Mills Lane, who has died aged 85, was an international boxing referee who during the 1980s and 1990s became as familiar a face to fans as some of the fighters he officiated.
Renowned for his gruff, no-nonsense demeanour and celebrated pre-fight catchphrase “Let’s get it on!”, the shaven-headed former US Marine presided over more than 100 world championship bouts in a top-flight career lasting more than 20 years.
Yet Lane will be best remembered for being “the third man” on that infamous occasion in Las Vegas on June 28 1997 when he was forced to disqualify Mike Tyson for tearing off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s right ear and spitting it out on to the canvas.
Clearly not content at committing this atrocity, Tyson then proceeded to leave Holyfield again leaping about and grimacing in pain by biting his left ear, giving Lane – who had seemingly been unaware of the extent of the original infringement – no option but to wave the fight off in round three.
“How many times do you want to get bit?” Lane truculently enquired of a ringside reporter wanting to know why the fight was stopped. “There’s a goddamn limit to anything, you know – including bites.”
Lane had also been the man in the middle at Vegas 11 years previously, in November 1986 when the-then 20-year-old Tyson had announced his explosive arrival on the world stage by sending the Jamaican fighter Trevor Berbick staggering around the ring following a monstrous uppercut to seize the World Boxing Council heavyweight crown.
Lane, a former fighter whose “up close and personal” approach in the ring gave him a unique opportunity to assess fighters, prophetically observed: “Everything Tyson’s got has ‘goodnight’ written all over it.”
The referee may have participated in some of the most memorable moments in boxing history, but it was his strict moral code and firm intolerance for misbehaviour that made him greatly respected.
“Everything is discipline,” Lane – who attributed his personal values to his service in the Marine Corps – told one interviewer. “When I’m working a fight I give the same energy and attention to a four-rounder as I do a million-dollar fight.”
Moreover, the ex-Marine who became a courtroom judge earned admiration for never being averse to thrusting his diminutive frame into the line of fire in order to get much-larger fighters to “break”. For many, in a sport frequently beset by chaos and skullduggery, Lane represented law and order.
Born into affluence on November 12 1937 in Savannah, Georgia, Mills Bee Lane III took up boxing on joining the Marines in 1956. When based at Okinawa he was crowned All Far East welterweight champion, later going on to have a brief but successful professional career.
Lane began refereeing fights while a student at University of Nevada. Having subsequently picked up a law degree from the University of Utah he embarked on a legal career that saw him start out as a trial prosecutor in Reno and, later, a judge.
In 1991, Lane told the Los Angeles Times that the most memorable fight he refereed was the featherweight title match between Salvador Sánchez and Danny Lopez in 1980. “Sánchez gave him a beating and stopped him in the 14th round,” he recalled, “but it’ll be a long time before I forget Danny Lopez’s courage that night.” He was not to know it, but more memorable fights were still to come.
In November 1993 even Lane’s reputation for imperturbability was sorely tested when the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield heavyweight rematch in Las Vegas was temporarily suspended when a crazed fan paraglided into the ring.
Two years later, in August 1995, he was centre stage when Tyson outclassed Peter McNeeley – following the latter’s suicidal charge across the ring – in his comeback fight following a three-year prison stretch.
Then in February 1997, just four months before the Tyson v Holyfield “Bite of the Century” encounter, he was again in charge when the American Oliver McCall suffered a breakdown during his rematch with Lennox Lewis and had to be led by Lane back to his corner sobbing uncontrollably in round five.
Having witnessed more than his fair share of ring madness at close quarters, Lane was possibly relieved to bring his refereeing days to an end – Thomas Hearns’s win over Jay Snyder at Detroit in November 1998 being the last contest he officiated. He named Sugar Ray Leonard as the most complete fighter he ever refereed.
After boxing, Lane briefly had his own television show and also appeared on MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch. He suffered a serious stroke in 2002 which left him paralysed on one side and unable to speak. In 2013 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Mills Lane is survived by his wife Kay and their two sons.
Mills Lane, born November 12 1937, died December 6 2022