Richard Steele Speaks to Doghouse Boxing: “It feels great to be back!”
Interview by Sean Newman (May 29, 2005)
It’s funny, isn’t it, how a person can do all the good in the world, but the world will remember and define them primarily on the basis of one instance, a snapshot in their lives? Though not exclusive by any means to the sport, boxing has more than its share of examples. Roberto Duran was quite possibly the greatest lightweight to walk the planet, yet if asked to relate the greatest memory of him, most fans will say it was the “No Mas” fight against Sugar Ray Leonard that instantly comes to mind. Never mind the fact that Duran would go on to many more good wins and never quit again, the damage to his reputation, and even his legacy to some extent, was irreparable. No matter how humble and meek Mike Tyson may seem now, he could give the earnings from the rest of his career to various charities and discover a cure for cancer, but he’ll always be the ear-biting rapist.
Richard Steele and Mike Tyson
These are extreme examples. They involve mistakes, bad judgments, and in Tyson’s case, even crimes. But what if you are vilified for a decision you made in a split second, and one that you consider justified and stick by? Would that be fair? Such is the predicament of one of boxing’s greatest referees, Richard Steele.
Steele has been involved with boxing for over 40 years, dating back to the time when he was a member of United States Marine Corps boxing team. There, he was a teammate of Ken Norton and compiled an amateur record of 21-4, winning two All Marine Corps tournaments and competing in the 1964 Olympic Trials along the way. He went professional and racked up 16 wins against 4 losses, knocking out 12 of his opponents before he retired.
Steele began refereeing fights soon after that, beginning in the 1970’s, and has been the third man in the ring in such memorable fights as Pryor-Arguello II, Hagler-Hearns, Leonard-Hagler, and of course, the one everyone remembers him for, the first fight between Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor. As everyone who knows anything about boxing remembers, Taylor was well on his way to handing a living legend his first career loss when Chavez suddenly dropped him hard with a right hand with just seconds remaining in the fight. Taylor pulled himself up, looked over to his corner and failed to respond to Steele, who then stopped the fight with just two seconds remaining. In the aftermath, many fans, with the exception of those backing Chavez, were irate. Things would only get worse when Steele intervened, prematurely in the minds of most, in the first fight between Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock one year later. They haven’t let Steele live down the Chavez-Taylor fight since, voicing their displeasure with him each time he is introduced.
The boos from fans have lessened over the years, especially since Steele came back from retirement to begin refereeing big time boxing again. Those that remain are likely the result of ignorance, something one does at a sporting event without even knowing particularly why their doing it, like “the wave.” The simple fact is, whether one feels that the stoppage was appropriate or not, Steele was acting in the best interests of Meldrick Taylor. Steele had proved himself long before that night as one of the best referees in the sport’s history, and he has reaffirmed that status on many nights since. He is, without question, one of the best ever, and THAT is how he should be defined and some day remembered, not simply by a decision he made on some long dead night 15 years ago.
Richard Steele spoke recently with Doghouse Boxing, and here is what he had to say.
SN: First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your return to boxing. It’s great to see you back. How does it feel?
RS: Thank you, it feels great. It really feels great. I know now how much I missed it after returning. It feels great to be back doing what I know that I can do, and it feels great to hear so many people stating that they are glad to have me back.
SN: Since you’ve been back, do you feel that you have gotten a warmer reception from the crowds than you have in the recent past, or has everything remained pretty much the same?
RS: The fans have been warmer. The critics of the Taylor-Chavez fight have either forgotten about it, or have realized that it was the right call. But, it’s been a much warmer reception on the way back.
SN: Going back in time, you boxed while serving in the United States Marine Corps. Tell me, how long did you serve, and what was that experience like for you?
