Mills Lane: Let’s Get It On!
Lane knew he had moved to a new level of celebrity after the fight when he sold his bloodstained shirt to a collector…
During a single five-year period in the mid-1990s, a single referee was involved in an unusually large number of very strange moments in heavyweight boxing history. Here’s a look at the five most bizarre things ever to happen in the wild, wonderful career of the great Mills Lane.
#5 “Iron” Mike Tyson vs. Peter “Hurricane” McNeeley
Iron Mike had just gotten out of an Indiana prison after serving four years of a ten-year sentence for rape. Peter McNeeley, an obvious patsy handpicked by Don King, was strictly a regional talent in New England whose sudden elevation to the #7 spot on the WBA’s world heavyweight rankings raised more than a few eyebrows. The selection of the august Mills Lane as the referee was just about the only thing about this fight that passed the smell test.
Though he must have suspected the fight wasn’t completely on the up and up, Lane approached the affair with all his usual professionalism, beginning the proceedings with his trademark “Let’s get it on!” McNeeley stormed across the ring to attack Tyson from the opening bell, giving every indication he planned to make a fight of it. However, Tyson put McNeeley down with a short right hook scant seconds after the fight began. McNeeley did not seem seriously hurt, but for some reason upon arising he began to run crazily around the ring instead of taking his mandatory eight-count.
As McNeeley tried to rush past the referee to get at Tyson, the tiny Lane grabbed the much larger McNeeley by the wrist and whipped him back around toward the ropes to take the count. When the fight resumed, McNeeley went back to trying to exchange with Tyson, but with a stylistic twist—now he was clumsily attempting to headbutt Tyson in the clinches. Tyson, for his part, was hanging onto McNeeley’s arms for dear life, trying to avoid getting hit in the face by McNeeley’s careening cranium.
McNeeley’s butting (and Tyson’s refusal to let go of McNeeley’s left hand) was so unusual that Lane momentarily couldn’t think of anything to say to the fighters after breaking the fight’s final clinch—after a pause of three or four seconds he finally settled on the simple, direct “Hey! Knock that shit off!”
Finally, about 90 seconds into the round, Tyson floored McNeeley again with a series of left hooks followed by a right uppercut. McNeeley was clearly dazed, but he arose without difficulty at the count of two and seemed perfectly fit to continue. Nonetheless, two of McNeeley’s seconds (and, inexplicably, a man in a plum suit who appeared to be a ringside official) entered the ring, leading to McNeeley’s summary disqualification.
In any Tyson fight the referee’s most important job may be keeping the peace after the fight is concluded, and in the confusion after the unusual stoppage Lane felt the need to explain the situation to Tyson and his seconds. He came up with a characteristically terse and honest description of what he’d just seen—he told Tyson simply, “He quit.” The explanation, delivered with a mix of disappointment and resignation at having been a part of such an obvious sham, seemed to satisfy everyone and surprise no one. Somehow Mills Lane had found a way to serve with distinction in a fight that had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
#4 Lennox Lewis vs. Henry Akinwande
The most respected referees in the business are men who are able to coax action fights out of fighters whose styles might make for an awkward mix. This skill requires a balance of two qualities that are often in tension—a hands-off approach combined with a low tolerance for “spoiling;” fouling or running away in an attempt to avoid fighting.
Thus it was no surprise that Mills Lane was the choice to referee Lennox Lewis’ defense of the WBC world title belt against lightly-regarded contender Henry Akinwande, whose extraordinarily gangly 6’7” frame and lack of inside punching power threatened to make the fight a messy and unsatisfying affair. Lane’s first ever world heavyweight title fight was Larry Holmes vs. Ken Norton, a potentially ugly matchup of two rangy, defense-minded boxers that turned into one of the great action fights in heavyweight championship history, and ended on a dramatic razor-thin split decision for Holmes.
Unfortunately not even Mills Lane was prepared for what Henry Akinwande had in store for him that night at Caesar’s Tahoe. After seeming to heed Lane’s early warning to stop his holding and rabbit-punching in the first round, Akinwande came out for the second and immediately ate a right cross that took all the starch out of his shorts.
For three excruciating rounds, Akinwande simply dove in headfirst and grabbed Lewis at every opportunity, making no effort to box Lewis or even run away from him. Lane, recognizing what was happening, quickly took a point away in the second round, but the effect on Akinwande’s behavior was so minimal that by the third round Lane was questioning whether the challenger understood English.
“Do you understand that when I say ‘Step back’ that means you take a step back?” asked an incredulous Lane. The situation was absurd enough, but it would get worse. After making a halfhearted effort to do something at least resembling fighting in the third and early fourth round, Akinwande returned to Octopus Mode, now completely refusing to let go of Lewis even as Lane tried to pry the two giants apart bodily.
