Mills Lane, a collegiate boxing champion who narrowly missed making the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and who would go on to a career as a prosecutor, a two-term district attorney, a district court judge and one of the greatest referees in boxing history, died early Tuesday at a hospice near his home in Reno, Nevada.
Lane’s son, Tommy, told the Reno Gazette-Journal his health had significantly declined recently. Lane suffered a debilitating stroke 20 years ago that ended his officiating career and left him unable to speak.
“He took a significant decline in his overall situation,” Tommy Lane told the newspaper. “It was a quick departure. He was comfortable and he was surrounded by his family.”
A Marine, Lane won the 1960 NCAA welterweight boxing championship and competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Francisco, California, that year. He lost in the semifinals. He turned pro while still in college and after losing his pro debut, won 10 consecutive fights before retiring.
Lane served two terms as the Washoe County, Nevada, district attorney and then became a district court judge in Washoe. He then hosted a television show similar to “The People’s Court” in which he’d hear civil cases.
Lane, though, was primarily known as one of the greatest referees in boxing history. He worked many of the biggest fights in the second half of the 20th century and officiated bouts including Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, among many others.
His catch phrase, “Let’s get it on!” which he used to open bouts was highly popular and distinctive and became his signature.
“Mills Lane was one of the best referees ever,” Richard Steele, himself one of the great referees of all time, told Yahoo Sports. “Mills had great judgement and he would make all the calls at the right time, never too early and never too late. He was one-way all the time. He wasn’t wishy-washy. He was strong, decisive and consistent. He had that Marine Corps background and he refereed the same way. We were both in the Marines and we used to talk about the need to be strong, firm and in charge all the time. He helped me to be the referee I became. He was one hell of a guy and was a good, fair honest person. I’m going to miss him, man. I truly am.”
Lane refereed the rematch between Holyfield and Tyson at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997, that became known as “The Bite Fight.” Holyfield defeated Tyson at the MGM Grand eight months earlier to win the title, but Tyson was upset with the refereeing of Mitch Halpern, whom he accused of allowing Holyfield to headbutt him.
Halpern was reappointed to work the rematch, but when the Tyson side argued, Halpern withdrew so as not to be a part of the story. Lane replaced him and in the third round, found himself in the unenviable position of trying to restore order after Tyson bit Holyfield on the ear.
Marc Ratner is now an executive at the UFC but was then the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. When Tyson first bit Holyfield, Lane disqualified him immediately. Ratner got up on the ring apron and said to Lane, “Are you sure?” Lane then allowed the fight to continue.
“I used to tell all my referees to think, and when I asked him if he were sure, he thought about it and made his decision,” Ratner told Yahoo Sports. “That was a wild situation and he handled it about as well as could be.”
Lane was the referee in several bouts that were difficult or unusual. He worked the rematch between Bowe and Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight title in 1993 when James Miller, a paraglider, flew into the ring and got entangled in the ropes during the match. He worked the Oliver McCall-Lewis rematch at the then-Las Vegas Hilton on Feb. 7, 1997. McCall had a mental breakdown during the fight and began crying in the ring. Lane stopped the fight and awarded Lewis a TKO victory.
He also was forced to disqualify Henry Akinwande in a fight with Lewis in 1997 at Caesars Tahoe when Akinwande was extremely passive and continued to hold.
On Aug. 28, 1998, Lane was refereeing a middleweight title match between Robert Allen and Bernard Hopkins at the Las Vegas Hilton. There was repeated holding in the fight and at the final time as Lane attempted to break them up, Hopkins fell and rolled out of the ring. He injured an ankle and couldn’t continue, forcing the bout to be ruled a no-contest.
Ratner referred to those bouts jokingly as “the Grand Slam of bizarreness.”
Lane, though, handled the situations as well as could be expected.
“He was one of the most unique people I’ve ever met,” Ratner said. “He was a law-and-order guy and very firm, but he was a wonderful guy and I loved speaking with him and spending time with him. He was a no-nonsense referee and even though he was a slight man, when he gave commands and told the fighters to break, they broke because they had so much respect for him.
“I was blessed in my time [as executive director of the commission] to have him Mills, Richard and Joe [Cortez]. They are three Hall of Fame referees and among the greatest referees ever. I was so lucky to have guys like that to use in my big fights.”
In 2013, Lane was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.