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The Man In The Middle
Michael Leahy
March 04, 1991
Nobody controls a boxing ring like Richard Steele
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March 04, 1991

The Man In The Middle

Nobody controls a boxing ring like Richard Steele

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The kid hasn't twitched yet, Steele thought. Steele was always awed by such poise. He knew that every challenger had to be afraid, if not of getting hurt, then of losing, of seeing the dream snatched away. Somewhere deep inside, the kid had to have the shakes. It required supreme discipline to summon such composure. He loved fighters who could do it.

"No hitting when I say break," continued Steele. "I'll penalize you. I mean it."

"Yes, sir."

"Easy, huh?"

Steele said this with the faintest touch of irony, and smiled slyly. An electric silence hovered in the trailer. Something seemed to pass from referee to fighter, a signal that Steele, too, had been there. Dorsey managed a tight smile. "Yes, sir," he said. "Easy."

"I think the fighters heard me good in there," recalls Steele. "You want them to understand everything when they leave their dressing rooms, because by the time they get to the center of the ring for final instructions, they don't hear you. It's like going to the chair. Nothing's registering by then. Besides, the tension gets heavy enough without a ref putting a man through any more stuff."

Stuff means unduly long instructions as trembling fighters face each other, nose to nose, knees quivering. To Steele, this has always seemed cruel and unusual punishment. "It's an injustice a lot of referees used to commit just to look fancy," he says. "I'm going to get those fighters out of there as soon as I can."

"He has a knack for this job," says Chuck Minker, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. "He never tries to bring attention to himself. He understands that the best referee is the one you don't notice."

Steele takes pride in his ability to remain in the shadows and control fighters with his gentle yet authoritative bark. "One thing mediocre referees do is break fighters too much," he says. "They don't know what effective infighting is. You've got to know what the fighters are trying to do. When I worked Leonard-Hagler [in 1987], I sometimes didn't break them when Ray was holding. If I'd done that, I would have been penalizing Marvin, because he would have had to start all over again to get inside, and Ray would have just held him again. So I said, 'Punch and get out.' It made for a better, fairer fight."

Minker believes instinct is what separates Steele from his colleagues. "You can talk all you want about studying and training," he says, "but Richard has a feel for knowing when to get involved—and for stopping fights exactly on time, at the point when a fighter shouldn't take even one more punch because it might endanger him. When Richard was faced with that situation in the Evander Holyfield- Michael Dokes fight [in 1989], he leaped in instantly and grabbed Holyfield so he couldn't get off that last punch. It's that last punch that does so much damage, and Richard is physically strong enough to get in to stop it. You'd think we would be doing more talking about his skills. But all that anyone wants to talk about is Richard and Taylor-Ch�vez."

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