By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
It is cruelly ironic, when you stop and think about it. Mills Lane, one of the best and most accomplished referees in boxing history, always saw himself as a protector of the individuals whose bouts he worked. Toward that end, he was an absolute stickler for enforcing the rules. If a fighter was taking too much punishment, the former Marine always knew the exact moment when he needed to step in and wrap his arms around him. In the ring, as was the case in his other duties as a district attorney and then a District Court judge in Washoe County, Nev., it was up to Lane to see that justice was served, and he never shirked his responsibility.
But there was no such protection for the protector when Mills Lane, then 64, collapsed from a stroke in his home in Reno on or about April 1, 2002. He was all alone, with no one to kneel over him or to call for the ring doctor. And so Mills Bee Lane III lay on the floor for an indeterminate length of time, any chance he might have had for an appreciable degree of recovery slipping away with each passing minute.
“When you have a stroke it’s crucial you receive treatment quickly,” said Terry Lane, the older of Lane’s two sons. “If you do you can minimize the effects of even a bad stroke. But we really can’t pinpoint when the stroke happened.
“A few months earlier, our family had become bicoastal. My brother (Tommy) had just begun high school in New York City after moving there from Reno. All of us were kind of going back and forth between Reno and New York. I had just started college in New York around that time. My mom (Kaye), my brother and I were all back East and my dad was in Reno, by himself. We really don’t know how long it was before he was found. It might have been a day, possibly as long as two days. We don’t know for sure.
“He finally was found by one of his former law partners because he missed a meeting, and Mills Lane never missed a meeting. So they knew something had to be wrong.”
Mills Lane had already retired both as a referee and as a Washoe County judge, having taken in 1998 an even higher-profile position as a dispenser of instant justice on Judge Mills Lane, a syndicated television show in which he issued rulings in the raspy voice so familiar to fight fans. But since the stroke, that voice has been forever silenced. Although his mind is said to be as sharp as ever, Lane, now 78, no longer can verbalize his thoughts. His trim and taut former athlete’s body – in addition to the remarkable fitness level he achieved in the Marine Corps, he was a former standout boxer at the University of Nevada-Reno and then as a pro, posting a 10-1 record – also has begun to fail him in a variety of ways, which stuns those who remember him as boxing’s bow-tied Energizer Bunny.
“All through his life his weight never varied by more than four or five pounds,” said a friend, New Jersey-based referee Steve Smoger. “He called himself `The welterweight.’ Ever since I’ve known him, he was always somewhere between 145 and 150.”
Added another friend, Marc Ratner, the former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission: “Even now, it’s difficult to imagine him as a prisoner in his own body. Mills was always in such tremendous shape.”
Although Lane did attend the festivities when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., on June 9, 2013, it was done so only with considerable effort on his part. It might even be said that Lane literally willed himself to be there.
“He has visibly aged,” Terry Lane acknowledged. “He broke his hip in 2012, the year before he was inducted in Canastota. Like any older person with physical limitations, he has lost a lot of energy. He can’t move around very easily. Mostly, he watches TV and lets Mom take care of him. She makes him as comfortable as she can.
“It seems like every year he receives an award for something, and while he does want to be around certain things, it’s difficult for him to physically get places. It causes him pain. For the most part, it’s Tommy and I and Mom serving as his representatives. When I got the call (from IBHOF executive director) Ed Brophy, I just assumed it would be Tommy and me going to Canastota and making a quick thank-you like we’ve done dozens of times before. But Dad was really into it. I know he was very happy to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He can’t speak, but he still can emote and be expressive.”
Lane’s image as a no-nonsense banty rooster inside the ropes is well-deserved, but his path to Canastota and a measure of notoriety that no referee before or since has achieved began long before the boxing world came to know him as the guy who always seemed to land the kind of fights that stick in the public’s memory. Over the course of his 34-year career, he was the third man in the ring for such major or out-of-the-ordinary bouts as Muhammad Ali-Bob Foster (1972), Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney (1982), the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe II “Fan Man” Fight (1993), Oliver McCall’s bizarre crying jag against Lennox Lewis (1997) and, most notably, the Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson II “Bite Fight” (1997).
