In the courtroom where Mills Lane presides, there always comes
that point when the bantam rooster on the bench--the district
court judge known in northern Nevada as Maximum Mills--has heard
and seen enough of the little human drama playing out before
him. The signs of his discontent are unmistakable. He begins to
fuss and fidget in his high-backed chair, twisting in his seat,
drawing a hand over his bald and shaved pate, nibbling on a stem
of his reading glasses. A scowl, like a shadow, crosses his
face, and he leans forward. In his chambers behind him, among
the artifacts that symbolize his life--the brass scales of
justice that sit on a shelf near a miniature wooden gallows,
complete with hangman's rope dangling from it--is a can of
aerosol spray, smack in the middle of his desk, the most
prominent and telling display of all. The label reads BULLSHIT
REPELLENT. He carries that with him, metaphorically speaking,
wherever he goes--from the violent confines of professional
prizefighting rings, where he has become one of the most
respected referees in boxing, to Department 9 of the Washoe
County Courthouse in Reno, where he lectures, warns and punishes
while keeping dueling lawyers apart. You know he is about to
reach for the can when he leans forward at the bench and his
voice, a raspy high-pitched twang, rises in the room.
As it did one day last week when a young man in custody stood
before him in cuffs and confessed to Lane he had a drug problem.
Lane wagged a finger at him. "It's not a drug problem," he said.
"And it's not cuz your daddy yelled at ya. It's not cuz you
weren't breast fed. It's not cuz your mama didn't change your
diapers. It's none of these things. Your problem is you! And
until you get it together, these problems will follow you."
Or, as it did one morning in early July when, to the
astonishment of the Reno legal community, Lane decided to
terminate a jury trial just as attorney Jerome Polaha was
winding up his defense. Polaha's client, a young male assistant
nurse, had been accused by two female colleagues of gross
lewdness, a misdemeanor, but after listening to a parade of
defense character witnesses--including one elderly woman who
said that the defendant was the only man she had ever allowed to
bathe her--Lane began to drum his fingers and rub his head.
Looking down at the prosecution, Lane said, "I do not believe
there's sufficient evidence to convict this defendant beyond a
reasonable doubt. That's what I believe in my gut, in my heart
and in my soul." Besides, even if the jury had found him guilty,
Lane says, he would have set aside the verdict and freed the
man. So, he thought, why waste everyone's time and subject the
young man to further prosecution? Just like that, with a spray
of his aerosol, the trial was over.
"In 30 years of practice I've never seen a judge do that," says
July 27, 1997
"Nothing that Mills does surprises me anymore," says Washoe
County district attorney Richard Gammick.
Mills Bee Lane III referees prizefights in roughly the same way
he runs a courtroom. In both worlds he is precise, passionate
and decisive, and never more so as a ref than he has been this
year. In three heavyweight championship bouts, faced with some
of the strangest behavior ever seen in a prizefight, Lane ended
each bout by disqualifying one of the boxers. He waved the Feb.
7 fight between Oliver McCall and Lennox Lewis to a stop in the
fifth round when a mentally troubled McCall, crying and dazed,
walked around the ring and refused to defend himself. On June 28
Lane halted the rematch between WBA champion Evander Holyfield
and Mike Tyson at the end of the third round after determining
that Tyson, who had already been warned for biting Holyfield's
right ear, had bitten Holyfield's left ear less than a minute
later. Two weeks after that, Lane disqualified contender Henry
Akinwande for holding Lewis, in effect for refusing to fight. "I
don't have the vocabulary to describe what has happened this
year," Lane says. "It's been crazy, nutty. It is bizarre."
Surely no referee is better suited for weathering the winds of
the boxing world, with all its swirling controversies, than
Lane, a 59-year-old former NCAA welterweight boxing champ with a
permanently smashed potato of a nose, a bulldog drive and
pugnacity that once made him the most feared prosecutor in
Washoe County. He brings to the task a rare species of
self-confidence, an unflinching sense of who he is and where
he's going, that has governed his life since he was a boy. "You
play the hand you are dealt and do the best with it you can,"
says Lane, an avid hold-'em poker player at the Club Cal-Neva
casino in downtown Reno.
