On July 11, 1936, Freddie Steele defeats Eddie "Babe" Risko at Civic Stadium in Seattle to become boxing's middleweight champion. The victory, before a pro-Steele crowd estimated at 27,000, culminates a determined rise to the top of the middleweight ranks for Steele, who was born in Seattle, raised in Tacoma, and is widely known as "The Tacoma Assassin." Risko, the reigning champion, puts up a brave fight over 15 rounds after being knocked down in the first round, but loses his crown in a unanimous decision when the two judges and the referee all score the fight in Steele's favor. Steele will successfully defend his championship in five subsequent title fights over the next two years, until a stunning first-round loss to Al Hostak in Seattle on July 26, 1938.
In January 1936, Freddie Steele (1912-1984) graced the cover of boxing’s preeminent editorial source, The Ring magazine, as fight pundits recognized him as America's best middleweight. Only 23 years old, Steele was a force of nature. Fighting since the age of 13, he had earned the nickname "The Tacoma Assassin" for the devastating power in his fists. His left hook, vicious right cross, and murderous flurries propelled him to go undefeated in 1935, winning eight of his 12 fights by knockout. On his way to becoming the leading contender for the middleweight crown, Steele annihilated former champions William "Gorilla" Jones and Vince Dundee, and future champion Fred Apostoli, and by the dawn of 1936 his career record was 102-2-11.
On March 24, 1936, in a non-title bout at the Civic Ice Arena in Seattle, Steele defeated middleweight champion Babe Risko (1911-1957), repeatedly landing his vaunted right to decisively win a 10-round decision over the fighter from Syracuse, New York. 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. Their rematch was scheduled for July 10, 1936, in Seattle.
Winning the Title
The Steele-Risko title match was described as the biggest fight staged in the Northwest since Jack Dempsey beat Tommy Gibbons at Shelby, Montana, 13 years previously. Fans, including Steele's friend Bing Crosby, came from far and wide to Seattle 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.
Steele entered the fight as the betting favorite, and many were confident in his chances for the big prize. The audience roared in excitement when the ring announcer introduced the challenger, giving Steele its full encouragement. At the sound of the bell, 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 the 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. Fighting with the pride of a champion, Risko did not cave in to the punishment. In the later rounds, he gamely fought back, slugging it out with the challenger in the middle of the ring through the 15th and final round.
Risko's grit and courage were not enough; he couldn't overcome the first-round knockdown and the wide margin in points. Steele's trainers and entourage rushed into the ring at the sound of the final bell, knowing that the inevitable was about to happen. 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. With his victory, Steele gave Washington its first boxing champion since the heyday of his idol, Tod Morgan (1902-1953), a Dungeness native who held the junior lightweight title for four years in the 1920s.
Less than six weeks after defeating Risko, Steele fought for his hometown fans in Tacoma, knocking out Jackie Aldare in the second round of a non-title fight. He won five more non-title bouts in 1936, and then opened 1937 with a victory over Gorilla Jones in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to retain his title. On February 19, 1937, he fought Risko for the third time, this time at Madison Square Garden in New York, and again won a 15-round unanimous decision. Though he lost to Apostoli by technical knockout in February 1938, Steele retained his NBA world title for more than two years, until he fell victim to Seattle dynamo Al Hostak in a stunning, first-round knockout on July 26, 1938. Steele would fight just once more before retiring from boxing at age 25.