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Former Referee & Judge Hank Elespuru: The Ring Not Taken

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Former Referee & Judge Hank Elespuru: The Ring Not Taken

Hank Elespuru was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, in 1923 but grew up in Great Falls, Montana. A 1937 issue of the Great Falls Tribune reports on the 98-pound Elespuru boxing for the Elks Club, fighting for the championship of northern Montana. But by the time he graduated from high school, Hank was a football star and all-around athlete, lettering in baseball, basketball, and track, as well as boxing and wrestling on the side.

He attended college in Montana for one year before teaching hand-to-hand combat to Navy personnel during WWII, after which he was a 180-pound receiver for the University of Vermont and an outfielder on the baseball team.

Following an NFL tryout, he became the freshman football coach at Vermont before marrying Jayne Olson, also from Great Falls, attending graduate school at Columbia, and coaching at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Bates College in Maine. When Hank was offered a position at Sacramento State College to become an assistant coach for football and track and to establish a boxing program in 1955, the Elespurus moved westward.

The powerhouses in college boxing had traditionally been east of the Mississippi. Penn State and Navy, for example. Some tournaments at Penn State would outdraw the football team. Wisconsin was a midwestern force, but Western universities – Idaho, Stanford, and San Jose State – had taken momentum from the East. San Jose State would win three straight team NCAA titles from 1958 to 1960, and Sac State wanted to share in that action.

Being a non-scholarship school, only 12 students boxed that first year. The Sacramento Bee provided good coverage, as boxing was a major sport in California at both the professional and amateur levels. The Bee would report on college meets between universities from around the state, regardless of whether Sac State was involved or not.

Near the end of the 1955-56 season, however, Santa Clara coach Pete Francusich said the [Sac State] Hornets were well-coached and “…had good potential on its boxing squad.” A great advocate for boxing, Hank said he had been around boxing all his life and that “[t]here is not enough combat sports in colleges. Boxing and wrestling are the greatest builder of self-confidence in an athlete there is.”

He hoped to have “three or four boys” in the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Championships the following year, and that is exactly what happened. Sac State took third place as a team in the 1957 NCAA Championships. This was a matter of not just a young squad of college kids gaining experience but due to Hank’s recruiting prowess.

139-pounder Bob Ericson, a Golden Glove champion from Chicago, was fourth in the nation that year. Light-heavy Bill Snelson lost in the semi-finals. Jim Flood, who had boxed in the military and whose brother Frank was a professional fighter in New York, was the 156-pound champion, the first of his two national titles.

Hank had six boxers in the 1958 nationals – Flood and Ericson, along with Frankie Reynoso, Terry Smith, Dan DiRe, and Joe Jiminez. Five would compete in the 1959 NCAA tournament. Flood would lose in the final that year, with Terry Smith – who Hank would say was the finest boxer he had ever trained – becoming champion. Norm Tavalero was a runner-up at light-heavy.

By this time, Hank had been relieved of duties in other sports to concentrate on boxing. He helped direct local high school wrestling tournaments, and Jack Urch, Executive Officer of the State Athletic Commission, was lobbying for Hank to begin officiating professional boxing matches.

“There is one referee in Sacramento, two in Stockton, and none from there to Los Angeles,” Urch explained. San Francisco and the Bay Area had more than enough judges and referees, but the travel expenses for them cut into the profits of small promotions in the valley. “Hank would probably make a fine referee,” Urch dreamed. “He is big enough to handle the boxers, knows the game, and is the intelligent type.” Urch would get what he wanted, but it came at a cost.

Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr, who had become a national champion at 165 pounds in 1959 by beating Jim Flood, died from a brain hemorrhage following his fight with San Jose State’s Stu Bartell in the 1960 finals. Bartell and Mohr were friends from Brooklyn, and Bartell would suffer guilt over Mohr’s death for much of his life.

Intercollegiate boxing, even before this, was living a threatened existence, with many wanting the “unruly and barbaric” practices of boxing eliminated from university culture. Hank was quoted in Sports Illustrated following Mohr’s death as saying, “This will kill college boxing,” and it did.

Universities, including Sac State, eliminated boxing programs, and the NCAA withdrew sponsorship of it as an intercollegiate sport. Hank was assigned an assistant coaching position on the football team with duties as a physical education instructor as well. He began officiating amateur bouts in 1961 and took out a professional license in 1968, working mostly in the Sacramento and Stockton area.

His first high-profile assignment was a Mando Ramos title fight in Madrid, Spain. Of Basque descent, Hank spoke fluent Spanish. He coached Sac State’s wrestling team, which was established in 1970, and would have fourteen All-Americans before that program was discontinued in 1983 for budgetary reasons.

I came to know Hank in the fall semester of 1978, having just moved to California from Illinois and taking a class in the PE department named Boxing Fundamentals, or something similar to that. This is the same class Hank had been teaching for years and had used to help recruit kids to the boxing team. If Sac State had a boxing team in 1978, I would have been one of the recruits.

