Friday, November 4, 2005
Local referee is still fighting
In law enforcement, in boxing, in life, integrity has been Ron Lipton's guiding force — and it's cost him dearly
By Jim Sheahan
Ron Lipton has the cold, dark eyes of a warrior. Even in his late fifties, Lipton is an intimidating presence.
Twice a week, Lipton brings that intensity to the boxing class he teaches at Marist College. Meticulously organized, Lipton follows the syllabus he has created for the class carefully. He lectures students about boxing history, quizzes them on boxing's impact on civil rights in the 1900s and mesmerizes them with his boxing acumen when he hits the heavy bag, then shows them how it's done. The tattoos that line his arms ripple with each powerful punch, the pop of the heavy bag echoing throughout the gym.
After each class, he climbs back into his car and heads back to the tiny house he rents in Hyde Park. There, he lives with his fiancee, his son, Brett, and their dog, Sweetie.
The family struggles together, trying to figure out how they're going to afford to eat each week and heat the house this winter. In that way, they're not much different from many families in this country.
But this is Ron Lipton. This is a man who is friends with boxing greats Muhammad Ali, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, Joe Frazier, George Chuvalo and Emile Griffith. Once a sparring partner to the greats, then a world-class boxing referee, then a renowned boxing choreographer for stage and screen, Lipton has fallen on hard times with a thud.
Lipton's current dilemma lies with decisions he's made. Decisions to help people. Decisions to do the right thing. Those decisions have cost him dearly.
Sparring with greats
Lipton was a sparring partner for Carter, then Ali in the 1960s and early 1970s. He had a stellar amateur boxing career but chose law enforcement over boxing to care for his wife and two young children, Brett and Kim.
He became a police officer, then was promoted to detective in the Hudson County, N.J., prosecutor's office in the early '70s. Twice during that time, Lipton said he overheard fellow officers talking about the Rubin Carter case, saying the murder conviction was a set-up. After trying in vain to get his superiors to help him free Carter, he decided to speak to a New York Daily News reporter about what he knew in 1974.
The backlash was worse than he expected. His home was broken into several times, his family was threatened — he said at one point a cross was burned on his lawn.
"When I decided to come forward about Rubin, my boss said, 'Fine, but you do it on your own time,' " Lipton said. "But my boss and one other officer were the only two who really didn't have a problem with what I was doing. Treating minorities with respect was not something they wanted officers doing."
Carter, a middleweight contender, was incarcerated in 1966 and charged with another man in a triple-murder committed in a New Jersey bar. He served more than 18 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in 1985.
The attention brought to the case in 1974 by Lipton — who at one point enlisted the help of Ali — and by songwriter Bob Dylan, who made "Hurricane" a Top 40 hit in 1975, brought international scrutiny to the case, which included claims of racism and profiling by the defense.
The effect on Lipton's family, however, was permanent. The children were scared to leave the house sometimes because of the frequent acts of vandalism, and Lipton's marriage disintegrated in part because of the strain associated with his decision to try to help Carter.
Lipton stayed in law enforcement and pursued work as a referee at the same time. He started with amateur bouts, then worked his way over the years into the upper echelon of boxing referees, maintaining different jobs in law enforcement as he worked his way up the ladder.
His career as a referee was marked with big fights at famed venues all over the world.
Evander Holyfield vs. Ray Mercer. Tommy Morrison vs. Razor Ruddock. Steve Collins vs. Chris Eubank. He stood between some of the greatest fighters of all time and is proud of his work.
"I remember Ron as a very, very fine referee," said Marc Ratner, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. "He was always in good position and always in shape.
"I don't know the political circumstances in New York," Ratner continued, "but if I were to bring in referees — right now I bring in judges — I wouldn't hesitate to bring in someone like Ron Lipton. I haven't heard his name in a long time."
Harold Lederman, a longtime boxing judge and currently an HBO analyst for boxing telecasts, said Lipton's intensity and focus were noticeable.
"I think he loved refereeing," Lederman said. "He was certainly one of the most enthusiastic refs I ever saw. He was a darn good referee. He knew the game and always did a good job."
Lipton claims politics is keeping him from working as a referee in New York. As a boxing referee, Lipton would earn $1,600 for a typical fight, and up to $5,000 for a heavyweight championship. His decision to speak out about alleged corruption within the New York State Athletic Commission — a decision he says he made to protect the fighters — has not helped his case.
