During the dark days of the Great Depression, Tacoma boxer Freddie Steele captured the region's imagination as he rose to his sport's ultimate coronation: world champion. Steele's footwork, speed, and fearsome punching power dazzled fans, demolished opponents, and earned him the moniker "The Tacoma Assassin." He won 123 fights, with six losses, 11 draws, and 58 knockouts, and defeated six past or future middleweight champions in an era that saw the middleweight crown change hands 14 times. In this procession of champions, Steele held the longest reign over the belt during the 1930s. He went from prizefighter to Hollywood actor, appearing in several films in the 1940s, including a supporting role in the acclaimed movie, The Story of G.I. Joe. After his days in Hollywood, Steele returned to Washington and operated a restaurant and bar in Westport. Though not born in Tacoma, Steele was raised there, and the city proudly claimed him as one of its own.
Born Frederick Earle Burgett in Seattle on December 18, 1912, to Virgie Cloud Burgett, Freddie Steele was raised by his mother and stepfather, Charles E. Steele. The family moved to Concrete after Freddie's birth, and then to Bellingham. Young Freddie immersed himself in sports, excelling in basketball, baseball, swimming, and golf, and harboring dreams of becoming a boxer as early as age 6, an idea his parents hoped he would outgrow. Often Freddie could be found shadowboxing in his backyard, imitating the style of his idol, junior lightweight champion Tod Morgan. At age 12, Freddie picked up his first pair of boxing gloves, and while details of his early forays into the ring are sketchy, John Owen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote that, "he had nine pro fights, mostly around Bellingham, by the time he was 13. The purses started at $2.50 and when Freddie signed for his first $12.50 bout he thought he was Diamond Jim" ("Old Pals ...").
Steele caught the attention of Tacoma boxing manager Dave Miller, and unbeknownst to them, the two would forge a brotherhood that would be broken only by death. Miller, a rotund, jolly fellow, with a cigar always in hand, moved Steele to Tacoma, put him up in a room at the Lincolnshire Hotel, supplied him with food and clothing, and funneled the rest of his earnings into a savings account. At the Northwest Athletic Club, Miller and trainer Jack Connors began to train Steele, teaching him the fundamentals of pugilism, and soon Steele was sparring with older fighters and knocking them all over the ring. Miller had a prodigy on his hands.
Steele attended Bellarmine High School, where his exploits as an all-around athlete earned notice. He lettered in basketball and baseball, and though weighing a scant 132 pounds, made Bellarmine’s midget football team as a fullback and lifted them to a city title. While Steele pursued his interest in sports, Miller had reservations, especially with him playing football; he did not want his fighter's burgeoning boxing career to end because of a football injury. To sidestep Miller, Freddie adopted the name "Johnson" in hopes of fooling his manager and continuing to play -- but Miller caught on to his game. Suffering from leg cramps, Steele blamed them on road work. Miller was not duped. "I know you have been playing football up at Bellarmine. I've seen you in every game you played," he told Steele ("Freddie Steele, Happy as Basketball Fan"). At that moment, his football career was grounded.
Up the Ranks
Steele was 17 when he fought his first main event, on December 19, 1929, against Jimmy Pavolic in Tacoma. He coolly boxed his way to victory with repeated sharp left jabs that damaged his challenger's nose and face. Despite being outweighed by Pavolic, the phenom made up for it with his height and superior reach. Impressed by Steele, Dan Walton of The News Tribune wrote, "A little more experience, he will be the best of them, provided he gets no bad breaks" ("Steele Beats Jimmy Pavolic in Main Event"). Steele continued to climb from there, going undefeated in his first 39 fights. His first professional defeat came a day before his 18th birthday when he lost a six-round decision to Tony Portillo at the Crystal Pool in Seattle. A month later, he started another long winning streak by avenging his loss to Portillo in their rematch at the Greenwich Coliseum in Tacoma.
