Rest In Peace Mills Lane, Hall of Fame Referee, Pop Culture Icon
Short of stature, especially compared to some of the ring behemoths he oversaw as the best known boxing referee on earth, Mills Lane made up for it in chutzpah. The Georgia native whose distinctive “Let’s get it on!” declaration made a boxing fan’s pulse speed up, with the promise of action to come, died in Reno, Nevada on Dec. 6, 2022, at age 85.
He’d been off the prizefighting stage for a spell, since suffering a stroke in 2002. A former NCAA boxing champion who served proudly as a US Marine, Mills Lane might be most remembered as the guy who did the right thing, and disqualified Mike Tyson for biting off much of Evander Holyfield’s ear in their 1997 war.
Sons Terry and Tommy carry on the familial legacy of participation in the fight game, as promoters. They learned those ropes when dad followed stint as a syndicated TV judge by starting up Let’s Get It On promotions.
That foray got abbreviated when he suffered a stroke, which impacted his mobility and speech. The game didn’t forget him—in 2013, Mills got inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Born on November 12th, 1937 in Savannah, GA, Mills Lane is recalled very much as a no nonsense type, perceived by some as being slightly irascible. Son Terry told NY FIGHTS that his dad didn’t fully resemble the in-ring bossman who became a fan fave.
“If there’s one thing we want to convey, it’s what a great father and husband he was,” Terry said on Tuesday afternoon.
The NY resident said he and Tommy made it to Reno, Nevada to see Mills, who had a rough couple of days before succumbing. Knowing he wasn’t suffering any longer brought a measure of relief, Tommy said.
He will recall dad not by the characteristics played up on platforms like MTV’s Celebrity Death Match, or his intrepid efforts during the Bite Fight, but for his softer side. “Loving, compassionate,” is how Tommy describes his pop.
The barrage of well wishing phone calls and messages, he said, has helped mother Kaye to deal with the event. “We’d had 20 years to kind of get ready for it, but it’s not something you can understand until it happens.”
Maybe since he wasn’t that tall–Terry says Mills was about 5 ft 8 inches–folks didn’t assume Mills had a fighting background. He had skills, to be sure.
It shouldn’t surprise you that he fought on after losing his pro debut in 1961 to Artie Cox. Mills, 45-4 as an amateur, got stopped out by Cox in round one, yet when on to win ten straight, with 6 kayoes. The iconic pop culture arbiter to be who fought between 138-147 pounds as a pro, hung up the gloves following a 1967 victory over Buddy Knox.
His aura affected folks, in the fight game and beyond. A 1997 Sports Illustrated feature by William Nack gives a good sense of that persona:
In his chambers behind him, among the artifacts that symbolize his life–the brass scales of justice that sit on a shelf near a miniature wooden gallows, complete with hangman's rope dangling from it–is a can of aerosol spray, smack in the middle of his desk, the most prominent and telling display of all. The label reads BULLSHIT REPELLENT. He carries that with him, metaphorically speaking, wherever he goes–from the violent confines of professional prizefighting rings, where he has become one of the most respected referees in boxing, to Department 9 of the Washoe County Courthouse in Reno, where he lectures, warns and punishes while keeping dueling lawyers apart.
Mills could have taken a softer route, his dad owned the largest bank in Georgia. Yet he felt a pull toward testing himself physically, he slayed as linebacker and functioned as the varsity hockey team’s goalie at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass. His dad wanted him to follow in his footsteps, however Mills had to follow his own path. He did basic training at Parris Island, SC, telling his fairly horrified dad that he’d be following the military stint with a bid to rise the ranks as a pro pugilist. Mills had built a fighting foundation at University of Nevada, Reno, which at the time had a solid boxing program.
For sure, some of that rep as a flinty bulldog of a man was earned. Mills Lane didn’t save his soft side for transgressors in the Reno region who preyed upon innocents. “Dirtbags,” he’d call ‘em under his breath when in the role of district attorney, which he performed before donning the robe and ascending to the bench in 1990.
Defense attorneys gulped and stifled an expletive when they brought a recalcitrant bad actor in front of “Maximum Mills.”
That is Mills Lane you see keeping the peace when Muhammad Ali fought Bob Foster (1972) and in the 1978 Larry Holmes-Ken Norton bout, as well the 1980 Salvador Sanchez-Danny Little Red Lopez battle in 1980.
That is Mills Lane, his patience bank emptied, barking, “That's it. You're gone,” to Mike Tyson after the brooding battler ripped off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear at the MGM Grand, resulting in a DQ3 win for Holyfield.
In a sport sorely lacking in structure, Mills Lane stood out, a bald badass who demanded rules following in all his arenas. He will be recalled as a figure diminutive in stature, but immense in character and ever fierce in his resolve to be a voice of justice.
Mills Lane will be missed.