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Richard Steele's long road from at-risk youth in the streets of Los Angeles to the International Boxing Hall of Fame began, fittingly, with someone trying to give him a beating. Isn't that how it usually starts in boxing?
“It started as a joke,” the 70-year-old Steele recently recalled while discussing his rise from high-school dropout to one of the finest referees in boxing history. “I started boxing in the Marine Corps because my DI [‘drill instructor’ in boot camp at Camp Pendleton, the massive Marine Corps base outside San Diego] was trying to get me beat up.
“He put me in the ring with another platoon bad guy, and I ended up winning. After that, anytime somebody had someone who was supposed to be a problem, I was the company's guy [to fight him]. I didn't know how to box, but fighting was something that always came to me. I'd been fighting all my life.
“I knew how to fight. I just didn't know how to box. Fortunately, the guys they made me fight didn't know how to box, either.”
Soon enough Steele began to learn the art of boxing alongside a burly leatherneck named Ken Norton, who would go on to become Muhammad Ali's nemesis and the B-side of one of the greatest heavyweight title fights in history, his epic 15-round battle for the WBC title with Larry Holmes.
Steele was a quick study, becoming All-Marine Corps champion in 1963 and going on to the 1964 Olympic Trials, where he lost in the 165-pound division to eventual Olympian Jimmy Rosette of the Navy. It was a bittersweet moment for a kid who'd had no boxing dreams just three years earlier but unwittingly had found his calling.
“Once I started to learn the skills I began to see things I was capable of,” recalled Steele, who will join Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Joe Calzaghe among the members of the 2014 Hall of Fame class. “That's one of the things boxing can do for a young man. It can teach him discipline and show him he can accomplish something.
“I was a high-school dropout, but after that I went back and got my degree. When I got to the Trials, my only disappointment was the guy who beat me won the whole thing and then lost his first fight at the Olympics. I figured I could have done that.”
Steele tells that story with a deep baritone chuckle, the irony of what happened amusing a man whose life would become intertwined with boxing for the next 50 years.
After the Trials, Steele's hitch in the Marines was nearly over. When it ended, he came home to L.A. and was introduced to two men who would continue his transition into the boxing life: Jackie McCoy and Eddie Futch.
McCoy, a legendary Southern California fight manager, took over Steele's career, and Futch, who many believe is the greatest trainer ever, took over his preparations. Futch asked him one day if he'd ever heard of a Marine from San Diego who people said could fight a little.
“Eddie asked me if I knew Ken Norton and if he had any talent,” Steele said. “I said ‘Hell yeah he does.’ That's when Eddie began to train him, and we fought out of the same camp.”
Steele turned pro in 1966 as a light heavyweight and won nine of his first 10 fights, eight by knockout. All were in the legendary old fight house at 1801 S. Grand Avenue in L.A., the Olympic Auditorium, which was the breeding ground for great fighters from the 1930s to the late ’70s.
Nearly every great Southern California fighter appeared there in those years, the weekend fight cards attracting some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities, but as Steele began to have success McCoy found it ever more difficult to find him opponents. So Steele made a fateful decision: He moved to the heavyweight division and there met his match. It was size … or lack thereof.
“I started to fight heavyweights to get work, and I got my ribs broken three times,” Steele said. “The last time [during a split-decision loss to Chuck Hamilton on Oct. 22, 1970, in which Steele dropped Hamilton in the third round] the doctors told me I could have punctured a lung and died. That was it for me. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”
His four-year career ended with a 12-4 record and no reason to think life would continue to revolve around boxing. Then his phone rang.
It was a call from the California State Athletic Commission, proposing he begin training to become a referee. It was an idea Steele dismissed as nonsense.
“I told them, ‘I don't want to be no referee,’” Steele said. Fortunately he wasn't stubborn about that after Futch took him aside and informed him when opportunity knocks, even if it's the sound of a phone ringing, a man should answer.
“Eddie told me, ‘Do you know you'd be only the second black referee in the state of California?’” Steele said. “I called them back.”
That was a break for Steele and a bigger one for boxing because thus began a career that would lead him to work 167 world title fights, including some of the biggest matches in the sport's history. But no one starts with a title fight.
It would take Steele 18 months to officiate his first professional fight, working amateur shows as he learned a new trade, one in which space, timing and emotional control mean everything.
“In those years we traveled all over the state,” Steele said. “I did a lot of fights practicing in other people's hometowns. It could be a rough time getting out of there depending on how things went for the local boy.
“Oakland. San Diego. Stockton. Bakersfield. San Francisco. Sacramento. I went everywhere to work. When I train referees today, I tell them the way I came up in all those small towns and getting out by the skin of my teeth sometimes I felt I could referee anywhere.”
The first place was the Fairgrounds in El Centro, a boxing way station near the Mexican border, on April 21, 1972. Steele would work four fights that night, three preliminaries and a 10-round fight won by Danny Kimberling. Who knew that 43 years later his phone would ring again as it did in 1970?
“As much as I always wished and hoped this might be the year I got into the Hall of Fame, when my wife handed me the phone, I just could not believe it,” said Steele, who retired from refereeing in 2006. “It was the completion of my life. All the good things that have happened to me were because of boxing.”
Among those good things were three of the biggest fights of the 1980s: Aaron Pryor's first knockout of Alexis Arguello, the three-round firestorm between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, Hagler's controversial split-decision loss to Sugar Ray Leonard and the controversial last-second stoppage of the 1990 fight between Julio Cesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor.
The Chavez-Taylor fight may well be the moment for which Steele is best remembered. With only seconds remaining in a brutal fight Taylor was winning, Chavez dropped him, and when Taylor arose, he was swaying as if he was on the bridge of a destroyer in heavy seas.
