• Sal Maiorana

Thunder and Lightning created a storm of controversy

LAS VEGAS, Nev. (March 17, 1990) – It took nearly a decade before boxing referee Richard Steele received closure regarding the most controversial decision of his long and decorated career.

Sometime in 1999 he ran into former welterweight champion Meldrick Taylor, the man who was two seconds away from stunning undefeated legend Julio Cesar Chavez before Steele stopped the bout because Taylor had taken a savage 12th-round beating.

At the time, Taylor was ahead on two judges’ scorecards and had Steele not stepped in, Chavez would have lost for the first time in 69 professional bouts and the boxing world would have been turned on its ear, just as it had been a month earlier when Buster Douglas had stunned Mike Tyson.

Steele was universally vilified for the perceived robbing of what would have been Taylor’s greatest achievement, and for years Taylor could not come to grips with why Steele had done it.

“No way in hell should they have stopped that fight,” Taylor said then, though his feelings changed to the point that by the time he and Steele met by chance nine years later, he told the referee, “I just want to thank you for what you did.”

In recounting that interaction to the Houston Chronicle when he retired from the ring in 2001, Steele said, “I just felt like a weight fell off my shoulders.”

Taylor, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, was the undefeated IBF welterweight champion while Chavez was the WBC belt holder. And the much-anticipated unification bout – promoted under the title of Thunder Meets Lightning, the power-punching Chavez the thunder, the quick-punching Taylor the lightning – lived up to the billing.

Taylor had the best of it over the first nine rounds and it was clear that all he had to do was avoid a knockout and the fight was his. He had relentlessly attacked Chavez and scored on all three cards, but what became apparent at the end of the night was that he had paid a price for his aggressiveness.

Chavez wasn’t exactly standing still and not fighting back. Even as Taylor was racking up points because he was throwing and landing more punches, Chavez was connecting with the bigger shots and those began to wear Taylor down.

Chavez won the 10th round and then had Taylor in a daze as the bell sounded to end the 11th and Taylor actually stumbled toward Chavez’s corner before Steele had to re-direct him to his own. It was later revealed that at this point, Taylor was ahead by five points on one judge’s card and a whopping seven on another, while the third had Chavez curiously ahead by a point.

In Taylor’s corner, trainer Lou Duva was somehow not aware that his fighter was solidly in control. He told him that he needed to win the final round when that couldn’t have been further from the truth. All Taylor had to do was stay upright and it was over.

Taylor went back out on wobbly legs with a face that was badly damaged and remained engaged with Chavez for most of the fateful final 2:58. With 24 seconds remaining Chavez rocked Taylor with a beautiful combination, but again, rather than back away and regroup, Taylor pressed forward where he wound up in a neutral corner and that’s when he ate a straight, vicious and final right hand that floored him.

As the crowd went wild, Taylor used the ropes and was up before Steele’s count reached five, and then Steele went through the mandatory eight count and it appeared Taylor would survive because there wasn’t enough time for Chavez to finish him. However, when Steele finished the count Taylor was still holding onto the ropes. He looked into his eyes and asked if he was OK, got no response, and began waving his arms to end it.

HBO announcer Jim Lampley and analyst Larry Merchant couldn’t believe it, and neither could Duva who came bounding into the ring to confront Steele while Lampley intoned, “This is one of the most unusual calls by a referee in the whole history of the sport.”

Afterward, Steele said, “I saw a beaten fighter, a young man who had fought his heart out but had nothing left. It was a great fight, but it was over.”

Taylor was immediately rushed to a Las Vegas hospital and was not present at the post-fight press conference, but the next day he met reporters and said, “I think I deserved to win. When the knockdown occurred, I wasn’t hurt. I jumped right up. My vision had been blurry since the third round. I couldn’t see the right hand coming. My head was clear. I wasn’t wobbly or stumbling. My hand was on the ropes to steady me, but I thought it was obvious enough I wanted to continue.”

Screams of corruption – after all, Don King was Chavez’s promoter – could be heard in all corners, and Taylor’s management said it would protest the result, though Duva knew that would be fruitless.

“That was a helluva way to lose the fight,” Duva said. “We were

winning the fight for 11 rounds, two minutes and 58 seconds and then

the referee took the fight away from us, and I’m accusing him of taking

the fight away.”

In a testament to what Steele saw in the ring, Taylor was readmitted to the hospital and spent four days there. He suffered from dehydration, blurry vision caused by broken bones around the socket of one eye, and he swallowed more than a pint of his own blood which had to be pumped out.

Steele, who had presided over 70 title bouts by now and would eventually do so in 167 before retiring in 2001, routinely heard boos for years when he was announced ringside as the referee. He said in the Houston Chronicle story that his faith helped him deal with the Chavez-Taylor fallout.

That and the fact that in his heart, he did what needed to be done, a point which Taylor eventually understood.

“It didn’t affect me, I couldn’t allow it to affect me,” said Steele, who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013. “I had to believe in myself, I had to know that I had done the right thing. And for it to affect me, it would make me waver, whether I did or did not do the right thing. I had to keep my strength and my faith. Like I’ve always said, God has been good to me. He kept my belief very high.”