TRIBUTE TO A GREAT CHAMPION: STEVE SHEPHERD (1950-2021)
During the peak years of Steve Shepherd’s kickboxing career, I worked as editor of “Inside Kung-Fu” magazine and also served as commissioner of the S.T.A.R. (Standardized Tournaments and Ratings) System world kickboxing ratings, then the preeminent rankings for professional competition. In August 1980, I had flown to Florida from Los Angeles to interview Don “the Dragon” Wilson as the first kung-fu stylist favored to win a world kickboxing title. I met Steve on that occasion at Don Wilson’s out-of-the-way private training “gym” located in what appeared to be an old automotive repair bay inside an industrial mini-park. Inside the gym was a full kickboxing ring with little room for anything else. And inside that ring, at 158 pounds, stood undisputed middleweight champion Steve Shepherd having a onetime friendly sparring session with, at 212 pounds, PKA heavyweight world champion Demetrius “Oaktree” Edwards.
When the break bell rang, Steve came over to Don and me in one corner and whispered, “Oaktree hits harder than a runaway freight train. But know what…? I’m faster.” The bell rang again and Steve and Oaktree went back at it. Don told me it wasn’t arrogant for a professional fighter to gauge their own abilities against a rival. I’ve found that to be true. Indeed, some years later, Oaktree’s power punches would be responsible for the bruised ribs that forced “Iron” Mike Tyson to postpone his championship boxing showdown against “the Real Deal” Evander Holyfield. That initial non-boast about his own speed started my friendship with Steve. Over the coming months and years, Steve would call me periodically to learn what I knew about prospective opponents, about good matchups for his fight cards, and about the latest maneuverings within the sport’s sanctioning politics. Sometimes we spoke for hours. We both thought strategically about the sport and, on that basis, we formed a camaraderie.
Steve told me quite a lot about himself and about what motivated him… For example, it’s a well-kept secret within the fighter community that most champions – almost to the man – have complicated relationships with their fathers … not necessarily abusive but certainly rocky. In Steve’s case, when he was 8 years old, his father suffered a stroke that permanently paralyzed the left side. Yet his father carried on, conducted business, and became a local politician. Steve credited those years with his father following the stroke with teaching him to stand on his own and to face adversity head on.
Around age 16, a large high school jock cut in on Steve at a teen dance and tried to pull away his girl, saying it’s time for the varsity to take over. Steve tripped him and challenged him to a fight on the beach away from the adult chaperons. Carloads of kids followed them to the oceanfront and formed a circle about them. Steve backpedaled a few paces until the jock overreached his own shove, and then – Pow! Steve stepped in with a sledgehammer right. That’s when Steve discovered that he liked standing up to bullies, that he liked the excitement of beating bigger guys, and that he possessed a deceptively powerful straight right.
A short time later, of course, his karate-trained younger brother Ed knocked him over a table with a jump spin kick to the jaw, and Steve realized there was much more to self-defense than just a good right hand. And though he didn’t yet know it, his direction in life had just been set: He would be a man’s man who faced down bullies and blazed his own trail on his own terms.
Steve earned his black belt in Shotokan-Goju karate from Mark Herman and Carl Stone just in time for the national launch of the new sport of kickboxing, initially branded as “full-contact karate.” But unlike most champion kickboxers, Steve never received formal ring instruction from boxing trainers save a couple months with Bill Avery for the basics. Instead, following his own path, he studied all the available books on the topic, and then went into Angelo Dundee’s Fifth Street Gym in Miami to mix it up with the pros, learning his ring skills the hard way.
Soon, Steve forged himself into an unpredictable ring general with a difficult defense. He aggressively targeted his opponent’s most painful tactical weaknesses. Although known as a kicker on the tournament karate circuit, inside the kickboxing ring he utilized kicks more as an annoyance weapon to set up strategically targeted power shots. He was an excellent counterpuncher with a good left hook and a surprisingly fast and dangerous straight right.
