Mitch Halpern : biography
Mitchell Howard "Mitch" Halpern (July 14, 1967 – August 20, 2000) was a renowned boxing referee who officiated some of boxing's biggest matches. As a referee he was known for his decisiveness and integrity — for maintaining control in the ring while staying out of the way to let the spotlight be on the boxers.
Halpern played a referee in the 1999 film, Play it to the Bone.
Mitch Halpern began his career in March 1991 and went on to referee 87 championship fights and hundreds of non-title fights around the world.
Halpern was trained and mentored by veteran boxing referee Richard Steele. "I taught him everything I knew," said Steele. "He took what I had taught him, and with his great natural ability, made himself a great referee." Marc Ratner, who was the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission during the time that Halpern was a referee commented, "There are certain officials in certain sports who are naturals...Mitch has a real feel for it."
Steele said that Halpern approached him one night after Steele had just finished refereeing a fight and told him that he wanted to be a referee. Steele recounted, "I have had numerous people come to me and say that. I always tell them, 'I will meet you at the gym Monday.' He was there Monday. Most other guys never show up. He worked hard. He worked harder than anyone I had ever seen. He wanted to be the best."
As part of the learning process to become a world-class boxing ref, Halpern asked Steele to get in the ring with him and box. They ended up boxing every day. Steele remembered, "He wanted to know how it felt to have a bloody nose and be hurt...He wanted to get the fullness out of being a boxer so he could make the right decisions...It really helped him to be the best referee of all time."
Halpern was assigned many of the highest-profile fights in Nevada. These included the first Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight for the WBA Heavyweight title at the MGM Grand Garden in 1996 in which Holyfield won by TKO in the 11th round in a surprise upset. The fight was voted by Ring magazine as both Fight of the Year and Upset Of The Year. Others beside boxing insiders began to take note of Halpern during this fight. Marc Ratner recounted: "...Until Mitch got the first Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield fight, nobody knew how good he was."
Halpern was scheduled to referee Holyfield—Tyson II, what would come to be known as the infamous "Bite Fight", but Tyson's co-manager, John Horne vehemently opposed. Officially, Tyson's camp did not cite any specific reason to The Nevada State Athletic Commission, only arguing that they wanted a fresh slate. Halpern commented at the time, "The day a fighter can dictate what happens in a fight, I'm gone, because then I don't have any authority anyway."
The NSAC stood firm with a 4—1 vote and were not willing to remove Halpern (whom one sports writer referred to as "the unwilling centerpiece of a manufactured controversy"). The day before the fight was to occur, Halpern voluntarily withdrew. In an interview with sports reporter Ron Futrell, Halpern explained his reasoning: "As an official, you don't ever want to be the center of attention, and that's what was happening. These are two great fighters, this is a big, big fight, and I didn't want to take away from that..." Mills Lane was subsequently chosen to be the referee.
A month and half later on August 11, Halpern refereed the match-up between Evander Holyfield and Michael Moorer in which Moorer lost by TKO and Holyfield retained the WBA and IBF Heavyweight belts.
Before his untimely death in 2000, Mitch Halpern was considered "a rising star" in the sport. Veteran boxing referee Joe Cortez remarked that he considered Halpern one of boxing's top referees — which appeared to be a common sentiment in the industry. One boxing promoter commented that Halpern "never lost control in the ring". Achieving this requires that a referee maintain respect from the fighters and their corners, and is not swayed into not doing the right thing by politics or audience sentiment. It also involves intelligence to "read a fight" and understand the psychology of a fight's dynamics, which moves very quickly. Dr. Elias Ghanem, who was chairman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission when Halpern died, characterized him as "a real brave referee."
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