LAS VEGAS -- One hour after Mike Tyson had been declared a controversial winner by knockout over Donovan "Razor" Ruddock in their heavyweight bout outdoors at the Mirage, an even more spirited battle was being waged between co-promoters Don King and Murad Muhammad in the media room.
Muhammad, Ruddock's promoter, said it was referee Richard Steele's close relationship with King, Tyson's promoter, that prompted the referee to stop the fight at 2 minutes, 22 seconds of the seventh round with Ruddock wobbly but still standing.
King said he could not understand what all the fuss was about. He said there was much less outrage when James "Buster" Douglas dethroned Tyson in their "long-count" fight in Tokyo 13 months ago.
But the earlier bout featured King's singular protest over the officiating in Japan. Steele's move Monday night prompted mayhem in the ring.
Bodies were flying everywhere. Muhammad and Ruddock's brother, Delroy, attacked Steele. Handlers of the two fighters began battling in midring. The security guards were overwhelmed.
After order was restored, Muhammad said: "We plan a protest. We plan to sue Steele and the athletic commission."
Ringsiders debated whether Steele was right in stopping one of the best major heavyweight matches in recent years. But an even bigger question was why Steele worked the bout in the first place.
A week before the fight, Delroy Ruddock and Razor Ruddock's adviser, Howie Albert, protested Steele's selection by the Nevada Athletic Commission.
In non-title bouts, referees are selected by state athletic commissions. In title fights, the referee is picked by the sanctioning body.
Muhammad, who promotes Ruddock, said at the time: "The reason is we feel Steele is too close to King. It's no secret among boxing people. But the real problem we have is if Steele will stop the fight too soon. We want him to give Razor the benefit of the doubt."
Those words proved prophetic in the seventh round, when Tyson, leading comfortably on all three judges' cards, drove Ruddock into the ropes with a barrage of blows capped by a vicious right.
With Ruddock listing, Steele -- who has worked 83 championship fights -- quickly threw his arms around him and signaled an end to the fight, triggering loud protests from the crowd of 12,400 and the melee in the ring.
Steele, who is a pit boss at the Golden Nugget Hotel casino, which is also owned by Mirage president Steve Wynn, has become embroiled in other controversies.
A year ago, he was widely criticized for what many considered his unnecessary stopping of the Meldrick Taylor-Julio Cesar Chavez super-lightweight title bout. Taylor, leading by a wide margin, bounced up from a knockdown in the final round and was stunned when Steele stopped the bout with two seconds remaining before the final bell.
In that situation, however, Steele looked into Taylor's eyes and questioned his ability to continue fighting. The same was not true with Ruddock.
Although he later raged, replays of the fight indicated that Ruddock did not vigorously dispute Steele's action when the bout was stopped. In fact, he was seen warmly embracing Tyson while everyone else in the suddenly crowded ring was busy fighting.
The spectators apparently felt cheated. The majority had rallied in support of Ruddock, a 5-1 underdog, after the Canadian survived knockdowns in the second and third rounds and had taken the torrid sixth round by winning several toe-to-toe exchanges with Tyson.
But even Ruddock's staunchest supporters could not argue that Tyson was in command and that it might have taken only one or two more solid punches to finish off Ruddock.
Steele said: "I may have saved a life. The next punch was going to hurt Ruddock badly. We're not talking about gang fights or race riots. Boxing is supposed to be a sport, not war.
"These are two human beings on the line, and no one is going to let me let a fight go too far. A man does not have to be on the floor and counted out in order to surrender. My first responsibility is to protect an injured fighter, and that's exactly what I did."
Ruddock, however, said he had been able to continue.
"I'm a gladiator," he said. "I'm in there to fight to the end, not to quit. That was the worst-refereed fight I've ever been involved with. Tyson fought the dirtiest fight I've seen. Elbows, low blows, hitting after the bell. What did Steele do? Nothing."
Steele did warn Tyson several times but never deducted any points for fouls by the former champion.
Ruddock's handlers seemed to agree that a rematch would be the best way to settle the controversy. But King has bigger plans. Tyson stands to earn at least $15 million for challenging the winner of the Evander Holyfield-George Foreman championship match in Atlantic City, N.J., April 19.