In a sport that's haunted by the specter of tragedy, it's ironic that a referee who steps in to save a boxer from a terrible beating is almost invariably faulted on his timing. He's regarded as having intervened either too late or too soon. The latter accusation was the one leveled last Saturday night in Reno at ref Richard Steele, who stepped between a relentless champion, Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, and a battered and bleeding challenger, Bobby Chacon, at 1:17 of the third round of their WBA lightweight title fight.
That Mancini had been hammering Chacon virtually without letup for six straight minutes appeared to some to be a weak defense for Steele's action. And, when viewed with the aid of hindsight and an HBO videotape, Steele's decision, while quite correct, did seem curiously timed.
Just after a minute into the round, the 134-pound Mancini had Chacon, who at 133� was four pounds heavier than his usual weight for junior lightweight fights, pinned in a neutral corner and was savagely belaboring him. Mancini had opened cuts below and above Chacon's left eye, and blood seeped from another cut on the bridge of Chacon's nose. "Enough," thought Steele, stepping in as if he were going to stop the fight.
But before Steele could act, Chacon fired an ineffectual punch, and, oddly, Steele lowered his arms and stepped back. Then, after Mancini threw three more punches, all wide of their bobbing target, Steele moved in and stopped the fight. And a rain of beer descended from an enraged pro-Chacon gallery.
"As I was going in with the intention of stopping the fight, Bobby threw a punch," Steele said later. "He seemed to come out of it, which sometimes happens, so I stepped back. But then I realized that Bobby had taken enough. It wasn't the cuts—I just didn't feel that Bobby could win. I felt if I let it go on, the only way it would end would be with me counting him out, and I didn't want that. When I end a fight, and I see the two fighters standing and smiling, I feel good."
In the ring, Chacon smiled at Steele and said, "Thank you."
Later, after 10 stitches had closed the slice below his eye, Chacon, a former WBC featherweight and junior lightweight champion, expressed second thoughts. "I don't blame the ref," he said. "I told him in the ring he had done the right thing because I wanted to ease his heart about stopping it. But he shouldn't have stopped it. Hey, I'm an old guy . It takes me a long time to get warmed up. Ray is a young guy , and he comes in and he's ready to go. I need time. I was just getting warmed up when the fight was over." Joe Ponce, Chacon's trainer, disagreed. "If Bobby had lasted the round, I'd have stopped the fight myself."
That Chacon was chopped up hardly came as a surprise. When he beat Rafael (Bazooka) Limon for the junior lightweight crown 13 months ago, he was cut so badly that he needed plastic surgery to repair the damage to his face. And in his last bout before meeting Mancini, a 12-round decision over Cornelius Boza-Edwards last May, he also bled profusely. Steele was the third man in that ring, too. "The difference there," Steele said, "was that Boza-Edwards doesn't punch like a Ray Mancini."
Brute force coupled with a big heart and a stout chin are Mancini's strongest points, although he's also capable of a fair amount of rough-edged ring artistry, certainly more than he's given credit for. "My corner told me I could beat him with the jab," said Mancini, who picked up $1.3 million for his fourth defense of the title he won 20 months ago.
A 5-2 favorite, Mancini opened with a short left and an uncharacteristic air of caution. For the first minute he was content to outduel Chacon with the jab. Then he discovered that Chacon's punches had no snap, so thereafter he went more boldly to the attack. His first furious assault allowed him to win the round easily.