Arthur Mercante was 81-years-old when he refereed his last title bout; IBF junior flyweight champion Ricardo Lopez’s eighth round stoppage of Zolani Petelo at Madison Square Garden in September 2001.
That fight took place on the undercard of Bernard Hopkins-Felix Trinidad, just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Mercante, a World War II veteran, moved around the ring like he always did; with the agility and grace of a man decades younger. While he no longer works as a referee, he still judges fights on occasion. Now 86, he is as mentally sharp and physically fit as ever.
Mercante’s life in boxing is chronicled in a wonderful new autobiography called “Inside the Ropes.” The book was written with Phil Guarnieri, who is the mayor of Floral Park, New York, which is in close proximity to Mercante’s hometown of Garden City.
With refreshing candor the seemingly ageless Mercante discusses his humble beginnings in Brockton, Massachusetts, where his family was close with the family of Rocky Marciano.
One might expect Mercante to speak glowingly of the fabled heavyweight champion, but he freely discusses a feud with Marciano that dissolved their friendship for good several years before Marciano was killed in a 1969 plane crash.
Mercante is too classy to blatantly trash anyone, but he is not averse to anecdotally recounting colorful incidents from his whirlwind life in boxing.
Generally regarded as one of the premier referees of the past 50 years, there is little that the inherently decent Mercante has not seen or done. It is all here in chapter after chapter, all of which fly by much too fast.
He apprenticed for many years in the small clubs that abounded in the New York metropolitan area in the forties and fifties. It was not until the age of 40 that he got his big break when he was assigned the second Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson heavyweight title fight at the Polo Grounds in June 1960.
Afterwards his career proceeded full steam ahead. In 1962 he was the third man in the ring for the Sugar Ray Robinson-Denny Moyer fight at MSG. He writes that “chills ran up and down my spine” when he watched the great Robinson limber up in the ring.
In the mid-1960s he was hired as a technical consultant for the classic film “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
He recruited many boxers that appeared in the film, including Cassius Clay, Jack Dempsey, Willie Pep, Barney Ross, Abe Simon, and Tami Mauriello.
However his best stories of the movie set relate to the off-camera quibbling between the Method acting lead Anthony Quinn and his hard-drinking co-star Jackie Gleason, whose only method preparing for a scene was drinking a gallon of coffee to sober up.
During a momentous career, which resulted in Mercante being inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1995, he officiated the epic first bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, as well as fights featuring Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Roy Jones Jr., and fellow Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Leonard, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, Ken Buchanan, George Foreman, Wilfred Benitez, Alexis Arguello, Marvin Hagler, and Jeff Fenech
In a chapter entitled “Trials and Tribulations of a Ref,” Mercante talks about not being intimidated by the bullying of promoter Murad Muhammad and his fighter, middleweight Dwight Walker, after he rightfully disqualified Walker for repeated low blows against Mark Frazie.
He counters that with another story about being somewhat intimidated, but still determined to hold his ground, against a group of surly Hells Angels. They accosted him after his scoring of a bout (as the referee) resulted in their man losing a close decision in White Plains, New York.
Mercante also comically describes having to get his pants stitched up after his zipper malfunctioned just prior to the 1973 Jerry Quarry-Earnie Shavers bout at MSG.
In the doctor’s haste, he sewed the fly of Mercante’s pants to both his T-shirt and his jock strap.
“A fraction deeper and I might have made history by becoming the first referee to be circumcised at a major sports event,” jokes Mercante.
On more serious notes, he writes of the time he accidentally poked Joe Frazier in the eye in the midst of his first fight with Ali.
When an incensed Frazier curses at Mercante, the reader realizes that even the seemingly inhuman Mercante is human after all.
Mercante says a “terrifying thought” flashed through his mind: If Frazier was unable to continue the Fight of the Century would become the Controversy of the Century and he would be in the center of it.
He also writes of the sadness he felt for after light-heavyweight Beethavean Scottland died from injuries incurred in a bout that was refereed by his son who is also named Arthur.
“The entire episode was the most heart-wrenching experience I ever had in decades of boxing,” he writes. “But I must say I’m proud of the compassion Arthur showed, proud of his humanity and his courage.”
It is obvious that when it comes to the sport of boxing, as well as the game of life, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the Mercante family.
Not surprisingly, Mercante has a chapter called “The Greatest,” which is dedicated to Ali. It could have just as easily been dedicated to himself, but Mercante is much too humble of a man to ever describe himself in such a manner.
For that reason, I will do it here: Arthur Mercante is a great referee and a great human being. And this book, which is published by McBooks Press, is a great read.