RICHARD STEELE, 71, had a storied career as one of the most high profile referees in the sport. Having worked fights involving huge names such as Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jnr, George Foreman and many others, Steele has seen it all.
At times the Las Vegas resident saw criticism come his way – most notably when making the decision to stop the epic and brutal Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor fight, with just two seconds to go in 1990 – but Steele looks back on his long career with a clear conscience.
Q: Can you still remember the very first time you refereed a professional fight?
Richard Steele: “Oh, man (laughs) that’s over 30 years ago! Yeah, I can remember it. I was very excited. The fight took place at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.”
Q: You certainly went on to become one of the finest and most recognisable boxing referees in the sport. Was it always your goal to be a referee?
R.S: “No. I wanted to be a boxer, but I had injuries and I had to retire after my 16th fight. Everybody liked me, the fans and everyone, and I was asked to be a referee. I wasn’t sure about that, I’d never thought about being a referee. But a friend of mine told me what an honour it was to be asked. I was only the second black boxing referee in the history of the state of California. So it was indeed an honour to be asked and I took the job.”
Q: Of all the fights you have refereed, which ones stick in your memory the most today?
R.S: “The Marvin Hagler–Thomas Hearns fight: the three best rounds ever. The [Sugar Ray] Leonard-Hagler fight and Julio Cesar Chavez–Meldrick Taylor.”
Q: The Hagler-Hearns fight, which will have its 30th anniversary this April, was truly epic as you of course know. When you are refereeing a great action fight like that, can you actually enjoy the fight and do you realise just how special it is – what with all the other things you have on your mind?
R.S: No, you can’t enjoy the fight. You have so much to do, you are in charge of so many things. Number one, you have the safety of the fighters to look out for. There is a lot of pressure on you as the referee. Millions of people are watching and you get scrutinised. Everything you do is closely looked at. You have to make sure you are fair and not biased in any way. But the Hagler-Hearns fight, I was shocked at the pace they set and the ferocity of the fight. I always made sure I stayed in shape as a referee, I did my running. But that fight, after the first round, I felt tired. After the second round, I was exhausted. I remember thinking to myself going into the third round, how these two guys could not keep up this pace. I was spent. It was just toe-to-toe action for every minute of each round.”
Q: Legend has it that, when you had Hagler’s cut checked in that third round, Hagler said to you, ‘I’m not missing him, am I?’ Did he really say that when you asked him if he could see okay, or is it just boxing folklore so to speak?
R.S: “No, he never said that. He said to me that there was no way he was going to lose the fight on a cut. I told him, ‘Hey, I have to get a medical opinion.’ And I took him to the doctor and he let him fight on.”
Q: And the Leonard-Hagler fight; did you have a clear winner in your mind that night? Of course you are not a judge.
R.S: “I thought Leonard won the fight. It was him who controlled the fight at his pace. Hagler allowed him to get away with so much. I kept waiting for Hagler to come on and do his thing, but he never did, not until late in the fight. Hagler tried to show Leonard he could box, because he [Leonard] had said to him, ‘You can’t box, you’re just a puncher.’ And doing that instead of fighting his usual fight, that was why Hagler lost so many rounds in the earlier rounds of the fight.”
Q: The Chavez-Taylor fight, which is 25-years old next month, March 17th, that was incredible and also controversial. Is that the fight the fans still come up to you and ask you about the most today?
R.S: “Yes. I get more questions about that fight than any other. I was just in Mexico, where they unveiled a statue of Chavez. It was wonderful. The Mexican fans still remember me (laughs) and they treated me really well. They were just so happy that Julio won the fight.”
Q: The critics gave you a hard time for stopping the fight in the last round when Taylor was knocked down. All these years later, have you ever thought that maybe you made a mistake in stopping it with just two-seconds left in the fight?
R.S: “No. I’m one-hundred percent sure I did the right thing. Taylor was taking so many punches, which did so much damage to him. The public did not realise how bad it actually was. No, I would not change my decision and I stand by that I did. The medical report [on Taylor] shows I was right. The kid was never the same after that fight. He was a great fighter, but that fight took it all out of him.”
Q: Are there any fights you worked where you look back and think you might have made a wrong call?
R.S: “To be honest with you, no. I feel good about my whole career, about all the decisions I made. I wouldn’t change anything.”
Q: Of all the fighters you have refereed, is there any particular one who stands out as being a tough fighter to control?
R.S: “Well, [Mike] Tyson. I worked four of his fights and you always had to be ready, to get in there quickly. He was very dangerous, the way he delivered his punches. You had to be close enough to be able to get into the action quickly. But at the same time, you had to give him room to do his job. But in any fight, you have to do your best and be fair and look out for the safety of the two fighters.”
Q: You have refereed a few Floyd Mayweather Jnr fights. In your opinion is he as great as some say he is and is he up there with the likes of Hearns and Leonard?
R.S: “Yes, he is. He’s one of the greatest of all time. He’s a super fighter. He studies boxing and he really knows how to fight. That’s why he’s 47-0 right now. And he’s such a hard worker in the gym. He always works to be in shape.”
Q: You are retired now?
R.S: “Yes, I retired after the Mayweather-Zab Judah fight (in April of 2006). I felt at that time that there was nothing left for me to do. I’d done all the great fights and all the great fighters. I felt there was no reason to carry on after 30 years. I’d had enough. And I was elected into The Hall of Fame last year, which is the biggest honour you can have. That really is the top of the hill, the biggest honour a person can receive. To go into The Hall of Fame, it means you have done your job well and you can be at peace.”
Q: Finally, have you any advice for up and coming referees?
R.S: “Study the rules and regulations, so you can act accordingly in any situation. Also, be in top physical condition, so you are able to move and stay in and out of the action at all times.”
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