Mills Lane had not even expected to be in Las Vegas on the night that made him famous.
While Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield battled it out on June 28, 1997, in a rematch of a bout that Holyfield had shockingly won by 11th-round TKO 7½ months previously, Lane planned to be home in Reno, Nev., playing a few hands of poker.
But Tyson and his promoter Don King protested the appointment of referee Mitch Halpern, who had been the third man during their initial contest (the Tyson team insisted he had not protected its man from Holyfield head butts). So Halpern eventually stood aside, not wanting to be the focus of the event. Lane was called at 6 a.m. Saturday, the morning of the fight, and was asked to fly down to assume the assignment.
The rest is history.
After two rounds of trying and failing to get the better of Holyfield, during which a clash of heads opened up a gash above his eye, Tyson snapped, spat out his mouthpiece and bit a chunk out of Holyfield's left ear. In the ensuing pandemonium, Lane contemplated disqualifying Tyson but instead settled on docking him two points. When the fight resumed, Tyson promptly started chewing on Holyfield's right ear, and Lane threw him out of the fight.
The so-called "Bite Fight" immediately entered the lexicon of classic sports moments; all of a sudden, wrote Lane in his 1998 autobiography, "I was a damned celebrity. People were calling me a hero, which is downright ridiculous ... I did the right thing, nothing more, nothing less."
Two weeks later, Lane was back in the ring, refereeing another heavyweight title fight for the WBC crown held by Lennox Lewis, and once again he was forced to disqualify the challenger -- this time, lanky Anglo-Nigerian Henry Akinwande, and this time, not for excessive or misplaced aggression but for an apparent complete absence of it. A seemingly terrified Akinwande clung to his foe from virtually the first moment of the first round, until Lane finally sent him packing in the fifth.
Lane had also refereed Lewis' previous title fight, against former conqueror Oliver McCall, in February of the same year. On that occasion -- perhaps the most bizarre of all -- McCall began crying in the ring and refusing to defend himself until Lane stepped in to wave the contest over.
"That one year in 1997 when he had three of the weirdest fights of all time, I don't think many referees get that much crap in their whole career," reflected ESPN producer Pat Knighton, who spent several days with Lane and his family recently for a segment that will air on "Friday Night Fights" (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET).
That sequence of fights -- plus the second Holyfield-Riddick Bowe fight in 1993, which was disrupted when James Miller, the "Fan Man," descended by motorized parachute onto the ring apron, where he was promptly beaten by security personnel and Bowe's corner team -- helped make Lane a star, inside and outside of boxing. The former district attorney and district court judge secured his own syndicated show, "Judge Mills Lane," which ran for three years. And he found further fame in plasticine form as the referee in MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch series.
It was a situation over which Lane at times felt somewhat conflicted.
"I'm still somewhat uncomfortable in the celebrity status that has been afforded me out of the misfortunes of others," he wrote in his autobiography. Lane preferred to see himself in simple terms: "I'm old, I'm bald, and I'm short not only in stature but also in patience with those unwilling to give their best effort."
That straightforward, no-nonsense approach to life, was, said Knighton, honed in Lane in his early years growing up in Georgia. It was set in stone during his tour with the United States Marines, which is where he learned to box, eventually turning professional and running up a record of 10-1 before deciding to retire and eventually become a referee.
"He was raised with a certain amount of regimen in his life, as a child even before he joined the military," Knighton noted. "He lived his life in a very regimented form. He would get up and run every morning at 5:30, 6:30; he would be in his job by 8, 9 o'clock every morning; if he was supposed to have a meeting at 11 o'clock, he would be there right at 11 o'clock.
"He's a guy who always had the utmost integrity for the sport as his first concern."
Added Dr. Margaret Goodman, chair of the Medical Advisory Panel of the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC): "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."
Butch Gottlieb runs the BoxinginLasVegas.com Web site, and for several years was an inspector with the NSAC. He was working ringside on the night in August 1998 when Bernard Hopkins first fought Robert Allen, and when, in yet another bizarre in-ring moment, Lane accidentally shoved Hopkins through the ring ropes and onto the arena floor while trying to break up a clinch.