“The visibility of the `Bite Fight’ made Mills even more mainstream,” Ratner recalled. “It almost seemed like he worked all the Super Bowls of crazy fights.”
And the craziest of all was on June 28, 1997, when Tyson twice decided to gnaw off a one-inch chunk of Holyfield’s right ear as if it were on the menu at one of the MGM Grand’s fine restaurants. Lane had no alternative but to disqualify Tyson in the third round following the second toothy infraction.
“It’s my understanding that the producers of the (eventual Judge Mills Lane) show were watching the `Bite Fight’ and one of the TV commentators mentioned that my dad was a District Court judge in Washoe County, Nevada,” Terry Lane said. “I don’t know if that sparked the idea for him doing his own show or if they wanted a Judge (Joseph) Wapner (the first of the reality-show TV judges) thing, but it definitely put Dad on a different level of attention nationally and, I guess, even globally.”
With his shaved head, distinctive growl and signature catch phrase (“Let’s get it on!”) that spawned a wave of imitators, Mills Lane now seems like the perfect candidate to have been selected for unscripted courtroom drama. But the mere fact he wound up doing any of what he’s done, given his background, makes his accomplishments even more noteworthy.
The patrician scion of a Southern dynasty in Savannah, Ga., young Mills hailed from a banking family that also had extensive plantation holdings in that state and in South Carolina. How wealthy were the Lanes? Well, the Mills B. Lane House in historic downtown Savannah, completed in 1907, was hailed as a “jewel of the antebellum South” when it was placed on the market in 2007 with an asking price of $7.6 million. It seems a safe bet that no other future referee was raised in a mansion that boasted a marble entrance, Corinthian columns, parquet floors, 29 handcrafted canvas murals, nine fireplaces, five bedrooms, eight full baths, three half-baths and a large, in-ground pool.
Mills Lane’s father went so far as to have already paid his son’s tuition at a prestigious Midwestern university, where the young man was to study agriculture, the better to prepare him for instructing field hands on the proper way to eradicate those pesky boll weevils.
But being a banker and/or gentleman farmer didn’t especially appeal to young Mills, who did not want to float through life sipping mint juleps and benefiting from a name that carried so much economic and social clouts. He apparently believed that rich kids could be rebels, too, and not just because their male ancestors once had worn plumed hats as Confederate officers.
So Mills B. Lane chucked it all in 1958 to enlist in the Marines. He took up boxing while in service to his country, becoming All-Far East welterweight champion. And when his hitch was up, he took off for Reno where, he had read in a magazine, the local university had a boxing team of some repute. After winning an NCAA boxing championship at UNR and then enjoying some success as a pro, Lane continued his journey of self-discovery, gaining his law degree and sliding seamlessly into multiple vocations in boxing and law enforcement as a referee, deputy sheriff, district attorney and judge, where his penchant for handing out stiff sentences to felonious offenders earned him the sobriquet of “Maximum Mills.”
It should come to no surprise to anyone, given Mills Lane’s determination to forge his own identity, that one of his favorite songs is the Paul Anka-written standard My Way, the most familiar versions being the ones sung by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
“Dad definitely did things his way,” Terry Lane said. “When I hear that song, I always think of him. Not to take a morbid turn here, but he always said that he wanted that song played at a memorial service whenever his time comes.”
At least Mills got the opportunity to convey that wish to Terry and Tommy, who were teenagers when their father was stricken with the stroke that has deprived them of so many of the father-son chats that never took place.
“If I could have even a one-hour conversation, an adult conversation, with him, it would mean so much to me,” Terry said. “I’d want to hear why he made the choices he did, and his outlook on everything.
“Tommy and I have to piece together a lot of that in our adult lives. There’s so many questions we’d like to go to him with, and he’s sitting right there. It is frustrating. But safe to say, he’s one in a billion.”