A Forgotten Legend: Freddie Steele

04.04.07 - By Robert Jones: Every once in a while, while rummaging through old boxing records, you come across a fighter you have never heard of before. By no means do I claim to be a boxing expert, but I would have surely thought I had heard of the vast majority of past greats. It’s fighters like Freddie “The Tacoma Assassin” Steele (125-5-11 60 KO’s) that put me back into my place.

Steele was born in 1912 in Seattle, Washington. As a skinny, short 12 year old, Steele walked into a boxing gym for the first time. Steele had become a fan of local Seattle fighter Tod Morgan, who fought 220 times in his career. Because of his idolization of Morgan, Steele decided to see what this “boxing” was all about.. The owner of the gym, Dave Miller, didn’t take him seriously, mainly because of his smallish size and he just figured he was enamored with Morgan and would quit in a short time. After just a few months though, Steele had progressed to such a level that it was impossible to ignore him. He was also gaining fame inside the gym for how hard he was able to hit the heavy bag. Miller would go on to be Steele’s manager for the greater majority of Steele’s career.

In what could be considered what we would call an amateur career today, Miller began pitting Steele against boys roughly his age. Because there wasn’t a very serious amateur organization at this time, these fights ended up being recorded to the young boys’ professional record. There was also the problem of finding other 13 year-old kids who were looking to start their pro careers as well. At this point, he was weighing a little south of 100 pounds. In Steele’s first professional fight, at the age of 13, he beat Jimmy Brett, 17, on a decision. The beginning of a great career had started.

Approaching his 20th birthday he had not yet lost in 46 fights. He was beginning to grow into his body and was now 5’10” and weighed about 140 pounds. It was only five days after his birthday that he would lose his first professional fight.

Sensing great things for his fighter, trainer Johnny Babnick was ready to put him in with a real contender. Tony Portillo was a veteran and fought in the same Washington area Steele was campaigning in. Portillo had won a Pacific Northwest Title, which is akin to a fighter winning one of the regional belts today. Portillo and Steele had drawn on December 11th 1930. Just seven days later Portillo defeated Steele by a 6 round decision. Steele quickly made up for this when he beat Portillo by points on New Years Day 1931, ending the Portillo trilogy 1-1-1. The reason for the loss may be that Steele had been trying to impress the fans the same way he did when he knocked out 77 fight veteran Al Gracio with a single right uppercut in the first round 10 seconds into the fight, just two fights before the Portillo fights. Either way, Steele would continue his long battle to the top.

In between his first loss to Bortillo in December of 1930 and his next loss to Tommy Herman in September of 1972, Steele went on a tear. He would defeat Richard King, Al Gracio (again), Johnny Woods, and Ceferino Garcia (twice) all by knockout. Garcia would later go on to become a middleweight champion, and would even earn a draw against the great Henry Armstrong. Steele’s loss was too quickly rebounded when he would beat Herman a month later on a six round decision. By this point it was getting very hard to ignore Freddie Steele as one of the elite, despite still fighting predominantly in the state of Washington.

In January in 1933 Steele would win the Pacific Northwest Title, but suffered a broken jaw from his opponent Leonard Barnett. Steele was advised not to fight for “several months” while the jaw healed. It was during this time that Steele would be knocked out for the first time, but not from a fighter.

In March of ‘33, while driving his car in Seattle, he was involved in a traffic accident that sent him flying through the air, knocking him out, and giving him a concussion. Despite the still healing jaw, and the after effects of a fairly serious car accident, Steele would return to the ring in May of ‘33.

After three more years of undefeated fighting, where he beat the likes of William Jones, Henry Firpo, Vince Dundee, and Babe Risko, he finally was credited with a world title fight. Since he had already beaten Risko, the middleweight champion, in a non-title fight, it was only fair he got to fight Steele for the crown. On July 11th, 1936, 10 years after the start of his career, and 122 fights later, he out pointed Risko over 15 one-sided rounds and his career had come full-circle.

As champion, Steele would go onto to beat Gus Lesnevich (non-title match), Gorilla Jones, Babe Risko, Frank Battaglia, and Ken Overlin. In 1938 Steele would come face to face with an injury that would pretty much end his career as a top fighter.

In a fight that could be considered the “Gatti-Ward” of their time, Steele was fighting Apostoli in a non-title fight when he broke his breastbone, an imaginably painful injury. Unable to defend himself, referee Author Donovan stopped the fight awarding the victory to Apostoli. It ended a 56 fight undefeated streak, and one of the top primes of any fighter in history. Steele would never be the same after this fight, but then again, neither would Apostoli.

Steele would somehow comeback just a month later and would win his next three fights against Bob Turner, Carmen Bath, and Solly Krieger. The Krieger fight had taken a lot out of him, and it was just six weeks later he was scheduled to fight another Washington state legend, Al Hostak. By this point the breastbone injury had been too much, and after just one round Steele was knocked out by Hostak. Steele would try a comeback three years later, but would lose to Jimmy Casino.

Steele went on to star in Hollywood movies after his fighting career, included having a strong supporting role along star Richard Mitchum in the 1945 war classic “Story of G.I. Joe.” During this time he also was the owner of a tavern in his adopted hometown of Tacoma, called “Blue Moon.”

Where does he rate all-time? It’s hard to say. If he had been awarded a title shot earlier in his career it could have been his record that Bernard Hopkins would have been trying to beat for most successful title defenses. It’s hard to say he was one of the best pound for pound fighters because he started at such a young age so he was going to naturally grow, but he has to be very well close to the top 10 of all middleweights ever. Sure, he only had 60 KO’s in 125 wins, but you have to remember that he was fighting at 13 years old. In his prime he knocked out fighters that would go on to become great contenders, and even world champions.

Article posted on 04.04.2007

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