Exclusive Interview with veteran official
If you wanted to look up an exemplary model of a “Professional Boxing Referee” in a virtual dictionary, you would find a photo of veteran official Vic Drakulich looking back at you. This “third man in the ring” is known for his class and dignity while always officiating at the highest level of professionalism in the ring.
This September, the Nevada native will celebrate a milestone–his 25th anniversary of being a boxing referee. And he’s not just any boxing ref, he was recently awarded the 2010 “Referee of the Year” at the World Boxing Council’s (WBC) 48th World Convention in Cancún. WBC President Jose Sulaiman presented Drakulich with the prestigious award as his peers from around the world agree that this was an honor well deserved.
“A quiet and assuming guy who becomes ‘King of His Ring’–the best!” WBC’s Jill Diamond tells me in regards to the new honoree.
I first met Vic last summer in Reno. During the holidays I had a chance to catch up with him as we discussed many topics with the subject of boxing, of course, always on the forefront. He is one of the nicest guys in the sport that you will ever meet and is known as a loyal and well-respected referee in boxing circles. He has officiated in many high-profile bouts including matchups between Victor Ortiz-Lamont Peterson, Devon Alexander-Andriy Kotelnik, Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz, Vern Forrest-Sergio Mora and hometown Reno rivals Jesse Brinkley-Joey Gilbert.
Boxing fans may not know that Vic, one of nine children born to a Serbian father and an Italian mother, is also a devout family man himself who is also a crossword puzzle “addict,” an avid skier and a working attorney! There are many facets of this unassuming man behind the bow tie, who has officiated thousands of fights through the years. With a calm and patient manner stemming from his scholarly appearance, Vic reminds you of a favorite college professor you might have had. But expect the unexpected. Vic is also known for his wicked sense of humor that a cadre of Nevada’s elite officials can attest to as they’ve come to know the man who keeps a that all-important watchful eye on the boxers.
During his 25-year tenure on the canvas, the humble Referee of the Year also reveals, “You never stop learning in this game. Every time you watch a fight, every time you referee a fight, I am constantly learning. That’s what I like about it! It always presents a challenge.”
Drakulich remains an in-demand referee who keeps an active schedule in both law and the sweet science. He participates in boxing seminars for officials and is also involved in a boxing program at Clayton Middle School in his local city of Reno.
While we chat about his newest “Vic-tory” in regards to his WBC award, there’s also time to learn about some of Vic’s vast experiences inside the ropes. In this revealing conversation, Drakulich shares his recollection about a horrible tragedy he witnessed in the ring toward the end of 2009. In lighter moments during our Q&A, find out which fighter almost made him laugh out loud during a Manny Pacquiao bout, why you’ll never see him refereeing in an Octagon, and the real reason he winks at the camera!
Michele Chong: Vic, 2010 was a great year for you. Congratulations again on your WBC Referee of the Year award!
Vic Drakulich: Thank you! It really was a surprise.
MC: What were your thoughts when they announced your name as the awardee?
VD: We were in line at the dinner. My wife and I were at the very end of the line getting our food when all of a sudden I heard my name and someone before me said, “You were just awarded ‘Referee of the Year!'” So I put my food down to go accept my award. (Laughs) It was a very pleasant surprise!
MC: You’ve had quite a career as a boxing official. You have 14 pages of fights going back to 1989 listed on BoxRec alone…
VD: It’s been about 25 years now. I have been licensed with the the State of Nevada as a professional boxing referee
since September of 1986.
MC: Do you remember some of your first fights as a pro referee?
VD: One of my first, if not the first, was in Carson City, Nevada.
MC: Have you ever really looked at all your fights listed on the Internet?
VC: No, I haven’t. I guess I don’t want to look back…I want to look forward! (Laughs)
MC: How did you first get involved in boxing?
VD: After I graduated from law school in 1979, I came back to Reno to practice. At the time, my two brothers Damon and Gene were working at the local juvenile detention facility. They put me in contact with a fellow I knew in high school, Mike Martino. He was boxing amateur at the time and he knew that I knew a little about boxing so he asked me to work his corner for him and I agreed to do so. This was in ’81. Then the amateur officials asked if I would ref some fights…well, actually judge some fights, which I did. Then it progressed to refereeing some fights. Around 1985 I got a call from the Nevada Athletic Commission saying, “We need another referee up north–are you interested?” And the rest is history. (Laughs)
MC: And you are still a working attorney, correct?
