There will never
be any getting away from it, he says with a sigh. A fight for the ages.
History, man. Wow, it takes something out of you. When someone suggests to
referee Richard Steele that he play a videotape of the fight's final seconds,
Steele admits that he hasn't studied the tape much, and that he is not
particularly eager to relive those moments. Finally, he smiles and makes a
good-natured concession. "Oh, let's play it."
There, again, is
Meldrick Taylor getting poleaxed by WBC super lightweight champion Julio C�sar
Ch�vez. There is Taylor, the IBF champ, rising unsteadily from the canvas. Now
Steele is riveted to the TV, watching his wincing self tenderly hold the
battered Taylor's bloody cheeks in his hands. Steele's smile has faded. "It
gives me cold chills to see it," he says. "I see what I saw then. I
made the only call I could. But it makes me tense watching this, like I'm in
cannot be detected, at least not in Steele's eyes, which are almond-shaped and
virtually devoid of eyelashes, a feature that contributes to an aura of
serenity. In truth, he says now, he was terribly nervous that night in Las
Vegas almost a year ago—as he always is before a big fight. Waiting in a corner
before the opening bell, he had gone through his routine, saying his prayers,
asking for the strength to protect each boxer from getting badly hurt and for
the wisdom not to deprive the fans of a single exciting flurry.
to his craft is part of the reason that, at 47, Steele has already refereed 83
title bouts, including four of Sugar Ray Leonard's, four of Thomas Hearns's,
two of Marvin Hagler's and one of Mike Tyson's. He worked his first
championship fight in 1976—a WBC bantamweight bout in Los Angeles between
Carlos Zarate and Paul Ferreri—and went on to preside over many of the sport's
epic encounters. Chiefly for its bizarre finish, Taylor-Ch�vez would take its
place on that list.
Through 10 rounds
the bout belonged to Taylor. Far ahead on two of the three judges' scorecards
and narrowly trailing on the third, Taylor appeared to be on his way to a
12-round decision. Even Steele, as dispassionate as his job requires him to be,
had to admit to himself that he was impressed by Taylor's courage and mastery
of the ring. A referee is only human, he would remark.
At the bell
ending the 11th, a punishing round for both fighters, Taylor stumbled woozily
back to his corner. From the second round on he had been bleeding profusely
from a cut inside his mouth, and though no one yet knew it, he had lost—mostly
swallowed—two pints of blood. His left cheek looked ominously puffy, the
result, it would later be determined, of a blowout fracture of the bony rim
around his left eye. Only one round remained, but Steele had serious questions
about whether Taylor could survive it.
Summoning all he
had left, Taylor boxed brilliantly in the first half of Round 12. This kid is
going to do it, Steele thought, he's going to take Ch�vez's title. Then, with
16 seconds left in the fight, Ch�vez landed a straight right to Taylor's
Taylor dropped as
if shot. An animal howl arose from the 9,000 spectators in the ballroom of the
Hilton. Taylor pulled himself up at the count of five, but did not take his
hands off the ropes. "You O.K.?" Steele clearly asked him, over the
bedlam. There was no response. "You O.K.?" he repeated.
Taylor did not,
or could not, meet Steele's gaze. Taylor's head swiveled, his eyes looking
vacantly toward his right, in the direction of his trainer, Lou Duva. Steele
would earn only $2,500 for his night's work, but millions of dollars hung on
what he did next.
Looking again at
the tape of the fight, Steele rises and stands in front of the TV, watching
himself looking into Taylor's eyes. "I seemed shocked too, didn't I?"
he says. "But I saw a beaten fighter looking for help. His dazed eyes
weren't changing. He couldn't take another punch. And I thought, I'm going to
have to help this kid. He can't take any more. This kid has fought his heart
out, won most of the rounds, but it hasn't worked out. He's looking for help. I
have to be the one."