Boxing lost one of its best referees Friday when Earl Morton died after a battle with cancer at age 58.

Morton was regarded as one of the top refs used by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board for the bulk of his 23-year career in the ring.

"Earl was one of a very limited, select few of combat sports referees anywhere that I had the utmost comfort with, and confidence in," NJACB official and deputy attorney general Nicholas Lembo said Saturday morning in a phone interview. "His temperament was not affected by crowd noise or fight magnitude; and he moved fluidly and decisively in the ring with a keen eye."

Morton had all of the top qualities needed to excel in the profession - the quickness to keep up with smaller, faster fighters; the strength to step between heavyweights; and most importantly the concern for a fighter's well-being that can often mean the difference between a knockout loss and a tragedy.

He displayed those qualities on Nov. 20, 2011 at Bally's Atlantic City. Morton was in the ring for a fight between welterweights Ronald Cruz and Anges Adjaho. Morton stopped the bout with a few seconds remaining in the fifth round after Cruz had scored a knockdown and landed a flurry of punches.

"I gave (Adajho) the benefit of the doubt (after the knockdown)," Morton said that night. "But he went into his shell and didn't show me anything. Better to stop it one punch too early than one punch too late. His life is on me."

Morton had learned that lesson exactly 12 years earlier. On Nov. 20, 1999, Morton was the referee for a fight at Trump Taj Mahal between Paul Vaden and Stephan Johnson.

Johnson was winning the fight before Vaden landed a left hook that sent Johnson to the canvas. Morton immediately stopped the fight and gestured for ringside medical personnel to tend to Johnson. The fighter died 15 days later from brain injuries.

Johnson's mother, Ira Johnson, accused Morton and her son's corner of not acting fast enough, but then-NJACB commissioner Larry Hazzard quickly defended Morton.

"I thought the referee and everyone associated with the commission acted properly," Hazzard said in a 1999 interview with The Press. "I think Earl Morton should be commended for his actions."

Morton served as the third man in the ring during numerous bouts in Atlantic City. Most notably, he served as referee for the final two fights of the Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward triology in 2002-03, Bernard Hopkins' win over William Joppy in 2003, Floyd Mayweather's victory over Gatti in 2005 and Sergio Martinez's second-round knockout over Paul Williams in 2010. 

In 2008, he was scheduled to officiate the fight between Bernard Hopkins and Kelly Pavlik at Boardwalk Hall, but was replaced by Benjy Esteves after members of Pavlik's camp suggested Morton was friends with Hopkins. The accusation was later proved unfounded.

He got his start as a professional referee in 1989. He made his debut on April 22 of that year by working two undercard fights at the now defunct Trump Castle casino.

Morton's final bout was Somers Point middleweight Patrick Majewski's fifth-round TKO over Chris Fitzpatrick at Bally's Atlantic City on July 7, 2012.

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Member of The Press sports staff since 1986, currently in my 24th season as The Press Eagles' beat writer. Also cover boxing, MMA, golf, high school sports and everything else.