VD: Yes, although I am semi-retired. I am a personal injury and insurance bad faith attorney. I pick and choose my cases now and work with about three different attorneys locally. In fact, I’ve got a big trial coming up in about two weeks.
MC: Do you have any boxing experience yourself?
VD: Just sparring. I never boxed competitively. We had a little ring at the YMCA downstairs and we, as kids, used to go there and put on the gloves and spar a bit and hit the heavy bag and speed bag. Though I didn’t fight competitively in the ring, I had a tendency to engage, let’s just say in “fisticuffs” outside of the ring at times! (Laughs)
But I always had an interest in boxing. I used to watch the Gillette “Friday Night at the Fights.” Back then they had this little bird that would come out (Vic hums the “Sharpie the Parrot” theme song) and I’ll never forget that video they had and that little jingle! I used to sit with my dad on Friday nights and we’d watch boxing. And I remember my father taking me to a fight involving Bobo Olson here in Reno. I developed a liking for it from the get-go.
MC: And where was your first WBC fight?
VD: It was in Reno or Las Vegas. And one of the first world title fights I worked was one with Troy Dorsey at Caesars in Vegas.
MC: You’ve also worked fights and attended many WBC Conventions around the world.
VD: Yes! I’ve been to Japan to do fights; I’ve been to Germany, to Mexico. As far as conventions, I’ve been to Russia, Africa (both North and South), Spain, Philippines, Thailand, Korea, and Costa Rica. It’s been a GREAT experience! The best thing I ever did was to align myself with the WBC because I’ve had an invariable array of experiences with regards to conventions and fights. It’s been quite a ride, it really has!
MC: One of your most recent fights was the Victor Ortiz-Lamont Peterson fight in December, which ended in a draw.
VD: That was a good fight, by the way. Did you watch it?
MC: Yes, I did! That was a good fight. They should rematch.
VD: It really was a great fight and I think they probably will. What I was very impressed with was the stories behind the individuals–and how they were both kind of abandoned as kids. How Ortiz at the age of ten–and with his little brother–used to live in abandoned cars! I wouldn’t have known that if I had not come home and watched it on TV. I have even more admiration for these two guys getting in the ring when you know their background and the difficulties they’ve had in life. And they prevail through hard work and determination. So it makes me that much more proud to be refereeing these guys.
MC: Vic, can you name a few of your other most memorable fights you’ve worked in?
VD: The David Diaz vs. Manny Pacquiao fight–that one was memorable!
MC: Oh yeah! That was a bloody fight and I remember Diaz’s colorful post-fight speech. (Laughs)
VD: Oh yes, I remember that too. What’s funny about that is when Manny knocked him down, I didn’t even give him a count because I was planning on the next time he got in trouble I was stopping the fight. So I stepped right up and stopped the fight and here’s David Diaz on his back and Manny comes over to congratulate him–and he’s shaking hands with David Diaz, who’s staring straight up but puts his hand out to shake hands! You know, if I didn’t have so much on my mind at the time in getting the doctor in there, I would’ve started to laugh. It was hilarious! David Diaz on his back, shaking hands with Manny, saying, “Great fight!”
All of my Manny Pacquiao fights were very memorable, like Pacquiao-Morales. Also the De La Hoya-Castillejo fight, and also when he fought in Tahoe. I’ve been lucky to work in one Floyd Mayweather fight, three Pacquiao fights and four De La Hoya fights. De La Hoya-Sturm was an excellent fight. There’s always an aspect of each fight that sticks with me. I thought they should’ve marketed that one, “Felix vs. Oscar: The Odd Couple”! But nobody got it. (Laughs)
MC: Kenny Bayless told me that’s one of his favorite aspects about you–your sense of humor!
