Durban – SOUTH African boxing judge and referee Stan Christodoulou saw dreams battered and champions crowned.
His newly released book The Life and Times of Stanley Christodoulou tells the story of his 55 years in the ring where glory was a gut-wrenching, blood-spattered affair. It was written by Graham Clark and David Isaacson.
This week, Christodoulou, 73, who has retired to the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast, sat down with the Independent on Saturday.
He has rubbed shoulders with the boxing world’s legends such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Mike Tyson, and has refereed some of the world’s most titanic fights, including 243 title fights across six continents. He was the first in the world to referee title fights in all 17 weight divisions.
He shared the ring with iconic names such as Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar de la Hoya, with his last title fight assignment being last year’s Fight of Champions between Manny Pacquiao and Lucas Matthysse in Manila, Philippines.
Having dined with kingmakers across the globe, Christodoulou says that on numerous occasions, he shared a table with Nelson Mandela, a fan of and proficient in boxing – the two men sharing an admiration for all-time great boxer, Joe Louis.
The book’s opening chapter storms straight into the ring with Christodoulou’s first title weight assignment in 1973, the bantamweight clash between South Africa’s Arnold Taylor and Mexico’s Romeo Anaya, which has been described as “one of the most torrid title bouts of all time”.
But his beginnings in the boxing world go further back, starting with his teen years in Brixton, Johannesburg.
“I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks with a lot of street fighting, so it was important to stay in shape. So I went into a gym one day across the road and that’s where my interest started in boxing. From then on, I spent all my tickeys on boxing magazines and I used to listen to all the big fights on the radio.”
But it was while working in a bank as a young man that he met boxer and trainer Willie Toweel, and the two became friends. He went to a fight with Toweel in Standerton and, when an official did not show up, Christodoulou took his place.
“Honestly, the highlights of my career have always been far from the bright lights of Las Vegas or Madison Square Garden. The times I look back on with the most satisfaction are in the boxing rings across South Africa.
“In the thousands of bouts I have officiated, I’ve seen outstanding champions like Enoch ‘Schoolboy’ Nhlapo, Elijah ‘Tap Tap’ Makhathini, Gerrie Coetzee, Brian Mitchell and Vuyani Bungu.
“I have been in the ring with journeymen, boxers whose dreams in the ring far outweigh their ability. But the truth is, I have admired them equally, whether champions or journeymen, both require the same raw courage to step into a professional boxing ring.”
Having been named as boxing’s “most decorated official”, Christodoulou says the role of the referee is to be “the invisible man”.
“You have to be inobtrusive and never dominate the centre court. The cornerstone for a referee is to know the regulations and how to apply them in a split decision moment. You also have to be aware of the medical side of boxing and you need to know when to stop a fight. Some injuries may look bad, but are superficial,” he says.
He highlights the Victor Galindez versus Richie Kates world title fight classic in 1976 which climaxed in a last second knock-out and where Christodoulou’s blood-soaked shirt underlined the brutal battle taking place in the ring.
And, of course, there have been many storms of controversy after fights, which Christodoulou has had to take in his stride.
“I make a decision with honesty and integrity. It’s pointless to try to debate it – you cannot win, so I don’t get caught up in the aftermath. But you have to be able to recognise the precise moment a fight gets dangerous and stop it,” he says, highlighting the Aaron Pryor versus Alexis Arguello fight in 1982, the very stuff that has made boxing history.
“Arguello was a three-time world champion and looking to be the first man to win four world championships. You have to understand the importance of the bout; and both fighters were so well-trained.”
Christodoulou stepped in and stopped the fight in the 14th round with Arguello collapsing on the canvas and Pryor taking the win.
“For Arguello, it was the fight of his life but a few years later, he came up to me saying ‘this man saved my life’.”
And while the book is a sweeping tale over half a century of world boxing and its integral role in leading the way against discrimination in South African sport, for Christodoulou, who was “the man in the middle”, it is also a legacy for his family and a proud moment for the country.
The book, in print and e-book, is available from Amazon, Exclusive Books and at other book stores.