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Going the distance: Legendary boxing ref offers kids spot in the ring

Updated June 24, 2022 - 2:35 pm

Legendary boxing referee Richard Steele always put the well-being of fighters first when he served as arbiter of some of the most famous boxing matches in history.

“Safety,” Steele said. “A lot of people don’t realize how dangerous boxing can be. One punch it could be over with. If you let it go too far, too long, it could be over with. You could ruin a young kid’s life. That was my major thing.”

These days, the 78-year-old’s concern for the well-being of others is focused on kids at his gym, The Richard Steele Foundation & Boxing Club in North Las Vegas.

Steele and the North Las Vegas Police Department are working to get more kids into the gym on West Cheyenne Avenue so they can learn to fight in a safe, structured environment that offers discipline and guidance.

“I wanted to have a place where young kids can come and feel safe,” said Steele, who lives in Henderson. “They don’t have to show how bad they are. They don’t have to worry about bullies. Come in and relax and have fun, but at the same time learn something to protect themselves.”

Police joined with Steele on June 18 to host a free boxing exhibition for kids known as the Juneteenth Classic, with more than 80 kids and parents in attendance.

North Las Vegas community policing officer Teodoro Mendez Jr. said police secured a large amount of boxing gear donated by the local business Ruby Has. The boxing gloves, shoes and wraps were doled out to prospective young fighters.

“I can’t think of no better way to help kids who need a helping hand,” Mendez said, adding that North Las Vegas officers hand out Steele’s business cards to kids they encounter while patrolling the streets.

Aspiring professional boxers Jantzen Odusanya, 18, and Carlos Pena, 15, train at Steele’s gym four days a week under guidance from Steele and boxing coaches.

The teens said they respect Steele and his coaches immensely, and that the partnership with police is positive.

“I think that’s pretty cool,” Odusanya said. “You can also use the gym as a safe house. You can come here to stay out of trouble. To stay out of the streets. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about. We are out here trying to make way for our family.”

Joshua Griffin, of Las Vegas, has been bringing his 13-year-old son, Izayah, to the gym for several weeks. He described Izayah as a special needs child who benefits from the exercise he gets at the gym.

“He is highly intelligent when it comes to engineering, technology, stuff like that, but when it comes to movement, physical fitness, we are not all the way there,” Griffin said. “With a certain type of training from the Richard Steele program, we can help him get there.”

Steele grew up in Los Angeles, then joined the Marines and was a member of the Marine Corps boxing team. He said he boxed in the 1964 Olympic trials before becoming a professional fighter. A successful boxing career ended due to injury, which in turn led him to become a referee in the early 1970s.

“I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to be kidding me. A referee? I don’t want to be no referee. I want to fight,’” Steele recalled.

But Steele said the decision to become a referee ended up being the best move he ever made.

He said he oversaw approximately 175 title fights. Fights he refereed involved famous pugilists like Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. He said he’s been inducted into four different halls of fame, including the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Boxing, Steele said, has offered him a wonderful journey through life, including time spent with Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

He described his work at the gym as some of the most rewarding of his career, and he hopes to change the perspectives some youth have of police.

“It means they can get along with other officers out on the street,” Steele said. “So, when the police stop them, they don’t have to be afraid.”

Contact Glenn Puit by email at gpuit@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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