By 1932, Steele was competing in the professional ranks as a welterweight, facing stiffer competition. His first big test came on May 18 against rugged, hard-hitting future middleweight champion Ceferino Garcia. Steele entered the fight at Seattle's Civic Ice Arena as an underdog against the 26-year-old Garcia, an established main-eventer. But to the surprise of many, Steele knocked out Garcia in the second round. Six months later, he knocked out Garcia again in their rematch. By his 20th birthday, Steele had engaged in 82 fights, compiling a record of 72-2-8, with 29 knockouts, and avenged both of his losses in rematches. He was now the King of the Northwest, and the best was yet to come.
Quickly, a Middleweight Contender
By 1934, Steele, who stood 5 feet 10, had been transformed from a puny and fragile featherweight to a bona fide middleweight carrying 157 to 160 pounds on his wiry, chiseled frame. Physically, he was ready for his biggest test to date, which came on May 22 against former middleweight champion William Landon "Gorilla" Jones, a skillful and canny knockout specialist with an exceptionally long reach. Steele and Jones slugged it out for 10 rounds at the Civic Ice Arena, but the judges couldn't separate them and scored the bout a draw. Steele would meet Jones two more times during his career, winning both fights by unanimous decision.
Steele finished 1934 unbeaten in 14 fights, winning nine of them by knockout. In 1935, he faced the top contenders in the middleweight division and went undefeated in 12 fights, winning eight by knockout. His KO victims included Baby Joe Gans and Swede Berglund, and he outpointed Jones in their first rematch. But it was his April Fool's Day fight against future middleweight champion Fred Apostoli that catapulted Steele onto the national scene.
Steele stepped into the lion's den against Apostoli; the Civic Auditorium in Apostoli's hometown of San Francisco was filled with more than 6,000 partisan fans. The first five rounds were even, with the clever Apostoli employing a crouch to stymie Steele's attack. In the middle of the sixth round, Steele began to pick up steam, peppering his opponent with crippling body shots. Steele's hammers took their toll on Apostoli, and his defenses began to falter. In the ninth round, Apostoli twice collapsed to the canvas without being hit. One minute into the 10th round, the referee waved the fight off, saving Apostoli from further punishment.
Three months later, Steele's reputation as a murderous puncher reached its apex. In Seattle, Steele met former middleweight champion Vince Dundee in the confines of the Civic Ice Arena. What was supposed to be a match between top contenders turned lopsided as Steele pummeled Dundee, flooring him 11 times in three rounds. Dundee was helpless, and referee Tommy McCarthy seemed to freeze like a deer in headlights as the carnage unfolded. Steele threatened to quit if the referee did not stop the fight, and with the crowd also begging for mercy, McCarthy finally stepped in and ended it. Dundee was hospitalized with a concussion and his jaw broken in three places; he didn't fight again for two years.
In January 1936, Steele graced the cover of boxing's preeminent editorial voice, The Ring magazine, which touted "The Tacoma Assassin" as the best middleweight in America. Many people, especially in the Northwest, figured correctly that 1936 would be an excellent year for Freddie Steele.
Winning the Title
On March 24, 1936, in a non-title bout at the Civic Ice Arena, Steele defeated middleweight champion Babe Risko, repeatedly landing his vaunted right to decisively win a 10-round decision. Risko, bruised and bloodied, left the ring with his days as titleholder numbered. Steele would face the champion again, this time with the middleweight crown on the line, in their rematch, scheduled for July 10, 1936, in Seattle. The Steele-Risko title bout was described as the biggest fight staged in the Pacific Northwest since Jack Dempsey beat Tommy Gibbons at Shelby, Montana, 13 years previously. Fans and media came from far and wide for the scheduled July 10 bout, only to be disappointed when heavy rain soaked Civic Stadium, forcing promoter Nate Druxman to postpone the fight for 24 hours. The skies cleared on July 11, and a crowd estimated at more than 27,000 packed into the stadium, most of them rooting for Steele.
In light of his previous victory against Risko, Steele entered the fight as the betting favorite. The audience roared when the ring announcer introduced him, giving Steele its full encouragement. At the sound of the bell signaling the start of the first round, he maneuvered to the center of the ring, in his signature bouncing form, looking for an opening. Steele uncorked a powerful left hook, catching Risko on the jaw and sending him straight to the canvas. The champion got up at the count of seven, but Steele continued to pour it on, hitting Risko with his full repertoire of punches. Later, Steele began headhunting to inflict more damage, and in later rounds he opened deep cuts over Risko's eyes. One writer described his punches as "having the effect of a slash from a saber" ("Tacoma Assassin: Thunder Punching Freddie Steele").
