Commentary

Mercante was boxing's invisible force

Legendary referee represented law and order in the ring

Updated: April 11, 2010, 5:02 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Arthur Mercante believed that the best referees were the ones who were neither seen nor heard. His movements were perfectly in sync with the fighters he was watching over, but unobtrusive. His instructions were brief and to the point, his presence in the ring protective, never intrusive.

He never had a catchphrase, no Mills Lane-like "Let's get it on!" or Joe Cortez-esque "I'm firm but I'm fair."

He came from the old school, the one that understood the fans came to see the fighters, not the guy in the slacks and bow tie.

And yet, Arthur Mercante, who died Saturday at the age of 90 at his home in Westbury, N.Y., became among the most visible of referees simply because of how well, and how invisibly, he did his job.

[+] EnlargeArthur Mercante
AP PhotoArthur Mercante didn't count out Muhammad Ali after this '71 knockdown, but Joe Frazier won the fight.

"He was the Fred Astaire of boxing referees," said Ron Scott Stevens, who served as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission during Mercante's final years as a referee and later -- beginning at age 81 -- a judge.

"He was almost balletic in there," said his son, Arthur Jr., who followed in his dad's footsteps as an excellent referee, a task almost as difficult as Frank Sinatra's son trying to become a singer or Astaire's kid trying to become a dancer.

The father taught the son everything he knew, from his unique style of movement to how to break the fighters cleanly to how to keep the pace of a fight moving. One time the kid, having fallen under the spell of the look-at-me generation of referees, ended his pre-fight instructions to Roy Jones and Felix Trinidad with the following flourish: "Let's go toe-to-toe and give the people what they paid for."

After the fight, his father had one question. "Arthur," he asked quietly, "what was that all about?" Needless to say, Arthur Jr. dropped it from his repertoire.

And the father imparted to his son the best bit of advice a veteran referee can give to a novice. "He told me, 'Be there, but don't be there,'" Arthur Jr. said. The meaning was simple: Keep control of the fight without anyone -- not the fighters, and especially not the fans -- noticing that someone was actually in charge. There is an art to refereeing a professional prizefight, especially among heavyweights who are disinclined to take order or direction from anyone while they are going about their work.

Mercante came to national prominence in 1971, when he was chosen to work the first bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It was a socially and racially charged event, as well as a terrific match that might well have been the most pressure-packed and eagerly awaited sporting event of the 20th century. Mercante handled the difficult assignment masterfully -- Ali, of course, loved to hold behind the head and hit, and Frazier was known to let a left hook or two stray below the belt -- but for years afterward, he could never fully forgive himself for one moment that went virtually unnoticed. While breaking a 10th-round clinch, he had inadvertently poked Frazier in the eye. Whenever people spoke to him about that fight (and everyone did) Mercante never failed to bring up the incident.

Frazier, of course, recovered, and so did Mercante. He went on to become boxing's most prominent referee but never its flashiest. When young referees began their careers, it was Mercante's fluid, athletic style -- he could bounce around a ring for 15 rounds as smoothly and easily as Ali -- they tried to emulate.

And when the New York Boxing Commission held its annual training seminar, it was Mercante who was asked to instruct the referees, even into his mid-80s. A lifelong physical fitness buff, he performed a regimen of chin-ups, push-ups and sit-ups every day of his life and required his four sons to do the same.

In 2004, at the age of 84 and retired from refereeing, he accompanied Arthur Jr. to a fight in Connecticut. Early in the morning Artie heard a thump from the next bed and was gripped with fear. His dad had fallen out of the bed, he thought, or worse.

"I looked over and he's down there doing his push-ups," he said.

For the last 25 years of his life, Arthur Mercante befriended me. It was, to me, one of the proudest achievements of my career as a boxing writer. He was a cultured, intelligent man, courtly even, and if you didn't know who he was, you would never have guessed his profession.

And for me he served as an inspiration, because I knew that immediately after the hellos, he would gently poke me in the midsection to see if I had been doing my sit-ups. Then he would insist I do the same to him. Always, his abs were as tight as steel.

And his authority in the ring was always unquestioned. One night, Zab Judah, a Brooklyn junior welterweight not known for following the rules, was clowning in a fight at Madison Square Garden. "Champ, stop showboating and start fighting!" came the sharp admonition from the referee.

Afterward, Judah was asked about his change in tactics. "When Arthur Mercante tells you to knock it off and start fighting," he said, "you knock it off and start fighting."

After all, as Arthur Mercante knew, that was what the fans had come to see.

***

Funeral services for Arthur Mercante will be held at the Fairchild Funeral Home in Garden City, N.Y., on Monday and Tuesday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. A funeral mass will be held Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Garden City.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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