Lord of the Ring

updated 08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/1997 01:00AM

IT IS 8:45 A.M., AND WASHOE COUNTY district court in Reno, Judge Mills Lane presiding, is in session. A young man, clad in a pea-green jumpsuit courtesy of the county jail, tries to convince Lane that although, yes, he did use methamphetamine while in drug rehab, Lane should not revoke his parole. "It's a disease," he pleads. Lane cuts him off. "Don't give me that!" he barks. "You're revoked!"

On his way to jail, the defendant could, if he were so inclined, take comfort in the fact that he was not alone in feeling the swift sting of Lane's judgment. Just a week earlier, "Iron" Mike Tyson, former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, ran afoul of the same Mills Lane and suffered the consequences. Lane, working his other job as a boxing referee, disqualified Tyson for biting champion Evander Holyfield's ears in their June 28 title fight in Las Vegas. The upshot: the Nevada Athletic Commission fined Tyson $3 million of his $30 million purse, reportedly the largest monetary penalty in sports history, and revoked his license for at least a year.

Lane, one of the most respected referees in the game—he has worked 97 title fights and a record 22 heavyweight championships—is, as always when dispensing justice, blunt, clear-eyed and unapologetic. "In all disciplines—even the most basic—there's protocol," he says, his Ross Perot-like voice rising in anger. "And Tyson's action was such a violation of protocol.... I mean, Judas, that someone would...Damn!...It's just outside of good order."

Good order is the state to which Mills Bee Lane III bends all his effort, in court or in the ring. "Mills Lane," says boxing commentator Bert Sugar, "keeps control of a fight like I've never seen before." Lane is more direct. "I don't take crap from anyone," he says.

That feistiness is a longstanding trait. "I think Mills will stand up to anyone," says his mother, Louise, 81, who lives in Savannah, where Lane was born, the oldest of five children. He stood up to his father, Remer, a businessman, when he was 18, enlisting in the Marines rather than going to college. He defied his father again when he began boxing—Remer thought the sport "ungentlemanly"—on a troopship en route to Okinawa. After the Corps, he enrolled in the University of Nevada, lured by its boxing program, and became national collegiate welterweight champion. He barely missed making the 1960 U.S. Olympic team and turned pro, but even with an 11-1 record, Lane realized he would never be a world-beater. "I got hit a lot," he says.

Lane concentrated on hitting the books, getting a degree in economics, then a law degree from the University of Utah. He went to work for the Washoe County district attorney's office in 1971 and became DA himself in 1982. Along the way he went 22-0 in murder cases and earned the nickname Maximum Mills; this is a man who wears a pendant in the shape of a hangman's noose. His second marriage, to Judy Rumbaugh (he also had been married briefly in college), broke up under pressure of his work.

At the same time, Lane began to make a reputation as a boxing referee, and his signature exhortation to fighters—a barked "Let's get it on!"—became a familiar fight-night feature. Lane, who has shared a ring with every major heavyweight champ from Muhammad Ali on, usually works the Las Vegas fights, making as much as $10,000 for a big-name bout.

The tough guy lightens up at home in the three-story house in southwest Reno that he shares with his wife, Kaye, 42, a former probation officer he married in 1981, and their two children, Terry, 14, and Tommy, 10. (He has two grown children, one adopted, from his second marriage.) "He talks to the boys about discipline," says Kaye. "He's not that hard on them. He's kind of a marshmallow."

Several years ago, Lane said he would retire as a referee at age 60, which he'll turn in November. Now, however, he's hedging. "I've been kind of informally approached by Showtime to do some color commentating," he says. "If somebody made me an offer, I'd take a long, hard look at it."

In the end, Lane doesn't feel that Tyson's disgrace will have a lasting effect on the sport he loves. "In two weeks," he says, "people will think and talk about something else. There's going to be people making fights, there's gonna be tickets sold, there's gonna be kids being champeens." And there's gonna be Mills Lane, making them mind their manners.

MICHAEL NEILL
MICHAEL SION in Reno

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