His Honor, the Referee : Mills Lane Brooks No Nonsense, in Court or in the Ring
The courtroom clerk stands and says: “All rise!”
The clerk continues: “The second Judicial District Court for the State of Nevada is now in session, the honorable Mills Lane presiding.”
From his chambers, Mills Lane emerges, wearing bifocals and black robes.
Sports followers might recognize him in his judicial attire, but they would probably know him right off in the blue shirt with a black bow tie he wears when refereeing a championship boxing match in Las Vegas or his hometown, Reno.
Lane, 54, was the Washoe County (Reno) district attorney from 1982 to 1990, when he was elected to the district court bench.
One recent day, he was hearing a case involving a claim on mining equipment. A firm had lent money to a miner who had secured the loan with the equipment and then went into default.
The borrower’s case seemed weak. His attorney struggled, often wandering. Lane interrupted several times.
“Come on, counselor,” he said. “You’re obfuscating. That has nothing to do with this case.”
Lane can be blunt. But with great patience, he heard both sides of what seemed to be a clear case of default. Finally, he looked at the defense attorney and said:
“Counselor, what we have here is a very simple case. Your client borrowed some money, secured it with some mining equipment and couldn’t repay the loan. Now, that’s too bad--but it’s basically a very clear case, right?”
Let’s get it on.
Between courtroom sessions recently, Judge Mills Lane sat in his chambers and talked about his boxing days.
“My first pro opponent, in 1962, was an inmate from the state pen, a guy named Artie Cox,” he said. “I’d seen him fight before. I knew he was a rough guy. But so was I. We were both 140 pounds.
“Well, the bell rings and I go after him and . . . ‘BAM!’ I remember going down the first time, but not the next two times. Next thing I know, I’m standing in my corner, asking my trainer what happened.
“He said: ‘The fight’s over, Mills.’
“And I said: ‘You mean I knocked him out that quick?’ ”
Mills Lane fought Cox again--and won. Lane never lost again.
“I took a year off, started all over in the gym, came back and fought 12 more times,” he said. “When I quit, I was 11-1-1.”
Lane is a fast-talking, tough-talking former Marine who says he learned discipline in the Corps, used it to great advantage in boxing, then found extended applications as a public prosecutor, district attorney and, since January, judge.
Many who have followed his legal and boxing careers believe that Lane may one day be governor of Nevada or a U.S. senator.
And many who have followed his twin careers don’t know that Mills Lane is really Mills Lane III, hardly the poor, country boy he would like you to believe he is.
Listen to what a family friend from Savannah, Ga., John Becker, says:
“Mills Lane’s family here (in Savannah) is our equivalent of the Rockefellers. He grew up on a plantation that covers thousands of acres. His grandfather, Mills Lane I, started the Citizens and Southern Bank, which is our equivalent to the Bank of America. He had neighbors like Bernard Baruch and Barbara Hutton.”
Lane seemed mildly annoyed that the reporter had learned of his family wealth in Georgia.
“I’m just a Georgia country boy,” he said. “I tried to go to work for the family bank, but I kept thinking, no matter how well I did, it would always be because my uncle got me the job. So one day I said goodby to everyone, packed up the car, and headed to Reno.”
Whatever his background, Lane is one of boxing’s most visible referees. He is perhaps best known for his trademark remark that wraps up the prefight instructions: “All right, let’s get it on!”
When he worked the Virgil Hill-Thomas Hearns light-heavyweight championship fight in Las Vegas earlier this month, it was his 49th championship fight.
In Nevada, only Richard Steele of Las Vegas, with 87, has refereed more title fights. Lane refers to boxing as “the discipline,” as in “The discipline has too many governing bodies.”
He believes that boxing, discipline and preparation are synonyms and recalled his own fighting days to make a point.
“I got to the point where I knew I was never going to be a champion, so I quit,” he said. “I was not a great mechanic. . . . I could hook off the jab, but that was about it.
“But when you were in the ring with me, you might have more tools than I did, but I would fight you all night. If I heard you were running two miles every morning, I’d run four.
“It’s called taking care of business. I just hate it when I see fighters with great tools not taking care of themselves. When Donald Curry knocked out Milton McCrory (in 1985), on that one night he was the greatest-looking fighter I ever saw.
“He became the undisputed welterweight champion that night. But one month later I saw him and he weighed 162 pounds, and I chewed him out for it. I told him he was cheating himself, that what he was doing was like a carpenter leaving his tools out in the rain.
“Roberto Duran is another guy who makes me sad. From bell to bell, over a long period of time, Duran was probably the greatest fighter I ever saw. But he abused his tools. Late in his career, he weighed 190 between fights.”
This, of course, prompted another question, and Lane couldn’t wait for it: “What do you weigh now, judge?”
“This morning I weighed 145 1/2. For my last pro fight, I was 145 3/4.
“Every morning, I hit the big bag, the speed bag, I run 2 1/2 miles and then do calisthenics. And at the dinner table, I don’t slop it up much.