RS: Well, the United States Marine Corps was a five year active duty for me, because I got extended due to the Vietnam War. It was a period of my life that really taught me what a man really is. I went in as a seventeen year old who thought he knew everything, and the Marine Corps taught me that I didn’t know everything. It taught me what I thought I knew better, and it taught me to apply myself and how to be a man. As a matter of fact, it taught me how much education meant. While I was there, I knew I had to go back to school and finish, to finish high school and go to college. It taught me the importance of education, of being a person who is dedicated to a cause. The Marine Corps means a lot to me, and it meant a lot to me in becoming the person I am today.
SN: Ken Norton was one of your teammates on the Marines’ boxing team. How was your relationship with him?
RS: We had a good relationship. As a matter of fact, we met in the All Marine Corps Championship in North Carolina, and I was representing the West Coast, and he was representing the East Coast. He was a heavyweight and I was a middleweight. We both won and we were both All Marine Corps Champions in our respective weight divisions and we represented the United States Marine Corps in the All Service Armed Forces Tournament. From there, we flew to Seattle, Washington to fight in the tournament. And Ken stayed on the West Coast, so we were always together from that point on, and became very close, good friends. I got out six months before he did, and my trainer was Eddie Futch, who became Ken’s trainer. So we were always on the same amateur team together, and we ended up on the same professional team. So we spent a lot of time together.
SN: You had a 16-4 professional record as a boxer. What are some of your memorable moments of that time?
RS: It was tough in the years I was fighting. You even had four and six rounders that were grueling matches. There were no hand-picked fights in those days and you had to fight your way to the top. So every match was a grueling, tough match. So, my memories are that every fight I ever had was tough! (laughs) It made me the fighter I was. Some people thought I was pretty good, I had a very strong punch. My first ten fights, I think I had eight knockouts, so I was very strong. I learned something later on that strength alone would not take you to the top, you have to have more than strength because some guys you are not going to be able to knock out. I learned that you have to have some boxing ability at the same time as you apply your natural strength. You have to know how to box as much as you know how to punch.
SN: How did you come into refereeing?
RS: I had several injuries. I kept getting my ribs broken. They broke the first time with a guy named Johnny Featherman from Arizona. He was a heavyweight, and I chose to fight him at 175 and he was like 220. My ribs healed, but I went back to the gym, and I was sparring with Ken Norton and he broke them another time in the gym with the big gloves. Then another heavyweight, Scrap Iron Johnson, cracked them again after the second time they healed. So I just realized that I had a weak spot in my ribs and it would be best to retire, and the Athletic Commission came up with the idea of becoming a referee.
SN: Was it a difficult road for you to travel to rise to the top as a referee? Also, for aspiring referees, what does it take to get there as you did?
RS: It wasn’t that hard, because I was very dedicated. It was hard mentally, to stay focused, to keep pushing myself to be better and practice. A lot of people think that once you get the license, you have it made, but a good referee must practice his craft every day. You can’t just be a weekend referee. You have to go to the gym and practice in sparring. You never know when an incident might happen, so you have to be ready for that. There are a lot of things that happen in the gym during sparring sessions that will prepare you for when it happens in the ring, in a real fight, and you’ve seen it, you’ve handled it before, and you know what to do. So I tell all young referees that you can’t be a weekend referee, you have to work at you craft each and every week, at least three to four times a week, and you definitely have to be in top physical condition. In other words, you have to work out. I still run two miles a day, at least, three to four times a week. You have to be in shape, and more than that, when your heart starts pumping, you have to be able to maintain calmness. You have to be able to not get rattled to where you can make a mistake. You have to learn to be calm in there, and you have to work out hard, so that when you get tired you can handle something. Because anybody can handle something when they’re fresh, but what are you going to do when you’re tired?
SN: You’ve been involved in many high-profile fights, such as Arguello-Pryor II, Hearns-Hagler, Leonard-Hagler, etc. Which one out of all of those was the most thrilling for you to watch as a fan?
RS: The ones that stick out are Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, and, believe it or not, the Meldrick Taylor-Julio Cesar Chavez fight. I love to watch that. I think it was one helluva fight.
