Enthusiastic Steele Switching Gears to MMA

By Mike Sloan Jul 6, 2007
No matter what he does with the rest of his life, Richard Steele will be inexorably linked to boxing. But this Saturday, the Hall of Fame referee steps into a new realm when he lends his name to mixed martial arts for the aptly titled Steele Cage Promotions.

Steele, who has refereed more world championship boxing matches than anyone in the history of the sport, has teamed up with Steve Oshins for his maiden voyage into the cage at Las Vegas's Orleans Arena.

"We have put together some really exciting fights," said Steele. "Some good match-ups. You can only go by films, their records and the type of fights that they have had in the past and when we put all three ingredients together, we came up with some great match-ups."

Steele and Oshins are trying to get their brand of MMA off the ground with the International Fighting Organization, the sanctioning body behind Steele Cage Promotions, which is looking to swipe a piece of the growing MMA pie.

The sport has been on a torrid ascent to mainstream status thanks to the popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is without question the brand that holds a stranglehold on the sport in the United States.

"Our goal is to have the best champions in the world," Steele said. "If we can come up with the best champions in the six different weight divisions, then the public itself will demand whoever it is, whether it be the UFC or PRIDE or whoever, then the public will demand that their champions will fight our champions. That's what I really want, for all of the champions to fight each other and for us to get to the level that the UFC and PRIDE is."

Steele said he is grateful that the UFC exists because he can follow its footsteps on how to properly run and market a show.

"They (Zuffa) are really the ones who have made the headway for other promoters like myself to come along and be able to promote proper shows in many states," he said. "They laid the groundwork for us … and made mixed martial arts acceptable. I take my hat off to them and they have been very fair with me. I'm not trying to compete with them."

Since the explosion of mixed martial arts in America, mostly due to the popularity and success of the SpikeTV reality series The Ultimate Fighter, which in turn has allowed the UFC to generate millions upon millions of dollars in revenue, many copycat shows have come and gone faster than a tornado in Tulsa.

Steele understands the risks and is adamant that he and his team at the IFO won't falter like so many other upstart MMA organizations.

"Well, we are keeping our prayers with God and He has blessed us already with HDNet," Steele said. "He has also blessed us with getting a sponsor that will make sure that we don't go under as quickly as others have so we can build on. We do have a sponsor and that is Vegas Fuel, which is an energy drink and they have bought us 10 shows a year for three years. So we do have money to continue to promote our shows. One of the problems with those shows that went under was that they didn't have a TV deal on any kind of network and they didn't have no sponsors. It's hard to get a sponsor without a TV (deal)."

Steele seems very enthused to be a part of MMA, especially after spending the vast majority of his life involved with boxing. He sees this change of pace as a breath of fresh air, though both sports share similar treasures and pitfalls. Steele first retired from boxing in January 2001, ending his initial stint as the most decorated referee by officiating the memorable battle between Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and the late, great Diego Corrales.

Steele plunged headfirst into boxing promotions and his company, Richard Steele Promotions, did fairly well. He promoted shows across the Western portion of the U.S. for about three years but decided to cease as a boxing promoter after returning to the ring to referee prizefights.

"As a boxing promoter, we had a lot of obstacles to jump over," Steele said. "We had more obstacles in boxing than we do in MMA. You have a lot of fighters in boxing that belong to other promoters and without these name fighters you can't even get TV for it. There's no putting on a good card where you might be able to draw a good gate. Boxing is hard. I did it for three years and I went around to New Mexico, Mexico, California and Las Vegas. I did it all in those four spots and I thought I did pretty good but I never could get a name fighter on my card because they were all signed to other, bigger promoters.

"Where in MMA, you have so many good fighters and there's very few promoters that have them all signed up. I really have a good chance to get some of those good fighters and at the same time also build some good fighters that haven't already been signed by another promoter. That makes a big difference and even with this, our first promotion, we have some great fighters already fighting for the world title. One came from the UFC but they weren't using him so they gave me permission to use him and that is Marvin Eastman (Pictures). He has one or two more fights with them and the others weren't even signed because the UFC can't sign all of them fighters. There are a lot of really good fighters out there that the public don't even know about and we want to help them and give them the opportunity to fight and become great champions."

The cynics might point out that since Richard Steele Promotions never really took hold of the sport of boxing and it didn't generate the kind of profits that larger promotional firms as Don King Productions, Top Rank and Gary Shaw Productions, why would anybody think his fortunes will reverse with MMA?

Whether he wants to or not, Steele will be competing with an enormous company in Zuffa that is notorious for the way it treats opposing promoters. If dozens of other smaller MMA shows have been "crushed," as UFC president Dana White calls it, how positive and confident can Steele and his cohorts be considering they don't have anywhere near the bankroll to scoop up the best or most popular fighters in the sport?

Steele thinks it's a bit simpler than that and feels comfortable that his relationship with the head brass at Zuffa will not curtail what he plans to achieve with Steele Cage.

"You mentioned Dana White," he said. "Well, we have been friends for a very long time. Lorenzo Fertitta and I have been friends for many years as well. The Fertitta Family and Dana White: they are my friends and I don't have anything against them. We are in the same business that I am in and I am quite sure they won't have anything against me, either. I asked them if I could use one of their fighters and they gave me a written permission to use that fighter. It's just that simple."

Being a fight promoter is tough enough, especially when you share the same city with the largest MMA organization in the world. But Steele revealed that his job has become a little easier thanks to his company signing on with a respectable television network.

"We have Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, we have a deal with his network, HDNet pay cable," Steele gushed. "That's what we have for our first four shows. We will do all of our shows, especially in the first year, here in Las Vegas. We have four shows booked this year already, with the first show being this Saturday, 7-7-07. Our next show will be at the Riviera on September 1. The next show will be back at the Orleans on September 21 and then we will go back to the Riviera December 15. We might put a fight on in between those (last two) dates somewhere in there but I don't know. So we have those four shows this year and hopefully we will do eight to 10 shows next year. They will be here in Las Vegas because we want to stay here and build a fan base here. With the HDNet deal that reaches over 6 million homes, hopefully we can stay with them until something better comes along."

Very shortly the world will know first hand whether or not Steele Cage's debut show will run as smoothly as Steele refereed so many hundreds of fights. But more importantly, MMA will eventually know if the IFO's Steele Cage is a major contender, or at least a viable alternative, to the UFC.

With his fingers crossed, his faith in his lord and with a little luck, maybe Richard Steele is onto something here.

Is the IFO something that will surpass the WFAs, Reality Fighting Championships, Revolution Fighting Championships? Only time will tell but Steele and his team do seem to have the enthusiasm to make it happen.
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