No boxing referee, perhaps no official in sports history, has taken as much abuse for one split-second decision as Richard Steele has over the 22-plus years since he stopped the Meldrick Taylor-Julio Cesar Chavez fight with two seconds left.
Two seconds were all that separated Taylor from a career-defining victory over Chavez.
Had those two seconds clicked off, Taylor would have won the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council 140-pound belts and, more importantly, handed Chavez the first loss of his career following 68 consecutive wins.
After the stoppage, Taylor trainer Lou Duva went berserk. Steele needed to be escorted to his car. And for virtually every fight he officiated again after that, he was booed mercilessly.
Even now, 22 years and five months after the Taylor-Chavez fight and six years after he officiated his final bout, the mere mention of Steele's name causes outrage in the boxing community.
Steele, 64, has been tied to that decision and it's impacted his ability to get into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It's not a fun subject for him, clearly, but he was at peace with the decision he made on March 17, 1990, in Las Vegas and he remains at peace today.
And even if given the chance to do it over and let those final two seconds harmlessly click off the clock, he says firmly that he would not do so.
"No fight," he says softly, "is worth a human life. No fight."
Though he remains a villain to a small, narrow-minded cadre of boxing fans, Steele is an icon in the Las Vegas community, where his feats of service are legendary.
He runs the non-profit Steele Boxing Club in North Las Vegas, where he's literally saved lives. The club not only gives disadvantaged youths a place to get off the street, it offers free tests for HIV and sexually transmitted disease, tutoring sessions, suicide awareness, pregnancy prevention and more.
He's mentoring Las Vegas local Arturo Martinez and his two young sons. On April 15, Martinez's wife and 10-year-old daughter were raped and murdered in their home. Martinez himself was beaten in the head with a hammer and left for dead.
His 9-year-old son went to school and reported to his teachers that his mother and sister had been killed and that his father was injured.
Steele went to court on Monday with Arturo Martinez for a hearing to dismiss sexual assault charges against Bryan Devonte Clay Jr., who is accused of the double rape and murder.
"It's hard, but someone has to be there for him," Steele says. "To listen to [Clay's attorneys] say it wasn't rape because she was already dead, man, that was devastating.
"But I have to be here for these people. It's part of my job. It's what I do. I have to be there for him and the kids. This is a great, great family and they need me now more than ever. I'm worried about the [child who reported the murders]. He hasn't opened up yet. We need to be there for him to support him."
Steven Horsford, a Nevada state senator and a Democratic candidate for Congress from Las Vegas, worked alongside Steele at Nevada Partners – a facility founded in the wake of the 1992 Rodney King riots in Las Vegas and provided job training and other services.
Horsford said Steele has been a hero to the less fortunate in the tireless work he's done.
"From the first time I met Richard, I've been impressed by how committed he was to those who were less fortunate," Horsford said. "He's pulled kids in from gangs, from very desperate, very difficult situations, and literally saved them. He was successful working through the Gang Intervention Task Force and … he has been a champion of kids and young adults. He's done phenomenal work getting them off the streets, into a safe and productive environment and he's helped them realize there is another way they could succeed in life."
He's successful because he's been one of them. He grew up in Los Angeles in what he said was "as rough a part of town as you can imagine." He was a gang member who smoke, drank and "did a lot of crazy, stupid things."
He was 16 when he dropped out of school.
"It was hard and I didn't see a benefit to sitting there in class listening to something I didn't understand and didn't care about when I could be out running around," he said.
Steele tried boxing and suddenly realized he'd found his niche. He was a powerful left-hander who turned pro as a light heavyweight, where he was known as Dick Steele.
Along the way, he happened to get hooked up with Eddie Futch, a legendary trainer who was so prim and proper that even the hardest nosed men would wilt in his presence, and Steele’s perspective on a lot of things changed for the better.
"The one thing you didn't want to do was to disappoint Eddie," Steele said. "You had to do things the right way, right by the book. If you disappointed Eddie, that hurt worse, much worse, than anything that could happen in a fight."
