Outside the Ring: Richard Steele

By Jill Diamond on September 20, 2015
Outside the Ring: Richard Steele
“Hagler-Hearns was voted fight of the year in 1985, although it only lasted three rounds.”

“Boxing teaches life skills, hard work, dedication, discipline and self-confidence. Boxing teaches you to roll with the punches…”

Sports and Philanthropy: A series of articles dedicated to those who’ve given their all and still give more. Each article will feature a different community champion; no belts, no medals, no ratings… just good people passing it on.

I’m going to keep the introduction short. Everything that needs to be said about this man is contained in this interview. He was a fighter who moved seamlessly from boxing brilliance to becoming the second Black man in California’s history to referee. He is the third man in the ring but the first man in the hearts of many children throughout Las Vegas. Poor children, needy children, desperate children who are hungry for the gifts he and his family bring them. He turns their lives around, giving them the strength and structure they need to embrace positive possibilities. He changes the world, one child at a time. I have witnessed his magic firsthand. His dedication is as authentic as his career. It’s my extreme pleasure to introduce, Richard Steele.

Tell me a little about your background.

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. My family moved to Los Angeles when I was eight years old. I grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Manual Arts High School. At the age of 17, I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and joined the boxing team.

You and Ken Norton were teammates in the Marines. What was that like?

Ken Norton was the Heavyweight Champion of the U. S. Marine Corps and I was the Middleweight Champion. Ken was the biggest guy on the boxing team. What I remember about Ken was that he was always telling jokes, he kept us laughing. We trained together for two years while in the Marines. After the service we remained friends and continued boxing as professionals, both being trained by the legendary Eddie Futch.

What made you decide to turn pro?

After losing in 1964 Olympic Trials, the next step in my boxing career was to turn professional.

Who was your toughest opponent?

A guy named Ralph McCoy. Ralph was a really good boxer. I was relying on my punching power because I had the reputation of being a puncher, I had nine knockouts. In my mind I was going to knock this guy out, but Ralph was a slick boxer. The fight went the distance and he won a decision.

What fighters inspired you?

As a youth I idolized Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. Joe Louis was the Brown Bomber. Joe Louis was a true undisputed heavyweight champion. I can remember listening to his fights on the radio as a child. The whole country admired him. Also Sugar Ray Robinson, he was an amazing boxer. He was “pound for pound” the best boxer. That’s when the term started. He won the Welterweight Title and the Middleweight Title. Muhammad Ali also inspired me, he was the self-proclaimed greatest. Ali would always talk trash but he could always back it up. He predicted he would beat Archie Moore, he said “Moore must go in four” and he stopped Moore in the fourth round.

What moved you from boxing to becoming a referee?

After my ribs were broken three times and the doctors said I would have to retire. I was asked about the idea of becoming a referee. At first I thought I’m a “fighter” I don’t want to be a referee. Then one day I was talking to my trainer, Eddie Futch, who was one of the best at that time. Eddie said to me do you know that you would be only the second Black referee to be appointed by the California Athletic Commission. I had made a name for myself as a fighter and had a lot of support from the local fans, so I decided to give it a try. So the next time I stepped into the boxing ring, I was the “third man in the ring.”

What was your toughest fight to ref?

I have referred six of Mike Tyson’s fights. They were always tough because you never knew what he was going to do. Tyson was a powerhouse but he was so unpredictable. Tyson’s fights were always fast paced. It was a real workout separating the fighters, it was tough staying in the right position to make sure you saw everything that was going on.

What was your most memorable fight as a ref?

My most memorable fight was Tommy Hearns vs. Marvin Hagler. The history books said it was the greatest three rounds in boxing history. It was billed as “The War”—and it lived up to its billing. It was voted fight of the year in 1985, although it only lasted three rounds. There was non-stop action from the opening bell. In the first round the two fighters stood toe-to-toe and traded vicious punches. Hagler was cut in the first round, and the cut reopened in the third. I called time out and took Hagler to the doctor to examine the cut. He could continue. Marvin Hagler, fearing the fight could possibly be stopped due to cuts, went on the attack. Hagler landed vicious blows which staggered Hearns and he went down. Hearns got up before the end of the 10-count but he was not able to continue.

What is a story you would like to share?

At 12 years old I was one of those kids that was always ready for a fight, and always getting into trouble. One day after one of my many fights at school, this kid Albert walked up to me and said “you like to fight, huh.” “Well my dad is a boxing champion.” “Come over to my house and I will show you his belts.” I went to his house and sure enough his dad was Chalky Wright with over 200 fights, and considered one of the best punchers of all time. Chalky said “I want you to meet a friend of mine.” So I followed Albert and his Dad to the backroom and there sat Sugar Ray Robinson. So you know what happened next, I made Albert my best friend and his house became a regular hangout. Now you’re not going to believe what happened next. Another day we were walking to Albert’s house and the shiniest black Cadillac was parked in front. Albert shouted “That’s Joe Louis’ Caddy,” and we both took off running. I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of the Brown Bomber. It’s 1956, and I would have never imagined that I would be inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame along with these great fighters that I idolized as a 12-year-old kid.

