Photo courtesy of Michele Cook
On November 15, 2019, Lee Cook refereed his 1,000th contest and achieved a milestone in his profession which at one time would not have seemed possible. An enforced break in his career of nearly eight years due to the reoccurrence of a childhood injury only increased his drive to fulfil his dreams of becoming a top-class referee.
Lee’s life has been about overcoming setbacks and personal tragedy with fortitude and tenacity. Refereeing is challenging - it is about persistence, overcoming adversity and being able to take the inevitable criticism which goes with the job, both in and out of the ring.
Lee shares his story and the extraordinary experiences that have shaped his life, culminating in this notable achievement.
Lee Cook: "I’ve had essentially two careers as a referee and have been privileged to have accomplished what I have considering the rocky road I’ve travelled. Resilience has been key, not only as a referee, but also in my life.
Following ten years developing my refereeing career, I was forced to retire in 2006 when a childhood accident caught up with me. To have to retire eighteen years early was devastating. We all have dreams and ambitions but sometimes they don’t turn out how we had planned. We all have our setbacks, but it’s how we overcome them that matters.
In 1966, at the age of seven I was lying in a road after being hit by a van and was left with an extremely mangled right leg and ankle. For two months I was frightened and alone in hospital, a little boy terrified he would lose his right leg.
Following numerous operations, the ankle eventually healed, and my childhood ambition of being involved in professional sport remained.
Accidents were a feature of my childhood. As an eleven-year-old I was stepping on to a cabin cruiser on the River Thames when it blew up! A few steps nearer and I would have been a goner! A broken leg playing football at fourteen and at sixteen I crashed a motor bike, resulting in my chin hanging off requiring twenty stitches.
For most of my childhood I only remember unhappiness and pain as my dad seemed to delight in beating the crap out of me and my mother. Perhaps it was the numerous occasions of having to defend myself that led to my interest in boxing. As a result of the regular fatherly attacks I developed a great deal of anger. I needed a way of releasing this aggression so took it upon myself to go to Titchfield Amateur Boxing Club, which I believe still exists today.
I enjoyed the discipline and regime of training and was desperate to have my first fight. Something I never forgot was the encouragement and praise I received from one of the trainers there. He gave me a sense of worth and really built me up. I am one of many troubled kids whom boxing has helped along their journey through life. Boxing has many detractors, but I dread to think where I would have been without it. Unfortunately, it was here that I found out what most people think are the best qualifications for refereeing - I was short sighted!! After three failed attempts at the eye test, any dreams I had of becoming a fighter were gone.
Around this time, my mother finally summoned the courage to leave my dad. She was in my flat and my dad was threatening to come through the window to get her. I said he would have to come through me first. SMASH!!!! Glass everywhere and I was faced with the prospect of changing my underwear rather quickly! As it turned out, I had called his bluff and I pinned him down. It felt like Buster Douglas defeating Mike Tyson.
I kept my interest in boxing and had started to go to some big shows such as the Michael Watson v Nigel Benn fight in May 1989. The referee that night was John Coyle. I never thought seven years later I would be working with him.
Unfortunately, further trauma was on the cards for me and it was late at night when the police called on November 13, 1989. My brother had been found on his knees with a Karate belt around his neck, dead at twenty-one. The memory is still permanently etched in my mind thirty years later. I was the first to see him lying in the mortuary still looking so alive. A young guy full of life suddenly taken and you can only ask yourself why.
At the time, it was total devastation, but became a catalyst to change my life. A few weeks later I applied to the British Boxing Board of Control to become a referee. Five years and nine months later, I finally received an interview to start my journey as a referee.
Following scoring tests, I completed my first contest as a trialist referee on September 26, 1996 at Walsall town hall. I was working with John Coyle and Terry O’Connor that night. My next show was at the Drill Hall, Lincoln in October 1996 working with Paul Thomas. On this show I refereed future champions Jason Booth, Esham Pickering and also Dave Coldwell, now a top trainer.
After only four fights I was given my ‘B’ Licence in January 1997. One of the features of my first career was that there were not many shows. I waited five months for a show once and as a new referee, being out of the ring for so long was a real disadvantage.
