LAS VEGAS -- Richard Steele is a pit boss, supervising the gambling tables at the downtown Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino. The owner is Steve Wynn, who also owns the Mirage hotel on the Strip.
The Mirage was the site of Monday night's heavyweight fight between Mike Tyson and Donovan "Razor" Ruddock. Steele, the pit boss, was the referee.
What was the Nevada Boxing Commission thinking when it let Steele, even though he is a world-class referee, work this fight at his boss' hotel.
Steele wouldn't have been inside the ring in New York, said Randy Gordon, chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. Or in New Jersey, said Randy Neumann, a referee across the Hudson.
"The appearance of conflict is as bad as conflict itself," Gordon said Tuesday. "If it's up to me, he doesn't work the fight."
Neumann was a heavyweight fighter in the 1970s. When he quit, he became a financial consultant. Among his clients were the promoters Dan and Lou Duvas and their stable of fighters. Neumann decided he missed his old game and became a referee.
When he did, he knew he would have to give up his Duva account. "I had to kiss them goodbye," Neumann said, "and that cost me money, a lot of money."
New Jersey Boxing Commission rules forbid any referee, Neumann explained, "from having business dealings, me or my family, with promoters, managers, trainers or boxers. A blind man could see the conflict in Nevada. I'm not saying Steele did anything wrong, but it didn't look good."
Murad Muhammad, Ruddock's promoter, tried to get Steele thrown out earlier in the week at the Nevada commission meeting. "Murad had a legitimate beef," Neumann said. "Wynn had a vested interest in Tyson winning, and Nevada shoved Steele down Murad's throat."
Steele's boss had a contract for the winner of the Tyson-Ruddock bout to fight again at his Mirage June 8. It isn't hard to guess that he preferred Tyson, who sells tickets and is promoted by Don King. King, in turn, can beef up the card with TTC his other champions, as he did Monday night.
Ruddock is a stranger to the non-boxing public. His promoter, Muhammad, owns no impressive supporting players.
"You don't have to be a genius to know something is wrong," Muhammad said. "The man [Steele] has a favoritism when it comes to Mike Tyson." The promoter withdrew his objection to Steele finally, hoping that his earlier complaints would draw attention to the referee and "make Steele do the right thing."
That didn't happen. Maybe Steele had a bad night. Tyson hit low often, initiated two after-the-bell exchanges, used his elbows and punched coming out of a clinch. Steele gave both fighters a warning after the fourth round, but that didn't stop Tyson from punching at the orange stripe on Ruddock's trunks.
We're still calling it a bad night. "It was a tough fight," Neumann said. "If both guys are doing it [low blows], you're less likely to take a point away, but I didn't see Ruddock doing it."
A few days earlier, the chairman of the New York commission, was on the phone to Chuck Minkler, the Nevada commission's executive director. "There's that appearance of impropriety [with Steele]," Gordon told Minkler. "What if there's a quick stoppage?"
"We'll deal with it," Minkler said.
Don't bet on it. They believe Steele is their best referee. He worked a title fight in Tokyo last week and came home Friday. Sunday, he worked another title fight in Las Vegas. Monday night, he was back in the ring for Tyson-Ruddock. Doesn't anybody else in Nevada own a white shirt? Or was he working because whatever King and Wynn want, they get?
The complaint here is not with Steele's stopping the fight too quickly. It's a judgment call.
"I just don't understand why he didn't look at our guy before stopping it," said Howie Albert, who works in Ruddock's corner.
That reminded Albert of something that happened a little more than 14 years ago. He was managing Harold Weston for a fight against Wilfred Benitez. Albert got a call the night before the fight and was told the referee chosen for the fight was just back from having dinner with Benitez's managers.
He found the referee in the hotel bar and screamed at him, "How could you go out with those guys? My kid's life is on the line." He said the referee apologized.
That referee was Richard Steele. He has learned about boxing. He doesn't apologize any more.