If you could change one thing about the sport of boxing it would be?

Nothing, it has given a lot of people great opportunities.

You have a history of giving back. Why?

As a young man growing up there was always someone in my corner. There was always someone willing to help with advice and guidance.

Who were your role models?

Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali.

Why did you decide to create The Richard Steele Foundation?

I have always loved working with kids and giving back to my community. Being a mentor and a role model is something that I am very passionate about. The Richard Steele Foundation is a non-profit organization, where we utilize 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.

You are a magnet for the local youth. What are the principles you hope to instill?

Boxing teaches life skills, hard work, dedication, discipline and self-confidence. Boxing teaches you to roll with the punches, it teaches you if you get knocked down its okay you can get back up and start again.

What is it about boxing that helps them evolve?

So many of our kids today are dealing with the issues of bullying. In our program we have a zero tolerance for bullying. Kids can feel comfortable and have a place to go where they are welcomed and accepted. At the same time our boxing fitness program builds confidence and self-esteem. Boxing teaches kids to believe in themselves.

What is the Heart of a Champion Foundation?

The heart of a champion is our annual fundraiser that benefits the youth of North Las Vegas and Las Vegas. The purpose is to showcase and recognize kids that are committed to excellence.

Tell me about some of your awards/honors?

I have received many lifetime achievement awards, I am so proud to have received each and every one. Just to mention a few:
International Boxing Hall of Fame – 2014
WBC Boxing Council Excellency Award 2011
Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame – 2006
World Boxing Hall of Fame – 2000
Sport Magazine published “100 Best in Sports” – 1990

What was it like meeting Nelson Mandela? What is the story behind this?

Since the apartheid was lifted, the objective of the WBC’s 37th annual convention, was to re-launch Africa back into professional boxing. President Nelson Mandela was the keynote speaker at the opening ceremony. This was a chance of a lifetime and I was determined to meet Mr. Mandela. As he entered the room, the crowd erupted and stood in reverence. His security was intense as they shielded him from any danger. I had a feeling that my request to meet Mandela was going to be challenging. He was mesmerizing as he delivered his speech the “Pride of Africa.” After his speech Mandela stood to take his leave, I knew it was just a matter of time. The attendants cleared a path for his departure, his security was tight. I walked over and stood in his pathway. As he approached me, Mr. Jose Sulaiman, president of the WBC who was at his side, began to introduce me. “This is…” he started saying. Then suddenly Mr. Mandela interrupted him saying, “I know who this is, this is the best referee in the world, Richard Steele.” I shook his hand and expressed my admiration. Mr. Mandela embraced me and in a soft voice said, “The two of us really know the meaning of perseverance.” I stood there amazed at what had just taken place. I was honored just to be in his presence. I met Nelson Mandela and he recognized me. It was unbelievable!

If you had one wish…...?

To build a youth city in Las Vegas.

Who are some of the celebrities who have visited and participated at your gym?

Mike Tyson visited the gym and worked out with our kids one on one. Floyd Mayweather was our guest at our first Heart of a Champion fundraiser and took pictures with all the kids. Governor Sandoval toured our gym and took pictures with the kids. Otis Williams of the Temptations brought his son to join our program. Football great Gale Sayers toured the facility.

What can the rest of us do to help?

The Richard Steele Foundation is self-funded. We are always in need of volunteers and monetary donations. Together we can make a difference in the lives of our youth through boxing, education, leadership development and community outreach.

When is your next Heart of a Champion event?

We are looking forward to hosting of next Heart of a Champion fundraiser later this year.

You’re a legend now, what do you aspire to do next?

I want to continue my work with under-served youth in Las Vegas.

Write an epitaph for yourself.

“Keep fighting the good fight for our kids.”

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Outside the Ring: Richard Steele

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  1. Pete The Sneak 04:35am, 09/22/2015

    Toro, I totally agree. Steele had a stellar career as a pretty good damn ref and from what I understand and in reading Jill’s interview, appears to be a real good, giving person. No doubt…However, you will always be judged for your biggest failures no matter how many successes you’ve had in life, particularly if you are in the public eye. Just human nature. I think of the former Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, who was a superb all around ball player for many years and all people remember him for was a ball that went under his legs in the 86 world series. I think the magnitude of that Chavez-Taylor stoppage at the time that it occurred will always bring out the passion in boxing fans and for most, will always cast Steele, fairly or unfairly as a villan because of it and his entire body of work as ref after that be damned. Just my humble opinion…Peace.

