WHEN you are 5ft 8ins and two 17-stone men are having a punch-up, it takes courage – and perhaps a bit of madness – to step between them.
Leeds’s Mickey Vann, who recently retired as a referee and judge, was the third man in the ring when Lennox Lewis defended his world heavyweight title against fellow Briton Frank Bruno in 1993.
Vann – who fought in the featherweight division, which has a 126lb limit – was charged with controlling men almost twice his size and he stood for no nonsense.
As the boxers grappled in the second round, Vann called the pair together and told them, “don’t **** with me”.
His warning was picked up on an overhead microphone and broadcast live to millions of television viewers. Vann later received a “telling-off” from the board of control, but that was a small price to pay for being a part of British sporting history.
Looking back at his 40 years as a referee, Vann says: “That has to be my highlight. Not many referees referee the world heavyweight championship; if they do it three times a year that’s only three referees and it’s usually Americans who do it.
“It was history, it was the first time two British fighters had fought for the title. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d get it.
“I had judged (Julio Cesar) Chavez-(Pernell) Whitaker a few weeks before and there was a big hoo-ha about that.
“They were saying I had scored it wrong, which I hadn’t. I got the same score as someone else and only one round different to the other guy.
“But because of that I wasn’t expected to get Lewis-Bruno. I thought Larry O’Connell would get it, but he didn’t and I did. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. I have missed out on fights myself, but to get that one was awesome.”
Lewis and Bruno did battle in the grounds of Cardiff Castle and, typically, it was not a straightforward night for Vann, who stopped the fight in the seventh round with Bruno on unsteady legs under a flurry of punches.
“The British Boxing Board of Control made me referee the chief support as well,” he remembers.
“After that, I had to run into the dressing room, get changed and then get out there again through the crowds. They said it saved the promoter money, that’s what they told me.”
Vann is the son of showman Hal Denver and grew up touring circuses and showgrounds with his father and stepmother.
Many included a boxing booth, offering punters a few pounds if they could go three rounds with the resident fighter.
“If nobody wanted to get in the ring, we’d do it and have a tear-up for a tanner,” says Vann.
He fought at amateur and then professional level, both times making a winning debut on a show in Hull.
After victories in only three of 12 paid contests, he hung up his gloves and initially hoped to begin a new career as a trainer alongside his manager, Tommy Miller.
“Tommy said he didn’t think I could teach anyone anything and suggested I apply to become a referee,” he explains.
Vann refereed his first bout in October, 1976 and went on to take charge of more than 150 world title fights, judging another 120.
He stepped into the ring with some of the sport’s modern greats, but rates John Doherty, from Bradford, as the easiest to referee.
“I did his pro debut at the Astoria in Leeds,” he recalls. “He got stopped, because of a bad cut, and he was absolutely gutted. I went into the dressing room and had a word with him. I said, ‘don’t worry, from what I saw you are a cracking little fighter. It’s just one defeat, it’s not the end of the world, don’t let it get you down’.
“He came back and went on to win the British super-featherweight title. I refereed him a few times and he was so easy, but very few of them do as they are told. If a fight stinks the place out, the crowd never blame the fighters, they always blame the referee.”
If Doherty was a pleasure to share the ring with, Vann does not have similar feelings for a more famous Yorkshire boxer.
“I never liked refereeing Prince Naseem Hamed,” he admits. “I thought he was very arrogant, he was never very nice to his opponents. There was something about him not very nice and from him it has gone on, all this staring at each other, growling and pushing each other about before a fight.
“We never did that. When I was fighting you just wanted to get in there and beat him up – or get beaten up. I didn’t want to waste any time having a fight at the weigh-in.”
Vann’s 100th world title contest as a referee hit the headlines for the wrong reasons, when he was shoved by the trainer – and father – of one of the fighters, Stephen Smith.
Smith, from Hull, had just taken a count when his father Darkie barged into Vann, claiming his son had been elbowed by opponent Ricky Hatton.
“That’s one of the reasons why close relations shouldn’t be in the corner,” says Vann. “There was a cut, he (Darkie) thought it was caused by an elbow, but I said it was a punch. When they played it back, I was right.”
Vann concedes he sometimes regrets not “having a tear-up” with Smith senior, though that would almost certainly have ended his career in the ring.
The fight with Smith was Hatton’s eighth successive contest refereed by Vann. But the Leeds man points out he had similar runs with other boxers and says: “Some people complained about it, but I always asked, ‘did you see anything wrong?’
“They didn’t, so why shouldn’t I do him again? If I did something wrong, that’s fair enough, I should be out. But nobody could show me anything.”
Vann reached the British board’s mandatory retirement age when he turned 65, seven years ago, but continued working for the Irish union until calling it a day last month.
He has now taken up a new sport. “I am into archery. My wife bought me a bow for Christmas and I’ve got a target. I’m aiming for the Tokyo Olympics.”