In the fifth Lane can be heard on the fight audio having to stop himself from actually giving Lewis advice on how to make a fight of it despite Akinwande’s smothering embrace—“Hit him in the… work out!” But it was not to be. Akinwande, who was eating vicious hooks whenever he let go of Lewis, decided to pack it in, going beyond merely holding and actually hanging onto the ropes for leverage as he refused to allow Mills Lane to separate him from Lewis. Loath to end the fight on a disqualification, Lane appealed to Akinwande’s trainer Don Turner to talk some sense into his fighter, but it was no use. Less than a minute
later, Lane called time and said to Akinwande “You’re done.” No one needed to ask why. Mills Lane, through no fault of his own, had just refereed the worst fight ever fought.
#3 Lennox Lewis vs. Oliver McCall II
Mills Lane probably knew he had his work cut out for him in taking on the rematch between Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall and Lennox Lewis. McCall, who had a long history of drug addiction and mental instability, had knocked Lewis out and taken away his WBC title before losing it to Frank Bruno. The title had bounced around after that, eventually being vacated by Riddick Bowe when he refused to defend the belt against Lewis.
With Bowe apparently having lost his appetite for training (though not his appetite for cake) boxing was in dire need of a real championship fight between two legitimate fighters, and Lewis/McCall seemed to fit the bill. The potential problem was that Lewis had hired a new trainer—the great Emanuel Steward—and adopted a more cautious, patient style that seemed likely to frustrate the mercurial McCall and potentially cause him to boil over and do something crazy.
Everyone involved in the fight must have breathed a sigh of relief at the way the first two rounds unfolded—both men were getting their punches off and having some success, though Lewis was controlling the fight. It seemed that heavyweight boxing was on its way to a real championship fight and hopefully smoother days than the ones it had endured while waiting in vain for Mike Tyson to return from prison and restore order to the heavyweight division.
Then at the end of the third round something very strange began to happen. After taking several hard shots from Lewis, McCall backed into the ropes, dropped his hands, and started jogging in place and looking around at the scenery as if he were on a public street about to get started on his daily roadwork. A confused Lewis backed off momentarily, but McCall seemed to snap out of it and the bell sounded before anyone could figure out exactly what was happening.
A bit more evidence emerged between rounds that something odd was afoot as McCall refused to return to his corner, instead pacing back and forth alternately smirking and glaring at the crowd as his cornermen looked on in disbelief.
In the fourth round, McCall began behaving even more strangely, dropping his hands and wandering aimlessly around the ring as Lewis tried to press the attack. Obviously realizing that something very unusual was happening, Lewis mostly just stood around waiting for McCall to resume the fight, throwing only an occasional punch as McCall just walked around muttering to himself like an old man in his bathrobe who can’t remember where he left the newspaper.
Finally Mills Lane called time and asked McCall what on earth was going on. When McCall seemed to indicate he wanted to fight, Lane restarted the round, but McCall continued his improbable tactics, which the British TV announcers began to refer to as the heretofore unheard-of “turn the other cheek” style of fighting.
Between the fourth and fifth rounds, Lane pleaded with McCall’s corner to do something, but McCall’s behavior only got stranger—he began to weep openly. Finally the bucket guy hit upon the idea of pleading with McCall to “do this for your daughter,” but McCall was beyond the reach of even this emotional appeal, as he wandered out for the start of the fifth round still weeping and refusing to defend himself. A minute into the fifth, Lane shook his head and sent McCall back to his corner, disqualified for failing to fight. In an effort to stem some of the embarrassment, WBC officials eventually recorded the result as a TKO, but no amount of generous bookkeeping could erase the foul odor of a fight in which one of the contestants started crying in the ring..
To this day typing “Oliver McCall” into Google yields one suggestion: “Oliver McCall breakdown.”
#2 Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield II
The late, great Mitch Halpern was to have refereed this fight just as he did the first meeting between these two superstars, but Tyson’s camp was vehemently opposed to Halpern’s selection on the basis of what they felt to be insufficient attention paid by Halpern to Holyfield’s pet tactic of headbutting his opponent in the chin on the way into clinches.
In the end it was decided that Mills Lane would fill in, since Lane’s reputation was above reproach. Lane was also well liked by Tyson for having managed to find a way not to disqualify Iron Mike during his foul-filled 1991 decision victory over Razor Ruddock (during which Tyson landed at least a dozen low blows— three of which resulted in penalties.)
Unfortunately Lane’s response to Holyfield’s distinctive headfirst style didn’t satisfy Tyson either, and in the third round of a fight that had actually been shaping up to be quite exciting, Mike spit out his mouthpiece, bared his teeth at the crowd, and bit Holyfield on the right ear, drawing a significant amount of blood.
