By Jeff Zimmerman
Photo: Robert Hughes
The wait is over for legendary referee Richard Steele as he has been elected into the International Boxing Hall of Fame for their 25th anniversary induction ceremony that will take place June 5-8, 2014. A boxing career that spans 50 years and started in the Marines as a teammate with former Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton, Steele is the 3rd Nevada referee to be elected in the last 4 years, following the path of Joe Cortez in 2011 and Mills Lane in 2013.
Steele called his last major fight when Floyd Mayweather Jr beat Zab Judah in 2006 and continues to run the Richard Steele Foundation & Boxing Club (www.richardsteelefoundation.org), a non-profit, where he utilizes boxing as a tool for at risk youth to learn self-discipline and positive thinking as well as take advantage of educational opportunities and develop healthy lifestyles.
Steele was ecstatic upon hearing the news.
“Boxing is all I have ever known and I have given my life to it. To be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Eddie Futch and my old friend Ken Norton is truly a blessing.”
Steele continued, “I appreciate the support of the boxing writers and other voters around the world who recognized my achievements over the years and honored me at the highest level. I would especially like to thank Kevin Iole for all of his support through the years.”
Steele, along with Cortez and Lane, were staples as the 3rd man in the ring in the Las Vegas fight scene during one of boxing’s greatest eras during the 1980’s that included the magnificent Hall of Fame quartet of Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran. Steele ended his career reffing over 170 world title fights.
Steele refereed the “3 greatest rounds in boxing” when Marvelous Marvin Hagler stopped Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns in their epic three round firefight. Steele also refereed the fight where Sugar Ray Leonard made his comeback after a three year lay-off in 1987 to beat Hagler. Steele is still not sure who won that fight.
“The more and more I watch it, the closer and closer it gets,” Steele has said many times over the years.
Steele’s illustrious career, however, sometimes gets overshadowed by one fight, Julio Cesar Chavez vs. Meldrick Taylor for the Light Welterweight world title in 1990. Taylor, the 1984 U.S. gold medalist, was winning but taking a pounding by the Mexican legend Chavez in the process. Taylor was knocked down with 17 seconds left in the fight and got back to his feet at the count of 5. Steele asked Taylor twice if he was OK to continue and after no response, Steele stopped the fight with 2 seconds left.
Steele, who was widely criticized for the stoppage at the time as Taylor was winning on the scorecards, has always stood by his decision and was later vindicated by the medical community that declared Taylor had suffered major internal injuries and was never the same fighter from that point on. This fight was The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year for 1990 and Fight of the Decade for the 1990’s.
“No fight is worth a man’s life,” Steele said after the fight.
Steele’s rise as a referee took him around the world, but there was one place Steele would not go. Steele refused to ref fights in South Africa during apartheid and in 1999 was recognized by Nelson Mandela.
“Mr. Mandela is a historical figure and for him to recognize me after all he went through is truly amazing. He knew more about me than I knew about him. I was truly humbled by the experience.”
Steele’s greatest legacy, like great leaders in other sports, may be the mentoring he has provided the top ref’s of today. Steele has worked with the late Mitch Halpern, Kenny Bayless, Tony Weeks, Jon Schorle and Robert Byrd just to name a few. Byrd goes as far as to refer to Steele as the “Godfather of Referees.”
Halpern, though, was Steele’s prized pupil and holds a special place in Steele’s heart.
“Mitch came up to me after a fight and asked about becoming a referee. I told him to meet me in the gym that Monday and there he was. So many others asked the same thing but never showed up. We worked everyday and even sparred so he knew what it felt like to be a fighter and get hit. He became so good that he even started taking my potential assignments. I was so happy for him. He was like a son to me.”
Steele’s induction to the Hall of Fame is symbolic in others way too. He has crossed over generations of boxing fans and boxers along the way. Steele has also been in the ring with a “who’s who” of some of boxing’s best including Mike Tyson, Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Roy Jones Jr, George Foreman, Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor, Jeff Fenech, Manny Pacquiao and even judged the Muhammad Ali vs. Larry Holmes fight.
Steele has always had the respect of those in the boxing community especially in times of grief. A former ordained minister, Steele officiated the funeral of boxing’s greatest trainer Eddie Futch, former world champion Diego Corrales and his former referee peer Toby Gibson.
Long time disciple of Futch and boxing’s best trainer today, Freddie Roach, called Steele one of his favorite people in the world. Steele even married several of Roach’s friends during his time as a minister.
Although Steele’s legacy will live on forever in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, Steele continues to touch others around the world and where he lives.
“Boxing has taken me places I have never dreamed of and I have been fortunate to meet some of the greatest boxing fans from all over the world. I thank you all for your support throughout the years.”