Outside of the ring, however, Steve quickly turned himself into something of a chief cook-waiter-and-bottlewasher for the sport: He recruited partners, opened a kickboxing school and fitness gym, refereed pro bouts, worked corners, coached and managed his own stable of kickboxers, promoted kickboxing events … and sometimes headlined his own fight cards. Through his RingStar promotions, he played a vital role in making Florida a Mecca for kickboxing, becoming the first champion to surpass $1 million in live gate receipts.
Steve came to international prominence in July 1978 when he defeated Bob Ryan for the PKA version of the welterweight world championship. Six months later, however, he lost the title in a controversial close decision to Earnest Hart over CBS-TV. The decision of the judges was questioned by other PKA officials as well as by reporters at ringside, but the outcome was upheld. Outraged by the loss, Steve immediately sought to reassert his claim to the world crown. In March 1979, he won the WKA version of the middleweight world championship. Then in October of that same year, he became the first world champion to be recognized by both major sanctioning bodies of the sport (including recognition as the undisputed STAR ratings world champion) when he recaptured the PKA title with a sixth-round knockout of Earnest Hart over ESPN-TV. Furthermore, all eight of his subsequent title defenses were by knockout, including a second rematch with Hart in November 1980.
Following this latter historic double-sanctioned WKA/PKA title defense against Hart, the PKA exercised its contractual right to “accept” Steve’s resignation as its champion owing to a dispute over the event’s broadcast rights. Steve also had been the event’s promoter, and the sport’s sanctioning politics always revolved around which group would control the broadcast rights. Steve had gotten in the way of that for the PKA.
A few months later, Earnest Hart won Steve’s involuntarily vacated title – the same contender Steve had just knocked out for a second time. Steve was furious. While still contemplating how to respond, on a movie date, Steve saw director Martin Scorsese’s “The Raging Bull.” In one scene, middleweight champ Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) laments that the boxing commission would never allow him to fight the very best: heavyweight champ Joe Louis. Bingo!
Steve remembered his sparring session with PKA heavyweight champ “Oaktree” Edwards. He knew he was faster. He knew he could use that speed advantage to set a high-stakes trap for Oaktree inside the ring. Yep, Steve still liked to stand up to bullies. This time, he would do so by embarrassing the PKA.
Once again, the champ was on the warpath! After first defending his WKA middleweight title in July with a knockout of Australian champ Dave Hedgecock, in November 1981, he promoted the middleweight-versus-heavyweight mix-match championship. David meets Goliath. Figuring Steve would get coldcocked anyway, the PKA had to allow it provided no title was not at stake. Consequently, the WKA sanctioned the event over 10 rounds for the “People’s Heavyweight World Championship.” During the early rounds, Steve deliberately backpedaled away from Oaktree, trading round kicks and jabs and refusing to allow himself to be cornered. Oaktree pursued, playful, like a cat toying with a mouse. All the judges’ scorecards favored Oaktree.
In the sixth, Oaktree lunged in with a heavy swing. Steve ducked and clinched. After the referee ordered both fighters to step back, Steve sprung his trap: he leaped forward with a lazy left hook, drawing Oaktree’s attention, knowing he wouldn’t back away, knowing he wouldn’t fear him. And when Oaktree blocked … WHAM-M! Faster than Oaktree could respond, Steve sledgehammered him with a thunderbolt right … straight through a tiny opening in his guard … just like that large jock on the beach years ago as a teen. The blow jolted the heavyweight’s jaw, buckled his knees and sent him reeling back against the ropes. Something akin to human electricity now surged through the audience as they suddenly realized Steve had taken charge.
“Wildest thing I’ve ever seen,” the announcer exclaimed from ringside. “The mouse chomped down on the mountain lion’s paw.” Sensing the moment, Steve pressed for a knockout… Oaktree recovered… Steve walked into a short glancing left hook. Pop. It snapped Steve’s head, breaking his nose. No one but Steve noticed. He won the round big.