Instead, Hank suggested I contact Don Conley at the Washington Neighborhood Center on 16th Street. I wound up at the Capitol Gym on Stockton Boulevard because it was more fun to hang out there. This would be the first but not the last time that Hank provided me guidance with regards to boxing that I didn’t appreciate as much as I could have. As I probably should have.

He would referee and judge memorable fights around the world. Jeff Fenech and Carlos Zarate in Sydney. Lloyd Honeyghan and Jorge Vaca in London. Julio Cesar Chavez and Roger Mayweather in Las Vegas. David Tua and Ike Ibeabuchi in Sacramento. Salvador Sanchez versus Wilfredo Gomez. Hank refereed George Foreman’s first comeback fight against Steve Zouski in 1989.

One does not referee as many championship fights as Hank did without enjoying a little controversy, and he took some heat for penalizing John Molina a point for low blows in Molina’s challenge of Tony Lopez’s IBF 130-pound title.

The scoring of that fight was its own controversy, and even without the point deduction, the fight would have been a draw, with Tony retaining his title. But Hank became the scapegoat for the wrath of Lou Duva, Molina’s cornerman.

Duva said Hank “should have been put in jail.” Hank, who had warned Molina four times for punching low, responded by saying, “I have to consider the source. [Duva] is the biggest crybaby in boxing. I don’t want to say anything further.”

He was the ref in 1989 when Rico Velasquez died after his fight with David Gonzalez and refereed Yaqui Lopez’s final title fight against Carlos DeLeon in San Jose.

Yaqui was knocked down in the first round but asserted himself with body shots in the second and third before being cut by DeLeon in the fourth. “It was the biggest cut I’ve ever seen,” Hank said. “It wasn’t so long as it was deep.” He described how the blood pulsed out of a severed blood vessel. The ringside doctor said he could see Yaqui’s skull through the cut.

Elespuru protégé and former national champion Terry Smith became a referee of international stature himself following his boxing career. I am not sure who was the better storyteller, Hank or Terry. They had different styles, with Terry being a little more animated, but it was easy to see how they became so close.

Hank liked to share the story of when he was in Seoul, South Korea, to referee a title fight and had a bodyguard for the whole of his stay. “Six months ago, they had an American referee here, and he was forcibly brought back to the ring to reverse a decision he had made against [I believe this was Yum Hwan Choi],” Hank said.

Treated to dinner at an extravagant restaurant, Hank took off his shoes upon entering, as was the custom. He was wearing a pair of socks his wife had darned but were wearing thin again. Hank’s dinner companions were shocked to see an American with holes in his socks. Hank laughed about being relieved to sit down at the dinner table and tuck his feet under his legs.

I stopped by Hank’s boxing class one day a handful of years after I had been a student in it. I was no longer boxing then. He was glad to see me, and I was soon his assistant coach and also refereeing at Sac State’s annual Fight Night, in which students from the class and other former students and athletes boxed in a fundraiser for charities and athletic clubs at the school.

Hank would take me with him to fight cards in central California, giving me official scorecards to score the fights. He and I would go over the scoring afterward, as he was screening me to be an official myself. He introduced me to California’s boxing regulators.

Richard DeCuir was the Athletic Commission’s Executive Officer by then, and although Hank was in great shape as he neared his 70th birthday – through regular exercise and playing handball, and still walked with the lanky, loose-limbed stride of the natural athlete – DeCuir was moving him into a position of administration for referees. He wanted Hank to recruit and prepare referees more than engage in refereeing himself. I was one of the recruits.

But I was miserable in my job as a state worker and had returned to school to get an English degree, at first hoping to become a teacher but eventually deciding to write myself. I was married, had a house and a full-time job, and with all the work of taking two or three-night classes a semester, I had neither the time nor much energy to think about boxing. Hank would regularly call to talk about his hope that I become a professional referee and his sponsoring me so I wouldn’t have to spend years officiating in the amateur ranks. He would ask me to go with him to some promotion or attend a training course he and Terry were holding for potential referees. I would usually decline because I either had a class to attend or a paper to write and, eventually, Hank stopped calling.

I’m older now, and much of my life has fallen into perspective. What once appeared to be a haphazard, random blast of events coming at me now looks more like a well-structured plot. It is so much easier to see what is behind us than what lies ahead. I’ve known a lot of guys over the years who would have loved to be a referee or even a judge of professional fights, and to have someone like Hank open the door to that world as wide as he did for me was a wonderful once in a lifetime opportunity. I don’t regret the decision I made, although I do at times think about the price tag attached to the choice.

With age also comes the awareness of how quickly time passes. How easy it can be to lose touch with those who played parts in our most precious memories. I was shocked to realize, when Hank died in 2004, that we had not seen each other in ten years. He was survived by Jayne and their children, Sandra and Rick, of whom he always spoke proudly.

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