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Holladay Journal

Utah’s first, only boxing woman referee ‘knows the ropes’

Aug 10, 2023 11:02AM ● By Julie Slama

As the only female and Latina boxing referee, Becky Suazo, who has served as a role model for others, indicates the winner of the bout. (Photo courtesy of Becky Suazo)

She’s Utah’s first and only woman boxing referee — and she’s about to step out of the ring.

Becky Suazo jumped into the ring 29 years ago, joining her brother, Pete, to officiate. She has officiated more than 4,000 bouts of amateur boxing ages 8 and older, locally to nationally. She served as a judge and timekeeper for the Olympic trials as well.

Suazo has refereed some of the big names of boxers in the state, watching them grow up in the ring. She also has refereed stars in the boxing world, such as Belinda Montoya, Darlene Chavez, Whitney Gomez and Ernie Flores, and judged two-time Olympic gold medalist and world champion Claressa Shields and world champion Andre Ward.

Her love of boxing began early. 

As two of the oldest children in a family of eight kids, her eldest brother — the former state senator — and she would watch boxing bouts locally and on television. Her brother also boxed as did other relatives.

“My dad only lost one bout,” Suazo remembered her father telling her. “He only was in one, too. He was much more into watching boxing than being in the ring.”

While Suazo never took to the ring, she, too, was a fighter — leaving an abusive first husband and fighting to gain custody of her six children and supporting them — in a time where it was uncommon to speak of domestic abuse. 

“My dad and Pete were there to support me when I was ready. I was scared because when I tried leaving before, my ex-husband would find me, drag me back and then he would just beat the hell out of me. It was frightening, but when I did it, I didn’t look back,” she said. “I picked up my life and moved on. It made me a strong woman.”

That included returning to school to get her high school diploma — “when I turned 30, I cried and cried because I hadn’t accomplished anything.” She continued to earn her associate degree in minority human services from Salt Lake Community College and her bachelor’s in sociology with a minor in women’s studies from the University of Utah.

Through every step, her brother was there to support her and her kids.

“He was a father figure to my kids, my nieces and nephews, all the kids. He would take them trick-or-treating, camping, be at their games,” she said. “He helped me find jobs and cheered me on in school.”

As a working professional, she started a preventative intervention for Hispanic youth and their families, advocated for mental health with minorities, coordinated volunteers at a family support center, and has managed a multicultural center.

She also has volunteered for the Utah AIDS Foundation, Planned Parenthood, Centro de la Familia, a peer court adviser, and has been a speaker for a rape crisis center and against domestic abuse.

“I’ve tried to be involved in the community as much as I can,” said the recipient of the 2009 Midvale Exchange Club’s Appreciation Award of Service to the Community. “Everything I did was for a reason, but I never knew why. I used to go into the welfare office when my kids were little to see what resources there were. Then, when I worked in the field, I could tell the parents to utilize the resources that I knew about firsthand.”

When her kids got older, she added boxing official to her volunteer list. Volunteering was a lesson she shared with her kids.

“I had them volunteer. I wanted them to give back, to be involved in the community,” she said. “I also passed along something my parents taught me — voting. I told them, ‘You don’t vote, you don’t have a say.’ I didn’t tell them how to vote, just to take the opportunity to vote.”

In fact, the first thing she did when she returned to the community after leaving her husband was to go to an event for Democratic leader Scott Matheson with her brother.

“Pete got me back involved,” she said, adding that when they were growing up, her parents had pictures of the Kennedys hung in their home. “I loved going to the election party headquarters and being there after the election, waiting for results.”

The two both registered voters and attended events; she has twice attended the National Democratic Convention. He entered the state legislature; she became a poll worker.

Pete Suazo served in that position, and as state chief of officials in boxing, until he died about 20 years ago when his ATV flipped.

“He was my mentor my whole life. I always looked up to him. He went to state wrestling (for West High School), and he was a jockey, racing horses. But our family always would go to boxing matches at the coliseum at the fairgrounds, so he got into it. (Longtime boxing trainer and coach) Tony Montoya got him into officiating in 1989,” she said. “When Pete died, he had just become an international official representing the United States.”

After his death, his sister, who had been officiating for about a decade, took over as chief of officials for the next six months.

“Pete got me into officiating, and I did it because it was fun, but I didn’t like being the chief,” she said. “I officiated the pros for about a year; It was a different atmosphere, and I didn’t feel the connection with the boxers like I did with the kids growing up.”

Suazo started as an official for two years before she entered the ring. She would check the boxers’ gloves, be a timekeeper or a judge, or she would score the bout — at first, scoring was done on her fingers, then with a clicker before it became computerized.

