Mills Lane refereed some of the greatest and most controversial bouts of the 1980s and ’90s. The 1993 rematch between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, which was infamously interrupted by the ‘Fan Man,’ was a little of both.
It’s hard to believe that longtime Nevada-based referee Mills Lane is just now getting his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
As far as boxing officials go, nobody achieved the mainstream appeal that the retired referee earned over the course of his career. Since Lane first said “Let’s get it on!” prior to the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney heavyweight championship in 1982, nearly every top referee has tried to come up with his own catchphrase prior to the opening bell.
But it was Lane’s phrase that caught on with boxing fans, often igniting an extra helping of excitement to the usual buzz that accompanies a major bout. More often than not, Lane was the referee for the biggest prize fights – and for good reason.
No matter what kind of scenario was thrown at him, Lane handled things to the very best of his abilities. Over the course of a 34-year career, there are very few – if any – bones to pick with the way Lane handled a fight.
That’s an amazing accomplishment considering the wide variety of circumstances, some of which bordered on the bizarre, that Lane experienced in the ring.
Before his time as a referee, Lane was a boxer. He first began boxing after joining the United States Marine Corps in 1956, eventually becoming the All-Far East welterweight champion. He then added a collegiate title to his resume at the University of Nevada-Reno and even competed in the 1960 Olympic Trials in San Francisco, losing in the semifinals.
Interestingly enough, one of the first major bouts Lane refereed was the 1972 heavyweight bout between Muhammad Ali and Bob Foster, who were both also at the 1960 Olympic Trials.
Lane, who became a fan listening to Joe Louis prizefights (which often had him shadow boxing excitedly) as a young man, refereed 88 world title fights (as recognized by the four major sanctioning bodies), some of which were the sport’s biggest moments during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.
Part of this time occurred when Reno, where Lane resided, was just as big of a fight town as Las Vegas. Once Lane showed he could handle big assignments, he kept getting them.
It came to the point that if there was a big fight in Nevada, you could count on Lane being the referee.
His first world title fight was the 1971 flyweight clash between Betulio Gonzalez and Erbito Salavarria. Lane refereed and also turned in an even scorecard, which split the other two judges, making the fight a draw. The fight was later overturned into a disqualification when it was found that Salavarria used a stimulant in his water bottle.
It wouldn’t be the last time that Lane was the third man for a controversial fight.
There’s “The Bite Fight,” the 1997 rematch between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson that saw “The Baddest Man on the Planet” take a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear.
Lane told the former champ that he bit Holyfield in the ear, to which Tyson responded that it was a punch.
“Bull,” said the tough as nails referee.
Lane was the third man for many of Tyson’s fights, including the Brooklyn native’s first title shot against Trevor Berbick at age 20 in 1986.
Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history when he dethroned Berbick for the WBC title via second-round knockout.
Lane also refereed Tyson’s first fight back after a stint in prison against Peter McNeeley.
“I remember my dad talking about this killer heavyweight from New York named Mike Tyson, who was going to get a title shot soon,” recalled Lane’s eldest son Terry. “My dad always liked Mike, and he ended up doing nine of his fights.”
It was “The Bite Fight” that perhaps launched Lane’s celebrity outside of boxing. After deducting two points for the initial chomp, Lane disqualified Tyson for a second bite.
It wasn’t long after that Lane became the first claymation third man in the ring. MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch had Lane provide the voice for a claymation referee based on himself. He provided the famous words, “Let’s get it on” before the bell rang for celebrities to literally dismantle each other. When certain things got out of control, Lane’s character would also famously shout, “I’ll allow it!”
Then there is “The Fan Man” incident, where in the second fight between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, a man parachuted into the ring with a fan on his back, breaking up the fight midway through.
Lane had the daunting task of restoring order after “Fan Man” James Miller received a beatdown at the hands of Bowe’s cronies. He was able to do so, allowing what turned out to be a very good fight to continue after a delay.
Lane was also involved in great fights.
He was the referee for the 15-round heavyweight war between Larry Holmes and Ken Norton in 1978. Holmes edged Norton on points in what is regarded as one of the best heavyweight fights of the past 50 years.
