As Hall of Fame boxing referee Joe Cortez spoke to a small crowd at the IMU Whittenberger Auditorium this past Monday night, the words â€œNever drop your guards down in a fight, or in life,â€ echoed from wall-to-wall.
His message carried dual meanings.
In a literal sense, Cortez was referencing the championship bout between Victor Ortiz and Floyd Mayweather, a fight he was refereeing just two nights earlier at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Cortez found himself stuck in a bit of controversy after allowing a sucker-punch knockout from Floyd Mayweather just as Victor Ortiz was embracing Mayweather after busting his lip with an illegal head-butt just moments earlier.
From Cortezâ€™s point-of-view, Mayweatherâ€™s knockout blows were legal because Cortez gestured for time in meaning Ortiz should have been ready to fight.
On another, more figurative level, Cortez was referencing his rough childhood and the perseverance he showed to get to where he is today.
â€œI come from a broken home, four boys and my mother,â€ Cortez said.
He was fortunate, however, to find a professional boxer by the name of Gaspar Ortega who took Cortez under his wing and trained him at his local Boys Club in New York City.
But after a tough defeat at the age of 18 -, his first and only career loss -, Cortez joined the Army, with the idea that receiving a steady paycheck would help his mother during difficult times, and unfortunately, never returned to the ring as a boxer.
In 1977, however, he would return to his passion of boxing as a referee. Cortez has gone on to judge over 3,000 fights at the professional level; close to 200 of those have been world championship fights.
He has judged some of the biggest names in the history of the sport, too.
â€œIâ€™ve refereed Mike Tyson on nine different occasions, Oscar de la Hoya about six times, Julio Cesar Chavez about six times, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, Manny Pacquiaou, just to name a few,â€ Cortez says.
But just as in boxing, Cortezâ€™s life has been met with some of the highest highs along with the lowest of lows.
In 1996, Cortezâ€™s daughter Cindy became a quadriplegic after a car crash in California. His wife, Sylvia, was then diagnosed with breast cancer. And just four years later, Cortez became a victim of prostate cancer.
â€œBeing the fighters that we were, we refused to go down for the full count,â€ Cortez said, now in a somber yet optimistic tone.
Cortez is inspired by what his daughter is able to do even with such limitations. With a smile, he boasted about her ability to drive again and function to the best of her abilities.
Boxing has allowed Cortez to use his name as a platform to help others that need him most.
â€œBoxing has opened a lot of doors for me,â€ Cortez said. â€œIâ€™m a household name around the world. And if I can capitalize on that to help other individuals where I can be heard and get the message out there for awareness for breast cancer, for paralysis, for menâ€™s prostate cancer, these are things that we like doing.â€
We like that you are doing them too, Joe.