By ARNE K. LANG
In 1992, Marc Ratner succeeded his close friend, the late Chuck Minker, as the Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. During his tenure, the regulatory body that he superintended came to be recognized as the paragon of state boxing commissions. This past December, Ratner learned that he had been selected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the non-participant category. He and his fellow inductees in the Class of 2016 will be formally enshrined on June 12.
Ratner will forever be associated with blood sports — boxing and now MMA – but as a sports official he has worn many hats. He has refereed football and basketball games at the high school and college levels, has operated the shot clock at UNLV basketball games for almost 35 years, and still finds time to moonlight as the commissioner of the Southern Nevada (High School) Officials Association, a post he has held since 1991.
Ratner wasn’t born in Las Vegas, but has lived here since the mid-1950s which almost qualifies him as a pioneer. To say that the city has changed during his lifetime would be a great understatement. There were four high schools in the entire county when Ratner’s parents settled here to establish their beauty and barber supply business. Today there are 32, and that doesn’t include the magnet schools without sports programs.
Ratner spent his first year of college at nascent UNLV, then known as Nevada Southern University, a place that many of the locals disparaged as Tumbleweed Tech. He played on the baseball team, batting. 400 (“two-for-five,” he elaborates, grinning sheepishly). He then transferred to the University of Nevada in Reno, a school with actual dormitories, where he majored in business administration.
Back in Las Vegas, Ratner was a player-coach on the town’s best slow-pitch softball team and took up officiating, starting with Pop Warner and high school JV games. He would eventually work three bowl games, the last of which was the Jan. 2, 2006 Cotton Bowl pitting Alabama against Texas Tech. Earlier that season, Ratner was assigned to work a Notre Dame home game (the Fighting Irish hosted BYU), his most treasured assignment as a football official. He was thrilled to be on the same field where so much history was made.
During the game, which Notre Dame won handily, the Notre Dame coach, Charlie Weis, saw fit to appraise the officiating crew. “You guys are horse****,” Weis barked at Ratner. Such is the life of a sports official for whom a thick skin is mandatory.
Ratner climbed the ladder in boxing too, starting as an inspector and then taking on the role of chief inspector. In his most memorable assignment, he was hitched to Sugar Ray Leonard and Angelo Dundee when Leonard met Marvin Hagler in their 1986 mega-fight.
That match was one of many big fights held outdoors at Caesars Palace and Ratner, in common with many others who were on the scene in those days, believes that there was a special aura to those big outdoor fights that was lost when the sport moved indoors.
Ratner never envisioned becoming the face of the boxing commission – he was quite content working as an inspector for Chuck Minker – but all that changed when Minker was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer, a disease that took his life at the age of 42. Several people applied for Minker’s post, but Ratner, who was in many ways an extension of his good friend Minker, was the logical successor.
In the memorable words of Larry Merchant, boxing is the theater of the unexpected. Ratner was in his customary seat, smack against the ring apron, when “Fan Man” intruded upon the middle fight of the Bowe-Holyfield trilogy and again at the infamous “bite fight,” another bout in which Evander Holyfield was a principal.
Barely a minute was gone in the seventh round of Bowe-Holyfield II when paraglider James Miller, forever immortalized as “Fan Man,” swooped down from the sky. He and the motorized gizmo to which he was harnessed landed on the ropes in Riddick Bowe’s corner, only to disappear into the crowd, submerged beneath a swarm of angry ringsiders beating him to a pulp. There never was a moment more surreal at a sporting event.
“My training as a sports official,” says Ratner, “taught me that whenever there is a sudden interruption, as sometimes happens when there is a disturbance in the crowd, the first order of business is to check with the timekeeper. I informed each of the judges how much time had elapsed and told them to hang tight as they may have to score the round.” (The most bizarre round in boxing history, lasting almost 24 minutes from start to finish, wasn’t easy to score. One judge gave it to Bowe, the other to Holyfield, and the third scored it a draw.)
Ratner recalls that the incident could have easily bubbled into a full-scale riot. “The unsung hero that night was Michael Buffer,” he says, recalling that Buffer had the presence of mind to take the microphone and say the right things to keep the audience calm.
The “bite fight” was actually the “bites fight” (plural). When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear the first time, it wasn’t obvious to anyone other than referee Mills Lane who called “time out” and informed Ratner what had just transpired. “He bit him. I’m going to disqualify him,” said Lane.
Recalling the incident in a discussion with Los Angeles Times sportswriter Bill Dwyre, Ratner alluded to his background as a football official. “I know how serious it is to toss somebody,” he said. “When one of my crew comes to me and says a player should be thrown out, I slow it down, ask some more questions.”
“Are you sure (you want to disqualify him),” he asked Lane. When informed by ring physician Edwin Homansky that Holyfield was fit to continue and that his corner wanted the fight continue, they allowed the bout to resume. But Mills Lane wasn’t going to tolerate any more bites and Tyson wasn’t done chomping.
Imagine the brouhaha that would have ensued if Tyson had gone on to win the fight. Ratner would have been raked over the coals for second-guessing the referee.
In hindsight, the situation was handled smartly and, typical of Ratner, he gives all the credit to Mills Lane. Marc isn’t the sort to pat himself on the back. Indeed, he concedes that he may have erred when he didn’t send the combatants back to their dressing rooms when Fan Man crashed the Bowe-Holyfield fight. It was the first Saturday of November and there was a chill in the air.
Ratner’s 14-year run as the head of the boxing commission ended in May of 2006 when he left to join Ultimate Fighting Championship, the company founded by the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, second-generation Las Vegas casino moguls, and their longtime friend Dana White. Ratner’s hiring, wrote Kevin Iole, “is a sign to the establishment that the company is for real and that mixed martial arts is about to enter the mainstream.”
In his post as Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Ratner was charged with breaking down the legal barriers that made MMA verboten in many jurisdictions. Today the sport is legal everywhere in North America with the exception of New York where an MMA bill has passed the Senate seven consecutive years only to die before reaching the floor of the Assembly. (There’s little doubt that the politicians that sabotaged the bills were beholden to union leaders. The Nevada Culinary Union, which is under the umbrella of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, a national organization, has been at loggerheads with the Fertitta brothers for more than a decade.)
The UFC has staged events in places where there was no regulatory body. It was left to Ratner to supervise the weigh-in, hire all the officials, make certain that an ambulance was at the ready, and so forth. Basically he reprised the role that he had with the boxing commission. As MMA has become a global phenomenon, finding local officials to work the UFC cards has become less problematic.
In the last 12 months alone, the UFC has staged shows in Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Poland, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Ireland, Scotland, England, and Australia. In a world geography trivia test, Marc Ratner would knock the socks off anyone from his old neighborhood.
The Las Vegas headquarters of the UFC will soon have a new address. The massive complex, which will consolidate all of their facilities in one location, will include a training center staffed by specialists in various branches of physical therapy and sports medicine. No boxing promotion company ever operated on the scale of the UFC whose operation resembles that of a National Football League team.
When Ratner learned that he had been selected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he was overwhelmed with emotion. Gerry Cooney, among many others, reached out to congratulate him, as did retired NBA referee Joey Crawford and retired NFL official Jerry Markbreit, Marc’s favorite football “zebra.” There is a camaraderie among sports officials that transcends the sport with which they are identified.
When Ratner served on the boxing commission, he was obligated to sit on the dais at press conferences and say a few words into the microphone. He never said more than a few words, deflecting the spotlight to the boxers. IBHOF inductees are encouraged to keep their acceptance speeches short, ideally no more than eight minutes. There is scant chance that Marc will run over and whatever he says will be heartfelt.