“To me, a complete fighter is a guy who, along with everything else going for him, is a guy who takes care of himself. I’m talking about guys like (Evander) Holyfield and (Alexis) Arguello.”
As the judge sees it, the best complete package was Sugar Ray Leonard.
“Leonard is probably one of the best athletes ever in this sport,” he said. “God gave some men a lot of talent and only a little bit of character. Other men got a little bit of talent and a lot of character. Sugar Ray, he got it all.”
Here, then, is Judge Lane, on boxing:
--Memorable fights: “The night (in 1980) Salvador Sanchez beat Danny Lopez to retain his featherweight title was a memorable fight for me.
“Sanchez gave him a beating and stopped him in the 14th round. . . . But it’ll be a long time before I forget Danny Lopez’s courage that night.”
--Discipline and refereeing: “Everything is discipline. When I’m working a fight, I give the same energy and attention to a four-rounder as I do a million-dollar fight. The way I see it, in either case, on that night, it’s the most important fight in those fighters’ careers.
“Discipline is something I learned in the Marine Corps, and I’ve continually redefined it as I’ve gone through life.
--Money and discipline: “I hate the way some of these (boxers) spend money. Sometimes I think no one out there is telling these guys how easy it is to set themselves up for life.
“Now, let’s say a guy makes $3 million for a fight. OK, one-third goes to Uncle Sam and another third to his manager, maybe 10% to the trainer. At that point, if the guy takes one-fourth of what’s left and buys tax-free municipals, and he does that for a half-dozen fights, he’s set for life.
“But we’ve got one guy out there today (he wouldn’t mention a name) who’s bought 16 cars. Six-teen cars!”
--Refereeing as part-time work: “When I started, Sam Macias and I used to share rides up the mountain to Lake Tahoe. We got $20 for four-rounders and $5 for gas. Then I got main events for $50 and $10 for gas.
“The most I ever got for a title fight was $2,500. There aren’t enough referees in this state and a lot of others. We need maybe two or three more main-event refs here.
“But it should never be more than part-time work. I earn $7,000 to $9,000 a year. You pay a ref more than that, too many would come in just for the money. My judge’s salary is $79,000, and I have a 20-year pension of $21,000 a year from my prosecuting-attorney days.
“I do no overseas fights. Not enough time. But I’ll work Mexico or Canada fights, as long as it’s a place I can get to in five or six hours. I never take a vacation, so there’s no problem with me taking a couple days off to work a fight.”
--Boxing and neurological impairment: “It’s clear to me, no question about it, that there is brain-cell loss when you have a concussion. I boxed for a period of years--I probably have some brain damage, although I have no symptoms that I know of.
“But so does an NFL linebacker who’s been stopping fullbacks at the line of scrimmage for 10 years. And yet I love the discipline (boxing), and I support it. To me, it’s simply a price you pay for participation.
“It’s like gun control. It so happens I am opposed to gun control, but I acknowledge that guns cause problems in our society. But to me, that is a price we pay for freedom.
“When I was a pro, a couple times I’d feel sharp pain in my right hip when I got hit on the left side of my jaw. Doctors tell me that was brain damage occurring. I’d have headaches four or five days after a fight.
“But remember, not all boxers wind up impaired. Look at Archie Moore. There’s nothing wrong with him and he boxed for decades. Where would people like Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Alexis Arguello be without boxing?”
--Boxing reform: “With these millions of dollars coming into boxing from pay-per-view, there is an opportunity for reform. I feel there’s too much head knocking going on in gyms, but the state athletic commissions can’t afford enough inspectors to keep tabs on them.
“With just a one-half of 1% tax on that pay-per-view money, you could see what goes on in those gyms and put a stop to too many kids taking gym shellackings. In fact, with a pay-per-view tax, you could support a federal boxing commission and it wouldn’t cost the taxpayer a dime.”
--Tough fights: “I probably did my worst refereeing job at the (Vinny) Pazienza-(Roger) Mayweather fight (in 1988). It was a rough fight and I just didn’t control it like I should have.
“The toughest fight I ever worked was Hearns-(James) Kinchen (in ’88). Hearns got hurt in that fight and was holding on to everyone that night, including me.
“A lot of people think a 145-pound ref like me shouldn’t work heavyweight fights. Nonsense. It’s styles of the fighters that matter, not the size of the ref. Steele’s a big guy, but if a heavyweight wants to make life tough for him, he’ll do it.
“Roughhouse small fighters are just as hard to handle for a ref as big guys. Look at those old Sandy Saddler-Willie Pep films--elbows, thumbs and knees everywhere.”
--College boxing: “Seems to me with all the money problems colleges are having, boxing could be an answer. I used to box for Nevada Reno, when boxing was once a major spectator sport at a lot of schools.
“But even in its heyday, college boxing was a problem for educators. It’s the antithesis of what they believe in. But I believe in college boxing. I think it could be a great thing, with all those rivalries. I think you could fill a lot of those college basketball arenas with college boxing.”