According to Terry, it was the 1980 featherweight title rematch between Salvador Sanchez and Danny Lopez that ranked as his favorite of all-time.
“He was always asked that, his favorite fight that he ever reffed, and he didn’t even have to think about it,” said Terry, now 30 and running a boxing promotion based out of Reno with his younger brother Tommy, 26.
The Holmes-Cooney fight is still one of the most important fights in terms of cultural significance in recent boxing memory. Though promoter Don King said the only color that the fight was about was “green” (money), it was setup as a Black Champion vs. White Hope matchup, fueled by Holmes’ commentary that if he were fighting a black opponent, he wouldn’t be getting anything close to what they were making for the fight.
“Holmes against Cooney was my dad’s ‘big break’ because of the mainstream transcendence of that fight,” said Terry Lane. “That was the first fight he used the phrase, ‘Let’s get it on.'”
Lane relished his place in boxing, but the sport was always second to his family. When Lane retired from refereeing, and later as a judge, he took on the boxing promotional game. That company, aptly named Let’s Get It On Promotions, has since been taken over by sons Terry and Tommy in 2005.
In a business full of snakes and people that are difficult to trust, you can’t find anyone out there with anything but positive things to say about Mills’ kids.
“He didn’t encourage us into boxing,” Terry said. “But he made us love boxing. His passion became our passion. Growing up as his sons, we couldn’t not love it. It was natural.”
The promotional run for the two sons achieved a level of success that Mills was unable to reach. They turned fringe contender Jesse Brinkley into a major draw in their native Reno and even got him a world title fight against Lucian Bute. This is rather impressive given that they pulled the former Contender: Season One star off the scrap heap before handling his career.
However, it comes as no surprise that Lane’s sons are respectable people and businessmen. Lane always strived for excellence and expected no less from the people around him.
To borrow from an ESPN.com piece by Kieran Mulvaney in 2006, after Lane had suffered a debilitating stroke, those who worked closely with Lane put together what made him such a great referee.
“He was someone who took pride in everything: the way he entered the ring, the way he approached the fighters, whether it was a four-rounder on a club show or the heavyweight championship of the world. And he treated everyone equally,” said Dr. Margaret Goodman, who was one of the primary ringside physicians during Lane’s later years.
Former Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission Marc Ratner had equally positive things to share with Mulvaney.
“First of all, he is a very important part of my life,” Ratner said. “He was always so supportive of me when I was executive director. He was one of the greatest boxing referees in the history of the sport. He was involved in some controversy in fights, and each time he took control and did everything right. I’ve always been very proud of him, as an official, but even more as a person.
“His timing, his judgment was unbelievable,” Ratner said. “He knew when to stop a fight. He was a former fighter, and he looked into the eyes of these fighters, and he had that innate ability to know exactly when to stop it.”
Though Lane was the referee for some of the sport’s most brutal battles over a stretch of 30 years, no fighter suffered fatal injuries from a fight that he officiated.
After refereeing his last bout in 1998, which featured a far past it Tommy Hearns, Lane became a popular television judge who began the action in the courtroom the same way he did in the ring, with four famous words.
It’s been 15 years since Lane stepped away from the squared circle, but he is still a fan. His sons routinely record the fights for him to watch, and he also has a large library of videotapes of classics from his childhood.
In 2002, Lane suffered a stroke that has kept him largely out of the public eye since. He is taken care of by his wife and two sons. Lane was an avid poker player and now shares that bond with his sons, who play in a game together on occasion.
If Lane could, he surely would repurpose the words “Shuffle up and deal” with the four words that made him a household name.
As far as how Lane will be remembered in boxing, longtime Las Vegas resident and former NSAC inspector Butch Gottlieb says it best.
“Mills Lane was the ultimate professional in the ring,” said Gottlieb. “He was a no nonsense referee no matter who the combatants were. Of course, being a retired Marine and a sitting judge did not hurt.”
Photos / Al Bello-Getty Images, Bob Martin-Getty Images, Jed Jacobsohn-Getty Images, Carlos Schiebeck-AFP, THE RING