Renowned boxing referee and Hall of Famer Mills Lane, who spent his early childhood in Savannah, died Tuesday morning at age 85 in his hometown of Reno, Nevada.
Lane refereed more than 100 championship boxing matches in his 34-year career, including the infamous 1997 “Bite Fight”, where he gained notoriety for disqualifying Mike Tyson for biting Evander Holyfield’s ear. His no-nonsense style and trademark pre-fight phrase “let’s get it on” captured audiences across the nation until his retirement in 1998, though his legacy lived on to this day.
The boxing icon’s journey began in Savannah, where he was born and raised. "Lane" was a household name in the banking industry in Savannah. His grandfather, Mills Bee Lane, founded the Citizens and Southern Bank in Georgia, which was the largest bank in the Southeast for most of the 20th century. Mergers later consolidated the company with NationsBank, which forms the core of Bank of America today. Lane’s family moved out of Savannah in 1946 and he spent most of his adolescent years on his father’s 11,000-acre farm in South Carolina.
Members of the Lane family still live in the Savannah area and the Western extension of 52nd street is named after Mills B. Lane Jr., Lane's uncle. Mills B. Lane Jr.'s son, Lane IV, a preservationist and historian, founded the Beehive Press in Savannah.
Lane broke away from his family's banking roots "against their wishes," according to family members, and instead, joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1956, where he was an infantry rifle instructor. There, he made his foray into his real passion – boxing. When stationed in Okinawa, he staked his name as the All-Far-East welterweight champion.
He continued his boxing career at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he also earned a degree in business administration. In 1960, he won the NCAA welterweight title, the last year the governing body of collegiate sports sanctioned boxing. He was also an Olympic hopeful and compiled a 10-1 record before turning to refereeing in 1964.
Lane continued on to earn a law degree at the University of Utah’s College of Law in 1970, setting up his other career as a Washoe County prosecutor, district attorney and district court judge from 1971 to 1998. He stepped down from the bench to run the TV courtroom series “Judge Mills Lane,” which ran for three years.
In one memorable TV moment, Judge Mills Lane III looked across at the defendant, took off his glasses and said, “No offense ma’am, but if a duck had your brains, he’d fly North for the winter.”
In both boxing and law, Lane was known for his no-frills approach and honesty, traits indelible to his legacy.
''I like to think your personality carries over into whatever you do,'' Lane was quoted in a June 12, 2000, publication of the Savannah Morning News. ''I recognize that there is a little leeway but not a lot of leeway. Protocol is protocol — I don't put up with crap in the courtroom or in the television courtroom, and I didn't put up with crap in the prize ring.''
Throughout his career, Lane has been recognized by People magazine, Sports Illustrated and Esquire magazine. He was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
Folks back home in Savannah followed Lane’s storied career with the help of local reports.
"I'd call in the results to (a Savannah friend) Johnny Becker, and he'd call the newspaper," Lane said. "It was nice to have that support. It seemed like people wanted to stay informed with how I was doing, and I never forgot that."
Jeff Karesh, past president of the Greater Savannah Hall of Fame, said Savannah's boxing scene was much more lively up until the '70s. He recalled how boxing fans would clamor around the T.V. when Lane showed up.
"Any time a boxing match would come on, people would be like, 'Oh, there's Mills B. Lane, there's Mills B. Lane!" said Karesh. "He's definitely someone locals would claim as their own."
The native Savannahian often returned to the coastal Georgia city to visit friends and family members, said his youngest son, Tommy Lane. Though Lane didn't visit since suffering a debilitating stroke in 2002, they still keep in touch with Lane's brothers and cousins in the Savannah area, said Tommy.
"We would visit about once a year ... and loved going to the family plot in Bonaventure Cemetery," said Tommy, "Our extended family would have an annual oyster roast and we'd try to attend as much as possible. Savannah has a special place in our hearts."
In 2000, Lane presided over the Greater Savannah Sports Council banquet as the guest speaker. That year, he received the Outstanding Achievements in Savannah in Sports award. Previously, Lane was inducted into the Greater Savannah Athletic Hall of Fame in the 1970s for his amateur and professional boxing career.
Though Lane considered himself a Nevadan, his eldest son, Terry recalled that Lane would hearken back to his roots and referred to himself as "a Georgia Peach."
"Savannah is such a unique and wonderful place and that's where his deep roots lie," said wife Kaye Lane. "It was all part of his charm too."
Kaye pointed out that it's "hard to describe" such a one-of-a-kind person, but ultimately characterized her late husband as "a dynamo with a radar for justice."
Along with refereeing world championships, Lane gave his time to smaller, less-esteemed fights as well. His attention was the same, regardless of the stature of the fight.
"It's a sport where two people square off to prove who's the better man. You don't get more basic than that. I guess foot racing might be more basic, but how can you compare winning a foot race to winning a boxing match,” Lane is quoted in an Aug. 19, 2001, publication of the Savannah Morning News.
In the same piece, his son, Terry, recalled that his father would point to the ring and say, "That fight is the most important fight in the world to two people. That fight deserves all my respect and attention."
Colleague and friend Dr. Flip Homansky, 72, who is a Tybee Island native and Las Vegas transplant, recalled Lane's very "distinctive style" that commanded respect in the ring.
"He was a small man — a wiry, tough-looking guy. And, usually, when they're as small as Mills was, it's hard to gain the fighter's respect, but that was never the case with Mills," said Homansky, who worked as a ringside physician when Lane refereed. "Just by his mannerism, fighters knew that this guy wasn't going to take any B.S."
Continuing the legacy
After retiring from refereeing in 1998, Lane continued to elevate the boxing world through promotion. In December 2000, he began a boxing promotion company “Let’s Get it On Productions,” named after his signature phrase, with three law partners and Tony Holden Productions of Oklahoma.
The company staged its first bout in April 2001, the same month his syndicated TV show, "Judge Mills Lane," was canceled.
In April 2002, Lane suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. His right side was weakened and he struggled to speak. About five years later, Lane’s sons, Terry and Tommy picked up the mantle of the promotion business. They're now representing heavyweight world title contender Zhang Zhi Lei.
In the last week, Tommy, Terry and Kaye were by Lane’s side, reported the Reno Gazette-Journal. In hospice, Lane’s health “took a significant decline.” The family spent the last few days watching movies and Lane’s fight from the 1960 college boxing championship.
In Reno, Lane’s name lives on as well. On Dec. 27, 2004, the city declared it “Mills Lane Day.” And in May 2006, a new justice administration building in downtown Reno was named after him.
Nancy Guan is the general assignment reporter for Savannah Morning News. You can reach her at NGuan@gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Mills Lane, boxing icon and Reno judge, has deep roots in Savannah, GA