He was not dealt a bad one. Lane grew up on a 13,000-acre
plantation in South Carolina, where his father raised cattle and
timber. Mills III was the oldest of five children whose
grandfather Mills Bee Lane owned the largest bank in Georgia.
Mills III attended Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., and one
of his three brothers recalls Mills III's making a boxing match
between two quarreling boys when he was 18--and then, as
referee, stepping in to halt it in the first minute.
"Why did you stop it?" asked the onlookers, jeering.
"No contest!" yelled young Mills. "One guy's too good for the
Mills's father, Remer, wanted him to study forestry and
agriculture at Michigan and then return home to take over the
plantation, but Mills had always liked it in the line of
fire--he had been a linebacker on the Middlesex football team
and the goalie on the school hockey team--so he turned his back
on Ann Arbor and went to Parris Island, S.C., to begin three
years in the Marines. He started boxing in the Corps and, while
stationed at Okinawa, became the Marines' All-Far East
welterweight champ. When he mustered out of the Corps, in 1959,
Remer asked him, "Well, what are you going to do now?"
"I'm going to be a professional prizefighter," said Mills. Remer
buried his face in his hands and groaned, "Oh, my god!"
That spring Mills read an article in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the
NCAA boxing championships, and from it he learned that the best
boxing team in America was at Nevada-Reno. His father told him,
"Mills, you're going to go to college and box, too!"
So he did. By the time he graduated with a degree in business,
in 1963, Lane had won that NCAA title and already retired, with
a record of 11-1, as a pro. As gifted as he was, he knew he had
no chance of winning the welterweight title--the great Emile
Griffith was the champion, and the division was loaded with
talent--so he settled down in Reno with the perfect life for a
former fighting leatherneck: refereeing club bouts and
repossessing cars for a bank. He would leave Reno in '67 to
attend law school at Utah.
By 1970 Lane, now a member of the Nevada bar, had done precisely
what he had wanted to do and in so doing had followed the course
of most resistance. He had rejected life on the farm, walked
away from the family bank, fought his way through school,
attained his law degree and started from scratch on his own. He,
also, had graduated from refereeing club fights: By 1972, he
would referee the Muhammad Ali-Bob Foster fight in Lake Tahoe,
Nev. "I didn't want it handed to me," Lane says. "Whatever I
did, I wanted to do it in the name of Mills Lane III. I wanted
to make my name for myself."
Lane spent nearly 17 years in the Washoe County district
attorney's office, the first eight as an appointed assistant and
the last eight-plus as the elected DA, and over the years he
became a legend for his attack-dog pursuit of criminals. When
the current district attorney, Gammick, was a rookie cop, in
1973, he and fellow officers arrested three men who had
kidnapped four people. Summoned to the DA's office, Gammick
found himself facing this geyser of righteous indignation. Loud
and chesty, Lane told him, "We're gonna take those three
gentlemen, we're gonna give 'em a fair trial, and then we're
gonna hang the sonsabitches!" The three went to jail.
Indeed, so formidable was Lane's reputation as a prosecutor that
he was designated by the district attorney's office to begin all
three criminal trials scheduled to start every week on Monday.
Defense lawyers knew that he could not try all three cases at
once, but the DA had all the defendants and their lawyers
running scared that Lane would prosecute their case. "All these
guys would plead guilty because they were afraid of Mills,"
recalls Bill Magrath, who served with Lane in the DA's office.
Lane was particularly zealous in cases involving violent crimes.
