Sports referees are subject to a well-known conundrum: the best referees should almost always be the ones we notice least. And no high-profile referee does a better job of going unnoticed than Kenny Bayless, who will be refereeing tomorrow's Manny Pacquiao vs. Shane Mosley bout.
When I began to write this article, I tried to think of memorable Kenny Bayless moments. There aren't any. I remember he refereed one of the first pay per views I ordered, although I didn't remember which one (it turned out to be Pacquiao-Hatton).
He has also refereed dozens of other high profile fights: Oscar De La Hoya vs. Bernard Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr. vs. Antonio Tarver I, Miguel Cotto vs. Antonio Margarito, Shane Mosley vs. Fernando Vargas I, Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. And he has been a fixture throughout Pacquiao's career as a star, overseeing fights with Hatton, Marquez, Morales and Cotto.
Bayless gives clear, simple, precise instructions without interrupting the flow of the fight. He is always close to where the action is, and will often just provide hand signals without needing to raise his voice or chastise the fighter. Usually, they get the idea. He'll raise and point to his elbow to warn of elbowing. If he points to his right elbow, it's the guy on his right who should be on notice, and vice versa. He'll warn of pushing with a simple arm gesture. When he breaks up fighters, it's gentle and swift, and he'll let the action resume immediately.
Kenny Bayless is one of the most popular refs in the business for the simple reason that he lets the fight run smoothly, much like two of my other favorite refs: Jay Nady and Steve Smoger. He is definitely no Joe Cortez (whom I consider the biggest buffoon in boxing), who constantly likes to inject his large personality and ham-handed refereeing into the action. And he is not Arthur Mercante, Jr., whom I respect for his precise, assertive calls, but who can also be a bit too fan-focused, as seen in the Cotto-Foreman fight.
And he's not his brother, Kermit Bayless, who had the unfortunate distinction of having the first title fight he judged be a high-profile one (Shane Mosley vs. Sergio Mora) that he is widely believed to have judged incorrectly: he had the lackluster Mora beating Mosley, leading to a draw that most thought Mosley deserved to win.
In fact, I can't even remember Bayless' voice, even though I know I've heard him give pre-fight instructions on dozens of occasions. Kenny Bayless is the kind of referee you notice when Michael Buffer announces his name, and then quickly fades into the background, becoming nothing more than a ring fixture that helps the fight proceed smoothly. That is what makes him great.