VD: He and I get along so well! Kenny is such a great guy. We all have such camaraderie with Robert Byrd, Jay Nady, Joe Cortez, Tony Weeks, Russ Mora. They’re a great group of people. We all enjoy each other’s company a lot–there’s something to be said for that. I don’t know how it is in other jurisdictions but in Nevada, it’s like one big family, it really is.
MC: Is your wife and family fans of boxing as well?
VD: My wife Linda, in it of herself, is not a fan of boxing but she’s a fan by virtue of me being involved. She loves to come and watch me work. Independent of that, she’s not a fan of boxing.
But my fights are a tribute to my brother and his family. My youngest brother Joseph and his wife Tina, their son David was killed in Afghanistan by an IED (improvised explosive device or “roadside bomb”) on January 9, 2008. He also has a brother and a sister, Thomas and Dana.
David was awarded a Bronze Star. He made the ultimate sacrifice–and since January of ’08, I dedicate my fights to him. He was a great kid!
MC: So sorry to hear about your nephew. He sounded like a great guy. I know you come from a very large family. And you and Linda have three daughters of your own too.
VD: Yes, and we were all together in Kirkland for the holiday and we skied together too. The oldest is Jessica, a registered dietician who lives in Chicago. Our middle daughter is Alyse. She’s currently attending dental school up in Portland, Oregon. And my youngest is Dionne. She’s getting ready to graduate from University of Nevada and then she’s matriculating to medical school next year. They obviously acquired the intelligence from my wife! (Laughs) Linda’s a school counselor in Washoe County, so she can handle a “deviant” guy like me! (Laughs)
MC: (Laughs) And I know you and your wife are both crossword puzzle whizzes!
VD: That’s our tradition, yes. My wife and I make a pot of coffee and we sit down and to the traditional crossword puzzle, Sudoku and the Jumble game. And then I’m off to the races!
MC: Do you two spend most of your time in Reno?
VD: My primary residence is here in Reno. But I built a house up in Kirkwood, California. It’s a ski resort about 80 miles south of Reno. My whole family skis; we’re all involved. All three of my daughters raced for Reno High School.
MC: And you were born and raised in Reno as well?
VD: Yes. My dad was a football coach at Hug High School. He wanted to keep an eye on me so I played defensive end for my dad’s team. I was a “strapping 6′ 3” 130 pound defensive end. I was a menace! (Laughs)
MC: (Laughs) And you were a very, very tall lightweight.
VD: (Laughs) I was! And I was also All State and All Conference…How that happened I’ll never know!
Then I was a history major with a minor in political science at University of Nevada, Reno and then went to the McGeorge School of Law. My claim to fame is that I got a “B” from Anthony Kennedy, my constitutional law professor. He’s now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, so I’ll take that “B” to the bank, I’ll tell ya!
MC: What’s the current boxing scene like in Reno?
VD: Right now the boxing is not at the current level it used to be when I started out in the Nevada Athletic Commission when there were four others: Mills Lane, Norm Budden, Jay Nady, Dr. Tom Myatt and myself. Now I’m the only one up here in Reno and sometimes that can be disconcerting because if something happens to me, I have no backup.
And in Reno, in general, times are very tough because of the economy. Plus there’s a lot of competition from the Indian casinos in California, so we feel the effects.
MC: And most of your fights are primarily in Nevada?
VD: When it comes to referees, we usually don’t go into another state where there’s another commission. There are exceptions; I was called in for the Pacquiao fight in Texas when one of the referees was unavailable. I’ve also done fights in North Dakota and recently in St. Louis too but it’s a rare occasion though.
MC: How much advance notice are you given before a fight?
VD: In Nevada, it’s usually a week and a half before the fight. My understanding is that the Executive Director Keith Kizer comes up with name suggestions, then it’s presented to the Nevada Athletic Commission and then once they okay it, it goes to the respective camps. They have a certain amount of time to state any objection or forever hold their peace.
We also don’t have contact with anybody after we’re assigned; they don’t want anybody influencing us. I don’t go to weigh-ins in Nevada. You want to avoid any show of allegiance with any camp. We tend to avoid any situation with any sense, any appearance, of impropriety. So that’s the way we handle it.
MC: If you’re not refereeing a fight, do you often catch the fights on TV?
