Russell Mora has been in the ring with Tyson Fury, Canelo Alvarez, Manny Pacquiao, Gennady Golovkin, Deontay Wilder, Dmitri Bivol, Claressa Shields, Nonito Donaire and dozens more of the greatest boxers in the world.
They never laid a glove on him.
More important, as the third man in the ring, he laid hands on them as seldom as possible.
“Nobody ever bought a ticket to see the referee,” Mora said by phone from Las Vegas, Nevada, where he has lived the past 17 years. “When a referee realizes that and embraces that and understands our role, then, honestly, everything starts to take care of itself.
“You’re only there when you’re needed. If not, stay out of the way.”
Mora, a Colorado native who lived and worked in Albuquerque for some 25 years, recently announced his retirement after a career as a boxing referee that saw him reach the top of his profession – working more than 120 world title fights and more than 600 professional bouts in all.
Mora spent the first 17 years of his life in Colorado, the most recent 17 years in Nevada. But, he said, “When people ask me where my home is, I say ‘New Mexico.’ ”
Of his decision to retire at age 60, Mora said he didn’t believe he’d lost a step but wanted to step away before he did.
“When I was a young referee,” he said, “I’d look at the older referees and say I didn’t want to be old in the ring with young fighters. That was something that stood out to me.”
Mora, though, isn’t leaving the sport. He’s accepted a position as chairman of the World Boxing Organization’s officials committee.
“I’ve been involved (in boxing) for 42 years, refereed for 25 years,” he said. “I just wanted that next chapter now.”
Mora grew up in Denver, immersed in boxing. His father, Richard, fought professionally. Russell boxed only as an amateur, but his younger brothers, Anthony and Adrian, were successful pros.
After moving to Albuquerque at age 17, he began working with Henry Anaya Sr., Johnny Tapia’s original trainer and one of the city’s most experienced coaches.Â
“It was there that I got to meet the most beautiful people, the Anaya family,” he said.
After he stopped boxing, he attended an amateur smoker that was missing a judge.
“Irene (Anaya, Henry’s wife) said, ‘Russell, we need a judge, sit down.’ That’s how it all started, thanks to the Anayas.”
As a judge, Mora began watching the referees and how they worked. Sometimes, he saw young boxers taking unnecessary punishment.
“I kept thinking, ‘Stop the fight. Hey this kid is gonna get hurt, and he’s fighting for a plastic trophy.’
“You’ve got to make that decision, good or bad, whether people agree with you or not. You’ve got to save this kid, sometimes from himself. And I started refereeing very shortly after.”
According to boxrec.com, the sport of boxing’s official record archive, Mora’s first pro bout as a referee was a four-rounder between Mario Raul Ortiz and Jose Terrazas on April 5, 1997 at the Manuel Lujan Building on the New Mexico State Fairgrounds. (Terrazas won by unanimous decision).
Mora refereed exclusively in New Mexico and Colorado for the next nine years, occasionally working fights involving Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero Jr., Holly Holm and Austin Trout.
He refereed Holm’s bout against Tricia Turton in December 2006. Three months later, having moved to Las Vegas and taken a job as an electrical inspector for Clark County, he worked his first fight in Nevada.
A year after that, in Paris, he worked his first men’s world title fight.
It hasn’t been a steady climb. Like many a boxer, Mora’s been knocked down and on the ropes.
On Aug. 8, 2011 in Las Vegas, Mora – already at the top of his profession – worked an IBF bantamweight title fight between champion Abner Mares and challenger Joseph Agbeko. Mares landed several obvious low blows, and Mora failed to penalize him. Mares won by unanimous decision, with no points deducted for the repeated fouls.
Amid an avalanche of criticism, the Nevada commission relegated Mora to prelim bouts for an indefinite period of time.
Initially, Mora said, he looked at the Mares-Agbeko controversy as “an absolute curse. But looking back, in retrospect or hindsight, it was a complete blessing.
“It was then that I realized I have to do better. Good is not good enough. I have to get better as a referee and I have to study the rules and how to apply them the best I possibly can if I want to continue to be a referee.”
Mora quickly overcame the setback and re-established himself as among the world’s best and most reliable referees.Â
“I’m so grateful and thankful to this commision that they had faith in me, believed in me,” he said. “… I could not recognize success or get to that point until I absolutely knew failure, and that’s what happened.”
Though the vast majority of his work the past 17 years has been in Las Vegas, Mora has refereed in Thailand, France, Germany, Japan, the Philippines and several South American countries. Since moving to Nevada, he’s returned to New Mexico for refereeing duties several times.
His swan song: Alvarez’s victory over Golovkin by unanimous decision on Sept. 17.
The WBO position, he said, provides the perfect segue.Â
Asked what the attributes of a good referee are, Mora said the job calls for total concentration and a certain nimbleness of foot. But at its core, he said, “It’s the safety of the fighter, number one. Then, closely following, is the fairness to apply the rules for the fighters.
“If they fight fair and clean, the referee stays out of the way.”