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Having the authority to stop a fight is no small responsibility. To act overcautiously could hurt a career, but to act undercautiously could lead to serious injuries, as in the notorious case of Mexican fighter Fernando Ibarra, brain-damaged after a pro bout at the Regal Riverfront Hotel a few years ago. "Fortunately, I've never had a fighter seriously hurt on my watch," says Thompson. "But when you see a boxer taking some punishment, the question becomes, how much punishment should you let this man take? Well, our rule of thumb is, if a guy takes quite a few shots to the head without returning anything, then I don't have a choice. I have to stop the fight.
During a bout between young amateurs at the South Broadway Athletic Club, one fighter falls to the mat, dictating an automatic standing eight-count -- one measure a referee can take to assess the condition of a fighter. Thompson puts the opponent in a neutral corner. At the count of eight he speaks to the young fighter: "How you doing?" The kid says he's fine. The ref motions with his hands: Take a few steps. His equilibrium seems OK, and the fight goes on. The pair boxes for another minute. The bell rings. The kid goes to his corner, but Thompson's still watching him intently. "He seemed a little dazed," Thompson recounts later, "even in the corner." Thompson allows the trainers to do their thing -- rub their boy down, give him a drink -- but when the bell rings for round 3, he stops the fight so that a physician can give the kid the once-over. Only then does Thompson allow the fight to go on.
Thompson is one of only four state-licensed refs in St. Louis who work local pro fights. The amateur fights are strictly volunteer, the officials working out of love of the sport. The pro bouts, held in casinos and hotels, are where the money is. Thompson refs between two and eight pro fights per year, including some at the Ameristar Casino in St. Charles, that are viewed by millions on ESPN and USA. State boxing commissioner Tim Lueckenhoff says that Thompson's ex-con status is not an obstacle to someone's being a ref "as long as the applicants are up front with us about their convictions and those convictions are not related to the sport of boxing." Thompson -- who, Lueckenhoff says, is one of his best refs -- was honest on his application.
Last year, Thompson went to the U.S. Olympic Complex in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he spent a week of 10-hour days learning to become a boxing clinician, a teacher of rules and regulations. When he came back, he became the chief of officials for St. Louis amateur boxing, the job Craig Aldridge held for 20 years. The chief official is charged with assigning judges, timekeepers and referees for each boxing event. "It's a lot of work," says Aldridge, "and it doesn't even pay. But Vance is very methodical. He tells you he's going to do something, you can take it to the bank."
People call Thompson the "dancing referee." It's a moniker he seems to relish. "Sometimes, at fights where the promoters are black and the audience is black," says Thompson, "like at the Ambassador or the Spotlight, in Baden, they play music in between rounds. And most of them know I can dance, so I'll throw in a few moves, and soon I'm getting the whole audience going. They'll be shouting, 'Go ref! Go ref! Go, go!'
"With my class coming up, I'm going to be instructing future refs how to move around the ring. And that means they need to take a dance class, sort of. They have to learn to cross behind on the balls of their feet, move side to side. You've got to have good balance, be on your toes and move quickly around the ring. We're not in there to be part of a threesome, you know, right together with the fighters. We're supposed to be on the other side of the ring or far enough away to see the action yet step to them quickly if need be. There's actually some moves that we refs do that boxers do -- not the Ali shuffle or anything, but when you commence the fight and you say, 'Box!', you are backpedaling. You have to get the hell out the way so you don't get hit!"
Vance Thompson stands at the bar in Tully's, pulling on a Bud Light longneck and offering his perspective on the swing-dance ladies: "I like to flirt with them on the floor. Fact, I tell them right up front, in a nice way, that I'm going to get my body contact down. I'm not grabbing their ass or anything like that, but I'm dancing close with them, and that can be very sexy. So that's kind of cool. That's a privilege, something you earn."
He stares at the label on his longneck and says wistfully, "Yeah, when I was starting out, I wondered, 'What kind of a dancer am I going to be?' And I decided that I want to be a dancer that women remember. Yeah, a fun dancer. I make 'em laugh, and I always make 'em look good. I have never made a lady look bad in my life." Pause. "On the dance floor."
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