Posted by George Hanson., Jr Esq. on Oct 10, 2011
Third Woman in the Ring—Sparkle Lee!

Third Woman in the Ring—Sparkle Lee!

In her 1987 book On Boxing, a collection of essays on the sweet science, Pulitzer Prize winning American author and Princeton University professor, Joyce Carol Oates said, “the third man in the ring makes boxing possible.” Oates was commenting on the necessity and importance of the ever-present mediator and facilitator of the squared circle—the referee. Today, Oates commentary seems somewhat draconian not because the referee’s role has diminished, but because of the gender bias of her insight. Revised in 1994, hopefully a third revision is forthcoming since many of the participants who are in the punch-for-pay ranks shares the same gender as our scholarly author. And 100 years from now, this article will be the subject of many debates because what I am about to say will be consensus – when it is all said and done, Sparkle Lee will be the one of the greatest referees that ever lived. And yes, on numerous occasions she is the third woman in the ring—having refereed 18 professional bouts in which the pugilists were women.

Referee Sparkle Lee in action.

“In 1982 I began training at Gleason Gym in order to stay fit,” stated Lee. Bruce Silverglade ran the gym and he had all the women learning the sweet science on Wednesdays. Not satisfied with just working out, Lee competed in the famous Gleason White Collar Boxing tournament, which pitted everyday citizens from all walks of life who wanted to get their slice of the sweet science pie. It wasn’t uncommon to witness laborers, bus drivers, doctors, lawyers and Wall Street bankers swapping punches with each other. Lee intimated that she could have been a professional fighter. However, her budding boxing career was brought to a halt as she joined the New York City police department in 1987 and was unable to make the requisite time commitment to train properly.

Unlike many pugilistic scribes, I am just as interested in the undercard as I am in the main event. Thus, I sat in the balcony at Madison Square Garden on November 8, 2008 as Lee worked the eight-rounder between middleweights Daniel “The Haitian Sensation” Edouard and Alphonso Williams—a preliminary bout before Roy Jones Jr. and Joe Calzaghe did business.  The bout was entertaining, however, I was mesmerized by the beautiful, tiny lady who moved with the alacrity and grace of a ballerina breaking the combatants and maintaining order. I had heard about Referee Sparkle Lee, but this was my first time watching her at work.  Never since Larry Hazzard, undoubtedly one of the greatest referees, was I so impressed with the footwork and the manner in which a referee “disappeared,” but was present to break the fighters or warn against infractions.  Edouard won a unanimous decision and I became a fan of Lee.

A lifelong resident of Harlem New York, Sparkle Lee grew up in a household with her nine brothers and six sisters—one of them her identical twin, Star. Lee readily admitted that being a member of such a large family honed her ability to negotiate, build consensus and put people at ease. “I learned how to deal with folks.”  Her mother, Vivian Lee, who is still alive and doing well, made sure that the word of God resonated in the Lee household—their faith was a binding force.

In 1983 she became a judge for USA Boxing, the governing body for amateur boxing in the United States. Lee enjoyed her duties but somehow wanted to be in the ring and in 1990 she got her wish as she became a referee. No surprise that in 1998 she was the first woman to referee the New York City Golden Gloves. Learning her craft and fulfilling the desire to be closer to the action, she worked diligently and climbed the next rung on the pugilism ladder in 2001—Lee broke new ground as the first woman in New York State to be granted a professional boxing referee’s license. She was on her way!

“I love boxing—the technique—the art-form” admits Lee. In the early 80s she would catch the bus from New York to Atlantic City to watch the fights. A disciple of the sweet science she was impressed with the work of Referee Larry Hazard, who later became the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board’s Boxing Commissioner. “I loved his footwork!” It is ironic that the man she watched was the one to grant her a referee’s license—Lee is New Jersey’s first ever female professional boxing referee.

“I am always praying, asking God to help in making sure everyone goes home safe.”  Lee cannot stay in one place while in the ring. The diminutive referee is perpetual motion, moving surreptitiously like she was gliding on rice paper without wrinkling it to be in position to catch everything. She pays homage to Referee Benny Estevez Jr. who “took me under his wings when I was refereeing in the amateurs.” There is no hiding that Lee has learned much from the distinguished Estevez, who is poetry in motion almost like a matador in the bull rings of Andalusia, Spain.

Lee is confident that she would have been a good professional boxer. Since she was unable to fulfill her goal she has lived vicariously through the success of her favorite fighter of all time—former middleweight champion, Marvelous Marvin Haggler who dominated the division from 1980-1987. “I love Haggler because he fought with his heart, if I meet him – it would be a dream that became reality.” Having been in the presence of the late Alexis Argüelles, Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran, it is only a matter of time before Lee comes face to face with the once menacing bald-pated fighter who wreaked havoc on his opponents and was the consummate professional.

Retired from the New York Police Department since 2007, it is hard to believe that the youthful-looking Lee is a grandmother with three children: son, Jimmie age 32; daughter, Sparkle age 31 and daughter, Coco age 23. When she is not occupied with her two grandkids, she volunteers at her church and the schools in the Harlem community mentoring and counseling young people.

It is amazing that she still finds time to pursue her passion in the squared circle. I guess there is a synergy in working with young people—it helps her to continue defying father time as she is filled with more energy than a person half her age.

Since time is making its noble presence felt upon me, I have to again mount my soapbox and prognosticate with reasonable accuracy that Sparkle Lee will be regarded as one of the greatest referees in history.  I remember watching the 1996 Olympics and believing that bronze-medalist Floyd May weather Jr. was going to be a great boxer. I had that same feeling as I sat in the balcony of Madison Square Garden on November 8, 2008. Wouldn’t it be glorious when May weather fights Pacquiao in 2012 to have Lee there as the referee!  Call me Nostradamus.

Continue to support the sweet science, and remember, always carry your mouthpiece!

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About George Hanson., Jr Esq.

George Hanson., Jr Esq. has written 106 post in this blog.

Hailing from New Forest, Jamaica, Hanson started boxing as a teenager in Philadelphia under the tutelage of former welterweight contender, Dick Turner. He excelled, capturing four Pennsylvania State Amateur Championships—his last while a junior at Drexel University studying Accounting. According to most who have seen Hanson fight, “He is the best fighter never to have turned professional.”



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