The fight that really put referee Arthur Mercante Jr. on the map was the May 1987 battle royale between Donny Lalonde and Mustafa Hamsho at the old Felt Forum in New York.
Hamsho was known for fighting and winning by any means necessary, with no regard for the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
And Lalonde, despite looking more like a daytime soap star than a boxer, was a tough-as-nails former hockey player from Canada. The fight was a no-holds-barred affair that Lalonde won by 12 round decision.
“Hamsho was dirty, a street fighter, and Lalonde was a hockey fighter, a real tough kid,” said the now 50-year-old Mercante at the holiday luncheon hosted by the Veteran Boxers Association, Ring 8, in New York, on January 10.
“Whenever they’d get in a clinch, Hamsho would try to break Lalonde’s arm. Lalonde just said, ‘do all you want, you’re not going to hurt me.’ I had my hands full that night.”
Afterwards he was commended by Al Gavin, the late cut man who mentored scores of boxers and officials during his sterling career.
“He said that as tough as the fight was, it looked like I was handling it with no problem,” said Mercante Jr. “Coming from someone like Al, that was high praise. It meant a lot to me.”
Mercante Jr. was the third man in the ring for the first fight between Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, which took place before a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden in March 1999.
Although it was apparent to all but two judges that Lewis had won handily, the bout was ruled a draw. Mercante Jr. would have liked to have had a say in the scoring, so much of the controversy could have been avoided.
“I’m a firm believer that referees should score fights, like many of them did in the old days,” he said. “On that night Lewis dominated Evander, but he really dominated him in the fifth round, which two judges gave to Holyfield. If a referee could be the deciding factor, a controversy like that could have been avoided.”
Mercante Jr. says his father, Arthur Sr., scored hundred of fights in earlier decades, with nary a controversy associated with any of his decisions.
“I don’t know of any fight that my father did that was not totally on point,” he said.
While growing up on Long Island, Mercante Jr. said his father was strict but always on point. That was never more evident than when young Arthur lost to future world champion Juan LaPorte in the quarterfinals of the New York City Golden Gloves tournament.
The teenager thought he won the fight, as did Floyd Patterson, who was in attendance, so he told his father of his plans to turn pro.
“My father said that as long as I live under his roof, I would never fight pro,” said Mercante Jr. “He suggested I become a referee.”
Mercante Jr. officiated his first fight in the early 1980s, and has been busy ever since. He has been the third man in the ring with such luminaries as Roy Jones Jr., Felix Trinidad, Vitali Klitschko, Shane Mosley, Ricardo Lopez and Pernell Whitaker.
One of his career highlights was the seesaw battle between Miguel Cotto and Joshua Clottey at MSG in June 2009.
“That was a helluva fight,” said Mercante Jr. “You prepare for each fight differently. With welterweights like Clottey and Cotto, I have to be real quick and agile. With big heavyweights, I need to be strong and commanding.”
Mercante Jr. can’t help but judge his own career against the success of his father’s career. He said that he “has big shoes to fill” because of his father’s Hall of Fame career, but he says that the support from his father continues to grow even after three decades in the family business.
In the early days, when Mercante Jr. was still doing amateur bouts, his father would attend the shows with a notepad. On the way home he would critique him. The same ritual followed in the early days of his pro career.
Mercante Jr. clung to his father’s words, viewing all that he was told as sage advice from the old master who just happened to be his father.
After his performance in the Cotto-Clottey fight, he realized that all of that advice had paid off.
Clottey was ready to call it a day in the fourth round, but Mercante Jr. implored him to get up and act like a champion. That’s just what he did. Although he lost a split decision, his reputation was not tarnished and he has now earned a shot at the great Manny Pacquiao. Many insiders are also giving him a chance to beat the Filipino dynamo.
“My father called me the next day and said he couldn’t believe the job that I did,” said Mercante Jr. “He said ‘you made the kid fight when he wanted to give up. You took control. That’s what refs are supposed to do.’”
Mercante Jr. also took control of a 2001 fight between George Khalid Jones and Beethaeven Scottland that took place aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid battleship in New York. After the seventh round he visited the corner of Scottland and told him he better “show me something” or he was going to stop the fight.
“He was taking a lot of punishment,” said Mercante Jr.
In the eighth, Mercante said that Scottland “came out like gangbusters.” He was so effectively aggressive over the next two rounds, Mercante had the two fighters touch gloves at the beginning of the tenth of final round and he asked, “Who wants it more?”
After Jones landed vicious lefts to the body and head of Scottland, the loser had to be rushed to the hospital. Mercante Jr. was beside himself with worry.
“I wound up doing one more fight that night, but I couldn’t get that one out of my mind,” he said. “I went to four hospitals looking for Scottland. I met his people at Bellevue and they embraced me. They said it wasn’t my fault, that I did a good job and that the fighter was in great condition. They kept telling me not to blame myself. But I still get chills when I think of that fight.”
Less than two weeks later, Mercante Jr. refereed a fight in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Initially he told his father he didn’t want to go, that he wasn’t yet up to the task.
“He told me to go referee that fight, and I’m glad that I did,” said the younger Mercante. “When I got there, people were very supportive of me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to referee again, but that made me realize that I did. Without my father pushing me, who knows what would have happened?”
Rarely does a few days go by that Mercante Jr. doesn’t think of Scottland, but he also thinks about how fortunate he is to do something he loves so well.
Married for 25 years, he works full-time as a theatrical stagehand where he sets up events in places like MSG or Radio City Music Hall. Like his father, he keeps himself tremendously fit. And also like his father, who officiated fights into his early eighties, Mercante Jr. sees no end to his future in sight.
“I still hear that I’m almost as good as my father,” said Mercante Jr., who teaches the rudiments of boxing to youngsters on Saturday mornings at the New York Athletic Club, which is located on Central Park South at West 58 Street in Manhattan.
“I don’t take that as an insult. I might have a ways to go, but I was taught by the best and I’m always learning. One thing about this business is you never stop learning.”