Because of that, Steele returned to high school in his early 20s. He laughed and recalled getting angry at the teenagers he shared a classroom with who would horse around and make it difficult to learn.
He would glare at them and command them to stop. He was a powerful puncher as a boxer and an imposing presence. He'd get their silence so that he could continue his studies.
"I knew how important it was to listen and learn and pay attention," Steele said. "It wasn't that much earlier, I was one of them. But at that time, I wanted a different life, a better life."
He was moderately successful as a fighter, starting his career 9-1, all of the wins by knockout. It was an experience he had toward the end of his fighting career that led him to stop the Taylor fight many years later.
In the second round of a 1970 bout with Pete Riccitelli, Steele broke his ribs. The pain, he said, was excruciatingly bad. Throwing a jab, pain would shoot up his side. Getting hit in the ribs felt like getting shot.
Round after round, though, Steele kept going back, until he stopped Riccitelli in the seventh.
Later, in a bid to save his career, he visited Dr. Robert Kerlin. Kerlin looked at the x-rays, examined Steele's ribs and was amazed.
"He said to me, 'Man, Richard, for you to have fought those many rounds with that injury, do you know that you were truly in danger of losing your life?' " Steele said. "He told me the way the break was, the broken ribs could have punctured my lungs very easily and I would have bled inside.
"That made me know right then that a referee's got to know when to stop a fight. The pain was so devastating, it would just kill me. But I wanted to win. That's what people have to understand: Fighters want to win so badly. The importance of a referee is so great because fighters are trained to never quit and to never give up. A referee has to be smart enough and knowledgeable enough to give him another day. The referee's number one job is the safety of the fighter, to make sure that fighter has the chance to come back and fight another day if he chooses to do so."
Steele was one of the great referees of his time. He became only the second African American to referee in California and was later lured to Nevada by Sig Rogich, then the chairman of the state athletic commission but now one of Las Vegas' most influential power brokers.
Steele worked all manner of legendary fights, including “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns, Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney and Floyd Mayweather-Diego Corrales, among many others.
Had the Taylor-Chavez fight not occurred, Steele would almost certainly be in the Hall of Fame now.
Marc Ratner, his former boss at the Nevada Athletic Commission and now an executive for the UFC, wrote a letter to Ed Brophy of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, advocating Steele, referee Mills Lane and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. for induction in 2013.
"Richard was the complete package as a referee," Ratner said. "He had a certain grace and style in the ring. Fighters respected him a great deal. He kept order in the ring and he let the fighters fight. And for all the great things he accomplished, I think the most impressive moment of his career was Meldrick Taylor. He is criticized to this day for that, but he did what he believed, and what I believed and still believe, was the right thing.
"When the health and safety of a fighter is involved, the time doesn't matter. Richard felt Taylor was in trouble and couldn't continue and so he made the call that he did. And he's handled the criticism that has come as a result of doing the right thing with total class."
People who never saw the fight and didn't know the facts would routinely boo Steele whenever he was announced as the referee again. It never stopped, for well more than a decade.
Steele twice asked Taylor after a knockdown in the waning seconds if he was OK. Taylor failed to respond and Steele stopped it.
He later learned that Taylor was so severely dehydrated, he was unable to speak. Doctors treating him that night were legitimately worried about serious brain injury because of his dehydration. And it wasn't long after that fight that Taylor's speech became terribly impaired. He's still difficult to understand.
Some will never understand or accept Steele's decision. He understands that, but said he'd feel worse now if he had let the fight continue.
"It would bother me more if I knew how much trouble he was in and let him fight, just so I could avoid the criticism,” he said. “I did the right thing because I was saving this man from himself, because he had so much courage and was so brave.
"He would have fought to the death, if he'd been allowed to, but I wasn't going to allow that. I didn't think he could take even one more punch, not one single punch more. I made the decision and I've never regretted it."
Richard Steele is a Hall of Famer, as a referee and as a person.
"We need people like Richard Steele in this community and in our society, who dedicate their lives to helping others and expect nothing in return," Horsford said.
If the voters for the International Boxing Hall of Fame don't recognize his qualification, it only demeans the Hall.
Steele's place in history is secure.
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