Twice Steele asked him if he was all right as he counted to eight. Across the ring, Chavez was like a panther, his muscles tense, his body tilting forward, ready to leap on his wounded prey.
When Taylor did not respond but instead looked away at his manager, Lou Duva, who was climbing onto the ring apron, Steele stopped the fight as the light behind Taylor blinked red, the warning sign that less than 10 seconds remained.
When Steele waved his hands, signaling the fight was over, two seconds were left in the bout. Taylor's cornermen were savage and so was his promoter, Dan Duva. A large contingent of media members agreed, insisting Steele should have let the fight go on.
Steele believed then, and does now, that he was right. His first responsibility, he tells the young referees he trains today, is to protect the fighters. That's what he did to the best of his ability, although the truth is Taylor was never the same after that night.
“Always the safety of the boxer,” Steele said when asked what a referee's first job is. “First and foremost. They are putting their lives on the line. You have to be sure you are there when you need to be there and stay out of the way when you don't need to be there. It's a thin line.
“The kid was winning the fight as an amateur and losing it as a professional. Amateur boxing is about scoring points. Professional boxing is about damage. Time makes no difference. If one fighter gets the other in the condition Meldrick Taylor was in – unable to think, unable to talk – the referee has to step in.
“I asked him twice if he was all right. No answer. The doctors told me later the reason he couldn't talk was because the water around his brain had dehydrated. He was in the hospital for four days. I never doubted for a minute the decision I made.”
One more punch and who knows what might have happened? No one knows. All they know is a red light flashed and a fight nearly won was lost. A Philadelphia journalist who knew Taylor well still insists he'd earned the right to victory. Richard Steele insists he earned the right to be protected. Maybe the latter is why he is a Hall of Fame referee?
Maybe because all he cared about was being there when a badly wounded fighter needed protection, protection not only from Chavez but from the idea that victory was more important than Taylor was.
“It's a thin line for a referee,” Steele said solemnly. “You have to make the decision.”
He made one in the Hagler-Hearns fight as well, a fight many consider the most furious eight minutes in boxing history. When Hearns split open the middle of Hagler's forehead, Steele took one look and stepped in, taking Hagler to the ringside doctor.
The middleweight champion was irate. Steele was firm.
“I took pride in always being in shape,” Steele said. “I was in top condition that night, and let me tell you, after two rounds, I could barely breathe. I knew they couldn't keep it up, because I knew I couldn't keep it up.
“Hearns hit Marvin with a right hand that split his head open. There was so much blood. Hagler thought I was stopping the fight. He was really pissed off, but the doctor needed to examine him.”
The result was that the fight continued but not for long, Hagler finishing Hearns off with a barrage of punches that left the latter in Steele's protective embrace. That night he was on the other side of that thin line but only after he'd been assured that the fight should go on.
“You have to believe in yourself,” Steele said. “One of the most important things is space. You can't be too close. You can't be too far away. You have to be aware but relaxed.
“I'm not a spectator. I'm the referee. You can't get mesmerized by what's going on. You can't get caught up in the fight. If [you do] you'll jump in there too early or too late. You have to be relaxed to be there on time, to be able to see what's really going on.”
Richard Steele always saw what was going on, first as a young referee on the rise in California and for the past 32 years in Las Vegas, a move he made after being told he would have been asked to work the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight. He says it was “the biggest fight in history at the time,” but the referees in Nevada were upset about the idea of bringing a California ref in to handle it.
Even though by then he'd already begun to work fights in Las Vegas, that one got away. After it was over, he looked into moving and was told by then-Nevada State Athletic Commissioner Sig Rogich he'd be welcomed. Knowing that, Steele told his wife, “'I have to take it.' I guess it turned out to be the right move.”
Making the right move was something Steele was known for throughout his career, not only in the ring but also by not getting into the ring. During the days of apartheid in South Africa, he refused to travel there to referee world title fights. Years later Nelson Mandela would meet Steele and thank him for the stance he took, a moment Steele still remembers.
“I spent several days talking to him,” Steele said. “Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest men I ever met. To hear him speak my name was a great moment. When I step up next June to get that Hall of Fame ring, I'll feel the same way I felt that day.”
Steele worked his last fight on Aug. 8, 2006. Fittingly it was a WBC world title fight between David Diaz and Jose Armando Santa Cruz for the lightweight title, a fight won in spectacular fashion by Diaz. It came four months after Steele thought he'd retired, a decision made after working an explosive fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Zab Judah that erupted into a near riot. His quick actions helped quell things before members of the Judah camp lost total control of themselves.
“I always said when athletes quit they should quit on top,” Steele said. “When Mayweather and Zab had that war, fighting after the bell and all, I thought 'Let me get out of here.’”
He came back at the NSAC's insistence and worked 16 more fights over the next four months but realized it was time to move on. Since then, he has begun Steele Boxing to serve at-risk youth throughout southern Nevada with a boxing program that emphasizes both the sport and keeping kids in school while also continuing a ministry begun many years ago.
Asked how one rationalizes the unforgiving world of boxing with a ministry, Steele reacted the same way he did for 40 years inside the ring: without hesitation.
“One is to bring pain and one is to relieve pain, but both are to save,” Steele said. “Save a kid. Save a fighter. I tell young referees boxing is a sport. It's not like gladiator days, with 'till death do us part.' It's not the days of lions and tigers. All we want to know is who is the best fighter today.”
Come this weekend, we'll be reminded of what we should already know as well: that Richard Steele was as good a third man in the ring as ever stood there.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald and hosts "Mouthpiece Boxing," a weekly radio show on Yahoo!Radio Network Fridays at 10 p.m.