Steve Smoger has been the third man in the ring for some of the most memorable fights in recent boxing history.
A veteran of more than 200 title bouts, Smoger has shared the “squared circle” with Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Roberto Duran, Roy Jones Jr, Lennox Lewis and Gennady Golovkin.
Tonight Smoger will officiate Nikki Bascome’s six-round welterweight contest against Fabio Costa at the Fairmont Southampton.
Considering the notable bouts he has been involved in — Bernard Hopkins v Félix Trinidad, Micky Ward v Emanuel Burton, and Miguel Cotto v Antonio Margarito II to name but a few — Smoger could be forgiven for feeling ambivalent towards a fight featuring two up-and-comers.
Quite the contrary. Smoger can barely wait.
“You have the battle of the undefeateds and this guy Fabio is meant to be a very tough fighter,” Smoger said. “I met him the other night and he’s cut like a fighter.
“There’s something about being undefeated and they say this will be Nikki’s toughest test. I think it will be a very telling event.”
Smoger has become a regular fixture at local fight nights since refereeing Teresa Perozzi’s win over April Ward at Berkeley Institute in 2012.
He had previously been unaware of the island’s love for the sport and believes that passion has been further stoked by the emergence of fans’ favourite Bascome.
“This is an island of about 60,000 people, so for it to produce the number of boxing clubs and generate so much interest in the amateur programme and one professional, Nikki Bascome, is incredible,” Smoger said.
“Fights in Bermuda are not only a boxing match, they’re an event. It’s very special to be a part of that. The enthusiasm and size of the crowds drawn to Bermudian boxing is in a class of its own.”
Having quite literally rubbed shoulders with some of biggest names in the business, Smoger has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of boxers and their fighting styles.
So when asked for his opinion of Bascome, it seems only natural for him to compare the Bermudian with another active fighter to illustrate his point.
“While working with NBC Sports as their rules analyst I got to watch a young fighter who is now a world champion,” Smoger said. “That fighter is Errol Spence Jr [the IBF welterweight champion].
“Nikki reminds me of Errol, but, of course, Errol has had greater opportunities to expand and raise his skill-set in the United States.”
The 67-year-old has been in the ring for Bascome’s previous three outings and believes his wins over Iwan Azore and David Rangel have helped elevate the 27-year-old to the next level.
“The Guyanese fighter [Azore] was tough, fought for a world title and just missed,” Smoger said.
“He cut Nikki, his first cut as a professional, a significant cut, but he handled it well.
“David, the Mexican, was very, very tough, and Nikki was in deep. The only fight Nikki has had off in my time was Donny Miller; an old guy at the end of the journey. Nikki certainly hasn’t had it easy.”
Smoger holds the distinction of officiating in more American states and countries than any other referee and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2015.
Of those almost undeterminable number of bouts, it is the career-defining ones that the Atlantic City native is the most proudest.
“In 2001, I refereed the first major [boxing] event after the devastation of 9/11, Félix Trinidad versus Bernard Hopkins I, a true classic,” Smoger said.
“Don King, whatever people may think of him, took one section of [Madison Square Garden] and left it open to first responders and family of the victims to come out if they felt strong enough.
“It was an incredible night, an incredible fight, and it felt like America’s first step in healing.
“Kelly Pavlik against Jermain Taylor I in 2007 was career-defining for me. Kelly came back from the depths of despair, rocking and rolling in round two and scored a sensational knockout in round seven.
“Afterwards Kelly came out with his belt and said to me, ‘Steve, thanks for giving me the opportunity to recover’. I replied, ‘Kelly, you earned it’. He was a scintilla way from being stopped!”
Smoger is known for his reluctance to stop fights too soon.
He feels too many bouts have been blighted by premature stoppages in recent years, including Anthony Joshua’s tenth-round victory over Carlos Takam in their heavyweight title bout last month.
“They say I’m lenient, but your classics happen when the referee allows [the boxers] to fight,” said Smoger, who took up refereeing because “it hurt less” than fighting.
“I try to give the fighters every opportunity [to recover], because of how hard they fight, how hard they train, and knowing that any fight, no matter what the level, can be career-defining.
“That’s the essence and art of refereeing — knowing when to say when. I just pray my skill and ability will have me there on time. I do not want to be there too early.”
It is a lenient attitude that Bascome and Costa may well appreciate if they enter the “depths of despair” tonight.