Las Vegas Sun

July 31, 2014

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A fight night homage to the Hilt

Ron Kantowski recalls an epic bout as the hotel welcomes boxing back

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Ken Levine / Allsport

Julio Cesar Chavez celebrates his 12th-round technical knockout of Meldrick Taylor on March 17, 1990, at the Las Vegas Hilton. The fight between undefeated boxers was stopped with only two seconds remaining and with Taylor ahead on two scorecards.

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Richard Steele, the referee who made the call to stop the Chavez-Taylor bout, talks about the controversial move recently. He now owns and operates a boxing gym in Las Vegas, and says he still has to defend his decision to boxing fans.

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  • Richard Steele, the referee who made the controversial call to end the the March 18, 1990 boxing match between Julio Caesar Chavez and Meldrick Taylor talks about his decision.
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  • Steele discusses his decision to retire from refereeing shortly after the Chavez vs. Taylor fight.
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  • Steele on the return of boxing to the Las Vegas Hilton.
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When I heard the Las Vegas Hilton was getting back into the boxing business — tonight is the debut of Tuesday Night Fights, with loquacious 41-year-old Kevin Kelley stepping out of the broadcast booth to throw jabs in the main event — it rekindled two memories.

The first was a day-after press conference — I think it was after the Tommy Hearns vs. Iran Barkley fight — when I was introduced to Bo Derek, who was quite the fight fan. I remember thinking the movie people had scored her too low, that she was more like a “12” in real life. Her fragrance was still wafting in the part of my brain where unspoken fantasies go when somebody came crashing through the door and said one of the Mayweathers — I think it was Roger — had just wrecked his car out on Paradise Road.

The second memory was of March 17, 1990. That was the day I met Jim Murray, the best sportswriter who ever lived. It also was the night Meldrick Taylor fought Julio Cesar Chavez. How’s that for an exacta?

When it comes to boxing venues, the outdoor stadium at Caesars Palace will always be the undisputed champ. But back in the day, the Las Vegas Hilton was the No. 1 contender. Next to the one in Chicago where the Democratic National Convention delegates stayed, it might have been the most famous of Conrad Hilton’s fine hotels, with the biggest difference being that the right hooks thrown in anger here were courtesy of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.

Anyway, back to March 1990. Tyson’s mouthpiece had been knocked halfway up Mount Fuji by Buster Douglas just a month before and it seemed as if every time you turned around somebody was scheduling a big fight, because this was the era when the big-name fighters actually fought each other instead of guys from Omaha in dreaded tune-up bouts.

And a lot of those big fights wound up at the Hilton. As Richard Steele, the famous referee, said, “The Hilton always had that buzz” on fight night.

The bumblebees were at full song in anticipation of the showdown pitting Chavez, the hard-punching Mexican demigod who was 232-0, or something like that, against Taylor, who was likewise undefeated and faster than the top of the Homestead Grays batting order.

I’ll let Murray’s column from the Los Angeles Times put the night into perspective. All the italicized words are his:

I have never been a fan of the prizefighter, Julio Cesar Chavez.

I am now.

I thought he was overrated. I thought he was too small, too slow, couldn’t punch hard enough, couldn’t box oranges.

How he won 68 fights with no defeats confounded me. All I could think of was Leo Durocher’s line about Eddie Stanky. “He can’t run, he can’t hit, he can’t field — all he does is beat you.”

Perhaps you saw it, perhaps only read abut it, but Julio fought a pretty nifty, speedy Philadelphian, the ex-Olympic gold medal winner Meldrick Taylor. Now Taylor was not 68-0 but he was 24-0-1, which is the next best thing.

I remember getting to the Hilton real early. It was so early the Mexican mariachi bands hadn’t yet arrived to begin serenading Chavez and the Benihana restaurant wasn’t accepting reservations. In the press room, a bunch of boxing writers and freeloaders (fine line there) were gathered around the TV set, where UNLV was playing basketball against Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament.

Remember, this was 1990.

That’s where I met Jim Murray. He was standing there, squinting, because by then his eyesight was very bad. Or maybe it was because Billy Packer had just said something crazy. Anyway, I introduced myself to him, told him how much I admired his work, and that he was the biggest reason I chose to write about sports. He was extremely flattered, or at least acted like it, and said it was a pleasure to meet me, too.

A couple of hours later, the mariachis were blowing on their trumpets and that buzz Richard Steele talked about had grown into about a 50,000-megawatt lightning bolt of renewable energy as the fighters made their way to the ring. My seat was in the front row. Jim Murray’s was in the fourth row. I offered to trade seats with him, but he graciously declined.

Then the bell rang and all hell broke loose.

Sometimes, you find out more about a man in a fight he loses. I found out about Julio Cesar Chavez in a fight he lost in Las Vegas the other night.

Oh, I know the record books will say Julio Cesar won that fight but, take my word for it, he didn’t.

He took a right proper licking for 11 1/2 rounds. At least I thought he did. So did two of the ringside judges. A guy who was not so sure was referee Richard Steele. Well, he was closer to the action than any of us.

Taylor gave Chavez a pretty good going over most of the fight. He repeatedly got off first and winged three punches to Julio’s one. He dug lefts in Julio’s body that seemed to lift him two feet in the air.

(But) let us render to Cesar the things that are Cesar’s.

Chavez vs. Taylor

If early rounds counted, in war, Germany and Japan would have been the winners of World War II. Let’s put it this way: They had a great first half. But you don’t score a football game by quarters or a baseball game by innings.

Julio Cesar Chavez strikes me as being that kind of fighter who would discount the early rounds. He is like a plumber trying to find out where the leak is. When he finds it, he goes to work on it.

There was the interesting discovery at the fight Saturday night that, as the rounds wore on, you began to notice a peculiar thing: Taylor was doing all the landing — but Taylor was doing all the bleeding, too.

By now, if you’ve seen the HBO documentary, or have an uncle who is a fight fan, you probably know the rest of the story. In the dying seconds of the Fight of the Year and the Fight of the Decade, Taylor, way ahead on two of the judges’ scorecards, walked into a right hand from Chavez that would have stopped a steam locomotive. Only Taylor somehow managed to get up.

The crowd went crazy. The mariachis blew on their trumpets even harder. It was raining Corona beer.

Then Steele waved his hands in front of the bloody, swollen mess that had been Taylor’s face.

When he got up, the referee stopped the contest. There were two seconds — two seconds! — left in the fight. It was the most astonishing hook in the history of the fight game. More than 9,000 jaws dropped in the arena, and on cable television, millions couldn’t believe their eyes.

By the time Steele would have wiped off Taylor’s gloves, the final bell would have rung.

Now, I yield to no man in my belief that you cannot stop a one-sided fight too soon. But I must admit you can stop one too late.

To this day, Steele has to defend his decision to boxing fans, although not nearly as many as before. Taylor had taken such a whupping that he was never the same fighter. Or human being. Today, he has trouble speaking. Boxing writer William Nack said Taylor’s prime was literally beaten out of him that night.

“Ten percent of the people think I should have let it go, but 90 percent of people all over the world realize the kid was done,” said Steele, who now owns and operates a boxing gym in Las Vegas.

Steele was the third man in the ring for 172 world title fights. None, he said, was more intense, more dramatic, more memorable than Chavez vs. Taylor.

“People all over the world are still talking about it,” Steele said. “So it had to be great.”

On that topic, I never saw Jim Murray again, but I did read his story the next day in the Los Angeles Times.

It was about 100 times better than mine.

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