His business card reads: United States Amateur Boxing Inc., Tom Cleary, Referee/Judge, AIBA, USA, and WSB. Tom, a 1967 La Salle graduate, has come to be recognized as one of the best amateur boxing referees in the world.
After going to St. Ann's grade school in Groesbeck, he graduated from La Salle. Tom remarked, "Later on as a grandfather, I lived in Mason and I sent two of my grandchildren to Moeller to get that GCL education. My grandson got a big time job after high school, and he said he never would have gotten it had he not gone to a Catholic school. I felt the same way; going to La Salle and getting that Catholic education was indispensible. At the time I didn't realize it, but now I sure do."
After high school, Tom went to barber school. His goal was to become a Cincinnati fireman. He planned to work one day and be off two days and cut hair on the days he was off. That didn't work out. Over 1000 took the test. He finished 55 and they took 40.
He had worked as a barber for one year when a friend of his told him he could get him a job at UPS. He was offered $2.75 an hour, which was big money back then. Forty years later he is still working at UPS.
Tom's path to becoming a boxing referee was not a straight one. He started out refereeing high school basketball games. His goal was to be a professional referee and work in the NBA. UPS had another idea. They would not give him the time off he needed to work games. He had to give up refereeing basketball, which was a big disappointment for him at the time.
A man named Rollie Schwarz came to his rescue. Tom and Rollie had worked basketball games together. Schwartz ran the American boxing part of the 1976 Olympics. Tom said, "Rollie was the reason we were so successful in boxing in the 1976 Olympics. Rollie told me, 'Refereeing boxing is very similar to referring basketball. It's one on one and you make split decisions.' He told me if you stuck with it he would help me become a world official."
Although Tom never boxed, he always liked and was interested in boxing. His father used to take him to watch boxing on Central Parkway. When Mohammad Ali came along, just about everybody became interested in boxing.
To becoming a boxing official you have to take a test to work international contests. The International Boxing Association [AIBA] certifies you. You start out as a level 1 national official. After a year or so you move to a level 2 official and then a level 3. Once you become a level 3 that gives you the right to become an international official. An official from Ireland and one from Wales were sent to test 25 officials. Only 3 were chosen; Tom was one of the three. That was how he became an international official and could referee all over the world. Besides his international license, he has a USA license. He is also a member of the World Series of Boxing [WSB], which is the highest rank an official can obtain in amateur boxing.
When you test, you test to be both a referee and a judge at the same time. In amateur boxing, all referees are also judges that score the matches. If you could not judge you could not referee. In a night an official might referee two matches and score 9 others.
All of the rules for the AIBA come out of Lucerne Switzerland. Everybody follows the same rules. When you come to the Olympics everyone has to think the same.
Lucerne, Switzerland sends you your schedule and you follow that. Next week, Tom leaves for Memphis, Tennessee to work the Olympic Trials. Usually your schedule is set about a month ahead.
Tom is very confident in his ability. He said, "I always felt refereeing is actually what I should be doing. When I'm in the ring, I have so much confidence. It makes no difference how many people are in the stands. We went to Azerbaijan, and we were the first team to go in there after they ceased to be communist. When we walked in, there were 14,000 people there who came to watch the Americans. A friend of mine asked me, 'Are you nervous'. I said, 'Not one bit'. This is where I was supposed to be."
Just like other sports, you have your good nights and you have your bad. Tom commented, "I have gotten out of the ring and told my friends, 'Boy did I stink that up.' Some days I'm on and some days I ask myself what are you doing. I've been to tournaments where they cut you if you don't have a good outing. They only keep the best. Most of the time I make it. Nobody is on all of the time."
For a while, Tom was a professional referee. He worked the Friday night ESPN fights. He decided to go back to amateur for a couple of reasons. He explained, "They want you to continue the fight until a guy is about to be knocked out. That wasn't me. An amateur official has two jobs: enforce the rules of fair play and be concerned about the safety of the boxers. After one professional match I refereed, Teddy Atlas, the announcer, said I shouldn't have stopped the fight. Henry Akinwande was going for the knockout. The other boxer was getting his brains beat in. When Atlas said that, I knew I didn't want any more of this. I wanted to work with kids."
About safety in boxing Tom said, "Boxing is a very violent contact sport. When kids get to be 19 and 20 you can't believe how hard they hit." Tom's axiom for stopping a fight has always been, "If a boxer has absolutely no chance of winning a bout and he has a chance of being hurt, you stop the fight. It is a contact sport and at times it can be a violent sport. Sometimes you have to have the sense to know when you are conquered. If you and your corner don't have the sense to know that, I do. The last thing you want is to have a boxer seriously injured, or killed."
Tom is the chief of officials for all of the college boxing in the United States. For six or seven years he also ran the Junior Olympic program. Thirty-seven colleges have boxing.
The best fighter Tom ever refereed was Floyd Mayweather. He referreed his matches about 20 times between the time Mayweather was age 8 and the time he went to the Olympics. When asked what makes Mayweather a great fighter, Tom replied, "Pedigree is a big thing. His father was a good fighter and his uncle might even have been a world champion. Floyd's boxing IQ is literally through the roof. He sees things that other people don't see. He is like the Michael Jordon of boxing. He is a very good athlete. He is the real deal."
Tom, being Irish, said the matches he enjoyed refereeing the most were in the National Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. He commented, "That stadium is the only stadium in the world built just for boxing. Our U.S. Olympic team was fighting their Olympic team and there were 4,000 people there in 2008. It was the closest I ever wanted to come to working an Olympic bout, and me being Irish didn't hurt any either."
When asked what makes a referee a good referee, Tom explained, "It is like a certain instinct you have. It is a God given gift that you see things almost before they happen. It is like a good basketball referee that has the ability to make that quick call. In boxing it is the same thing.
"I can't describe it. It is just a certain presence you have in the ring. I can't teach it. When you get in the ring, people have to know you are in charge. Some people have it and some people don't. You can teach a guy rules but you can't teach them to have a certain presence. There is a certain thing you do with your hands, how you walk in the ring and how you address the boxers. This is a contact sport that can be a very violent sport. When I get in the ring, I have to establish that I am in charge.
"When I get in the ring, I have to believe I am the best referee in the world. If you don't have that and you go into a place in a foreign country and there are 10,000-12,000 people, they will eat you alive."
The most hostile environment Tom every worked in was the Soviet Union, but a close second and third was Mexico and Puerto Rico. Tom said, "You cannot even begin to believe how bad they want to beat the Americans. They are on you and screaming from the time you get in that ring until the time you get out. Every call you make they are on you like a wet t-shirt."
Tom has refereed boxing for 30 year. He has worked on five continents –Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. He has worked in at least 15 different countries, refereeing over 5,000 boxing matches and judging over 8,000 others, but the thing he is most proud of is the thousands of hours he has volunteered working with youth from around the world who are interested in boxing.