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The ref who never smiled

Len Hunt seldom, if ever, smiled while refereeing a fight. He has, however, plenty to smile about, such as the high standards he set and the successes he achieved as a referee and judge.

Hunt was born on 10 April 1938 at the Johannesburg Central fire station where his father was a senior fireman. It was at the same fire station that he was introduced to boxing when he was still a youngster. That is where fighters such as Fireman George Anderson, Jim Pentz and Laurie Stevens trained.

Most top local fighters and many visiting boxers used the facilities at the station and during the fifties and sixties Vic Toweel, Jimmy Carruthers, Benny Niewenhuizen, Jimmy Martinez, Al Conquest and Abel Cestac were among those who trained there.

That is where Hunt developed a love for the game and met many black fighters who were sneaked into the gym by Theo Mthembu during those days when black people were not allowed to spar with whites.

Those days few white people managed to watch black fighters, but Hunt's father was friendly with Bobby Martins of the Transvaal National Sporting Club and arranged for Hunt and his father to attend tournaments.

They were there one night when Joe Maseko presented trophies to the winners at an amateur tournament at the Bantu Men’s Social Club at the bottom end of Eloff Street. In later years Hunt also saw Jerry Moloi, Philemon Tshabalala, Gabriel Seleke and his favourite, former SA bantam and featherweight champion Sexton Mabena, fight there.

Hunt is possibly one of the few white boxing fans other the white referees and judges who were able to attend tournaments during the apartheid years.

As a junior he took part in a few amateur bouts and spent some of his pocket money to buy magazines such as The Fight, The African Ring, Drum and Ring magazine.

After leaving school, Hunt started training at Joe Davidov's gym in Johannesburg, sparring with Jimmy Elliot a future South African middleweight champion, Wally Madeley and Johnny Watson. He even considered fighting as a professional, until the night he sparred with Tommy du Preez, a light heavyweight.

Hunt was a welter and it was felt his speed could help Tommy. Well, it didn't work out like that. Tommy, who was a banger, forgot about the speed and hit Hunt on the nose. There was blood all over the canvas and it made Hunt lose interest in a career as a fighter.

Once, suffering from a back injury, he needed an operation. The surgeon was Clive Noble, a member of the Transvaal Boxing Control Board. Dr Noble knew about Hunt's interest in boxing and asked why he did not become an official.

It was about 1970 when Hunt applied to become an official. At the first tournament he attended he was put into the ring to referee a four-rounder. He had written no examinations, nor served any apprenticeship, but this was soon rectified when Wilf Garforth was appointed chairman of the board.

For the next two years Hunt sat at ringside, filling in dummy scorecards. He then wrote a tough two-hour examination, which he passed before being allowed to officiate. About 18 months later he had to write another exam to be considered qualified to referee and judge.

Hunt does not regret having to go through this process and feels the same procedure should be adopted today, as it is too easy to receive an official’s licence.

At first, Hunt was allowed to officiate at “black tournaments” only and he saw some of the best black fighters. Only later was he allowed to referee his first “white fight”, a four-rounder between Harold Volbrecht and Gert Cramer at the Skilpad Hall in Pretoria on March 27, 1976.

Then followed his first major appointment, a ten-round fight between Philip van As and Hardy Mileham for the Transvaal junior-welterweight title.

Controversy, referees and judges are seldom far apart and there were some divided opinions and booing after the first bout between Andries Steyn and Norman "Pangaman" Sekgapane for the vacant “supreme” SA lightweight title on 29 April 1978. One judge made Sekgapane the winner and another scored it for Steyn. Hunt had it a draw.

As a vacant title was at stake, the Boxing Board insisted that a winner be announced and Hunt was requested to score the last round 7-5 for Steyn. He refused to do so and went for Sekgapane, who he felt had shown more aggression.

In another controversial ending, on October 6, 1996, Hunt disqualified Aaron Kabi in the eighth round for hitting Lawrence Ngobeni while he was down. Kabi, defending his SA junior welterweight title, was well ahead on points.

Possibly the saddest part of Hunt's involvement with boxing was when he resigned as an official in September 1987, disillusioned after the controversy over the fight between Arthur Mayisela and Harold Volbrecht and after not receiving appointments for three successive tournaments.

Soon after this Hunt joined the SA National Co-ordinating Council who were generously supported by promoters Rodney Berman and Mike Segal and formed after some stakeholders in boxing had become unhappy with the control of SA boxing. Hunt attended the WBC convention in Cancun, Mexico, in 1992, representing the SANCC. Shortly after his return most differences were settled with the SA Boxing Control Board and the chairman of the SANCC, Dr Peter Ngatane, was appointed to the SA Board.

Hunt then applied for his official’s licence, at the request of Mike Mortimer, acting chairman of the Board, and was turned down because there were no vacancies. However, within days he was told that his application had been accepted.

He refereed and judged intercontinental bouts but rather sadly never received an appointment to officiate in any tournament of the four major organisations, the WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF. Eventually he approached the WBU and was appointed to referee a number of fights.

Having officiated in approximately 800 fights, Hunt says the most memorable one was when he refereed the bout between Baby Jake Matlala and Mickey Cantwell in London. However, the WBU was not overly active in South Africa and Hunt joined the International Boxing Organisation and was given a number of appointments.

Despite being considered as one of the three top SA referees, Hunt had to settle for appointments from lesser organisations, maybe because he was too outspoken and honest for the liking of some influential people.

Asked to rate some of his favourite officials, Hunt names Arthur Mercante Sr as the best referee, with Joe Cortez a good second. Among the best fighters he has seen, were Enoch "Schoolboy" Nhlapo and Anthony Morodi.

He says “the greatest fighter that ever lived” was Sugar Ray Robinson, with Roberto Duran, whom he was honoured to referee when he fought in South Africa in November 1997, and Marvin Hagler also ranking with the best.

Among the special people Hunt has met in boxing are gentlemanly Piet Crous and Arthur Mayisela.

His saddest moment was the night Jacob Morake died after his fight against Brian Mitchell at the Sun City Superbowl, which he considers the boxing venue with the best atmosphere.

The best compliment one can pay a referee is to say you didn't notice him in the ring. On that score Hunt was an outstanding referee, unobtrusive, but always in control.

After retiring as an official Hunt became the South African representative for the International Boxing Organisation.

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