Interview: Referee Sparkle Lee

InterviewSparkle Lee Is a renowned boxing referee in the New York and New Jersey area.  Sparkle started refereeing in the amateurs in 1983 and still referees today.  She was the first woman to referee on HBO.  Her number one priority, as the third person in the ring, is the fighter’s safety.  She is also known for her ability to keep fights under control.  She is a dedicated referee and someone who truly loves and respects the sport of boxing. Sparkle is a role model for women in and out of the boxing ring.  Let’s meet Sparkle:

SparkleLeeWhat attracted you to boxing?
Honestly, my first love was wrestling until one day, while at Madison Square Garden, I found out the blood and the punches were not real.  I was heart broken, so that’s when I started watching boxing and I was sold!

What made you decide to become a boxing referee?
I really would have wanted to be a fighter.  In the early 80’s I participated in a White Collar Boxing program at Gleason’s Gym to improve my fitness.  They would actually train you and then have you fight other people.  It was such an awesome high for me. I really enjoyed it.  However, the reality of the situation was that as a single parent my first priority was to secure a job to support my family.  So I became a NYC Police Officer and decided at that point to become a boxing official, timekeeper, judge, and referee.

How long does it take to become a referee
For everyone it’s different, depending on the state you live in and who you know.  I would say for the most part it takes two to five years in the amateurs to grow and enhance your skills to referee before getting your professional license.  I started with USA Boxing in 1983. I was not able to referee in the NYC Golden Gloves until 1998.  Today, they join the amateurs and feel they are ready to go pro in two to three months.

Who were your influences in boxing?
While I’m enjoying the fights, I’m always amazed of the third man in the ring and how they are able to control the fighters.  Referees like Larry Hazzard, Mills Lane, Richard Steel and Joe Cortez., they refereed fighters like Jesse Ferguson, Doug Dewitt, Aaron Pryor, Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Oba Carr, Thomas Hearns and Floyd Mayweather, I can go on and on.  They also had to referee 15 rounds and on top of that, judge the fight at the same time.

How long have you been referring?
I have been a Professional Boxing Referee for 14 years.

About how many fights have you refereed?
As a USA Boxing official, around 300 bouts and as a professional referee around 125 bouts, with 27 Championship bouts.

How did you deal with being a woman in a male dominated sport?
I’ve struggled at times being a female in this arena… being a black female in this arena.. I have had to overcome certain fears and challenges in order to move forward in this field and in the process I’ve come to realize that if you want something you just have to, Do It! No matter what!

Have you received the respect you deserve in your position?
I would say yes from those people who are not only looking at my gender, but actually respect me for the my work as a referee.  Unfortunately, you have some people that will never agree with a female being a referee and no one can change their mind; but that’s their problem.

What was the first fight you ever refereed?
My first fight of course was in the amateurs and it was also the hardest fight I refereed.  The fighters both kept punching right through my commands like I was not even there.  I was frustrated and hard on myself after that bout.  But I just kept learning and trying to improve from there.

What qualities make a good referee?
The referee that puts safety of the fighter first and the ref that remembers that the fans came to see the fighter not them.

Your favorite fight that you refereed?
I have been blessed with many great fights.  I start to think of a fight I did in September 2007, at Cipriani Restaurant in downtown Manhattan. It was a four round fight: Ronny Vargas versus Ricky Dew.  This was Ronny Vargas’ pro debut.

I had refereed him when he was this little skinny kid in the amateurs, now as a pro fighter he was way taller than me.  The fight only last 20 seconds in the first round.  I was very proud of him.  He could have been a great champion someday.  A year later he was killed in the streets of the Bronx.

What would be your dream fight to referee?
My dream fight sadly will not happen, because both fighters are now retired.  It would had been the rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard versus Marvin Hagler.

What is your first priority as a referee?
Safety!!  At the end of the fight, I want both fighters to go home and know that I’ve done my best.

What changes have you seen in refereeing since you started?
I believe that more fights are being stopped sooner than later.  Now some champion \ship fights have instant replay.  That’s deep!!!

What do the fans not understand about your job?
As a fan, they are there for entertainment, but our job is to protect the fighter.  That we are not perfect and sometimes we miss a low blow etc., but we try to do our best.

How was the experience of being the first women referee on HBO?
I felt very honored and humbled by the experience.  That night I was just praying that everything went well in the ring and that both fighters were able to go home to their families at the end of night.  I am not confused that the fight is never about me, but about the fighters, regardless of how big the venue.

Would you encourage more women to become involved in the sport of boxing?
Absolutely yes!  Boxing is a great sport for women.  They can judge, referee, keep time, promote, manage, train, and of course fight.  The sky’s the limit.

What is the secret to your success?
There is no secret; just if you want something you have to put the work in.  Believe in yourself.  I can do all things through Jesus Christ that strengthens me.

How can we keep boxing strong?
First, we need to put boxing back in the P.A.L. centers, to keep our young kids off the streets.  A lot of our boxing gyms are too costly for the average kid.  I think we also need a database for all professional fighters that can tell us if a fighter was knocked out in their last fight, how long it took for them to recover.  Also they need to monitor boxing gyms, to see if a fighter got hurt while sparring.  Some boxing trainers should educate themselves on healthier ways to help their fighters to lose weight correctly. I believe that a lot of fighters come in the ring, already with issues, that they don’t tell the doctors and that’s one of the reasons we have deaths in the ring.  My opinion!

Boxing Diva Questions

Favorite color  Black

Favorite type of music  Gospel Music

Favorite scent  Lavender

Favorite fruit  Mango

Favorite take-out food  Jerk Chicken

Describe yourself in one word?  Grateful

How do you relax?  I don’t relax enough, but if I did it would be, to watch a movie or check out a Broadway show.

If you were an animal what would you be?   Black Panther

Who is your hero?   My mom Vivian Lee is my hero. She is 84 years old and in 2001 she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she also is suffering with dementia and still she continues to fight everyday. Her strength and faith in God has kept her strong, and she gives me hope.

Are you a girly-girl?  Every chance I get.

What makes you special?  I’m a child of God. All of God’s children are special.

If you had more time, you would __________?
I would take the time and talk to all the children of the world about, when someone does something to them that does not feel right, for them to “SPEAK UP” and tell someone. It happened to me and  I felt ashamed and thought it was my fault, but now many years later when I became an adult, I realized it was not my fault; I was just a child. Individuals who take advantage of people in such a manner, have their own demons they have to fix, and they are the ones who are wrong and at fault for their own actions and behaviors. I have since forgiven this person, but I will never forget. So If I had more time I would tell the children of the world, to SPEAK UP and be HEARD. I have decided that I will not be a vitim anymore, but a suvivor.

Celebrity crush?  British Actor Idris Elba, he played in Daddy’s Little Girl

I am inspired by ____________?
I am inspired by my three children, they are amazing adults and they make me proud of them. At times they help me to put things in perspective. I have been truly blessed that they are in my life and I thank them for letting God use them.

Worst habit  I buy lottery tickets and don’t check them for months.

Hidden talent  I’m a great cook/ praise dancer at my Church

Words you live by?  Not Perfect, But Faithful

Psalm 89:1-5

Check out some of the fights Sparkle Lee has refereed: via BoxRec

About the Author

Judi Abate - "Boxing Diva"
Judi Abate, the "Boxing Diva", has been interviewing the fighting community since 2007. Her trademark questions are sassy and unpredictable. She has contributed work to Diamond Boxing, Boxing Rant, and WBAN. Away from the PC she enjoys reading, shopping and painting. Her dream interview is Oscar De La Hoya.

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