Triumph and tragedy - the amazing story of the Upwell boxing referee

An emotional nigh for Lee (far right) with Michael Walsh and his son Liam Picture: MARK HEWLETT

An emotional nigh for Lee (far right) with Michael Walsh and his son Liam Picture: MARK HEWLETT - Credit: Archant

Lee Cook has been ‘third man’ in the boxing ring more than 1,000 times – but it has been a tortuous road to becoming one of the sport’s most recognisable men. Chris Lakey found out more.

Iain Martell's hands in rased in victory by referee Lee Cook Picture: MARK HEWLETT

Iain Martell's hands in rased in victory by referee Lee Cook Picture: MARK HEWLETT - Credit: Archant

Lee Cook has spent his career getting into fights.

His career is an A-Z of southern England's leading small hall venues, but he's had to overcome personal tragedy in order to raise the arms of fighting men in triumph.

The Upwell-based professional official achieved a career milestone in November when he refereed his 1,000th contest at The Halls in Norwich - in charge of Joe Steed's points win over Kristaps Zulgis.

'This has been a very special night for me,' said Cook, 'especially as it comes in the year when I turned 60 and I got married to a wonderful woman, Michele. It's been a brilliant year for me.'

Lee Cook in action. Picture: ARCHANT

Lee Cook in action. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

'I've had an affinity with Norfolk since a memorable fishing trip as a teenager and some of the most eventful moments in my career have been here. I felt drawn to the area for a long time and finally made the move to Upwell in October 2018, where I live a quiet life away from the excitement of the boxing arena.'

Cook is now the busiest professional boxing referee in the country, but at one time this would not have seemed possible due to an enforced break of eight years in his officiating career resulting from the recurrence of a childhood injury, something he was reminded of that night by the story of Norfolk boxing family, the Walshes.

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Between the scheduled contests of the night, Cromer-based boxer Michael Walsh took to the microphone to announce his intention to return to the ring, after an absence of nearly four years, while also raising money for the hospitals that had treated his 20-month old son, Liam, through numerous life-saving operations.

Cook was so moved by the story of this brave child, that he immediately gave the fees he had earned for that night's work back to the promoter to donate to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital and Great Ormond Street Hospital charities.

Lee Cook in the ring, who has been centre stage so many times. Picture: MARK HEWLETT

Lee Cook in the ring, who has been centre stage so many times. Picture: MARK HEWLETT - Credit: Archant

'It really touched me to hear the courageous story of this little boy and the efforts Michael had gone to in seeing his family through such difficult times,' he said.

Cook also pledged that, should he be appointed to referee the charity event on December 16, he would again donate his fees and expenses to the appeal. His wish was granted and, on an emotional night for all involved, he refereed Walsh, who quickly despatched Sean Davis, marking the Norfolk fighter's 12th consecutive win inside the distance. In all, Cook donated £450 to the Walsh's charitable funds.

After the show, Cook reflected on how his own life had been about overcoming setbacks and personal tragedy.

'Back in 1966, when I was seven years old, I found myself lying in a road after being hit by a van,' he recalled. 'I was left with an extremely mangled right leg and busted ankle, and spent two months alone in hospital, terrified that I was going to lose my leg.'

Lee Cook was referee as King's Lynn's Stevi Levy won her first professional fight, beating Bojana Li

Lee Cook was referee as King's Lynn's Stevi Levy won her first professional fight, beating Bojana Libiszewska Picture: MARK HEWLETT - Credit: Archant

Following numerous operations, his ankle eventually healed and Cook's childhood ambition of being involved in professional sport continued. But further accidents were to follow.

'When I was 12, I was stepping on to a cabin cruiser on the Thames when it blew up. I was thrown to the ground, but I was very lucky not to be badly hurt.'

At 14, he broke his left leg playing football and two years later, a motorcycle crash left him with facial wounds requiring 20 stitches.

However, it was not the accidents and misfortunes that gave him the greatest challenges in his young life, but dealing with an abusive father and disrupted family life which saw him moved around the country, moving schools nearly every year.

'I think I had a lot of anger built up because of repeated beatings by my father and watching my mother being mentally and physically abused on a regular basis,' he admitted.

To release this aggression, Cook took up boxing and became one of many troubled kids the sport has helped. Unfortunately, becoming a professional fighter was not to be for the ill-fated youngster - he was unable to pass a medical to apply for competition boxing as he was short-sighted.

'Some people regard that as the best qualification for being a referee,' he laughed.

Sadly, further trauma was on the cards for Cook when, on November 13, 1989, his younger brother was found dead at 21. The memory is still permanently etched in his mind over 30 years later.

'He was a young guy, full of life, suddenly taken and you always ask yourself why.'

Cook was devastated, but it was to be the catalyst to change his life. A few weeks later he applied to the British Boxing Board of Control to become a professional referee. Five years and nine months later, he finally received an interview to start his journey in professional sport.

Following 10 years developing his refereeing career, Cook was forced to retire in 2006 when the childhood accident caught up with him and his ankle became too painful to continue.

'To have to retire 18 years early was devastating.'

After an eventful 10 years officiating in 370 contests, he sought expert medical advice to resolve the ankle pain and two operations followed. Cook figured he would be back refereeing after about six months. It took nearly eight years.

Eventually, a nerve test in September 2014 seemed to have done the trick as his ankle began to get better.

'Having spent so many years unable to do simple things it was great at last to be able to do things so many people take for granted.'

Within two months, Cook was back refereeing in Norwich at the Mercy nightclub and the next month was upgraded to 'A' Class Referee and was back at the level he was when he'd had to retire.

In his first career from 1996-2006, Cook refereed some of Norfolk's champions, including two-time WBO world champion Herbie Hide, European light-heavyweight champion Danny McIntosh, European lightweight champion Jon Thaxton, British champion Sam Sexton and many other local boxers such as Steve Spartacus, Danny Smith, Jackson Williams and Earl Ling.

Cook travels all over the South of England, even as far as Plymouth.

In the near five years he has been back, he has officiated in 826 contests (704 as referee and 122 as a judge) which is double what he did in 10 years in his first career.

In his time back, Cook has officiated in more contests than any other professional referee in the country, which must be a modern record. His overall record is 1,060 fights as a referee and 136 as judge - a grand total, so far, of 1,196.

'It's been a long and convoluted road for me to finally reach 1,000 fights as a referee, but it's been all the more rewarding as it came almost 30 years to the day that my brother died and to have been able to play a small part in raising money for the Michael Walsh appeal meant a great deal to me,' he said.

'I would encourage anyone to not let setbacks or a troubled background hold you back - it's not where you've come from that counts, but what you've got inside. Resilience has been key, not only as a referee, but also in my life.'