Forgotten Legends: Mitch Halpern

By: Steve Gallegos

In this segment of Forgotten Legends, we’re gonna switch gears and focus not on a fighter, but on a referee. The life of a boxing referee can be a difficult one. The “3rd Man” inside the ring is criticized regularly for his actions in a very brutal sport. The sole purpose of the referee is to protect the fighters and most times, the lives of the combatants rests solely in the hands of the referee.

The state of Nevada has been known to produce the best boxing referees in the world, most notably Mills Lane, Richard Steele and Joe Cortez. In the mid-late 90’s there was another referee that was on his way to joining that elite class. His name was Mitch Halpern.

Halpern was a hard nosed, no nonsense referee who refereed some of the biggest bouts in Nevada during the end of the 20th Century. He was known to maintain order while letting the boxers fight their fights. Mitch Halpern began refereeing bouts in 1991. He was mentored by the legendary Nevada referee Richard Steele, who taught Halpern everything there was to know about being a boxing referee.

On 05/06/95, Halpern would referee a bout between Gabriel Ruelas and Jimmy Garcia. It was the co-feature on a big Pay Per View card held at the outdoor arena at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was a fight in which Garcia absorbed alot of punishment over the course of 11 rounds, before Halpern stopped the fight. Moments later, Garcia collapsed in his corner and was taken to the hospital, where he would later die due to injuries sustained in the bout.

It was a tragic event on a big stage and many in the boxing media criticized Mitch Halpern for Garcia’s death. This didn’t stop Mitch from refereeing and he continued on with his career.

On 11/09/97, Halpern would referee the biggest fight of his career, which was the first bout between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. It was a tough, physical fight which included a lot of clinching, holding and hitting on the breaks. Halpern had to call time several times to warn the fighters and he did so in a very authoritive way.

Near the end of the 10th, Holyfield caught Tyson flush and put a pounding on him. Halpern almost stepped in to stop the fight, however he let the round come to a close. He would then stop the fight in the 11th after Holyfield again battered Tyson.
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Halpern was chosen to work the Holyfield Tyson rematch seven months later, however the Tyson camp hotly contested Mitch Halpern being the referee; therefore Halpern stepped down and was replaced by Mills Lane.

Tyson would be disqualified in the third round after he bit Holyfield twice on his ears. Had Mitch Halpern been the referee, Tyson wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to bite Holyfield a second time. Halpern would have disqualified Tyson immediately.

Halpern would close out 1997 by refereeing the next two mega bouts in Las Vegas when he worked the highly anticipated showdown between Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero as well as the Heavyweight Championship unificiation bout between Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer. Halpern would close out the millenium by working the last two mega bouts of the 1990’s when he refereed Oscar De La Hoya vs Felix Trinidad as well as the second bout between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, which crowned the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the world. Halpern would start the new millenium by working another highly anticipated bout when he refereed the first bout between Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera which was an all out war.

Mitch Halpern was at the top of his game and was considered the best referee in Nevada; however it was all about to come to a tragic end. On 08/20/00, Mitch Halpern was found dead from to a gunshot wound to the head, that was ruled a suicide. It was a huge loss and many within the boxing community that were close to Halpern were shocked as he appeared to be very cool and collect.

On 08/26/00, an HBO Boxing After Dark card was held at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. All the referee’s working, wore a patch on there sleeve in honor of Mitch Halpern. The main event was a heated battle between Fernando Vargas and Ross Thompson, which was refereed by Joe Cortez. During the pre fight instructions, Cortez said “This one’s for Mitch. Mitch, we love you, we miss you”.

Mitch Halpern was a special referee, who didn’t put up with any nonsense from any fighter, regardless of who they were. As I stated earlier, the life of a boxing referee can be a diffictult one. Did the pressures of being a boxing referee get to Mitch Halpern? In the end he was a very good referee who was on his way to greatness, only to have his life ended too soon.

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