Forgotten Legends: Mitch Halpern

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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.

Titans of the Heavyweight Division: Evander Holyfield vs Michael Moorer II – 11/08/97

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By: Steve Gallegos

1997 was a rough year for the heavyweight division in boxing. Three heavyweight championship bouts all with ugly endings. The year started out with former heavyweight champs, Lennox Lewis and Oliver McCall fighting a rematch of their 1994 bout in which McCall won via second round KO. They met each other again in what was a stinker of a bout. McCall was acting strangely and was refusing to fight and he even broke down crying. After five rounds of this nonsense, referee Mills Lane finally stopped the bout, awarding Lewis the WBC Heavyweight Championship.

The second heavyweight championship to end disappointingly was the rematch between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson. The fight billed as “The Sound And The Fury” was the most anticipated matchup of the year and after Holyfield dominated the first two rounds, Tyson lost his cool and bit Holyfield twice on both ears. These flagrant fouls caused referee Mills Lane to disqualify Tyson, causing an outrage and a near riot.

The third bout to end bizzarly was the Heavyweight Championship fight between Lennox Lewis and unbeaten, questionable number one contender Henry Akinwande. Akinwande like McCall refused to engage with Lewis and instead resulted to excessive holding. After five pathetic rounds, referee Mills Lane once again had stop the bout, disqualifying Akinwande.

Larry Merchant who called the fight for HBO that night, began to blame promoter Don King for these incidents as all three of the fighters disqualified were promoted by King. The heavyweight division was on life support and it was badly in need of a revival. They would get it that November when WBA Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield took on IBF Heavyweight Champion Michael Moorer in a rematch of their 1994 meeting won by Moorer.

Evander Holyfield was at the top of his game in late 1997. Having being written off just a year earlier, “Commander Vander” defied all odds by defeating the dangerous Mike Tyson twice and becoming the second man to regain the Heavyweight Championship three times. Although the second bout ended in disqualification, Holyfield looked spectacular.

Michael Moorer’s second reign as heavyweight champion wasn’t an easy one. After winning the IBF Heavyweight Championship by decisioning Axel Shultz in Germany, he had two tough defenses against Frans Botha and Vaughn Bean in which Moorer’s trainer Teddy Atlas once again scolded Moorer in between rounds. In the Botha fight, Atlas called referee Mills Lane over to the corner and threatened to have Lane stop the fight if he didn’t pick up the pace. It was worse in the Bean fight as Teddy Atlas brought a cell phone into the corner and told Moorer, “Your son is on the freaking phone right now and he’s crying. You know why? Because the announcers are saying his father doesn’t wanna be heavyweight champ.”
After the fight with Vaughn Bean, Michael Moorer and Teddy Atlas split, with Moorer hiring Freddie Roach as his new trainer. With the heavyweight landscape in shambles, boxing was looking to Holyfield and Moorer to revive the heavyweight division. Holyfield and Moorer met on 11/08/97 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, NV for the unification of the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles.

Holyfield was determined to avenge his loss to Moorer as well as have the peace of mind in knowing that he beat every man he faced. Moorer was determined to get the respect he felt he deserved and show the critics he was a legitimate heavyweight champion. Holyfield controlled much of the first round as he outjabbed Moorer and threw his right hand counterpunch to good effect. Towards the end of the round, Moorer landed a good right hook to side of Holyfield’s head which staggered him and pushed him back to the ropes. Moorer then jumped on Evander landing a good combination; however Holyfield came back landing a combination to the body and head just before the bell.

In the second round, Moorer was able to jab effectively setting up combinations and beat Holyfield to the punch. Holyfield was able to come back in the third and dominate the round by landing hard shots to both the body and head. In the middle of the round, the two fighters collided heads, causing a cut over Holyfield’s right eye. In between rounds, Holyfield’s cutman Jim Strickland told Evander that the cut wasn’t serious.

In round four, Moorer jabbed effectively and was starting to frustrate Holyfield, however Evander responded towards the end of the round by landing hard combinations and Moorer would respond with a combination of his own. The crowd was on it’s feet as the bell sounded to end round four. Commentator Steve Albert said at the end of the round, “This is the fight you wanted America”.

In round five, the fight was fought at close quarters as both men landed shots. Holyfield appeared to be tired. Moorer was in control of the round until the last 30 seconds, when Holyfield landed a combination to the body and head. He then landed a hard straight right hand that buckled Moorer and put him down. Moorer took the count and rose to his feet to make it out of the round.

Moorer responded in the sixth, boxing well and once again beating Holyfield to the punch. In the seventh, Holyfield rocked Moorer with a combination and pressured Moorer, putting him down with a right uppercut. Holyfield continued the onslaught, landing hard shots and put Moorer down again. Moorer rose to his feet and signaled to Holyfield to come on. Holyfield continued to land hard shots, however Moorer took them and fought back to survive the round.

Much of round eight was fought at a slow pace, neither man dominating. Holyfield then landed another combination to Moorer’s head that put him down again. Moorer once again rose to his feet, however Holyfield continued to pressure Moorer and landed to uppercuts followed by a left-right combination that put Moorer down again. Moorer laid flat on his back and appeared to be done, however he showed tremendous heart as he rose to his feet once again to make it out of the round.

In between rounds, Freddie Roach determined he had seen enough and stopped the fight making Holyfield the winner by eighth round TKO. Evander Holyfield was now the WBA/IBF Heavyweight Champion and he was closer to his goal of becoming “Undisputed” Heavyweight Champion. So the year 1997 ended with a bang. It was a fight that had drama, ebb and flow and it produced one of the last great Heavyweight Championship fights of the 20th Century.

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