(The NCAA banned boxing in 1961 after Charles Mohr of the University of Wisconsin collapsed in the ring at the 1960 NCAA boxing tournament, then later died. Some colleges still have boxing teams on a club level.)
--His future in the ring: “Refereeing is a discipline. I owe that profession my very best discipline. I’m 54. I figure I have five good years left. When I can’t perform at my present level, I’ll get out.”
--The proliferation of pro boxing governing bodies: “If you’re a purist, it’s a bad thing. If you want one world champion in each weight class, it’s bad. But if you’re a fighter, or you care about fighters, then maybe it’s not so bad. Remember, if you’re for the young guys who are in there doing the bleeding, there’s a lot of championships available and a lot of money.”
--Why he tweaks his nose when he’s introduced at a fight: “That’s how I say hello to my mom. What am I supposed to say, ‘Hi, Mom?’ ”
Becker, Lane’s Savannah friend, said that Lane at one time was supposed to take over the Citizens and Southern Bank, which now has 996 branches.
“I’m not sure at what point in his life Mills decided to carve out his own life, but it must have been in his late teens,” said Becker, 69.
“I remember him telling me one time: ‘I don’t need a jump-start in my life. I can make it on my own.’
“Mills’ family is very unusual. He has four brothers and they all do something different. One of his brothers was a Phi Beta Kappa at Yale and today he makes beautiful furniture and banjos.”
According to the Savannah Public Library, Mills Lane I was a close friend of Henry Ford, who was a vacation resident of Lebanon, Ga.
Becker said: “When Mills enlisted in the Marines, he could have gone in as an officer, but he didn’t. He was that well connected. The commandant of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island used to hunt on the Lane plantation.
“Before that, (Lane) went to Middlesex, one of the best prep schools in New England.
“When he went off to the University of Nevada (Reno) in 1959, I said to him: ‘Mills, whatever you have, it’s special. You’re one of those people who can do anything you want to do.’ ”
How tough a fighter was he?
“He was here one time on school vacation from Reno and the boxing coach at Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah needed a sparring partner for his boxers,” Becker said.
“I took Mills over there and he beat the hell out of six guys, two rounds each, from a welterweight on up to heavyweight.”
Lane was an exceptional amateur boxer. He lost in the semifinals of the 1960 U.S. Olympic trials and was named outstanding boxer at the 1960 NCAA boxing tournament.
He boxed for Nevada Reno after his three-year Marine Corps hitch, graduated, then obtained a law degree at the University of Utah. He started his public-service career as a Washoe County trial prosecutor in 1971.
During most of his prosecuting-attorney days in Reno, most people bought his “poor Georgia country boy” story. But several years ago, a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter visiting Savannah discovered he was driving on Mills Lane Boulevard. The truth has since come out, but with no help from Lane.
When he ran for reelection as DA in 1987, he was unopposed. In 1990, Lane filed to run against the sitting district court judge, a man he called “an arrogant incompetent.” Lane got 68% of the vote, the incumbent 32%.
His backers billed him as the hard-hitting DA who had gone 22 for 22 on murder convictions. As a trial lawyer, he had few critics.
“Mills is a great trial lawyer,” said Tom Mitchell, a former public defender now in private practice. He was opposing counsel to District Attorney Lane many times.
“He’s an ex-Marine who comes off like one. He’s a hard hitter. When you went to court against Mills and you weren’t prepared, he’d run over you like he was in a truck.
“I’ve watched his legal work for 11 years now. The blue-collar people in this state love him. They see him as a real no-nonsense, hardball kind of guy.”
Hardball . . . and compassionate, maybe.
Mary Lou Wilson, a Reno public defender, described some recent creative judicial work by Lane.
“I had a 19-year-old boy before him who was up on a probation-revocation matter,” she said.
“He was terrified. He knew Mills’ reputation as a tough guy. He was sure he was going back to jail. But Mills did a very creative thing. Instead of jail, he told the young man he had to live at home with his family, had to start work on making up work for his high school diploma and get a job. Otherwise, back to jail.
“And it worked. Everyone’s happy with how it worked out.
“He was a very good prosecutor. He could be scary, if you were on the other side.
“He’s very, very popular in Nevada. There’s a certain magic to his personality. But I wonder if he will find the courtroom a confining place. I think he might long for the political arena.”
As long as he is in the courtroom, though, Lane intends to be in charge. He set the tone for punctuality in one of his first sessions as a judge when a lawyer showed up late.
After threatening him with a $25 fine if he ever again showed up late in his courtroom, he waggled a finger at the attorney and said: “By God, we will start on time here.”
Let’s get it on.
‘Roberto Duran is another guy who makes me sad. From bell to bell, over a long period of time, Duran was probably the greatest fighter I ever saw. But he abused his tools. Late in his career, he weighed 190 between fights.’
‘Leonard is probably one of the best athletes ever in this sport. God gave some men a lot of talent and only a little bit of character. Other men got a little bit of talent and a lot of character. Sugar Ray, he got it all.’