SN: What has been the most difficult fight for you to referee, both physically and mentally?
RS: That would definitely have to be the fight between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. It only lasted three rounds, but physically and mentally, I had to do so much. I never got more tired in one round in thirty years of refereeing than I did in that first round. There were so many punches, and so much action, that I’ll never forget it.
SN: A recent article in World Boxing magazine on Kenny Bayless describes you as a mentor of sorts to Bayless. Bayless, as we know, is now one of the top referees in the world. What is your association with Kenny, how did that begin, and do you take pride in his accomplishments?
RS: My association with him is that we are, first of all, very close friends. Second of all, we are colleagues. Third, I feel very honored that he came to me to help him to get his skill level where it is today, which is at the top. He’s at the top of his game, and to be able to associate myself with a top young referee, I’m very fortunate, and I feel very honored. Kenny has really proven himself, and it’s a great feeling to see a guy that you helped start, to be able to do some of the top fights.
SN: You’ve touched on this in passing, and I know this is a topic that has plagued you for more than 15 years, the Chavez-Taylor fight. There are few, if any, questions left to ask. Obviously, you’re not a timekeeper, and your attention was on Meldrick Taylor’s fitness to continue. My question is, would you have still stopped the fight if you had noticed the blinking light on the top of the corner post?
RS: Yes. Yes, because of the simple fact that it was Chavez’s job to get Meldrick Taylor in that condition. And once a person is in that condition where he cannot react or protect himself, the fight is over. It’s just that simple. If I had been looking at the clock to see how much time was left, I would have been cheating for the other guy. I would have been cheating. You can’t look at the clock and think, “Oh, well there’s enough time left to let the guy go on so he can win.” That’s cheating. The time element should never play a part in your decision-making, because you’re favoring one guy over the other if you do that. Chavez’s job was to get Taylor in the state where he could not respond, hold his hands up, or even hold himself up. Once a fighter is in that helpless condition, he is unable to defend himself. Once a fighter cannot defend himself, the fight is over. Period. Because that is the object of the game, to get your opponent in that condition. Once I determined that the fighter could not defend himself and was helpless, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if it was two seconds left in the first round, or two seconds left in the last round, once the fighter is in that condition, the fight is over.
SN: The boos from fans before every fight since must have been tough to deal with.
RS: It’s always tough. I just pray to God to give me strength to know that I made the right call. Never in my career have I had doctors calling me and telling me what kind of condition a young man was in. Taylor was close to death. I had doctors calling me to tell me that he was in the hospital and he was in a real bad state, and it really hurt me to see him in that state. It really hurts me to see him in that condition because of that one fight. He was a great fighter, he was a gold medal winner, and for one fight to put him like he is today, that’s a shame.
SN: That leads in to my next question. You have undoubtedly watched the HBO Legendary Nights show on that fight for which you were interviewed. Do you think Taylor is the tragic figure that he was portrayed as in that documentary? Is he really that bad?
RS: Yes, he is, he really is. Before that fight, he was a great fighter. He had hand speed, he had movement, he had everything, but that one fight just crushed him. That one fight just beat the life out of him. It beat him so bad that it took all of his skill away. If there was any way that I could have known the condition that he would be left in, I would have stopped that fight earlier.
SN: Dumb question: Do you feel that you were unfairly ridiculed for your decisions to stop the fights in Chavez-Taylor I and Tyson-Ruddock I?
RS: Oh, sure. Definitely. These people (who criticize) have no sense of a human being’s life. The simple fact is, that you have a guy whose life is ruined because of that fight. And Razor Ruddock, he’s been down twice…I mean, does a fighter have to be lying in a prone position, kicking for his life before they get enough? Does a fighter have to be put on a stretcher, and on life support, before the fans get enough? Or see enough? Or feel that they got their money’s worth? I don’t think so. I think that we as humans have really lost the sense of sportsmanlike conduct.