My first show as a ‘B’ Referee was refereeing Clinton Woods who went on to become IBF World Light heavyweight Champion. Later on, I refereed Carl Froch who eventually won the WBC, WBA, and IBF World Super Middleweight titles. The most extraordinary fight was David Walker v Spencer Fearon which was 2003 Fight of the Year on the BBC Website. I also refereed Herbie Hide, Darren Barker and Nicky Cook, all world champions.
In late 2006, after an eventful ten years and officiating in 370 contests, the clock finally caught up with my ankle injury. I took the decision to get expert medical advice to resolve the pain and two operations followed. I figured I would be back refereeing after about six months, but who would have thought it would take nearly eight years.
I stayed involved with the sport and was invited to be a Midlands Area Council member and was their representative on the referees committee for a couple of years.
Shortly before looking into the possibility of returning to refereeing my Mum collapsed and I watched for what seemed like hours as the paramedics fought for her life. One can only admire the dedication of these people who do this every day. Even though they lost the battle to save my Mum, I am reminded every time I attend a boxing show just how exceptional these people are.
After seeing numerous specialist consultants over many years to resolve my ankle problem I had a nerve test in September 2014. After this, it suddenly started to improve. During my time out I had weighed as heavy as sixteen stone. I was really motivated to do something about it so I tried cycling and that worked really well and I eventually got down to thirteen stone.
The unexpected recovery to my ankle made the prospect of being in the ring once again a reality. I applied and received support from the Board and Southern Area Council and was given a ‘B’ Licence to resume my career. My first show back was at the Camden Centre, London in April 2015 and five fights for me. The show went well with no reaction from my ankle and I felt fit as a fiddle.
To finally get back felt great. All the years of hospital visits, tests, investigations and physical suffering were behind me at last.
There were a number of differences to the rules which I had to adapt to. Now there was a no foul rule which I had to learn and understand how to correctly interpret and there was now no being saved by the bell. There were also definite guidelines for scoring a contest, particularly knockdowns and 10-8 rounds, which had changed since I was out of the ring.
Apart from the rules I noticed a distinct contrast in the amount of shows. In my earlier career, if I had two shows a month, I was busy. This time there were many more shows and also the number of contests per show had increased. Previously I averaged two fights per show. On my return it was five fights in a night. Big shows used to be seven fights - now I have been on shows with more than twenty fights.
This was a marked change and one which gave me the opportunity to gain a great deal of experience in a short space of time. One decision I made was to be available to do as many shows as possible, as I wanted to make up for lost time.
A few months later in July 2015, I was upgraded to ‘A’ Class Referee and I was back at the level I was when I had to retire.
Another change I had noticed was mobile phones everywhere. Everyone seemed to be filming and the proliferation of social media was striking. In my first career there was not a great deal of filming unless you were on a TV show. Now almost every fight is on You Tube and you have to be mindful that every look, word, or action can be captured and shared in an instant.
The Southern and Western Areas had been combined which made this geographical area vast. I have travelled to shows from Norwich to Plymouth and pretty much live out of my car most weekends.
The number of female boxers is now significantly more than during my first career. It is a regular part of boxing now to see women fighting and the standard is improving all the time.
In my previous career there were not many opportunities to judge other than being outside the ring to score for trialist referees. It was rare for ‘A’ Referees to judge any other contests.
Upon my return I made a conscious decision to take every chance to judge that was available. The number one change for me was to be able to judge title fights. Due to the introduction of three trialist referees in my area I was able to score 88 fights and 33 other title fights. I’ve done 121 in four and a half years compared to fourteen contests in ten years before.
John Coyle always used to say the referee always sees more than anyone and that is spot on! It takes many years to skilfully handle fighters and there is no substitute for experience. Richie Davies said “refereeing is an art”. You have to learn your craft and serve your apprenticeship which in this country, is the most arduous in the world. Even then you don’t always get it right.
In the four years ten months I have been back I have officiated in 807 contests which is double the number I did in ten years in my first career. Since my return I have officiated in more contests than any other referee in the country which must be a modern record.
It’s been a long and convoluted road for me to finally reach 1,000 fights as a referee, but it’s been all the more rewarding for me as it came almost thirty years to the day that my brother died and also in the year when I turned sixty and married a wonderful woman, Michele. The end of a brilliant year for me.
I would encourage anyone to not let setbacks or a troubled background hold you back – it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, but what you’ve got inside.
I’m still standing!"