VD: Yes, absolutely. I pick up things that I either like–or don’t like–about the referees’ involvement in the fight and I use it like a library of information of how I like to conduct myself. You never stop learning in this game. Every time you watch a fight, every time you referee a fight, I am constantly learning. That’s what I like about it! It always presents a challenge.
MC: Do you ever judge fights these days?
VD: I judged an NABF fight in California once but it’s few and far between. I feel much more comfortable refereeing a fight.
MC: Outside of the ring, most officials seem like mellow low-key guys, almost unrecognizable without their uniforms on. But once the shirt and bow tie are put on, the referee becomes such a commanding authoritative presence. Kenny Bayless said it’s like “Superman” about how the officials “switch” personalities from one extreme to another. (Laughs)
VD: (Laughs) Once you step into the ring, you have to take authority. Whether it’s a title fight or a four rounder, you have to be on your toes. You have to be in charge and so yeah, you put it correctly. You have to get your game face on–this is not kids’ stuff!
It’s an extremely dangerous sport. When you bark out a command, they have to understand…and if they don’t they are going to be penalized. That’s how you maintain control over a fight because if these guys are throwing heavy punches, anything can happen! You have to be prepared for it with the proper mindset.
But you have to know when enough’s enough. I call it the “Art of the Stop.” I’m willing to take the heat and hear the boos of the crowd. I’ll take the punishment to make that call.
MC: Do any boxers try and talk to you after the fights are over?
VD: Yes, I’ve seen fighters after and I just congratulate them and we only talk briefly and exchange pleasantries with them. That happens mostly at smaller shows.
MC: Have you ever had any confrontations with a boxer who didn’t agree with a decision?
VD: No, I’ve never had that. I don’t think I’ve ever had a real confrontation with any fighter, to be honest with you. (He then tells me a story about a fighter who was upset and vocal in the ring at the time of a stoppage, only to come up and thank Vic after the fight for saving him from any further and undue punishment).
MC: You were the referee in the Z Gorres-Luis Melendez bout where, unfortunately, Z Gorres (who won the fight) collapsed while celebrating his victory. That was a tragedy nobody in boxing EVER wants to see. He won by a wide margin and then just unexpectedly lost consciousness. Tragically, one punch changed everything.
VD: He was convincingly controlling the fight the whole time. Then in the last 30 seconds of the last round, he was knocked down and I administered the count. There was still 18 seconds left; and then I heard the clacker so I then knew how much time was left. After the fight, I held up his hand in the traditional pose and he was holding the Filipino flag around him for the photographers taking pictures and he was fine. Since I never leave the ring until both fighters leave, I waited. Finally the opponent was leaving, they had been mad at the timekeeper and thought the bell was rung too early. So I stepped out of the ring to get ready for the next fight and I went to drink some water. Suddenly there was a commotion in Gorres’ corner. He collapsed; he was out. They put him on a gurney and I saw his face tilted toward me and his eyes didn’t look right.
After that, I called the hospital to keep checking on him. There was no indication that this would happen. (He voice rises with emotion) This was a reminder to me, “This is a DANGEROUS fricken sport!” They’re throwing everything they’ve got and everyone needs to be careful. I have heard he’s recovering–but that was a VERY scary situation.
MC: What is the most challenging aspect of being a referee?
VD: The most challenging aspect of refereeing is maintaining your composure under stress. When you’re doing a world title fight, let’s say in Vegas, you’re talking about over 18,000 in the arena. In the Manny Pacquiao-David Diaz fight, it was like being next to a jet engine when they announced the fighters! They really let out a roar. I teach seminars and I tell them that you will hear that roar but do NOT let the roaring get to you while refereeing. Keep a level head; keep your composure, do your job and let these guys ply their trade. That’s the most difficult thing to learn–how to maintain your presence of mind and keep your composure.
MC: And what would you say is the best thing about being a boxing referee?
VD: Oh boy, there’s so many facets to being a referee. I think the opportunity to be involved in a sport that has worldwide recognition and to be in a position to meet great people. I have had incredible experiences!
Being in the ring with two warriors and trying to maintain the flow of the fight and let the best man win. All of it together, it’s an incredible experience, it really is.
