RIP to Ventnor, NJ Native and Boxing Referee Steve Smoger
Kelly Pavlik might never have become a middleweight champion without local boxing referee Steve Smoger.
Smoger, a Ventnor resident who passed away Sunday after a long illness, was the third man in the ring when Pavlik took on reigning 160-pound champion Jermain Taylor on September 29, 2007 at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Taylor seemed to take control of the fight in the second round, bringing Pavlik to the canvas with a barrage of powerful punches. Pavlik struggled to his feet and took another punishment, but Smoger let the fight continue. Pavlik won the fight by knockout in the seventh round.
“How many referees stop it this second round and change (Pavlik’s life)?” Smoger told me after the fight. “Probably nine out of ten. But I had worked with Kelly before. I’ve seen him do some great recordings with (Edison) Miranda and I knew he had great resilience.”
Pavlik-Taylor I was among over 200 championship fights Smoger officiated over the course of his 35-year career as a professional referee. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015 and was also a member of the first Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame class in 2017.
Smoger served as an umpire from 1984 to 2018. According to records from the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, he was 79 years old.
“The Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Famer family joins so many from around the world in mourning the loss of our dear friend, Hall of Famer and legendary boxing judge Steve Smoger,” the ACBHOF said in a statement. “Our prayers and condolences go out to his wife and daughter at this time of great loss of such a great man.”
Smoger began boxing while working with the Police Athletic League in Atlantic City in the early 1970s.
He got his first taste of the professional level in the late 1970’s, soon after casinos opened on the boardwalk and boxing became a staple at hotels like Resorts, The Sands, Tropicana, Trump Plaza, Harrah’s and Boardwalk Hall.
“One afternoon I was at the PAL and (the late) Jersey Joe Walcott called,” Smoger said in a 2004 interview with SecondsOut.com. “He was chairman of what they called the New Jersey State Boxing Commission at the time. Fighting was planned for that night, and Walcott said, ‘We’re undermanned. Is there anyone in the PAL who can help? as an examiner?”
He worked as an inspector for five years before obtaining a provisional referee’s license in 1983. His first professional fight as a referee came on June 12, 1984 when he oversaw a four-round bout between lightweights CB Mustafa and Mike Brown at Tropicana.
Smoger’s first world title fight was a 15-round IFF Flyweight Championship bout in South Korea in 1986 between Jong-Kwon Chung and Bi-Won Junge. Two years later, he had his first major fight in Atlantic City, a WBA welterweight championship bout between champion Marlon Starling and Fujio Ozaki at Boardwalk Hall.
“A good friend and a good umpire passed away (Sunday),” Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz, who lives part-time in Ventnor, wrote on Facebook Monday. “I think I first met Steve in 1980 at the 400-seat Rutland Room and Resorts International, when ESPN began televising weekly fights from various locations around the country.
“Steve was ‘old-school’ and he played fights and gave every fighter a chance. He was never too quick to jump in and stop what – on the outside – looked like a one-sided match. He made fighters fight.”
This approach has sometimes caused controversy.
On October 26, 2013, Smoger was the referee for Bernard Hopkins’ 12-round unanimous decision over the German Karo Murat at Boardwalk Hall. When the bell rang to end the fight, the two engaged in a push fight. Smoger got between the two and punched Murat in the face before following Hopkins to his corner and hugging him.
Smoger’s last match as a referee in Atlantic City came on March 29, 2014 at Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom in a lightweight bout between Karim Mayfield and Thomas Dulorme, despite serving four more years as a referee in other states – Connecticut, Delaware , Missouri and Virginia, among others – and even refereed world title fights in Belgium, Germany, Russia and Uruguay.
In Smoger’s last World Championship appearance as a referee, Denis Lebedev won a second-round TKO over Victor Emilio Rodriguez in a cruiserweight unification bout on May 21, 2016 in Moscow. His refereeing career ended after 1,051 professional fights on May 11, 2018 while he was working a card at 2300 Arena in Philadelphia.
Perhaps it was fitting that Smoger’s final bouts took place in a club-like atmosphere. While Smoger is known for high-profile fights, he’s put just as much attention and effort into four-round undercard fights. Whether a boxer was 20-0 or 0-20, he treated her like a champion.
“Whenever I dealt with a map or with a fighter on someone else’s map, I knew I would get a fair shot with Steve, whether we were friends or not,” Peltz wrote. “That’s all you can ask of an official in any sport.”