SN: Did the boos that followed those fights ever affect you in any way?
RS: Well, you know, I feel them…they hurt. Nobody likes to go through that. But, at the same time, it allows me to know what kind of people we are.
SN: Okay, I’ll give you a break from all that. (laughs) You retired in 2001 to pursue promoting. What made you decide to come back as a referee?
RS: The promoting thing is something I wanted to do and I found out it really wasn’t my cup of tea. What really made me realize that was when I was asked to go to Bangkok, Thailand to do a seminar. There were 134 guys who wanted to become a referee there and other countries surrounding, and I gave them a week seminar. And teaching them how to referee just opened my eyes and my heart to understand that this is where I belong, this is what I like, this is what I can do the best. So that’s what made me come back.
SN: How long do you plan to continue as a referee?
RS: I’m going to continue until I get to the point where I can’t do it anymore.
SN: There was just a small amount of controversy over referee Tony Weeks’ decision to stop the fight between Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo when he did. Do you think that fight was stopped appropriately?
RS: I think, I don’t only think, I know, that Tony Weeks did a wonderful job. Tony Weeks doesn’t have seconds to think about what he should do, he doesn’t have an instant replay. He acts as a referee must act at the time when the action is going on. You don’t have time to inquire, you have to act accordingly to the circumstances, and Tony Weeks did just that. And I’m so proud of him. He did a marvelous job. He did everything by the book. The people who say that it was stopped too soon, they’re not reading that book. He did everything that the Athletic Commission said he should do.
SN: Please talk about some of the work you do with the Salvation Army.
RS: I helped the Salvation Army to put a boxing club, which is a non-profit organization, in Denver, Colorado with Ron Lyle, the former heavyweight contender. I, along with Ron, helped them to establish the rules and regulations. And we’re hoping to be able to come to Las Vegas and put another sports center here. So, I’ve been working with them, and Major William Raihl, who is in charge of the Salvation Army in Las Vegas, towards that goal. They’re really great people and we really need them here in Las Vegas.
SN: Last question. How did it feel for you to be honored by Nelson Mandela back in 1999 for refusing to referee fights in South Africa while it was under the apartheid regime?
RS: It was certainly an honor, and a feeling that I’ll never forget. It’s something that will always be with me. He is one of the greatest persons I’ve ever met, I ever spoke to, or shook hands with. He is a great human being in not only what he says, but what he does. He doesn’t just talk it, he walks it. I’ve had the honor to meet him, shake his hand, hug him, and talk intimately with him, and he told me certain things that will stick with me for the rest of my life. He’s a real humanitarian who loves everyone.
SN: Is there anything you’d like to add in closing, Mr. Steele?
RS: I have a boxing club for kids, and I want to say that boxing has been one of the highlights of my life. I try to show how much boxing has done for me to the young people of Las Vegas and the young people all over the world. We are working with the Salvation Army and other groups to build more boxing facilities that young people, boys and girls alike, can come to in order to learn the art of boxing and self-defense, and just to get in physical condition. Boxing will teach you how to say no, how to make good decisions, how to walk away from trouble, boxing does all of that. That’s what it did for me, and that’s what it will do for anyone who will apply the rules and the discipline of boxing to their life. It’s a wonderful sport that I hope everyone can experience, if nothing more than for a workout that will help you lose the weight that you want to lose.
Writer’s Note: If you are interested in learning more about Richard Steele or are interested in helping with his noble efforts with the Salvation Army and his boxing club, please visit www.steeleboxing.com. Donations can be made to Steele’s boxing club, a non-profit organization, at The Richard Steele Boxing Club c/o Richard Steele, 2438 Antler Point Dr., Henderson, Nevada 89074. I would like to personally thank Mr. Steele once again for allowing me ample time to record his very honest thoughts, and commend him for being the fine referee, and above all, human being that he is. Thanks, Mr. Steele.
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