28th June 1997. The MGM Grand Garden Arena. A piece of Evander Holyfield is on the ring canvas. The crowd roars, Mike Tyson snarls. The leering visage of the MGM’s lion logo only adds to the barbaric feeling of a Roman Colosseum. Blood drips from ‘Iron’ Mike’s lip. It isn’t his. Neither is the piece of ear he just spat onto the floor. But in leaving a chunk of Holyfield on the mat 25 years ago today, Tyson also left behind a piece of himself.
In the build-up to what we now know as ‘The Bite Fight’, you hardly needed to be a Bert Sugar-esque boxing sage to predict we would be talking about Holyfield-Tyson II in 25 years time. Before anyone knew the carnage that would unfold, the idea of Tyson aiming to avenge his shock 1996 defeat to the 25-1 underdog Holyfield already felt historic. ‘The Real Deal’ put a few bookies out of business when he halted the Tyson freight train in the eleventh round of one of the greatest heavyweight scraps of the 1990s. But he didn’t put Tyson out of business.
Unlike in 1990, when Tyson side-stepped conqueror James ‘Buster’ Douglas after being stopped in Tokyo, Mike was hungry for this rematch. He was hungry for something else, as it turned out, but that was still to come. Tyson felt aggrieved that Holyfield had, in his eyes, gotten away with a series of headbutts in their first bout. When the same referee, Mitch Halpern, was appointed for the rematch, the ‘Iron’ Mike camp objected. Mills Lane would be handed the bowtie instead. Little did the former district judge from Savannah, Georgia know this appointment would make him internationally famous.
The rematch looked a lot like the first fight in the initial exchanges. Once again, Holyfield was quicker to the punch. Tyson once more cut a frustrated figure, snatching at his shots rather than setting them up with the educated waist movement of old. The humbling Tyson had suffered seven months before had been brilliantly picked up by Holyfield from almost exactly where he left off.
The ‘Commander Vander’ masterclass was not the only thing that carried over from their first meeting. Holyfield’s skull also met Tyson’s again, opening a cut on the latter in round two. The Tyson corner, led by trainer Richie Giachetti, expressed their frustration. Tyson was frustrated too, and he was about to demonstrate exactly how much.
At the bell for the third round, the challenger came out of his corner without his mouthpiece. The US commentators remarked that he must have forgotten it, a symptom of disarray in the corner perhaps? But Tyson had not forgotten it. This would serve as a piece of foreshadowing for one of the most culturally significant moments boxing has ever produced.
Mouthpiece back in place, Tyson came flying out like a caged animal. He was looking for the sort of tide-turning knockout punch that had been his calling card. It was the last time anyone would truly believe he could land such a blow in a major fight. With 40 seconds of the round remaining, Holyfield pulled ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’ into a clinch. Tyson took his chance. The former heavyweight champion of the world, the bright spark that had lit up the heavyweight division during its darkest days in the listless 80s, the precocious Kid Dynamite who once had the world at his feet, bit a one-inch chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
For a second, you could hear a pin drop. Well, Evander probably couldn’t. But then a cacophony of noise reverberated around the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Holyfield reeled away, leaping and gesticulating wildly at his wound. As Evander attempted to walk to his corner, Tyson shoved him from behind. Mike Tyson the boxer was gone. He would never truly return. Welcome to the Mike Tyson circus.
Referee Mills Lane at least tried to maintain the pretence that a heavyweight championship fight between two athletes was taking place. After dismissing Tyson’s claim that the ear injury was due to a punch as “bulls**t”, the bout continued. But there was only one boxer left in that ring, and as the action resumed, somehow he found the will to go on. Holyfield was brave, perhaps too brave. He clinched the wild animal in front of him once again. This time his left ear was on Mike’s menu. Thankfully nothing was severed this time, apart from the career of Mike Tyson as a genuine world class heavyweight.
Lane stopped the action. Security surrounded Holyfield to protect him from Tyson, who was on a Grade A rampage. Punches were thrown at law enforcement, security and anyone else within swinging range. Tyson’s own team tried to restore him to some semblance of calm, but to no avail. After 25 minutes of chaos and confusion, announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr confirmed that ‘Iron’ Mike had been disqualified.
The aftermath was international news. The talk show circuit had a field day, the press used up every ear pun in the book and probably invented a few new ones in the process. Mills Lane did the rounds, and his handling of the fight was largely commended. His fame would eventually spin-off into the role of claymation referee in the popular Celebrity Deathmatch cartoon series. The MTV show would see him preside over only slightly more ridiculous bouts than Holyfield-Tyson II, such as Mariah Carey vs Jim Carrey and Hilary Clinton vs Monica Lewinsky.
Holyfield won the world’s sympathy, and retained the WBA heavyweight championship of the world. While he is permanently scarred by the affair, he arguably came out of it better than Tyson. ‘The Real Deal’ would unify his title with Michael Moorer’s IBF gold in his next bout, and landed a record-setting fifth world title in 2000, recapturing his old WBA belt from John Ruiz. A devout Christian, Holyfield forgave Tyson immediately following the bout.
The sport of boxing did not show Tyson such levity. He was fined $3 million plus fees and saw his licence revoked. He would not box again until January 1999. Tyson looked tired on his return, logging a sluggish stoppage win over Frans Botha. The former undisputed king eventually clubbed the South African to defeat in the fifth round, but it was an inauspicious start to the comeback.
Things would not get much better for Mike. Bouts with Orlin Norris and Andrew Golota would end in No Contests due to fouls and drugs respectively. The wins that did stay on his ledger were in the shallow end of the heavyweight pool, with quick knockouts over Lou Savarese and recent viral celebrity Julius Francis allowing him to party like it was 1988. While nobody was beating him, it was obvious for all to see that Tyson was no longer the world class heavyweight that entered his first bout with Holyfield.
The notoriety and the knockouts did permit Tyson one last shot at glory. A 2002 heavyweight title challenge against Lennox Lewis put him in the global spotlight one last time. Mike used his platform to hurl homophobic abuse at journalists and attack Lewis at a pre-fight media event. According to the champion, Tyson bit his leg during the scuffle. Old habits die hard.
Lewis had little problem stopping the faded Tyson in eight one-sided rounds. It would be Mike’s last shot at the heavyweight title. But arguably, ‘The Bite Fight’ was the last one he entered with a genuine chance of winning. He was coming off a defeat, but Tyson was still among the most feared and successful heavyweights in the world at that point. For many, this was supposed to be a case of the Catskills puncher righting the wrong, resetting the balance of things by taking his title back from Holyfield. Instead, it was a farce.
Tyson the boxer and Tyson the cautionary tale had existed hand in boxing-gloved hand for a decade by the time he entered the ring against Holyfield in June 1997. But, in the time it takes a piece of dying flesh to hit a ring canvas, the boxing glove let go. Only the deeply flawed man was left.
It has been a long road back, but Tyson is finally appreciated for what he was at his peak, rather than lamented for what he became. He is a popular figure these days. Once he was a reckless youth heading for tragedy, now he cuts the figure of a respected elder statesman of the ring. Mike has got his flowers in the years since ‘The Bite Fight’, but if you’d tried to hand him a bunch of petunias in 1997 he would probably have bitten the heads off them like a botanical Ozzy Osbourne.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change