For the rest of the bout, Oaktree remained wary of Steve’s right hand, allowing Steve to pile up points with right hand feints, clean punching, and sticking occasional kicks to the head and body. In the final round, Steve opened up again, wobbling Oaktree, leaving him covered up against the ropes at the bell. Steve won an uncontested split decision. The kickboxing community was astonished, even scandalized. Not unlike when the young Muhammad Ali as Cassius “the Louisville Lip” Clay kayoed “Sonny” Liston, many could not believe the news, some even claimed it had been faked. But it had not. Steve’s championship point became clear to all the bureaucratic bullies at all the sanctioning bodies. The real champion is the man who wins the big fight. And corporate concerns should never interfere with the simple fairness of that fact.
In the august words of President Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds … who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement …”
However, such high achievement came at a steep price. Steve was soon diagnosed with a ruptured disk in his neck, probably owing to Oaktree’s glancing left hook in the sixth round. The disk pinched a nerve that eventually diminished the muscle mass circumference of his right bicep by three inches. Never again would Steve possess that supercharged “Hammer of Thor” in his right hand.
Still, contrary to his doctor’s advice, he fought another 16 professional bouts, which included capturing the WKA super middleweight world title from Japan’s very respected, very tough Yasuo “the Tank” Tabata. In total, Steve officially won four world titles; actually five if you count the Oaktree fight. He defeated nine other world champions from five different weight divisions. He ended his ring career with a record of 50 wins, 5 losses, and 1 no contest, including 27 knockouts, 1 by kick-knockout.
Even before Steve hung up his gloves and footpads, my business partner Neva Friedenn and I began to work in the movie industry, moving into screenwriting, talent management, and producing films for cable-TV such as HBO premiere movies “Red Sun Rising” starring Don “the Dragon” Wilson and “The Right Temptation” starring Kiefer Sutherland. We even helped cast Jean-Claude Van Damme in his first theatrical role for “No Retreat, No Surrender.”
At that time, we told Steve he had a natural “Steve McQueen” charisma and, if he studied acting and relocated to Hollywood, he certainly would find his way into leading roles as an action star, much like Chuck Norris. Steve liked the idea of a movie career, but his family, his friends, and his businesses depended on him. He needed to stay in West Palm Beach. (We also gave similar advice to Don “the Dragon” Wilson who followed our suggestion and found a screen career.)
Subsequently, upon retiring from the ring, Steve trained, managed, and promoted over 200 Golden Gloves state, national, and world champions, as well as amateur and pro kickboxers. In 1990, he promoted the USA versus the Soviet Union event, which included Vitali Klitschko (??????? ??????) who retired in 2005 as the WBO world heavyweight boxing champion and currently serves as the elected mayor of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine.
For over 25 years, Steve’s “Shepherd’s Boxing & Kickboxing Center” drew a multitude of celebrity world champions, including Andrew Golota, Michael Moorer, Oscar de la Hoya, Fernando Vargas, Kassim Ouma, Zab Judah, Don “the Dragon” Wilson, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, and many others. He also founded RingStar equipment featuring an innovative kicking shoe along with easier handwraps for kickboxing, and ArmorFit equipment for mixed martial arts featuring an improved regulation glove for the UFC. In Olden Times by way of prediction, prior to his bout against the reigning heavyweight world champion, middleweight world champ Bob Fitzsimmons quipped, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.”
In 1902, Bob Fitzsimmons lost.
In 1981, Steve Shepherd won.
For his victory against Demetrius “Oaktree” Edwards, Steve was inducted into the Kickboxing Hall of Fame in 1982 and, as a promoter, into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017. He was also the only middleweight kickboxer ever ranked number-one in the heavyweight division by the STAR System world ratings.
Steve Shepherd will always count among the greatest kickboxers in history. He passed away on May 11, 2021, owing to complications from a terrible accident. We will not soon see his like again.
Farewell, my friend.
Go with peace.
Go with God.
STAR System World Kickboxing Ratings