Steele maintained the attack round after round, piling up points on scorecards kept by the two judges and the referee. Not only was Steele scoring with savage blows, but he was masterful in blocking and countering Risko's punches with lefts to the head. In round 10, Steele jarred the champion with a double left hook, landing the first to the head and the second to the body. In the final few rounds, Risko gamely fought back, slugging it out with the challenger through the 15th and final round. But Risko's grit and courage were not enough; he couldn't overcome the first-round knockdown and the wide margin in points. In a unanimous decision, the judges awarded the National Boxing Association (NBA) and New York State Athletic Commission middleweight crowns to Steele, to the delight of a frenzied crowd whose native son was now a world champion.
Two Years on Top
When comparing vintage fight records with contemporary fighters, one can deduce that boxing was undoubtedly more challenging in Steele's time. It was common for a boxer to fight more than 12 times in a calendar year. With the frequency of fights and the fierce competition of the era, a boxer's career span was considerably shorter than his counterparts in the present generation. Whether it was for the opportunity to earn any means during the Depression, or just for the love of the sport, fighters rarely turned down a chance to compete. Steele was no exception, taking on all challengers. During his title defense, he went on a tear, further separating himself as the best in his weight class. His decimation of rising contender and future light heavyweight champion Gus Lesnevich on November 26, 1936, was Steele at his best. Held at Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, the fight drew 10,400 fans, and they witnessed a walloping. Twice in the first round Steele floored Lesnevich, who had never been knocked down in any of his 33 previous fights. Steele's powerful salvos gashed the young challenger's right eye. Bleeding profusely, Lesnevich roared back, shaking Steele with two fast lefts, but Steele shook off those blows and dished out further punishment. In the second round, Steele's punches cut open Lesnevich's left eye and knocked him down twice. With blood cascading from his lacerations and clearly outmatched, Lesnevich's handlers hurtled a towel into the ring, ending the fight. Steele retained his title with a second-round technical knockout.
On New Year's Day 1937, Steele again defending his crown with a 10-round unanimous decision over Gorilla Jones in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Six weeks later, Steele headed east to fight at Madison Square Garden in New York where, in boxing’s cathedral, he defeated Risko in their rematch by unanimous decision. On May 11, Frank Battaglia came to Seattle in hopes of dethroning the young champion but suffered a third-round knockout in front of a roaring hometown crowd. In his final fight of 1937, Steele met future middleweight champion Ken Overlin at Seattle's Civic Auditorium. Overlin stormed out of his corner at the sound of the bell, determined to start fast, and the tactic seemed to take Steele by surprise as Overlin landed several jarring lefts to the champion's jaw. The two proceeded to trade punishing blows through three rounds, but in the fourth, Steele unloaded a fusillade of punches, sending Overlin crumpling to the mat. The challenger could only muster himself up to one knee as the referee counted him out.
Having survived a serious car accident, a broken jaw in the ring, and a kidney infection, Steele had overcome much to reach the top of the fight game. But for all the skill and occasional good fortune that catapulted him to stardom, a series of unfortunate events would derail his career. Suddenly and shockingly, his beloved manager, Dave Miller, died of spinal meningitis in 1937. The loss devastated Steele, who would never be the same without his mentor in his corner. Years later, Steele recalled, "Dave was everything to me -- my manager, my dad, my advisor. When he died, I died" ("Former NBA Boxing Champ ..."). After Miller died, "Miller's brother, Eddie, took over. Eddie was not the disciplinarian Dave had been, and Freddie began sampling the bright lights" (O'Keefe).