His application to referee in New York was recently denied again — now he needs $350 to apply for a hearing, and he doesn't know where that might come from.
"My application gets denied every year, but they never say why," Lipton said. "If I can get that hearing, they'll have to tell me why."
"We don't comment on current or former licensees," a spokesman for the athletic commission said, "because it can be prejudicial either way."
George Chuvalo, the former Canadian heavyweight champion who went the distance in two losses to Muhammad Ali in 1966 and 1972, knew of Lipton as a referee before meeting him at speaking engagements they were both doing. Chuvalo has an anti-drug foundation; Lipton has been a civil rights advocate.
"I've seen him referee," said Chuvalo, who also fought George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson and Jerry Quarry. He was never knocked down in his 21-year career. "He's alert, intelligent ... he has cat-like reflexes ... not many refs are in the kind of shape Ron is in.
"I don't know the workings of what's going on down there (in New York), but someone has it in for him, I guess," Chuvalo said.
Helping out fighters, cops
Lipton was on his way to the ring before the Steve Collins-Chris Eubank fight in Dublin, Ireland in 1995 when the fight promoter, Barry Hearn, put his arm around Lipton and whispered something into his ear.
"He said, 'Watch out for Eubank with his elbows. He's a dirty fighter,' " Lipton recounted. "I was just taken aback. Then I realized that the promoter was also Collins' manager, which really isn't right."
A few years later, Collins called Lipton from Ireland.
"His manager was suing him for breach of contract, and he wanted me to testify," Lipton said. "There is an unwritten rule for referees — you don't get involved in anything that goes on outside the ring. But Collins told me that he was trying to protect his family, so I went to Dublin and testified."
The lawsuit was thrown out and Collins secured his family's financial future. But Lipton's work as a referee began to dry up, almost instantly.
The story of Rubin Carter was detailed in the 1999 film "Hurricane," starring Denzel Washington. Lipton was contacted about being a consultant on the film, in particular because of his uncanny ability to mimic the fighting styles of many great fighters.
According to Lipton, producers asked him to help them make the 1964 title fight between Carter and middleweight champion Joey Giar-dello look like "racial robbery."
"They wanted it to look like Giardello was getting knocked around the ring," Lipton said. "And I told them, 'I saw that fight live. It didn't happen that way.' I was off the project."
For the record, Giardello won a close 15-round decision, keeping the title. The movie depicted the fight differently, making it appear that Carter dominated. Giardello sued the filmmakers, claiming the way he was depicted harmed his reputation.
He won a $300,000 settlement, thanks in part to Lipton's testimony and the correspondence Lipton had saved from his dealings with the film company. It has certainly made other film companies wary of hiring him.
Lipton offers to train police officers for free — a pledge he fulfills every week.
"He's very intense and very focused," said Tom Hauseman, a city of Poughkeepsie police officer. "He's given me a lot of time freely and has been a gentleman. He's a class act."
"I'm not a boxer, but I like to work out," Hauseman continued. "It's important for my job and for my life to stay in shape, and this guy does a fantastic job of motivating me. No matter what problems he has, he's always willing to help me."
Regrets? A few
"If I was alone, I would do everything again exactly the way I did it," Lipton said, reflecting on his life so far. "But now I'm older, and when I think about how this all has affected my kids ... I'm not sure."
Currently alienated from his daughter, Lipton dreams of a day when they can be reunited. It's another aspect of his life that brings him great pain, yet he continues to give his time, effort and expertise to people who want it.
Steve Gordon, managing editor and co-publisher of The Cyber Boxing Zone, an online magazine, knows the story of Lipton's life well.
"Ron will do what he considers to be the right and honorable thing to do, no matter what the cost is to him personally," Gordon said. "I have nothing but respect for that. It's admirable, but it doesn't really work in the real world. He has hurt himself with the decisions he's made."
Pride and hope
Lipton carries himself with dignity and is certainly not someone to be pitied. His laser-like stare softens when he talks about getting his family back together or teaching his students at Marist. The boxing class is quite popular. He spends a lot of time thinking about his students and looks forward to class every week.
The articulate New York City native acknowledges considering his family first is now a priority in his life.
"I've learned my lesson," Lipton said.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Lipton is clear about what he wants.
"My No. 1 dream is to get a phone call from my daughter," Lipton said. "And No. 2 is to have my son become a police officer. That's all I want. To get my family back together and have everybody be happy."
Getting back in the boxing ring would be No. 3.
"I would love that," Lipton said.