Interview with Joe Cortez: On Prostate Cancer, Manny Pacquiao, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather and Tons More!
Interview by John Novoselac, Doghouse Boxing (Sept 18, 2009) Photo © Tom Casino  
Veteran referee Joe Cortez has been up close and personal with many battles in his 33 years of officiating, yet none of them would prepare him for the battle he faced against prostate cancer. In an exclusive doghouseboxing interview, Joe shared his candid thoughts on his winning fight against the disease, his ongoing work with others fighting the disease, as well as his pre-fight rituals, controversial ring calls, and some of his favorite moments serving as the third man in the ring.

When asked about his discovery of prostate cancer and his treatment, Joe said, ‘Well I found out the prostate situation that I had, I was diagnosed with some early symptoms back about 5 or 6 years ago, and we were monitoring it real close and about 3 years later, we came to my doctor and reached the conclusion to do a biopsy and I had the beginning of prostate cancer.

‘So we took immediate action, because I’m the kind of guy I like to get things over and done with quick especially when it comes to your health. I thought that we had a big fight coming up that I knew I was going to be assigned to, so I wanted to get the prostate surgery done as soon as possible. My doctor said, Joe it’s going to be 3 or 4 months to get this done, and I said, I don’t think so, cause I got a big fight coming up in the next 2 months and I got to be in that ring.

‘And he said, Joe nobody goes into the ring that quick. I told him doc you know what, I think that I’m the kind of guy that can do it. He said you can’t get the surgery done, I said we’ll see about the that and I had my commissioners talk to them and explained to them there’s a major fight coming up and they definitely made an effort to get me in surgery room as soon as possible.

‘So within 3 weeks after being diagnosed we were on the operating table. 6 weeks after my surgery, I was doing my preliminary fights already and 2 weeks after that I was with my main events again. So, I move pretty rapidly. I believe like the fighter that I was, when every I got knocked down I refused to stay down I always got up and like all champions do, get up and try to win the fight. And that’s what I did with my battle against prostate cancer.’

I inquired if such a rapid recovery was normal, and Joe said, ‘It is much faster than normal. I’m very positive about everything I do in life. And I don’t see anything as impossible; I always strive to be better, and not just settle for second best. I just felt I had to do this because I wanted to prove not only to myself, but to all my other friends and all the other individuals out there that you can come down with a problem, don’t take of it as something negative in life.

‘Always take everything with a grain of salt. Take it with something that, you know it can happen to me, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to fall back and not get up again. I can always do it, I can succeed. I don’t care what it is, I always say if you want to do something, just go out there and do it. That’s what I’ve always felt, I think that’s helped me along the way to be the person I am today, I’m a caring and loving individual who likes to reach out and I was able to team up with DEPEND and zero who think the way that I think and we got to go out there and help people to get them on the right track whether you’re a business individual or just a caring individual to team up with people and knock out prostate cancer. That’s my philosophy.’

Regarding his work to help find a cure for prostate cancer, he said, ‘My work with the foundation is to get the awareness out there in reference to prostate cancer. There is 1 in every 6 men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer, but there’s 1 in every 4 Hispanics and Afro Americans. So those numbers are very high numbers. Those numbers are very scary when you start to think about if you’re in a room with 5 or 6 individuals you look around and say wow, 1 of us is going to be the next 1 to get prostate cancer. Who’s going to be next, and how do you know you have it?

‘Well you know what the only way you’re going to find out is by getting a yearly exam. So I push, I tell my colleagues, my friends, my loved ones go out there and get your physical done, you know we tell our wives, our daughters, our female friends to get your breast cancer check, you know my wife is a 2 time breast cancer survivor herself. And I have a daughter who was a quadriplegic from an auto accident 13 years ago, so we’ve been in some tough battles but you know what we refuse to give up and always hold your hand out there to get people on the right track. I’m an advocate for stem cell research which would also help cure diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, paralysis, all kinds of cancers including prostate cancer.

‘I’m an advocate for that and I helped sponsor a research center, I’m very much involved. I met President Bush who pushed for stem cell research. President Obama approved federal funding for stem cell research, and I was with President Carter who was way back before, and President Clinton. I’ve been with 3 presidents, Obama hasn’t met with me personally yet but it’s in the works right now and we’re working on it because I want thank him for approving the federal funding for stem cell research. So I kind of do everything that I mentioned before you know with the above cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, you name it, any disease I’m an advocate for. So hoping that with DEPEND and zero, we teamed up together with other sports figures to fight the battle against prostate cancer.

On his current work with DEPEND and zero, Joe said, ‘I think it’s a fantastic project that we're involved with. DEPEND has a website, it has a full page of information for the prostate cancer, and there’s also a section in there for Spanish speaking individuals that can log in get more information about the prostate cancer. What to look for when to get your physicals any symptoms that may be involved with prostate cancer, all the stats on prostate cancer so it’s I advise anyone out there to please go to that website and check it out. And check out our nice team of sports celebrities that are involved and see what we’re doing out there.'

Joe was passionate and inspirational in his speaking about his work fighting deadly diseases, and he was no less passionate in speaking about his profession as a referee, his pre-fight activities, some controversial calls, and his most memorable fights he’s been a part of.

