Bernard Fernandez: Local boxing judge owes much to sport that has taken him around the world

Posted: November 23, 2010

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE now, but John Stewart's long involvement in boxing nearly ended before it began.

He was just a kid dreaming of becoming a champion someday when he showed up at the Police Athletic League gym at 23rd and Columbia in North Philadelphia so many years ago. An instructor laced the gloves on, shoved him into the ring to spar with another newcomer and . . .

"I got hit so hard, tears came out of my eyes and I gave up the sport on the spot," Stewart recalled with a laugh.

Stewart is 67 now, but he never really lost his love of boxing. It just assumed a different form. He began judging amateur bouts in the early 1960s and moved up to the pros in 1978, the launch of a career that, to my count after researching boxrec.com, has had the Lawnside, N.J., resident working nearly 600 bouts in the United States and 15 foreign countries. He was at ringside Saturday night officiating his 102nd world title fight, in which WBC middleweight champion Sergio Martinez starched Paul Williams on a second-round knockout in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall.

"It was right up there" with some of the most sudden, emphatic finishes he's ever witnessed," Stewart said of Martinez' crushing overhand left that turned out the lights on Williams. It's an opinion that carries considerable weight when you consider Stewart was a judge at five Mike Tyson bouts that all concluded inside the distance, including his 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks on June 27, 1988, in Boardwalk Hall.

"The atmosphere was electrifying," he said of a night when he didn't even have to use his pencil. "I don't know if any other fight I did really compares to it.

"What a lot of people don't remember is that it took longer for the fighters to come out of their dressing rooms than for the fight to take place. There was some kind of dispute over who would be introduced last. They had to go in there to nearly drag out Mike, as I recall."

Stewart's day job, so to speak, is as the owner of a South Jersey limousine service, but a stretch limo can only take somebody from here to there. Boxing has carried Stewart to Germany, Russia, Italy, Hungary, England, Mexico, Wales, France, South Africa, Sicily, Thailand, Spain, Denmark, Puerto Rico and Israel.

After enjoying Thanksgiving with his family - second wife Jasmien and daughters Renee Stewart, Phaedra Hickson and Dawn Rivera - Stewart boards another jet plane on Nov. 30 for his second trip to Beijing, where he will conduct a clinic on judging with Chinese boxing officials. He was also there in 2008, on a similar mission before that year's Beijing Olympics.

This time, though, Stewart figures he'll spend most, if not all, of his free time in his hotel room, catching up on some much-needed rest. Besides, he's already seen the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

"I usually go in about 3 days early, enough time to look around and see some of the sights," he said of his travels. "After a while, though, the tourist thing got a bit repetitious. If I'm going someplace for the second or third time, I've probably seen a lot of what I would have wanted to, anyway."

But some memories can last a lifetime, even if you pass that way only once. Like the time Stewart visited the South African prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, or the notorious Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

"Historical sites have always interested me," Stewart said.

His globe-trotting is mostly a solo thing now, with Jasmien - ironically, a flight attendant - having had her fill of additional delayed flights, customs clearances and security-area pat-downs.

"She used to enjoying going with me on certain trips," Stewart said of his wife of 15 years. "When we first got married, she went with me a lot. Then she said, 'OK, that's it.' I can't say I blame her.

"It still seems strange to me, even after all I've done. I'm just a little city boy who had never been outside of North Philly until I got into boxing. Look, I owe boxing. Boxing has been very good to me. I've been able to travel the world because of boxing. But I've gone through three passport books and I don't know how many visas. Sometimes it's nice to just stay close to home."

For all his adventures abroad, Atlantic City - about a 45-minute drive from his residence - remains Stewart's most-visited fight site. Martinez-Williams II was his 361st bout there, and 50th in Boardwalk Hall, as best as I can determine. He's been at ringside in A.C. working bouts involving the storied likes of Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Lennox Lewis, Pernell Whitaker, Arturo Gatti, Meldrick Taylor and James Toney.

Stewart recently was named director of officials for the Combative Sports Federation, a start-up operation headed by president Larry Hazzard, the former executive director of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board, and vice president Marian Muhammad, the ex-president of the IBF.

"Larry and I go back a long way," Stewart said. "He was a referee and I was a judge. We'd go places together. But this goes beyond friendship. We respect one another. He wouldn't have asked me to do this if he didn't think I was capable of doing the job." *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com

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