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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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These days, more fans than ever arc asking Steele for his autograph, thanking him if they had a bet on Ch�vez, gently scolding him if they lost money. They inevitably want to plunge into a discussion of The Stoppage, even at the Las Vegas Baptist Church, where Steele is an associate minister. He began studying for the ministry in 1982, and he was ordained two years later. He occasionally delivers sermons, usually on the virtues of humility, discipline and hard work.

Sometimes, in his congregation's stares, he feels the burning questions about how a minister can condone this blood sport. "I'm asked a lot if there isn't some contradiction, a man of God helping men pound each other," says Steele. "But, you sec, the good fighters are almost always good kids. You can't go halfway in boxing. If you're training only half right, you're all wrong. In other sports you can drink beer and whiskey. In boxing you've got to live right. If you don't, you aren't going to win. Like with Buster Douglas. Boxing gives him so much, and then he doesn't train right for Holyfield. He went halfway. Discipline and hard work is the only right way. That's why I tell people at my church, all the time, that boxing is great."

In one of those uniquely Las Vegas paradoxes, the minister also supervises the blackjack pit at the Golden Nugget from 4 a.m. to noon, five days a week. "Nowhere in the Bible does it say a man can't gamble," says Steele. "Sin comes in only when people take money meant for family and blow it, whether it's on gambling or drinking or clothes-buying."

Steele spends his shift settling minor disputes between players and dealers over misinterpreted card signals, and chatting with patrons. "We talk gambling, we talk fights," he says. "Fifty percent of the job, like refereeing, is knowing how to deal with people."

Steele's position at the Golden Nugget may have cost him a major fight assignment last October. The Nevada commission's decision to name the respected Mills Lane, rather than Steele, to referee the Douglas-Holyfield title fight stemmed at least in part from Steele's association with Steve Wynn, who owns the Golden Nugget as well as the Mirage, where the fight was held. Wynn not only promoted the bout but also held a promotional contract with Douglas for a future title defense. The commission, concerned over the appearance of a conflict of interest for Steele, turned to Lane. Steele was understanding. "It's for the best," he says. "I'll get the next big fight."

"He takes the disappointments and the pressures in stride," says Mark Ratner, one of the commission's inspectors. "He has the perfect makeup for taking command and resolving arguments in a ring or in a casino. His religion is very important in this. Even if he had been criticized up and down after the Taylor fight, he is the type who could have handled it. There's this quiet strength to him."

Steele's quiet command of the ring has taken him far from the hot, volatile nights of Southern California boxing arenas. "At the Olympic Auditorium in L.A. once, I had a beer cup thrown at me," he recalls. "It drenched my leg, and I complained to another referee that they were throwing warm beer at me. He just smiled. He said, 'Richard, that's not beer.' "

Steele chuckles heartily and continues, "You know, I remember some of these things at the strangest times. Before Hearns-Hagler [in 1985]—which was the most exciting fight I've ever done—I'm standing in the ring, nervous, nervous, nervous. It was my first really big fight. Then I thought of the Bakersfields and San Bernardinos and the Olympic, and I thought, 'You are ready for this. No one gave you anything.' It's faith. It's what gets you through the hard moments too, like, well, that fight, that night. Are we looking at it again?"

He glances back at the television. Once again a dazed Taylor is on the canvas, instinctively grabbing a rope, hoisting himself up. "See, Meldrick couldn't go on. Look at those legs," says Steele. "Hey, what was that?"

He stops abruptly and leans closer to the screen, the slight tensing of his shoulders indicating he has seen something new, something unwelcome. "Those eyes," he whispers numbly. "Look at all the hurt in them. He wanted it so bad, didn't he? He got so close. Look...."

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