  2. kb 11:51am, 09/21/2015

    I submit we (me included) need to be careful we don’t do a revers halo on Steele. One bad call does not make him a bad referee. Quite the contrary, aside from that one, he was an outstanding referee IMO.

  3. nicolas 11:11am, 09/21/2015

    PETE THE SNEAK: Good point, I remember in the first Dennis Andries-Jeff Harding fight, when Harding Stopped Andries in that last round, Andires was being interviewed and they told him he was far ahead on points. He was shocked, he said that Emanuel Stewart told him he was behind. Instead, unless you know for sure you are behind, you should always tell you man to go and do what he is doing. If the judges say differently, you can at least make a bitt fuss, lose a decision and not get knocked out. But in the case of richard Steele, there was no way that Chavez was going to land another punch lin the allotted time available. Steele thug acted like a real jerk aft3r the fight, and I just have really difficulties having much respect for that individual. Mandella’s comments about Steele, if true, shows that even great leaders are not always right.

  4. KB 09:44am, 09/21/2015

    Yes, Lou Duva should carry a good chunk of that burden

  5. Pete The Sneak 09:27am, 09/21/2015

    Another nice get Jill…Thanks. Love these interviews. Now with that being said, I agree with the majority here that the Chavez-Taylor fight stoppage by Steele was deplorable. But Steele shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame by himself… Lou Duva should carry a good chunk of that burden, by first telling Meldrick that he needed to win that last round, and then standing up in the corner and distracting Taylor in the final round while Steele was given Meldrick the 8 count. When Taylor, rather than looking at Steele when he was asked, was busy looking at Duva, Steele decided it was over cause Taylor ‘didn’t respond to him.’ Definitely one of the most premature and life changing (for Taylor) stoppages in Boxing history…Peace.

  6. Bob 03:15am, 09/21/2015

    I respect all of your opinions but have to respectfully disagree with the vilifying of Steele over the Chavez-Taylor stoppage. Yes, there were seconds left, but Taylor was also quite possibly a punch away from death. It has always been questioned about whether or not Steele knew the actual time, and I believe he said it was irrelevant given the severity of the beating Taylor was taking.  Although I think he is a fine referee, I would take more issue with his stoppage of Razor Ruddock in the second Tyson fight than Chavez-Taylor. That is my two cents.

  7. raxman 09:58pm, 09/20/2015

    make it five. one of my favourite boxing past times is to show non boxing aficionados that fight and watch their reaction when Steele waves it off.
    I’ve screened it maybe 6 different times and it always gets the viewer on their feet - usually with some version of Steele being called a dog (in oz being called a dog is akin to being called a rat, a snitch, a grass - for anyone that’s knocked around its probably the worst insult imaginable)

  8. Clarence George 06:07pm, 09/20/2015

    Good, that’s four of us.

  9. KB 05:25pm, 09/20/2015

    what he did to Taylor was horrible

  10. Clarence George 04:35pm, 09/20/2015

    Peter, Nicolas, glad we’re in agreement on Chavez-Taylor.  Delighted to include KB, but I’m not sure where he stands on the issue.

  11. nicolas 04:26pm, 09/20/2015

    Looking back at the Ellis-Patterson fight, it was the first fight I ever saw. But when I saw the fight recently on You Tube, I kind of understood Harold Valens verdict. On Youtube, uyou can’t see the last round, but I do believe on the West Coast feed we did see the end. That last round for me would have been key to who won the fight, though not the way Valen had it 9-6 for Ellis. But his argument was sound. One could give Ellis the close rounds. I agree about Steele, though, what he did to Taylor was horrible. Only two seconds were left in the fight, and no way was Chavez going to land another punch to taylor. Nice to hear though Steele mention Ralph McCoy, I remember the name in Bay Area boxing.

  12. peter 02:41pm, 09/20/2015

    @ Clarence—Absolutely correct. Both decisions were outrageous. (I’ll even add Chris Byrd’s undeserved draw with Andrew Golata in MSG—Sickening. Don King’s responsible for that one.)

  13. Clarence George 01:27pm, 09/20/2015

    Chalky Wright…a very good boxer and an interesting character.  Like Gorilla Jones, an (cough, cough) intimate of Mae West.  Also, there some questions about his death, I believe.  Anyway, that reminiscence alone was worth the price of admission.

    Good and reasonable people can disagree on this, to be sure, but I’m absolutely convinced in my own mind that Steele was dead wrong to stop the Chavez-Taylor fight. 

  14. peter 12:46pm, 09/20/2015

    Referee Richard Steele might be a good guy, but he will always be remembered—and haunted—by the Chavez-Taylor fight . Just like Harold Valen will always be remembered, and was haunted,  by the Ellis-Patterson fight.

  15. KB 10:03am, 09/20/2015

    But I do wish he had said something about Meldrick Taylor.

  16. KB 09:14am, 09/20/2015

    I love these. Keep ‘em coming, Jill.