Arthur Mercante, Sr., the legendary boxing referee who was the third man in the ring for over 140 title fights in his career, including the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, died on Saturday at his home in Westbury, New York, at the age of 90. The Associated Press has not given him a mention, but the New York Times has produced a great obituary, written by Richard Goldstein.
It's hard to describe how big a cultural event the first Ali-Frazier fight in Madison Square Garden was. Boxing has lost so much popularity and status in the 39 years since, it's extremely unlikely there will ever be another title fight as important. Both fighters were undefeated, and Ali had been away from the ring for three years after being stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted into the Army. Frazier was the champion and Ali the challenger. To give some idea of the level of spectacle, Frank Sinatra wanted to get as close to the action as possible, so he asked Life Magazine to hire him as a photographer for the evening and the editors agreed.
Worried about the possibility of bookies getting to the ref, the referee was not chosen until the day of the fight, when three refs were sequestered for the day, not allowed to speak to anyone. It was Mercante who was chosen. He was paid $500 for his evening's work.
There are a lot of great still photos from that evening, but almost none of them include Mercante, except the picture above where he leads Frazier to the neutral corner after the fight's only knockdown in the 15th round. As the saying goes, that evening, Mercante let them fight.
Another remarkable championship fight that had Mercante as the third man in the ring was the first Frazier-Foreman duel, when George knocked Joe down six times in the first two rounds, an unbelievably dominant victory for the contender against a great champion. This fight is famous for Howard Cosell's repeated call of "Down goes Frazier!"
I don't want to turn this blog into the obituaries, but it is surprising to me that the Associated Press could miss this one, and I'm glad to see the New York Times do such a good job commemorating the man's life. Best wishes to the family and friends of Arthur Mercante, Sr. I won't say I'm a "fan" of a referee, but there's no question that Mercante was as good as it gets at his profession and an important witness to history.