Very few things are taboo across all combat sports. Even groin punches are tolerated in certain types of martial arts, but no form of organized fighting allows combatants to bite each other. Thus Mills Lane was faced with a very unusual situation—should he disqualify a fighter in a highly anticipated title fight for an intentional, egregious and shocking foul despite the fact that the fight was a good one and his opponent seemed fit to continue?
After a long deliberation and extensive pleas to both corners to clean things up, Lane decided to give the fighters one more chance to settle things honorably, deducting two points from Tyson for biting. It took Tyson about 20 seconds after the restart to bite Holyfield a second time on the same ear, this time biting off a fairly large chunk of flesh.
Holyfield’s reaction to the second bite—he attacked Tyson with a frenzy of savage hooks—looked enough like boxing that Mills Lane let the round continue to the bell, but once he realized what had happened he had no choice but to end the fight on a disqualification.
The fight cemented Tyson’s legacy as a talented but monstrously unfit head case, but it also catapulted Mills Lane to a type of fame usually denied referees. Though Lane might scoff at the comparison, even the great Arthur Mercante never became a household name the way Mills Lane did after the Ear Bite Fight. Within the year, Lane would use his fame to launch a successful television career.
Lane knew he had moved to a new level of celebrity after the fight when he sold his bloodstained shirt to a collector, and people were incredulous—not that a boxing referee had managed to sell his shirt, but that he had sold it for a mere $200. Lane would later admit that if he had auctioned the shirt off, it may have fetched thousands, but he had agreed to the transaction before the fight and felt honor-bound to follow through with the deal despite the shirt’s unexpected notoriety.
#1 Evander Holyfield vs. Riddick Bowe II
Though Mills Lane has been a part of so many bizarre boxing moments that it’s hard to remember them all, no one will ever forget this fight, the weirdest night in boxing history, forever known simply as The Fan Man Fight.
Unlike so many of the carnival sideshows Lane would go on to officiate later in the decade, the rematch of the all-time classic first fight between Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield and Riddick “Big Daddy” Bowe was a legitimate superfight that was expected to be one of the great heavyweight title rematches of all time. Bowe was the undefeated champion, and the one blemish on Holyfield’s record was his tightly contested decision loss to Bowe.
The only question mark hanging over the fight seemed to be why Holyfield didn’t just retire, an idea that seems rather silly now, 18 years farther into Holyfield’s continuing career. Evander had by that point already made almost a hundred million dollars in his career, capturing both cruiserweight and heavyweight titles before apparently meeting his match against the bigger, more powerful Bowe.
The rematch picked up right where the first fight left off, with Bowe peppering Holyfield with shots at long range while Evander applied steady, effective pressure. Bowe was having trouble staying on the front foot, however, and after six rounds it seemed like Evander may have found the formula for solving Bowe’s riddle—force him backwards and make him counterpunch.
At the start of the seventh Bowe seemed to be trying to reestablish his jab, but he was still being forced backward too easily. He desperately needed something to change the tide of battle. Then it happened. About a minute into the round, a roar began to rise up from the crowd, growing and growing until it achieved a frenzied, fevered quality quite unlike anything usually heard at a boxing match.
Suddenly a man in a parachute clipped the top rope and tumbled over into the crowd. Jim Miller, a pilot and parachutist who was obsessed with parachuting into public spaces, had used a motorized fan and a hang glider to circle the skies over Caesar’s Palace during the fight, then paraglided into the arena and tried to land in the ring.
Though the arena was erupting in mayhem as fans and security personally savagely beat Miller unconscious, Mills Lane was unflappable, calmly separating the fighters, calling timeout, and clearing the ring. Outside the ropes, the bedlam raged on, and Riddick Bowe’s pregnant wife was evacuated from the arena after fainting from shock and fear.
For a moment it seemed inevitable that the fight would have to be canceled or postponed, but somehow Mills Lane got everyone calmed down, Miller and several others were removed from the premises, and Lane nodded to the timekeeper to ring the bell to restart the seventh round.
Rock Newman put it best in a ringside interview just before the restart: “Well, this is a strange set of circumstances I don’t think anyone has ever had to deal with before.” He was certainly right, but the fighters and the referee all responded like professionals and the show went on.
Bowe closed the gap in the late rounds and the fight became yet another all-time classic. In the end Holyfield would win a tight majority decision. The judges’ scorecards in the bizarre seventh round? One for Holyfield, one for Bowe, and one even. The fact that a close fight could survive such a bizarre twist and still end in a relatively uncontroversial decision is perhaps the ultimate testament to the guts, the will, and the professionalism of the great Mills Lane.