By John Wharton [@WhartoJohn]
Controversy. Some people hate it and some people love it. Some fighters can’t stay away from it, whilst others couldn’t become immersed in it if they tried. It’s often said that it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth but on further inspection, could it be more bittersweet? In the initial aftermath, controversy leads to post mortems online, in the newspapers and on TV. Yet, the further we move away from it, the more memorable it becomes.
What would we talk about as boxing fans if these controversies never happened? What if we never had the famous long count in the fight involving Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney? Nor witnessed the famous anchor punch Muhammad Ali floored Sonny Liston with, in their rematch in Lewiston, ME in 1965. These incidents are still discussed now even as they approach their respective ninety and fifty year anniversaries.
We start with the contest many believe to be the best fight of 1990s, as two champions clashed to unify the junior-welterweight division.
On March 17th 1990, Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez faced off against 1984 Olympic gold medallist Meldrick Taylor in a WBC and IBF junior-welterweight unification bout. The fighter from Culiacan, Mexico had amassed a perfect record of 66 wins from 66 fights, with 58 coming by way of stoppage. Taylor, from Philadelphia, had an almost unblemished record of 24 wins from 25 fights with the sole mark being a draw against former amateur star, Howard Davis Jr.
The setting for the fight was the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and the crowd who gathered that fateful Saturday would leave the arena having watched an unforgettable and legendary night of boxing. Taylor outpunched and outclassed his Mexican opponent and, going into the last round, found himself ahead by wide margins on two of the three judges’ scorecards. All the Philadelphia native had to do was be there at the final bell and the two titles would be his. Late in round twelve, Chavez caught up with his opponent and floored him heavily. Taylor, fatigued and hurt, managed to get up and referee Richard Steele administered the mandatory eight count.
What happened next would be etched in the memories of boxing fans. On reaching the eight count, Steele asked the Philadelphian if he was ok and Taylor appeared to look towards trainer Lou Duva. Steele, apparently unsatisfied with his response, waved the fight over with four seconds remaining.
Twenty four years later and Steele’s decision is still hotly debated, with many boxing fans believing the referee made an incorrect call. There are some who believe Taylor nodded to the official to signal that he was ready to continue, whilst those on the opposite side argue that even with time against him Chavez could have landed the telling blow that could have led to serious injury. After the bout, Taylor was hospitalised for a time after suffering injuries to his liver, kidney and orbital bone.
One of the points of dispute surrounded Chavez’s promoter Don King, with allegations suggesting that Steele had made decisions in the past which benefitted the legendary promoter’s fighters. This view gained more traction when it came to light that Taylor’s trainer Lou Duva had specifically objected to Steele’s appointment and was overruled by the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
There were also some who pointed out how the referee’s actions were in stark contrast to the way he officiated the 1988 bout between Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns and Iran ‘The Blade’ Barkley. In that bout, Hearns was floored heavily by Barkley and, despite being on unsteady feet and in no state to continue, Steele allowed him to carry on. He commented after the bout that a champion like Hearns should be given every chance to defend himself, but he appeared to state the opposite when asked about his actions during Chavez v Taylor.
The allegations of corruption and bribery were never proven. The result, however, remained a black mark against the name of Steele who, at the time, was regarded as one of the best referees in the sport. As a result, he featured less and less in top quality fights.
Chavez retired in 2005 at the age of 43, with an outstanding record of 107-6-2 (86), and is regarded as Mexico’s greatest ever fighter. The Meldrick Taylor story was a less happy one. He was never the same fighter again and despite winning a second world title, at welterweight, he would lose his title within two years. He lost again to Chavez in 1994, this time by an eighth round decision and without a hint of the controversy that tinged their first encounter. A 2003 HBO Legendary Nights documentary showed the fighter to be suffering from pugilistic dementia and many viewers were shocked as they witnessed the decline of a man who at that time was still only 36.