"Murder, rape, robbery. That's where he was at his best," says
Larry Hicks, a former DA under whom Lane served. "He didn't like
white-collar crimes. He liked the black-and-white cases. He
liked to go after 'dirtbags,' as he described them." A
flamboyant performer--"He literally danced around the courtroom
like a prizefighter," says Hicks--Lane more than once, in
pushing too hard, was accused of prosecutorial misconduct. "You
can't have an appeal unless you have a conviction first!" Lane
used to say. "I'm an advocate. For the people!"
He was the bane of public defenders. Shelly O'Neill, a public
defender in the late 1980s, approached Lane one day about an
indigent client she was representing, and she recalls him
telling her, "All you defense lawyers are alike. I wouldn't piss
on you if you were on fire." Lane wishes to correct the record
here. "Let me explain," he says. "I didn't say all defense
lawyers. I said some.... "
When Lane ran for the district judgeship in 1990, against
O'Neill, one defense lawyer was quoted as saying that the
prospective salutation "Good morning, Judge Lane" was his worst
nightmare. Lane howls over that line. "I was a tough, hard-nosed
prosecutor, and they didn't think I could change," he says. The
consensus among Reno lawyers such as Magrath and O'Neill,
however, is that Lane underwent a transformation upon moving to
the bench. In boxing terms, Lane says, he went from being a
fighter for the prosecution to a referee in a black robe. "I'm
an arbiter now," he says.
As he is in the ring. The Lewis-Akinwande fiasco was Lane's 97th
world championship bout, and from the walls of his chambers
hangs a gallery of pictures celebrating them. His first
heavyweight title fight was Larry Holmes-Ken Norton in '78. Two
other bouts that he calls memorable were the '86 middleweight
title fight between Marvin Hagler and John Mugabi, which Hagler
won on a KO in the 11th, and the '80 featherweight title bout
between Salvador Sanchez and Danny (Little Red) Lopez, which
Sanchez won on a KO in the 14th. "The hardest one-shot puncher I
ever saw was Ernie Shavers," says Mills, who fondly recalls when
boxers had to weigh in the day of the fight, not before, and who
is glad that referees no longer are required to score a bout.
To the extent that history remembers referees at all, Lane will
be best remembered for Holyfield-Tyson II--the fight that caught
him in a rare moment of indecision. That moment is his only
regret about his performance that night. When Tyson bit
Holyfield the first time, sending Holyfield leaping in pain
across the ring, Lane saw what had happened and said loud enough
to be heard by those watching the bout on pay-per-view, "He bit
him. He's disqualified."
He winces at that now. "I should have kept my mouth shut before
I got my brain operating," he said. "That was a mistake."
Suddenly, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic
Commission, Marc Ratner, was standing on the ring apron and
asking Lane, "Do you want to disqualify him?" The question
stunned him like a punch. "It brought me back to my senses,"
Lane says. This was, after all, a heavyweight championship, an
extravaganza for which millions of people had been waiting, and
he hesitated stopping it for just one foul, however flagrant.
"If you chase him right away, there are too many questions,"
So after the ring doctor had advised him that Holyfield could go
on, Lane deducted two points for the foul and let the fight
continue. Looking back, he can only imagine the tempest his
decision would have caused had Tyson knocked Holyfield out. Or
won on a decision. "It would have been hell," says Lane,
slapping his forehead. "What do you say? That's the vicissitudes
The second bite left Lane no choice. Once the third round ended,
he was shown the evidence. "That's it. You're gone," he shouted
The fight and Lane's role in it made him into a national
celebrity of sorts, but the popularity isn't about to change his
life: sharing a comfortable three-bedroom house in southwest
Reno with his third wife, Kaye, and their two sons, Terry, 14,
and Tommy, 10; climbing periodically into a prize ring to play a
central role in a sport he loves; and having a great wooden
bench from which he can scold and scowl and dispense justice for
$106,000 a year, far more than the $28,000 he expects to gross
this year from refereeing. "I'm the luckiest sonofabitch there
ever was," he says with a wink and a grin. "I've had more good
times than any five people alive. Now I'm just a kindly old
Of course. And pass the aerosol can.