Hall of Fame referee Arthur Mercante dead at 90

Hall of Fame boxing referee Arthur Mercante, the third man in

the ring for the first Ali-Frazier fight and more than a hundred

other world title bouts, died Saturday. He was 90.

Mercante died at his home in Westbury, said Edward Brophy,

executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in

Canastota. The cause of death wasn’t disclosed.

Flags at the Hall of Fame were flying at half-staff Saturday in

Mercante’s honor.

“He was a complete professional inside the ring and true class

act outside of the ring,” Brophy said. “We will miss our friend

and mourn his passing.”

The death of an icon in the sport quickly sent ripples through

the close-knit boxing community. Salutes were planned Saturday

night before Andre Berto’s welterweight title fight against Carlos

Quintana in Sunrise, Fla., and a Top Rank-promoted card in Las

Vegas.

“I knew Arthur real well and saw him just a couple months

ago,” Top Rank founder Bob Arum said. “Mercante was a terrific,

terrific man, a real gentleman, and he loved being a referee and he

really worked at it. He was always in great shape and he was dead

honest. You rarely realized he was in the ring because he was

generally unobtrusive and he let the fighters fight.”

Mercante began his career while serving in the Navy, referring

service bouts in the 1940s.

He became a professional referee in 1954 and, six years later,

was in the ring for his first world title bout when Floyd Patterson

knocked out Ingemar Johansson at the Polo Grounds in New York City.

Mercante would go on to referee 145 world title fights during his

career, which lasted just short of five decades. He retired in

2001.

The best referees are generally the ones who go unnoticed,

quietly keeping order in the ring while the boxers do their thing.

But not even Mercante could avoid the spotlight on March 8, 1971,

when Madison Square Garden filled to the rafters for the “Fight of

the Century.”

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were both undefeated when they met

in an event that transcended boxing, if not all of sports. Frank

Sinatra was ringside taking photos for Life Magazine, Norman Mailer

and Woody Allen were in the crowd, and fans filled movie theaters

around the country to watch the closed-circuit telecast on the

night of the fight.

Mercante’s full-time job at the time was working for Schaefer

Brewing Company, and he received a call from the New York State

Athletic Commission hours before the fight, instructing him and two

other referees to show up at the Garden. One of them would be

chosen to be in the ring, so that bookies and other unsavory

characters would not be able to influence the referee.

“Of course I was dying to get the assignment,” Mercante wrote

in his autobiography years later. “The minutes, then the hours,

ticked away interminably.”

Mercante finally received word he had been chosen, and worked

for the princely sum of $500.

“He was the third man in the most important fight in the last

50 years, and he reveled in the fact that he was, but he had so

many other experiences that it wasn’t singular,” said boxing

historian Bert Sugar, who considered Mercante a close friend and

wrote the foreword to his book.

Frazier won by unanimous decision, then lost to Ali in two more

classic fights that Mercante did not work.

Mercante, however, also received the call in 1973 to referee the

title fight between Frazier and George Foreman in Kingston,

Jamaica. Remembered for the dramatic call by Howard Cosell – “Down

goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” – it was Mercante who ended the

carnage in the second round, after Foreman had dropped the champion

an astonishing six times.

Mercante also was in the ring in September 1976 when Ali fought

Ken Norton in what eventually was the final bout at the old Yankee

Stadium. Mercante kept control in the ring, even though the fight

was a dreadful bore, while a police strike allowed for chaos

outside of it.

“A lot of the officials today are in trouble because they do

not have experience,” Mercante said in June 1995, when he was

inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“They are putting referees in championship matches before they

pay their dues. They are putting judges in who have not had the

experience. This is the reason there are so many bad decisions. No

dishonesty, believe me. It’s just incompetence.”

Perhaps that is why Mercante was so pleased that his son, Arthur

Jr., followed in his footsteps in becoming a referee. Arthur

Mercante Jr. has worked his share of high-profile bouts, including

the controversial draw in 1999 between Evander Holyfield and Lennox

Lewis at the Garden.

“I think he took great pride that his son followed him into the

business and has done so well,” Sugar said. “I mean, boxing is

not a great tradition of father-sons. It’s not like a clothing

store or something of that ilk. But Arthur took great pride in the

fact that Arthur Mercante Jr. picked up where he left off.

“He will never be as famous or well thought of as his father,

through no fault of his own, because his father was one of the

best.”