Judging from a Ringside Seat

Clark Sammartino’s hard-hitting avocation has taken him around the world with some of the biggest names in boxing
Clark Sammartino ringside at a boxing match
At the WBA super welterweight title fight in Las Vegas in 2009, Clark Sammartino, left, watches a bout between Daniel Santos and Yuri Foreman. Photo: AP Photo/Eric Jamison
January 24, 2013

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Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: No, Clark Sammartino, D64, DG66, doesn’t see any irony in being a retired oral surgeon with a passion for a sport where people hit each other in the kisser. Teeth rarely get knocked out, he says, because mouthguards have been a part of boxing for nearly a century. He has, however, had a couple of referees lean over the ropes to consult him when they thought a boxer might have a broken jaw.

“Both times they had a good diagnosis,” he notes. Sammartino has been judging professional boxing matches since 1984. He officiates at more than 100 fights and 10 world championships each year.

Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Julio Caesar Chavez—he has scored just about every big name in the game.

Long before he was a judge, though, he was a fan.

He grew up in Providence, R.I., then the world headquarters for the National Boxing Association. He learned to box at the local Police Athletic League, which held matches for kids on Saturday mornings.

He also had a cousin who was a professional boxer and would let him work in his corner. “I carried the little bucket of water up,” Sammartino says. “So I saw boxing up close. I really liked it. He used to help me a lot—show me how not to get hit and all the important things. So I had a great start.”

When Sammartino went off to Brown University for college and later Tufts for dental school, he didn’t have much time to spar. But he tried to see as many fights as he could. Rocky Marciano, the “Brockton Blockbuster” who held the heavyweight title for four years in the 1950s, fought 23 of his early bouts in Providence; Sammartino was there for all of them.

A highlight of his medical training at Boston City Hospital was getting to talk with Muhammad Ali, who had come in for an emergency appendectomy.

The next several years were devoted to his oral surgery practice, but he briefly got back in the game in the 1970s and had one fight as a professional. He won. That same night, he watched a boxer named Bruno Schultz. “He punched somebody in the stomach. You could hear the thud in Detroit,” Sammartino says.

“My manager says, ‘Clark, I can match you with that guy!’ I said, ‘No way are you gonna ever see me in a ring with Bruno Schultz. I’m done. I’m out of here.’”

Bringing Fairness to the Ring

After many years of following boxing from a safe distance, Sammartino was approached by a neighbor who worked for the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation. “He asked me if I would like to become a judge and help straighten out the way the scoring is done here, because they had had some really bad decisions.”

At the time, boxing judges weren’t given any particular training. That was a problem, because if a fight isn’t decided by knockout—and only a small percentage are—the judges’ scores determine who wins. “You would hate to have one judge say this guy won 10 rounds and another judge say the other guy won 10 rounds,” Sammartino says. “And that happens.”

He helped train the other judges by bringing in films of fights and drilling the four criteria for scoring a round.

“The biggest item is clean, hard hitting,” he says. “There is no substitute for that.” Boxers also get credit for putting up a good defense and for a quality called ring generalship. Sugar Ray Robinson—Sammartino’s personal favorite—epitomized it: “He makes you do what he wants you to do,” he says. “He sets you up for his revenge.”

Finally, there is effective aggressiveness. Why “effective”? Being a bulldozer, it seems, isn’t enough to win over the judges. Sammartino gives the example of heavyweight Tex Cobb. “He would just come at you and let you hit him right in his face because he never went down,” Sammartino says. “He was the aggressor, but you are not going to give him points for what he is doing.”

Although both Providence and boxing have colorfully shady pasts, Sammartino says no one has ever tried to bribe or coerce him. He is known for being impartial, even when a favored champion is facing a contender with a spotty record. “They are both equal when the bell rings,” he says. “You have to think that way.”

Being unbiased has its dangers, though. His most nervewracking job was in Northern Ireland, where the hometown favorite, Ray Close, fought a championship bout with an English boxer. It was a very close match. But when Sammartino called it for the Englishman, the crowd got angry. Very angry. He pulled off his badge and shot out of the hall, catching the first cab back to his hotel. That night he slept with the bureau pushed in front of the door.

“The next morning I went down to breakfast and the waitress said, ‘Wasn’t it awful the way they robbed poor Ray Close?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, it was awful.’”

He’s not easily ruffled. As an oral surgeon, he once asked the head operating room nurse why he always seemed to be paired with nurses who had never assisted in surgery before. “She said, ‘Because you don’t throw things.’” He retired from his practice in 1993, and now puts his cool head to running his own investment-advising firm in Providence, called Blue Fin Capital.

His composure also helps him tune out the crowd and its insults, many of which are directed at the judges, who routinely have their age and eyesight brought into question. The 75-year-old points out that judges undergo a yearly physical and vision test. That said, he can picture himself retiring in the coming year, not because he feels he is slipping, but because traveling all over the world—Las Vegas, Monaco, Argentina, Germany—takes its toll.

Once he flew to Kiev, Ukraine, where a driver was supposed to pick him up for a fight in Odessa. No one showed. “I figured Odessa must be a suburb of Kiev,” he says, recalling his shock when he learned it was on the other side of the country.

Not wanting to shirk his duty, he spent the night on a harrowing eight-hour ride in a bald-tire taxi with a teenaged driver who refused to go less than 90 miles an hour. He made it to the fight.

“My wife doesn’t know that story,” he says. “She would kill me.”

Lucky for him, he knows every defensive move in the book.

This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu

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