Ominous signs of Steele's downfall appeared in a non-title rematch with Apostoli on January 7, 1938, at Madison Square Garden. Eight thousand fans were on hand to witness a lurid scene. Steele and Apostoli stood toe-to-toe, belting each other with punishing blows until Steele began to wither. The referee stopped the fight in the ninth round, saving the champion from further torment. Apostoli beat Steele into a bloody pulp. In summing up his visceral injuries, a reporter wrote, "Blood came in a cascade from Freddie Steele's left eye; the right was just a slit and in the middle of his face was a ring of red where once a nose had been. At times he was bent double, like a small boy peering through a knothole in a fence" ("Tacoma Assassin: Thunder Punching Freddie Steele"). Along with a misshapen face, Steele sustained a broken breastbone, an injury that dogged him the rest of his career.
Suddenly, many wondered if Steele had fought past his prime. In 10-plus years of boxing, he had never suffered severe damage from his opponent until the Apostoli fight. Used to seeing him dominate his sparring partners, observers witnessed the champ now getting whacked in training by punches he normally would slip or block with ease. Where he would dish out punishment to a sparring partner if hit, now Steele laughed them off and made wisecracks. The champion not only seemed like he was physically on the decline, but he was not taking his training seriously. It was said that his iron chin was now made of porcelain, a telling sign of his conditioning. Yet despite the loss to Apostoli, Steele continued fighting admirably, quieting his skeptics for the moment. He bounced back by defeating Bob Turner, former Olympian Carmen Barth, and future middleweight champion Solly Krieger. Meanwhile, as Steele reinstated himself at the division's top, the next contender, Al Hostak of Seattle, moved up the pecking order for his shot at his title. Their matchup would be one of the most heralded sporting events in Washington history.
Steele and Hostak squared off on July 26, 1938, in a rumble pitting Tacoma against Seattle. Known as the "Savage Slav," Hostak, who hailed from the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle, was a power puncher much like Steele. More than 35,000 fans flocked to Seattle's Civic Stadium to see them tangle. Adding to the excitement, promoter Nate Druxman tabbed former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey to referee the fight.
As the action began, Steele, still hampered by the breastbone injury suffered against Apostoli, looked like a shell of his former self, unable to effectively raise his hands to guard. Hoping to end the fight early, he came out swinging, but Hostak hit Steele with a right to his injured chest and lashed out with a left hook that landed right on the button, dropping Steele on his rump. Dazed, Steele committed one of boxing's cardinal sins -- he failed to take the precious seconds he needed to recover after getting hit. Instead, he scrambled to his feet, only to be cut down by a left-right combination that sent him back to the canvas. Without taking a count, he again got up to fight. Sensing blood in the water, Hostak threw another devastating flurry that sent Steele toppling down. This time, the champion took a three count. After Dempsey shook his gloves and waved the fighters to resume, the challenger threw the knockout blow. Hostak's vaunted right hand sent Steele straight to the deck for good. Helpless, the champion crawled toward the ropes to pull himself up as the count hit 10. Hostak was crowned the new middleweight champion of the world as the arena broke out into bedlam. In 102 seconds of action, Steele was floored four times, losing by knockout in the first round.
For many, there were feelings of disbelief after witnessing their hero take such a battering. After the fight, everyone from the press, fans, and even Steele's mother begged him to retire. The years of hard fighting, and the loss of Miller, his beloved father figure, had caught up with Steele. At only 25 years old, and now married with a newborn on the way, they argued that he still had his whole life in front of him. With his burning desire all but extinguished and his body betraying him, Steele announced that he was quitting boxing. He hung up his gloves and said he would not return to the ring for the time being. Over the next few years, Steele flirted with various comeback attempts until 1941, when he met journeyman Jimmy Casino after a three-year hiatus. Steele, who often felt he had something left in the tank, was stopped in five rounds via technical knockout. The former champion concluded that his time had passed and permanently retired immediately after.
Actor and Entrepreneur
With his pugilistic skill diminished and his motivation gone, Steele conceded to the reality that his boxing career was finished. He entered a new occupation, an unlikely trade for a former boxer -- he went from the boxing ring to the silver screen. With the help of friend Bing Crosby, an acquaintance from his prizefighting days, Steele began landing jobs as a Hollywood actor. The former champion fit in with most of the good-looking men who starred in films. Surprisingly unmarked after a long career in the ring, Steele was devilishly handsome, with a chiseled jawline, and photogenic, unlike many boxers who walked away with mashed noses, disfigured faces, and cauliflower ears. He remained in relatively good health, showing no signs of being punch drunk. He started out in minor roles as an unnamed extra or stuntman, and then got his big break when producer Preston Sturges recognized Steele standing in a group of extras on The Miracle of Morgan's Creek set.
