LAS VEGAS — When referee Richard Steele stopped the Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor championship fight with two seconds left, the outcry was considerable.
Taylor, score cards later showed, would have won a split decision in the March 17 fight. But at 2:58 of the 12th round, Steele peered into Taylor's eyes after Taylor had risen from a knockdown at the count of eight. Steele didn't like what he saw and stopped the bout.
Taylor's handlers were incensed. His trainer, Lou Duva, had been on the ring apron during Steele's count, screaming at Steele that the round was over, which was incorrect.
Both Steele and Taylor were distracted by Duva during the count. When Steele asked Taylor, "Are you OK?" Taylor looked at Duva instead of answering Steele.
Reaction was split. Some said Steele should have seen the blinking red light behind Taylor's head, indicating that fewer than 10 seconds remained in the round. Some said the fight shouldn't have been stopped in any case; that the referee should have known so little time remained; that Taylor lost millions of dollars in purses down the road.
Others supported Steele fully, pinning blame on Duva for the stoppage.
The Nevada Athletic Commission, which assigns referees, digested all this. Then, in late March, it was faced with selecting a referee for the next Las Vegas title fight, between featherweights Jorge Paez and Louie Espinoza on April 7.
The selection: Richard Steele.
"Yes, I guess you could say we were trying to deliver a message," Chuck Minker, the commission's executive director, said recently. "We supported him fully; we feel he handled Chavez-Taylor the right way."
Chavez-Taylor and Paez-Espinoza were Steele's 70th and 71st world championship fights. Many believe Steele is pro boxing's best referee. Minker can't say that, because he has to keep other prominent Nevada referees happy. But Minker feels free to deliver another message: " . . . I will say, if you study a list of bouts we've assigned him to work in the last few years, that would pretty much speak for itself."
It would be easy to write that Steele, 46, has become almost as familiar at big Nevada fights as some of the boxers he has refereed. But his ring work is so unobtrusive, his movement so consistent and his presence so understated that he's often not noticed at all.
If you can't remember who refereed a famous fight, chances are it was Richard Steele.
"One of the characteristics of a good referee is that he doesn't get in the fighters' way, doesn't get in the fans' way, and that you hardly notice he's in there," said Duane Ford, Nevada Athletic Commission member.
Steele has worked bouts involving Sugar Ray Leonard four times, Tommy Hearns four times, Marvin Hagler twice and Mike Tyson once.
He's gaining on fellow Nevada referee Carlos Padilla, who has worked 74 world title fights, believed to be the record. A third prominent Nevada referee, Mills Lane, has worked 40.
Steele, though often in the ring with some of the wealthiest athletes in the world, is a light year or two away from their income brackets. And that's how it should be, he said.
The going fee for a referee in a major championship fight is $2,500, paid by the promoter.
"I'm like everyone else. I'd like to make more money, but there's another side to it," he said recently.
"If you were to get to the point where referees were coming into the sport primarily for the money, you'd be in trouble. You'd have guys in there making decisions to keep their jobs, not based on what's best for the fighters.
"The way I look at it, I make $20,000 to $30,000 a year for part-time work, which has taken me all over the world, so I'm not going to kick about that."
Steele has a full-time job as the 4 a.m.-to-noon supervisor in the blackjack pit at the Golden Nugget. He's also a minister, ordained in 1984 at the Calvary Southern Baptist Church in Las Vegas.
Steele is an ex-fighter, and he says to be a good referee, you need to understand that almost all boxers are too fearless.
"My primary responsibility in (the ring) is the safety of the boxers," he said. "That's often a problem, because fighters get themselves into a danger zone. They're too courageous for their own good. Most fighters come up from poverty backgrounds. They're kids who've been told all their lives to go forward, don't retreat, keep fighting, fight for everything you can get, never surrender.
"So, when they get hurt, it's just not in their nature to quit. That's where a referee comes in, knowing when a fighter has had enough. In the case of Taylor, when I looked into his eyes, I didn't like what I saw there.
"I didn't care how much time was left, who was winning the fight or how much money was at stake--that has nothing to do with my job. I decided Taylor wasn't going to take one more punch."