"I never had
anybody who hit harder," says his former manager and trainer, Jackie McCoy.
"But Richard had a bit of a problem with stamina. And then there were the
The ribs, two of
them, low on his left side, had been broken four times, first in the second
round of a bout with heavyweight Johnny Featherman, then on three subsequent
occasions while sparring, once with his friend Norton. In the Featherman fight,
Steele successfully hid the injury from the referee and even his cornermen for
five rounds, thinking at the time how easy it was for even a young boxer to
fool those around him. He would never forget that lesson.
He lost the
fight, and his status as an aspiring contender disintegrated. After retiring
from the ring in 1972, Steele went to work in a factory in L.A., but the itch
to fight returned. A California commission official offered no encouragement.
"Dick, you're always getting hurt," he said. "But if you're
interested, we're looking for some guys to train as referees."
later, in May 1972, Steele began driving to remote and raucous clubs in
Bakersfield and San Bernardino to referee entire cards alone. Once, he had
looked upon fighters as either friendly sparring partners or as ominous
barriers to his own advancement. Now they seemed more like innocent sheep.
"I know the power of the dream," says Steele. "I'd go into those
dressing rooms for the big fights, even club fights, and I felt it. It made me
respectful. I looked at these guys and knew they came from poverty most of the
time. And they're all alone. They've worked so hard. They dream and plan so
hard, but it's a hurting sport. It's a sport about hurt, in every way. They
give everything in their souls, and it doesn't mean it's going to take them
reminded of a bout he worked last year, a network-TV fight at the Las Vegas
Hilton: flashy Jorge Paez of Mexico, sporting a zebra-styled haircut, versus
Troy Dorsey of Dallas, a pint-sized Marlboro Man, for Paez's IBF featherweight
crown. It was a rematch—Paez had beaten Dorsey earlier in the year on a
controversial split decision. "Those kids, their hearts, they inspired
me," says Steele, remembering his trip before the second bout to the
fighters' dressing quarters-barren trailers that stood in a parking lot outside
the Hilton. Paez and Dorsey, surrounded by handlers and boxing commission
officials, looked small and forlorn.
Paez's trailer very quietly, and a hanger-on closed the door hard behind him.
The trailer's tattered carpet was pocked with cigarette burns. Paez stood near
a wall, absently running his hand through his curious hairdo. Steele walked
across the trailer and shook hands with one of Paez's seconds. "You
translating?" Steele asked the man.
man," said Steele. He stared hard at Paez, who nodded in response. Paez
looked old beyond his 24 years, with sallow skin as tired as used sandpaper. At
5'6", he had to crane his neck to meet the referee's eyes.
right," said Steele. "I want you to keep all your punches in front of
the man." He flicked out a left and right. "No rabbit punches. No
translated. The fighter nodded. "No rasslin'," Steele said, and he
threw out an imaginary headlock. "If your mouthpiece comes out"—he
reached inside his mouth and made a flicking motion—"continue to fight
without it. I'll get it back as soon as I can."