“I had to learn it all when I started. Before that, I could pick the winner, just from watching it all the years with my family and listening to it on the radio with my dad and grandfather, but I didn’t know all the rules. It was just a sport I loved,” she said.

In the gyms, she would watch referees in the rings and learn from them. 

“I wanted to start referring, but I was nervous. When Ray Silva, who then was the chief of officials for the country, came to do a clinic, Pete introduced me to him and told me, ‘This is your time,’” she said. 

She got into the ring and the approval from Silva. 

“He taught me to stand on my toes so it’s easier and faster to turn,” she said.

Her brother’s friends — Silva with USA Boxing and the National Olympic Committee, Angel Villarreal with USA Boxing, and professional referees Russell Mora and Mike Rosario — became her friends too. 

“We’re a boxing family and it truly is a family. The women I’ve met in boxing are amazing; we’re so close,” she said, adding that many of them not only supported her through the funeral of her brother and her daughter — even though she wasn’t a fan of the sport. “We officiate for the kids. You see them win and you see him lose and you see that they don’t give up. When they win, they have that glow. I want to see that excitement. When they’re older, many of them stay in the sport to coach or officiate.”

Her first bout she refereed was a local “smoker” in 1993.

“When I first started — for years and years and years — they always gave me the little kids, because ‘this is a man’s sport.’ I was OK with it because I loved the kids. I loved doing refereeing from the first time I ever stepped in the ring,” she said.

She also learned a lesson from her brother that first bout.

“I had their hands ready to announce the winner when I looked over at the other one who got hurt pretty bad and I said, ‘Are you OK, mi hijo (my son)?’ When I got out of the ring, Pete said ‘Don’t you ever call him that. He’s not your son. He’s a boxer,’” she said.

Suazo has seen officiating as well as the sport itself grow. Currently in the state, there are about 733 boxers and 26 officials in USA Boxing.

“When I started nationally, there were three other women referring. Now, there are hundreds nationwide,” she said. 

Women’s boxing also began to grow while she’s been officiating. Her first national tournament refereeing was the first women’s tournament in Atlanta in 1997.

“Two women from Utah became champions there,” she said. “I like refereeing women. They’re more disciplined, easier to read. You don’t have to stop them to pull them apart. They’re good boxers.”

Through the years of being in the ring — and only being grazed once by a fist — there has only been one call that had seemed controversial.

“I had a boxer who was a Florida state champion and he kept picking up the boxer and wrestling with him,” she said. “I kept giving him caution after caution. I told him, ‘You’re holding him; that’s why you’re getting the call.’ He didn’t stop. I gave him warning after warning and you can only give three warnings for disqualification. I disqualified him; he didn’t give me a choice. The coach jumped upon the ring and called me all kinds of names. I received an escort out of the ring and venue. When I checked out of my hotel and the person behind the desk said, ‘Oh, you’re the one who disqualified the boxer.’ There was even a news article about it because it was a qualifier and since he was disqualified, he couldn’t go to the Olympic trials. My supervisor said that I did the right call and that I had a ringside seat, the best seat in the house to see those boxers. I learned you just have to use your best judgment.”

Officiating didn’t come with compensation.

“I spent thousands. We pay our own way to officiate or judge. If you are amongst the best and were asked to officiate, you’d get some compensation — either travel or room and board. People give up their vacation to do this. That’s how committed people are to the sport,” she said. “My dad loved to travel with me. The last time he went to the U.S. championships with me, we gave an award in Pete’s name. I’ve done it every year since he died,” she said, adding that now there is a boxing gym, the state boxing commission, a business center, a U of U social work scholarship and street (a section of Redwood Road from North Temple to 2400 South) named after her brother. 

Suazo, who is a master national official and once designed the USA boxing patch worn on the officials’ white uniform, now teaches state clinics on how to officiate. She referees about five tournaments per year. After that, she will continue to officiate.

“I love timekeeping. I get to see the whole bout instead of just seeing the punches as a referee. Refereeing is my favorite job, but that’s just seeing not watching,” she said.

Before she steps out of the ring, she plans to work the National Junior & Youth Golden Gloves in August in Florida and the USA Boxing National Championships in December in Louisana.

“I’m the only woman referee in Utah, period. I’m the first. I’m the first Latina. When I leave there, we don’t have a woman who will step in and that’s the saddest part. There’s no one to pass the baton to, but I don’t want somebody just say what the hell is that old lady doing in there? I don’t want to be the one to get knocked down and have somebody give me an eight count,” she said. “When I think about it, I’ve held on to this longer than I have any other job and never got paid a dime. There’s something to be said about that. You do this because you love it.”