Saturday, May 19, 2007 | 6:52 a.m.
An iconic figure in the annals of boxing, Richard Steele acknowledges he was initially skeptical about venturing into the realm of mixed martial arts.
"I've been in boxing for over 40 years," said Steele, a hall of fame referee and third man in the ring for some of the sport's most memorable fights. "Boxing is my first love. For me to make a jump from boxing into MMA, I needed some convincing."
Yet Steele has made the leap, as founder and co-owner of the newly formed International Fighting Organization and its promotional arm, Steele Cage.
The organization plans to hold its first card July 7 at the Orleans Arena with mixed martial arts veteran Marvin "The Beastman" Eastman fighting Rob Kimmons in the 185-pound main event.
Steele credits his partner in the promotion, Las Vegas attorney Steve Oshins, for helping to educate him in the finer points of mixed martial arts.
"He understood that MMA is something new, something exciting and it brings out a lot of younger fans," Steele said. "What got my attention was how he explained what MMA really was all about.
"For years, people would ask, can a boxer beat a wrestler? Can a wrestler beat a jiu jitsu expert? Can a jiu jitsu expert beat a striker?
"Now you have guys who have been trained in all forms of martial arts - in boxing, in wrestling, jiu jitsu, kicks. Those guys really are complete fighters."
The July 7 show will also feature mixed martial arts standouts such as David Loiseau, Brandon Shelton, Eric Payne and Zac George. It will be televised on HDNet, the high-definition channel founded by Mark Cuban.
Steele was impressed by the grappling experts he encountered in making the card, including Shelton and George.
"It's remarkable how big wrestling is in the Midwest," Steele, a 25-year resident of the Las Vegas area, said. "We have three former state wrestling champions on this card, and they went on to learn the boxing and jiu jitsu, the same way you see guys from a boxing background who had to learn the other arts."
Before launching his own promotion, Steele attended, as a fan, several of the wildly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship shows in Las Vegas. Like others who came to the UFC from a boxing background, he was struck by how frequently its biggest stars were matched against each other in the octagon.
Boxing would do well to take notice, Steele said, the recent megafight between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. notwithstanding.
"There will always be a place for boxing," Steele said. "It's not going anywhere. But the reason it's having a tough time is that there are not enough great matchups anymore.
"They have De La Hoya-Mayweather and everybody pays attention, but Mayweather doesn't have many credible opponents. Even when he beat De La Hoya, he was probably outweighed by 15 pounds in the ring."
Boxing needs more bouts like those he officiated a generation ago, Steele said, classics such as Marvin Hagler against Thomas Hearns, Hagler against Sugar Ray Leonard, and Aaron Pryor against Alexis Arguello.
Steele, who also refereed a half-dozen of Mike Tyson's fights, considers himself an ambassador for boxing and says he never tires of speaking with fans about those great bouts, or even the controversial finish of the first Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor fight in 1990 at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Taylor was winning on the scorecards when Steele, concerned about Taylor's deteriorating physical condition, halted the bout with two seconds remaining, and Chavez won by technical knockout.
The stoppage elicited boos, but Steele believes history has exonerated him, because he felt Taylor's health and safety were in immediate jeopardy.
Steele still rates that bout as perhaps the best action fight until the first Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo match in 2005.
An ordained minister, Steele presided at this week's funeral for Corrales, who died in a motorcycle crash at age 29. "Much too young to leave us," Steele said.
It's unfortunate that action-filled fights such as Corrales-Castillo have become the exception rather than the rule in boxing, Steele said. That's another reason fighting enthusiasts - including Steele - are drawn to mixed martial arts.
"In boxing, a lot of fighters waltz around, dance around the whole time," Steele said. "In MMA it's different. Most fights are three rounds, or five for a championship fight. They have to go all out. These kids come out fighting, hitting, kicking.
"There's no time for waltzing."