MC: Did you have any mentors while coming up?
VD: You bet! I looked at people like Joe Cortez and Norm Budden, who was the Chief of Officials in the amateurs when I started out in the ’80s. He was also a professional boxing referee and he gave me guidance early in my career that was very helpful.
MC: Do boxing fans recognize you outside of the ring?
VD: Occasionally, but it’s not very often. Like you said when we take off that uniform we kind of meld into the woodwork–which I don’t mind one bit! But occasionally at a restaurant I am recognized by some boxing people. But normally once I take the uniform off, it’s easy for me to blend into the crowd.
MC: Vic, would you ever referee UFC or mixed martial arts?
VD: NO (he answers quickly and affirmatively). It’s not my type of sport. I have nothing against it but I was raised with the maxim that you never hit a guy when he’s down. It’s just not what I grew up with and I would have a difficult time adapting to it.
MC: Besides dedicating the matches you referee in to your nephew, do you have any special routine, signals or gestures you do before a fight?
VD: One other way I dedicate the fights to my nephew is that in my boxing bag is the Bible he had with him while in Afghanistan. I always have that with me now at the fights.
And the one gesture I do when they introduce me is that I wink at the camera. And the reason I do that is my daughter told me I appear very, very “stern” on camera. (Laughs) So I wink at them to say hi to everybody and get my mind back on my family–it gives me a smile and then I don’t have that stern face!
MC: So now we now what to look for in your next fight. Thanks again, Vic! I really enjoyed our conversation.
VD: Thank you again, Michele!
Look for Vic Drakulich in many more world title fights to come as the “Referee of the Year” continues his remarkable 25th championship year in boxing. That in itself is quite an accomplishment and many of his associates agree that this latest WBC honor went to one of the very best in the biz.
“He’s one of the nicest guys and a great referee too! I’m very happy for Vic,” official Max De Luca, the 2010 “WBC Judge of the Year” recipient, comments. “He has a way with his referee style. Vic never over officiates; he lets the fighters fight and only gets in when he needs to.”
Speaking with a fellow referee of Vic’s, Kenny Bayless concurs with De Luca. “I am so happy for Vic as the winner the WBC Referee of the Year award. Vic has done a great job in the ring for many years and he is well deserving of this honor. He is a true professional.”
Bayless has known Drakulich for over two decades and both continue to give back to the sport they both love and support: “Vic and I have sat together at WBC referee seminars to help and improve officials. We often call each other to compare notes on fights that we had refereed or watched on TV. What impresses me about him is his dedication to the sport of boxing and always working toward improving himself in the ring.”
He adds, “Outside the ring Vic is a delightful person to be around because he is SO funny! Vic always has a joke for you when you least expect it. Vic is also a great father to his daughters and a loving husband to his beautiful wife Linda. I’m glad to be associated with a friend like Vic Drakulich.”
In our in-depth interview, one thing stood out about this man who asserts such a degree of authority in the ring. While he is understandably proud of his career in boxing, the main cornerstone in his life really is family. Boxing–full of brave warriors and fearless gladiators–can offer no comparison to the true hero in Drakulich’s universe–his 22-year-old nephew and Army Sergeant, David Joseph Drakulich. With warmth and sincerity, his uncle Vic politely asks one request from me before we sign off.
“Could you please mention David in this article?” he inquires gently. “If you don’t mind, and if it’s possible at all to mention him? I dedicate all my fights to him–he really made the ultimate sacrifice.” While Vic is used to being in the limelight in world championship fights, he would like to honor his brother’s son–and keep this one soldier’s memory in the spotlight. In a bittersweet moment, this Sunday will be the third anniversary of the passing of the referee’s beloved nephew, a young man who went to combat to fight for our freedom.
And while he may enjoy his reign as the current WBC Referee of the Year, his family’s loss is reminder that as much as we all love boxing, we must remember what is most important in our own lives as well.
As Vic continues to honor the Drakulich family name, I congratulate him on his award–and hope for a safe and Happy New Year to all.
Photos courtesy of Kenny Bayless and Carlos Baeza (awards) and Mary Ann Owen (ring photo)