"Super guy," Gottlieb offered when asked to describe Lane. "You know, just absolutely straightforward 100 percent. Didn't vary with anybody, it didn't matter who it was. You know, 'Follow the rules, and we'll all get along great.'
"What you see is exactly what you got. Just what everybody saw outside of the ring is the exact same way he was inside the ring. He's a great guy, friendly as hell, loves boxing, loves to talk about it."
Few worked with Lane as closely or for as lengthy a period as Marc Ratner, presently vice president of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC). From 1984 to 2006, Ratner served as executive director of the NSAC.
"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."
And although he earned particular praise for his ability to react swiftly and authoritatively to the most unforeseeable circumstances -- "Like I've said several times, there's nothing in the rule book that tells you what to do when a man flies into the ring," Ratner observed -- it was his overall approach to the craft and his particularly intuitive skills inside the ring that lay at the root of the universal respect he was accorded by his peers.
"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."
"A lot of officials want to remain impartial; they don't want to know about the fighters," Goodman said. "Mills wasn't like that. He always wanted to know about the fighters he was officiating, and that's what I think made him especially great. He had an understanding of boxing and how much a fighter can take. You have to understand how much a fighter can take in those crucial moments. A ringside physician doesn't have the ability to get that close to the action to see what's going on a fighter's eyes, but a referee does. And that's why I think Mills was such a great referee, and that's something I think a ringside physician can learn from the referee when looking at the kid between rounds. 'What is it that the referee is looking at?'"
Indeed, added Keith Kizer, the present executive director of the NSAC, "We always say we have three levels of safety: the inspectors, the ringside physicians and the referees. It's essential that all those people communicate effectively with each other, and Mills was very good at that."
At the end of 1998, Lane announced his retirement as a referee to concentrate instead on his burgeoning television career, including a short-lived spell as a ringside analyst. "I think it would be a conflict of interest to make public comment about boxing and at the same time be an active referee," he was quoted as saying at the time. Besides, he insisted, notwithstanding the evidence to the contrary, "I'm not as good as I was five years ago. You don't hear the bell as well and move as well when you're 61."
He remained in the public eye, primarily through his TV show, until March 31, 2002, when, alone in his Reno home, he suffered a debilitating stroke. Since then, he has stayed largely out of view, seeking comfort in the company of wife Kaye and sons Terry and Tommy -- although, as befits the former Marine, he has not given up fighting his condition, even to the extent of pursuing some groundbreaking therapy in Ukraine.
"He is paralyzed on the right side" Knighton said. "The stroke did affect his speech. He communicates with his family, but not like he's able to hold extended conversations. He and his family have found a way to make it work. Like one of the kids said, it's pretty much always been just the four of them, and it still is pretty much just the four of them."
But, Knighton said, Lane still gets out and plays poker several times a week, and he continues to follow boxing avidly:
"He has an extensive boxing videotape library. He watches a lot of boxing. His schedule normally has him in bed before the fights are on, but his son will record it for him, and he'll watch it the next day."
Like most people who have spent time in Lane's orbit, Knighton came away overwhelmed by the former referee's inner strength and fighting spirit: "He is a really different kind of guy. If he hadn't been the same guy, if he hadn't had the principles that he has, I don't think he would have come through the other side as strong as he has."
"You just don't see people like him anymore," Goodman said. "It isn't that boxing's changed or anything, it's just that people like him really don't come around very often."
Lane was, said his wife, extremely happy with the ESPN crew's approach and attention.
"I think he was worried people had forgotten about him," she was quoted as saying in the Reno Gazette-Journal.
No danger of that, said Kizer.
"It seems that every other week," he said, "at just about every fight, someone is coming up to me and asking, 'How's Mills? Any news on how Mills is doing?'"
And, added Ratner, Lane will forever be remembered for much more than his personality and his refereeing alone.
"Lots of people have their little catchphrases," he said, "But none is as good as, 'Let's get it on.' Those four words are what boxing is all about."
Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.