Mills Lane, one of the most well-known and respected referees in professional boxing, celebrated for his no-nonsense demeanor and pre-fight catchphrase “Let’s Get It On!”, passed away Tuesday morning in his hometown of Reno, Nevada. He was surrounded by his two sons, Terry and Tommy, and his wife Kay. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by his son, Tommy Lane, who told the Reno Gazette Journal that his father had been in an hospice for the past week. Mills Lane suffered a stroke in 2002 that greatly incapacitated him, leaving him paralyzed on one side of his body and unable to speak.
“He took a significant decline in his overall situation,” Tommy Lane told RGJ. “It was a quick departure. He was comfortable and he was surrounded by his family.”
“You never knew how long he had,” continued Tommy Lane, who currently advises Chinese heavyweight contender Zhang Zhilei. “We kind of felt like we were preparing for this all along, but there's no such thing as preparing for this.”
Mills Lane presided over more than 100 world championship fights, from the 1970s to the late 1990s, making him a participant in some of the greatest moments in boxing history, but it was his moral rectitude and intolerance for shenanigans that made him a respected figure inside and outside the ring—no small matter in a chaotic sport historically rife with rogues and fraudsters. For many Lane was the epitome of order and clarity.
“There was no fight we wouldn’t put him in,” Marc Ratner, the former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, told the Los Angeles Times in a 1991 profile on Lane. “He was as good as any referee in the world. I don’t care if it was a heavyweight fight or smaller guys, when he said, ‘Break’ and got in between guys, the fighters respected him. Not all referees have that. He was no-nonsense. He took control. There was an aura about him.”
Lane credited his reliability inside the ring to his stint in the Marine Corps.
“Everything is discipline,” Lane once told the LA Times. “When I’m working a fight, I give the same energy and attention to a four-rounder as I do a million-dollar fight. The way I see it, in either case, on that night, it’s the most important fight in those fighters’ careers.
For his efforts and contributions, Lane was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013.
Mills Lane got an early start in boxing. In 1956, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and started boxing. When he was stationed in Okinawa, he became the All Far East welterweight champion. He started refereeing fights while he was a student at University of Nevada, Reno. He subsequently picked up a law degree from the University of Utah and embarked on a legal career that saw him start out as a trial prosecutor in Reno and, later, perhaps all too fittingly, a judge.
In 1991, Lane told the Los Angeles Times that the most memorable fight he refereed was the featherweight title match between Salvador Sanchez and Danny Lopez in 1980.
“Sanchez gave him a beating and stopped him in the 14th round," he said. "But it’ll be a long time before I forget Danny Lopez’s courage that night.”
As for the most complete fighter he ever refereed? That distinction went to Sugar Ray Leonard.
“Leonard is probably one of the best athletes ever in this sport,” Lane said in the LA Times interview. “God gave some men a lot of talent and only a little bit of character. Other men got a little bit of talent and a lot of character. Sugar Ray, he got it all.”
A celebrity in the sport during a period that boasted the likes of Mike Tyson, Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, Leonard, Thomas Hearns, and Marvin Hagler, Lane was, for a time, impossible to avoid. His iconic phrase, “Let’s Get It On!”, uttered to the fighters right before they went to their corners, made him household material. He was able to parlay his fame into his own (short-lived) TV show and made an appearance on MTV's Celebrity DeathMatch.
But it was in the 1990s when Lane’s reputation reached new heights, when he refereed a slew of bizarre fights, the most infamous being the heavyweight rematch, in 1997, between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield in which Tyson bit Holyfield’s ear twice, forcing Lane to disqualify him. In 1993, Lane refereed the heavyweight bout between Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, in which a fan paraglided into the ring. Lane was also the third man in the ring, in 1997, when Oliver McCall suffered a nervous breakdown against Lennox Lewis.
Lane retired from refereeing in 1998, after handling a fight between Thomas Hearns and Jay Snyder.
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