Sturges remembered the fighter from his heyday. He was a ringside witness to Steele's demolition of Gus Lesnevich in 1936. The fight left Sturges enamored with the ex-champion; Sturges saw him as a perfectly trained fighter who threw the fastest left hook he ever saw. Amazed that he was there in the flesh, Sturges approached Steele and told him to stick around the set after filming. Soon he began to write in parts for Steele, giving him more prominent roles in movies. In the Oscar-nominated 1944 release Hail the Conquering Hero, Steele earned accolades for his portrayal of a shell-shocked Marine named Bugsy, giving a compelling performance according to the reviews. Impressed, actual Marines flooded Sturges' mailbox with letters, remarking that Steele seemed like a real leatherneck.
His most remarkable work was in the acclaimed 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe. In this war film, Steele played the role of Sergeant Steve Warnicki. His convincing performance was a shock to most everyone, though to Steele, being an actor was easy. When asked about it, he replied, "Acting? Why it is the simplest thing in the world. Just like fighting. You're trying to please the public. You just act natural" ("Lesnevich Fight Led to Movie Chance for Steele"). He appeared in other notable films including I Walk Alone (1947) and Whiplash (1948). Overall, he had 30 credited movie roles, with many others going uncredited. But as with his boxing career, his acting career came to a sudden end when he punched a producer in a contract dispute. Steele never appeared in another movie.
"The Hollywood money was easy come, easy go, and Steele just drifted through the late 1940s and 1950s," Vince O'Keefe wrote in The Seattle Times. Steele dabbled in different business ventures in the Northwest in the 1940s; he ran a cigar store in Tacoma, and partnered in his parents' Whiskey bar in Juneau, Alaska, but by the 1950s, he had run into hard times. He worked various odd jobs -- referee, bartender, timber salesman -- while often returning to Tacoma for charity events. In 1957, he was inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Hall of Fame, one of its inaugural members. But by the beginning of the 1960s, good fortune would again come his way. Steele opened a restaurant and bar in the seaside fishing town of Westport, and Freddie Steele's and its Ringside Room bar would become a staple in the community, operating for more than three decades. Opened seasonally to take advantage of the summer tourist rush, the restaurant provided drinks and home-cooked American classics in a relaxed atmosphere. Esteemed politicians and celebrities such as Bing Crosby stopped by to see their old pal and have a jovial time. During the winter months, Steele shuttered the restaurant and took up work in public relations and sales with Pacific Coast Coal and Oil Company.
Through the highs and lows of the restaurant business, Freddie Steele's remained a fixture in Westport with the former champion at the helm. He was a delight to those who loved to hear him talk about the good old days, and a favorite of news reporters whenever he came back to Tacoma. Many wrote about how he enjoyed the relatively serenity of running a restaurant. Steele seemed happiest in Westport, and even though he attracted many guests, he enjoyed a certain privacy in the town. His tranquil life was shattered, however, when Steele suffered a massive stroke on November 25, 1980, and lost his ability move or speak. When a Seattle Times reporter visited him in the hospital, Steele's wife Helen said, "He is very hurt and upset by this. He has always been a young man in his heart. He's stayed healthy. The rocking chair has never been his thing. I tell you, he's still got the best left around" (Anderson).
Steele never regained full mobility or the ability to speak, and died in an Aberdeen nursing home on August 22, 1984, at age 71. He was survived by Helen and four children: David, Sharon, Frederika, and Kathryn.
Steele's aura faded only with the passing of the generation that had witnessed him in his championship heyday. He was often remembered as a hero with a certain magic. From boxing prodigy to world champion, to Hollywood actor, to restaurant owner, Steele enchanted many. In 1999, he received posthumous recognition and his sport's ultimate honor when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, finally received his due as one the best middleweight boxers of all time -- and certainly one of the all-time greatest athletes from the state of Washington.