It’s safe to say that boxing officials are held to a very high standard, because not only can a slip-up result in a loss of control, but occasionally, it even results in a fighter being hurt. No one knows that better than Arthur Mercante Jr., who has had to cope with the grief surrounding the tragic death of Beethaeven Scotland in 2001, a tragic bout many criticized him for not stopping earlier.
“After the fight, I went to five different hospitals to see where this kid was. I was a wreck,” Mercante told me, clearly still emotional over what unfolded. “Days later, I had a title fight to go to in Manchester, England, and I said to my dad, ‘I’m done, Dad. I can’t take this.’ He said, ‘Listen, it’s not your fault. These kids know what they’re getting into when they get into the ring.'”
Mercante Sr. would know from first-hand experience. He himself was involved in a near tragic situation in the rematch between Ingemar Johannson and Floyd Patterson, when the Swede was knocked unconscious by a devastating left hook and the soon to be ex-heavyweight champion lay on the canvas, his foot spasmodically twitching.
“At the time, my father thought he was dead,” said Mercante Jr., who was encouraged to return to the sport in which he’s played an active part to this day, even though Mercante Jr.’s dream wasn’t originally to be a referee. With aspirations of being a successful pugilist, Mercante took part in the New York Golden Gloves, losing a close decision to future featherweight champion Juan LaPorte.
“I felt I beat him in the Golden Gloves,” says Mercante, but when he expressed his aspirations of turning pro to his father, Mercante Sr. told him, “You will not as long as you live under my roof. How about becoming a referee?”
Mercante Jr made one more run at the Golden Gloves in 1979, but shortly following he became an amateur referee between the years of 1979 and 1984. When his father suggested he was ready to turn professional, Mercante Jr. took his advice and transitioned to the pro realm in 1984. A 35 year career has followed with its share of highlights, but throughout Mercante Jr. states that his favorite thing about the job is being compassionate to the fighters.
“We’re there to be protective and the safety of the fighter is the most important thing,” says Mercante Jr, who has been criticized on both sides of the fence on this issue. After many thought he stepped in too late to stop the Pernell Whitaker vs Diosbelys Hurtado fight in 1997, as well as Scottland vs George Jones, Mercante came under fire this past January for stopping Demetrius Andrade’s title defense against Artur Akavov too early, a decision hotly disputed by Akavov, promoter Lou Dibella, and countless social media outlets.
Similar to as he had done during the Beethaeven Scotland fight, Mercante went to Akavov’s corner before the final round and asked him to show him something. Akavov, who had won just a single round on all three judges scorecards prior to this, was also bleeding over his right eye, a cut which Mercante was concerned about. Blood in the eye can severely impair vision, making a fighter more vulnerable. Further, Andrade had become increasingly dominant in the latter rounds; after appearing to stun Akavov with a couple right hooks in the last minute of the fight, Mercante stepped in and ended it.
“There’s always another day,” Mercante told Akavov, who was livid with frustration at the call. While Akavov did not appear to be on the verge of going down, the stoppage was defended by the NYSAC commissioner and it clearly did not have an impact on the result of the fight. It was a tough situation for Mercante, who acted on principles to prevent a beaten fighter from receiving more punishment than necessary.
But as stated earlier, it’s the unpopular calls that a referee is often remembered for, because a referee is often at his or her best when they stay under the radar. Mercante is largely a hands-off referee, so calm and comfortable that he is of the opinion that a referee could have their own scorecard, at least in the event of a draw. And this practice has resulted in Mercante receiving some very big assignments in the past, including the first Lennox Lewis vs Evander Holyfield battle in 1999, which he calls his biggest assignment to date.
Mercante Jr. was appointed over his father by the NYSAC for that fight, despite the WBC’s desire to place Mercante Sr. as the third man in the ring in addition to the three judges they appointed. The shocking draw prompted a state senate investigation, with particular attention paid to Eugenia Williams’s scorecard, which inexplicably had Holyfield ahead in a bout virtually everyone saw as a clear win for Lewis.
In a televised hearing, Mercante recalls that “[the panel] brought Eugenia Williams up, and they said to her in the fifth round where Lennox Lewis dominated, she gave the round to Evander Holyfield.” When the panel followed up and asked her how she scored the round for Holyfield, Mercante recalls being put in the hot seat by the judge, who made the absurd claim that the referee was in her way during the round, despite footage that showed otherwise.
“That’s why in New York state here, and a lot of the states now, they don’t let these sanctioning bodies pick [officials]. You realize as a referee you got to go to conventions. They want me to go to Vegas, they want me to go to Hawaii. With all these sanctioning bodies, they want you to go to all these seminars and conventions.”
And while Mercante was a WBC referee for seven years, he now stays local as a NYSAC official, which comes with far less demands to attend conventions that might not always be convenient to attend. But while Mercante has only refereed 24 title fights in his 35 year career, he has nonetheless been one of the most notable third men in the ring in recent years. Whether it be wrestling off a crazed Deontay Wilder from a helpless Bermane Stiverne, to slipping a left hook from Evander Holyfield that would’ve knocked him into next week, to taking a left hook bomb from Badou Jack, Mercante has had a memorable career inside the squared circle. And although many may dispute the timing in which he stepped in to save Akavov at the Hulu Theater, there is no doubt that Mercante did what he did with the best of intentions.
In my interview with Mercante Jr., there was little doubt of his love for the sport. Despite the Scotland tragedy nearly ending his involvement in boxing in 2001, Mercante was very colorful in describing the most memorable moments of his officiating career, including the Yuri Foreman vs Miguel Cotto controversy, his testimony in front of the Lewis-Holyfield 1 investigation committee, and officiating his boyhood idol, Sugar Ray Leonard, in his losing effort against Terry Norris.
The interview also served as a lesson in the art of refereeing, as Mercante emphasized how important it is to stay in good condition, as Mercante was pushed to his physical limits keeping the Lennox Lewis vs Michael Grant and Lewis vs Ray Mercer bouts under control. But most importantly, the key takeaway from my talk with Mercante was how he emphasized a referee’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of the fighters. Love him or hate him, it’s hard to find a more honest official than Arthur Mercante Jr. Check out the interview: