Good things come to those who wait? Patience is a virtue? Choose an adage. But each describes a personality trait of the once and current chief commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, which oversees professional boxing and MMA in the Garden State.
The 70-year-old Larry Hazzard Sr., who looks and carries himself much younger than his years, is a life-long New Jerseyan, born and raised in Newark. Reinstated as the commissioner back in September, he had held the same position from 1986 to 2007, when insider politics caused him to leave the department. Contrary to some rumors, he says he was not fired. “I left because it was the right thing to do at the time. I had options available to me at the time.” Yes, but at the same time he did hire noted Philadelphia lawyer James J. Binns to plead his case for reinstatement.
Thankfully he had a safety net. Tenure in the state pension plan eased the landing. “I had those years plus another 14 in the state education system.” Indeed, Hazzard, a graduate of Montclair State College, had worked as both a principal as well as a physical education instructor in various public high schools. His expertise quickly landed him a position with the East Orange-based IBF (International Boxing Federation), one of the major alphabet governing bodies that control, if you will, “world” champions in various weight classes. And in 2012, he was asked by NBC Sports Network to come on board as their ringside “third man” for scoring and rules interpretation for their cable outlet boxing series.
Hazzard, the father of three and grandpop to seven, jumped right into adulthood, often working two jobs, one of which was employment at the infamous Willowbrook State Hospital on Staten Island. “I was an aid, but I quickly saw the indifferent ways patients were being treated, so I left, when I realized there was little I could do.” Soon after, the Geraldo Rivera exposé broke the maltreatment of clients at the facility wide open.
He soon decided that manual labor, as rewarding financially as some jobs might be, was not his life’s ambition. Six years after graduating from Central High School, he enrolled in college, and eventually received his degree.
From his young days as a Golden Gloves champion, he always kept his foot, if you will, in combat sports. By the age of 30 he was an amateur boxing referee, and excelled to the point that he was granted a professional license. “My first job as third man in the ring came in September of 1978, and within a short time, I had made my way to main event status in meaningful contests.”
His own breakthrough came just as casinos were starting to blossom in the once-moribund ghost town of Atlantic City. By the early 1980’s, the sweet science had its own awakening along the boardwalk. From 1981 to 1984, an average of two shows per week took place, and being a referee was turning out to be a busy profession. The newly minted gambling halls sought national exposure and welcomed the opportunity for publicity. With major promoters and television networks flowing into town, Hazzard quickly became the go-to third man. His work in both the Sean O’Grady-Hilmer Kenty title fight in 1981, as well as the 1983 light-heavyweight unification bout between Michael Spinks and Dwight “The Camden Buzzsaw” Braxton at Convention Hall, was as smooth as glass. His excellent physical condition allowed him to sweep around the ring and never be out of position. His self-confidence was evident when he once refused to back down from a verbal barrage from a fired-up Howard Cosell.
His third man artistry would later bring him to Hollywood. In the film Ali, starring Will Smith, he played the part of Ali’s mentor, Zack Clayton, who refereed the Ali-Foreman bout. By the time he left the ring for a suit and tie position, he was regarded by most as “the” referee on the east coast. His high marks for thoroughness led to his ascendance to the chair of state commissioner.
In 1986, he left his bowtie and fitted stripped shirt behind, and was sworn in as commissioner with an office in the state capitol. Looking like he was raised in a Brooks Brothers men’s store, his meticulous, sumptuous wardrobe is a signature part of his vitality. Hazzard has mastered the art of natty attire, be it business or leisure cool. His straight arrow stance, eloquent baritone and stately, somewhat standoffish manner, often left some uneasy in his presence. “I wasn’t there to necessarily win friends. Sure, I was looking for respect, but I had a job to do, and I had to be true to my own beliefs.”
His skills as an administrator are first class. Dave Weinberg, the longtime boxing—and Eagles—beat reporter for The Atlantic City Press, feels that Larry is “the top boxing commissioner in the country. He is not afraid to take risks, such as reintroducing instant replay upon his return. I know he can rub some people the wrong way because of his strong personality, but he has always treated me with the utmost respect.”
A second endorsement came from Kathy Duva, the CEO of Main Events, Inc., the major promoter in the state. “We are fortunate to have him back in New Jersey. He is knowledgeable and decisive, and loves the sport and cares deeply about the fighters. You can’t ask for any more than that.”
With his reinstatement by Governor Christie, Hazzard is back where he belongs. “It’s like I never left,” he said during our interview in his cramped office on the second floor of the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex. “This is home. Everything has fallen into place. I plan to be here forever.”
He will also be in The International Boxing Hall of Fame forever. Enshrined in the Non-Participant category in 2010 for his longtime contributions to the sport as both a referee and administrator, his plaque dons the walls of the Canastota, New York building, alongside such greats as Dempsey, Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson. “When they called me about the honor, my pulse increased and I got nervous. And I am not a guy that people usually associate with being nervous.” Nervous? Maybe then, and when he said the “I do” to the preacher, but otherwise the unflappable Larry Hazzard, Sr. is a gentleman in full ownership of his commitment to his profession.
Though boxing has been marginalized as a kiosk sport, is does not mean that his job is any less impactful. “We are dealing with the livelihood of the boxers, as well as their safety. I do not take that lightly regardless of the frequency of the events or their magnitude.”
Photo Ray Bailey