents, yet the grace with which he handled them elicited little — if any — contention. Though I missed the opportunity to meet Mr. Kelly in my five brief years covering the sport, I have always admired his work from afar. With the announcement of his name during pre-fight introductions came the reassurance that I could focus on the in-ring action, rather than the competency (or lack thereof) of the calls.

With that, I will leave it to Harold Lederman and officials Benjy Esteves, Jr. and Steve Smoger, who all spoke to TQBR, to share their takes on the man who garnered esteem among any and all familiar with his back catalogue.

“At this point in time, I think he was the very best referee in the state of New York,” remarked celebrated former judge and HBO’s current unofficial scorer Harold Lederman during a phone interview with TQBR this week. “I bet he would have been appointed the referee March 17th to officiate the Martinez-Macklin fight for the real middleweight title.”

“He did a wonderful job in Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota and Arturo Gatti-Wilson Rodriguez,” Lederman continued. “By not stopping that fight, he really helped create the Arturo Gatti era. He was also known for that incident involving Jesse Ferguson and Ray Mercer, where there was an attempt to bribe Ferguson to take a dive in order to position Mercer for a shot at Riddick Bowe and the heavyweight title. I used to always jokingly call Wayne ‘The Deaf Ref’ because he said he didn’t hear the talk of the bribe that occurred in the ring; he was always a bit hard of hearing. “

“As a referee, he was one of the best in the world, and I had many opportunities and was both fortunate and privileged to have worked alongside Wayne,” said fellow referee Benjy Esteves, Jr. to TQBR. “Wayne was a happy-go-lucky individual; he always had a smile and a kind word to say. What you saw is what you got from Wayne. He was always very kind to my family, and we are all saddened by the loss of Wayne. His charm and wit will be missed dearly. He was also a role model as a family man– I was fortunate enough to meet some of his family members and they are a close-knit group.”

“Many years ago, when I was relatively new on the professional circuit as a referee and we were at a boxing convention, I was in a large room filled with many world class referees and all of a sudden Wayne walks into the room and yells out, ‘Hey Benjy, how does it feel to be the second best referee in the room?’ I was embarrassed to say the least, because I was a new referee on the scene, but that was Wayne being Wayne. As a matter of fact, this became our greeting and whenever he saw me he would always greet me with the same line and I would always affectionately address address him as number one. He will always be number one to me.”

“Wayne was an excellent referee,” said the venerable Steve Smoger to TQBR. “He was always calm, cool, and collected in the ring. Outside of the ring, he was the consummate gentleman. We worked together on many occasions and he was always supportive and complimentary of my work. He was always upbeat and sensitive and a pleasure to be around. I will truly miss him.”

“He was a wonderful guy, a terrific referee, and a terrific guy to be around,” added Lederman. “Everybody liked him. Not only was he good at his craft, but he was a good human being. We will all miss him.

For a fuller slice of Wayne Kelly’s remarkable life and story, take a look at this piece written for The Sweet Science by former NYSAC commissioner Randy Gordon, Kelly’s lifelong friend and the man who gave Wayne his start in refereeing.

Mark Ortega can be reached via e-mail or followed via Twitter at @MarkEOrtega. Mark also contributes to notable British boxing publication Boxing Monthly as well as Ring Magazine.