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 133¾ 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.
The pace the champion set in the second round was brutal. Before it was over he had thrown 173 punches, most of them with Chacon backed against the ropes. "It was damn near a 10-8 round," judge Duane Ford would say later.
Chacon earned all of his $575,000 and then some in the third round. He tried to keep the fight in ring center, but Mancini was too strong for him. Soon Chacon once again found himself with his back to the ropes, and there he stayed until Steele stepped in to save him.
"I thought the referee did an excellent job," Mancini said, perhaps remembering his bout with Duk Koo Kim of South Korea, who died four days after Mancini knocked him out in November 1982. "Bobby's eye was bleeding bad. It was really chopped up. If you could've seen it from as close as I did, you'd know it was bad. But Bobby is tough. I threw some shots that would have dropped just about anybody, but he stayed up. So I just put my head on his chest and kept banging."
This was Mancini's third fight since September, his fourth in less than 12 months. Since Aug. 17 of last year, he'd spent 17 out of 21 weeks in training camp. "I need a rest," Mancini said.
Dave Wolf, his manager, smiled at him. "But not a long one," Wolf said. "After the fight, Grif [trainer Murphy Griffith] told me this just confirmed his belief that the more active Ray is, the better he is. So we aren't going to wait too long before going back to camp."
Mancini's options are unlimited, including a step-up in weight to take on Bruce Curry, the WBC junior welterweight champion. "I could go up and feel comfortable at 136 or 137 pounds and still be just as strong," Mancini said. "I just heard the talk about Curry, and it was something of a surprise, but I find it interesting."
Perhaps his biggest potential payday would be against Aaron Pryor, the retired WBA junior welterweight champion. And the two junior lightweight champions, Hector Camacho (WBC) and Roger Mayweather (WBA), have expressed an interest in moving up to light Mancini.
And then, of course, there's Howard Davis, the No. 2 lightweight contender, who was scheduled to fight Tyrone Crawley last Sunday but had to pull out after coming down with the flu. Had Davis fought and won, the WBA would have moved him up from No. 2 contender into the mandatory challenger role.
"Ray Mancini never ducked anybody in his life," the champion snapped when asked about prospective challengers. "Let's get somebody in here to put his name on a piece of paper. Just put us in a ring somewhere and we'll see what happens. All this talk just makes you tired. Right, Bobby?"
Chacon grinned at him. "Yeah. But, Ray, we were supposed to be friends. How come you beat me up?"
Mancini smiled and said, "Just business, Bobby. Just business."