I asked Joe to describe a typical evening of his pre-fight preparations, and he said, ‘One of the things that I like to do as a referee, I like to get myself mentally fit for a fight prior to the contest. So I get focused in, in my mind. I’ve been refereeing for 33 years already, and I’ve been involved in over 175 world title fights, over 3,000 fights under my belt including all the preliminaries. Around the world, New York, New Jersey, Las Vegas. I’ve been involved with so many fights throughout the world and I’ve learned how to kind of master my techniques in dealing with fighters such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Julio Cesar Chavez, Manny Pacquaio, Floyd Mayweather, just to name a few. A lot of champions over 3 decades.

‘One of the things I like to do with the fighters is take control of them back in the dressing room. When I get back in the dressing room, I walk into a room in and they have the music blasting, and as soon as I walk in I take control. By that I mean I tell them, turn off the radio. They kind of, somebody goes over and lowers it and I say no, turn it off completely. Everybody stops. I say turn it off, not down, turn it off, please. What I’m doing now I’m taking control.

‘Now what I’m doing when I give the fighters the instructions in the dressing room, I look them in the eye and I say okay my friend, I’ll be your referee for your fight tonight, I expect a good clean fight, if I’ve refereed your fights in the past or if I haven’t refereed your fights I tell them okay, I know your style and you have a tendency of holding a lot or you have a tendency to of going low with some punches and you know what tonight, I’m not going to tolerate none of that. I’ve give you a warning right here in the dressing room. You start any rough tactics, any fouls, I will take points, or if I have to disqualify you I’ll disqualify you. You understand that? And they say yes. And if he keeps up, I ask them you understand what I’m saying? Hey I’m already taking control there, why I’m doing that is, I’m going to make my fights easier for me in the ring.

‘Get in the ring I’ll tell the fighters alright gentlemen, we went over the rules in the dressing room, I expect a good clean fight, obey my commands at all times, and remember one thing, I’m fair but I’m firm! Let’s go! Okay? And that’s the way it goes.

‘I’ve disqualified fighters, most recently Soto for hitting Lorenzo when he was on the canvas. The doctor said the fighter cannot continue because of a concussive blow behind the head. The unified rules say that if a fighter receiving a foul cannot continue the fighter causing the fouls loses by disqualification. Which is what I had to do I had no choice. The doctor told me the fight had to be stopped because of a blow behind the head, the referee’s hands are tied, you have no other alternative but to disqualify the fighter according to the unified rules of the ABC.

‘I disqualified Kirk Johnson against John Ruiz for the heavyweight championship of the world a number of years ago, about 4 or 5 years ago because of the excessive low blows. He goes once, twice, I told him my man you hit him again one more time low, one more time, you will be disqualified. What did he do with his next punch? He goes low. So, I waved my hands over my head and that was it. It was over, the heavyweight championship of the world. Nobody wants to see a disqualification in a world title fight, never mind a heavyweight title fight. But the rules are the rules, I’m not going to look the other way, I get paid to enforce the rules, that’s what I have to do.

‘Some people may think I made a bad call, but as a referee, I have to look at myself in the mirror, and when I retire and say Joe, you did a good job, and I can live with myself and I don’t second guess myself and any decision I made in boxing throughout my years I would never change any of them. We all make mistakes, but we try to minimize our mistakes and try not to let it happen again.

Regarding the use of instant replay, Joe said, ‘I think that instant replay is a good tool to utilize if you’re in doubt. If you’re not really sure, they use it on most sports; we started using it in Nevada most recently. It went into effect in New Jersey about a year ago and has not been used in New Jersey yet. But the decision in Nevada was that when we have to go to a replay, the last person to determine it, to make that decision will be the referee. With me it’s no problem, it’s not taking any authority from the official, I just feel that it’s something that if it has to be done it’s only fair to the fighters and for the fans. I think the fans because in Nevada, you know boxing is legal for gambling, so I feel the fans should get a fair shake too. So sometimes the fans themselves, even when they’re not betting, you want to give them a fair shake, they’re paying a pay per view or television, they don’t want to see a bad decision go the wrong way because a referee didn’t catch an accidental head butt because he was on the blind side or something occurred that he didn’t see. So instant replay can help us, it’s a tool, utilize it, if needed.’

I asked Joe what some of his favorite fights were that he officiated, and he offered, ‘I’ve been involved in so many great fights, the great George Foreman knocking out Michael Moorer for the heavyweight championship of the world at age 45, that was historic. I did another fight in Julio Cesar Chavez and Greg Haugen in Mexico City, 132,000 fans it’s the largest crowd in boxing history. I did one in the Alamodome with Julio Cesar Chavez against Pernell Whitaker and that was the largest indoor crowd in boxing history. I could go on and on and on. Mike Tyson knocking out Larry Holmes. Oscar De La Hoya stopping Julio Cesar Chavez. Just to name a few, the great Roberto Duran beating Iran Barkley for the middleweight championship of the world. But I’ve been involved in about 175 world title fights, so there’s so many, but those are some that stand out.’

Joe closed by saying, ‘Remember, let’s knock out prostate cancer!’

More information about Depend to End Prostate Cancer can be found at

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