“YEAH, Mike and I, we get along.”
Evander Holyfield is asked about the peculiar bond that has been forged two decades after Mike Tyson reached unprecedented levels of notoriety and depravity. He had turned his attention from hitting his opponent to the head and body with leather gloves to baring his teeth and biting off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear.
“There’s no grudges,” Holyfield continued, nonchalantly. “There shouldn’t be anything from him because I didn’t do nothing to him, but I’ve forgiven him.”
It was the foul heard round the world. Some 20 years on only two words are needed for our minds to flash back through history to one of boxing’s most bizarre nights: Bite Fight.
Of course, by then Holyfield had made a career out of defying odds. While some felt he might repeat the astonishing heroics of his first win over Tyson a year earlier, he always believed something could go very wrong in the rematch.
“The prophet told me that he [Mike] was going to do something,” he explained. “He said, ‘Mike’s going to do something very vicious to you’. And I was prepared.”
Because of that, when the ring descended into anarchy, Holyfield did not fight fire with dirty fire. It didn’t become an ear-for-an-ear type battle. There was another reason behind that, too; Holyfield’s mother.
“If it wasn’t for my momma, if someone said something to me I would have said something back,” he said. “I’ve always done what my momma has asked me to and I’ve been looked upon as this great warrior. So, if it wasn’t for my momma, if they’d said or done something to me, I would have said or done something back.”
Holyfield isn’t alone in thinking his actions helped boxing have a future. Had he responded in kind there is no telling the depths the Noble Art would have sunk to.
“I think my mom saved the game of boxing because I wouldn’t have forgiven Mike, I would have bit Mike back,” Evander stated. “I would have did the same thing he did to me. It was vicious but my momma would always say, ‘Son, revenge is the Lord’s.’ If I’d bit Mike some people might have said, ‘It’s all good. They both did it’.
“But they could have banned boxing, permanently. There was a lot of people saying stuff about boxing then, ‘Ain’t nothing good about it,’ but because of that one person that was good – that did the proper thing – that came and lifted boxing up, it showed you really can think in the heat of battle.
“I could have bit him, mauled him up and got away with it and boxing could have been over. They could have said, ‘Nah, this is good for nobody. You had a good guy and you had a bad guy and they both lost their cool so we’re just going to stop this’. But, you know, by doing the right thing I made $35 million in nine minutes. In nine minutes. Thirty-five million dollars. I fought for 12 years as an a amateur but here, in nine minutes, I made $35 million.”
Of course, he never saw part of his ear again after that, but for that money… Watching in amazement from ringside, the Sky Sports commentary duo of Ian Darke and Glenn McCrory were stunned.
“That fight could have ruined boxing once and for all,” McCrory reckoned. “With people saying it was barbaric. It was just crazy, but Holyfield gave it dignity.”
McCrory, who’d been in Tyson’s employ as a sparring partner in the icon’s pomp, sadly witnessed a man, who was almost a hero to him once, tip away his legacy and reputation.
“To sit and watch him unravel and fall apart, looking pitiful…,” he sighed, shaking his head.
“Evander was beating him so he [Evander] didn’t have to go to the streets,” McCrory recalled. “Holyfield could have but he’s a fighting man, he’s a boxer. It wasn’t in his thinking. Mike was at desperation point, in his life, in his career, and that was the end of Mike Tyson as a great fighter. That was his last, last chance to hang on [to greatness]. That was him giving up on everything he had before, that great spirit, the great fighter he could have been… That was him giving up. I felt angry more than anything because he was great. He didn’t have to stoop to that level. He didn’t have to go to the gutter. He could have been one of the or the greatest heavyweight of all time. He’d gone out on his shield before that [against Buster Douglas and in the first Holyfield fight] but he didn’t realise that was going to happen in those fights. On this night he was trying to keep some dignity with the people he was with then, and he was surrounded by bad people.”
And Tyson snapped.
“It was all surreal,” Darke remembered. “[There was] a feeling of did I really see what I thought I saw? Did he really sink his teeth in to Holyfield? Then all hell broke loose. It seemed like an end game for Tyson – the day he really, really lost it totally.”
As wild as things got in the ring, they spiralled out of control afterwards. Disgruntled fight fans bent on turning Vegas upside down unleashed their frustrations.
Holyfield only heard about the crowd trouble afterwards. Darke and McCrory were in the firing line – almost literally.
“There were a lot of heavy guys around spoiling for a fight,” Darke recalled. “They closed our usual post-fight bar in the MGM after a brawl. Later a gunshot rang out in the casino and there was a stampede for the exits. I remember hiding behind a big slot machine then legging it. It was a deeply unpleasant night.”
It was so bonkers McCrory laughed when recounting his version. “Me and Ian were diving for cover and running across the street. The MGM was closed down for the first time in its history. It was on the verge of erupting into massive civil unrest – and Tyson sparked that because of his actions. It was bad. There was a gunshot. It really was in a state of panic. Vegas was in a bad state. It was on the cusp of a mass riot because people were getting electrified by his [Tyson’s] chaos. That’s how riots start. People feed off other people’s frenzies.”
Of course, the darkness that enveloped the city was enough to cast a shadow over Holyfield’s beacon.
“A big part of it is people got to see a Christian in a battle in which he was able to do what he thought was right,” Evander, now 54, countered. “I put myself in a place where I could forgive him and when we got in the locker room we prayed and I said [to Team Holyfield], ‘Look, we’ve got to forgive. ‘He didn’t bite you; he bit me. I forgave him. Everybody forgive him. We don’t need no axe to grind. We got paid to fight, he bit me and it’s over.’ People came to me and said, ‘You can sue MGM because you had a contract with them.’ But I said, ‘I don’t want to do that. I forgave Mike Tyson.’ They said, ‘It ain’t about Mike Tyson, it’s about them [MGM].’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to forgive Mike and hold someone else hostage’. I was able to turn down what someone said was $200 million if I’d sued MGM. I chose not to do that. I said I signed a contract for $35 million, I got paid 35. That’s enough. I wasn’t going to be greedy.”
‘That fight could have ruined boxing once and for all. With people saying it was barbaric. It was just crazy, but Holyfield gave it dignity’
It has been said many times since that Tyson was looking for a way out. But why bite Evander? McCrory, Darke and Holyfield each have varying takes. “The bite was a sign of his frustration,” assessed Darke. “He had no joy by legitimate means so he reverted to street tactics.”
“I’m a fighting man and my take is, if you’re going to get knocked out, go out on your shield,” offered McCrory. “But all of a sudden, when you fail and you’re trying to live up to people’s expectations and you’re trying to appease people who look up to you like a king – and yet you’re not – you’ve lost that. Then, the only way to get out of it with those people is to get out with some ‘honour’, and that is a non-boxing honour. He was going to get knocked out and when he realised that he chose to take a way out. He said ‘I’m going to go out like a criminal, because I will still get respect from certain people.’ That was my take on it.
“Mike’s still a hard kid, he just took it to the street. ‘You’re going to beat me in the rules? Let’s take out the rules, take it to the streets and see how you do’.”
When asked for his lasting memory of that night, Evander said: “You see a guy that really wanted to get out of the fight, and he got out of the fight. That was one of the strangest ways to do it, it was crazy. Anybody else would have kept his reputation and kept fighting. But if they’re afraid and they come to the conclusion that ‘I really can’t beat that guy,’ the easy way to get out is to foul and get out of there. And that’s what happened.”
“It was a bad night for boxing,” assessed Darke. “But what a story.”
It was certainly unique, and not in a good way, though Holyfield has not only forgiven Tyson, he says he respects him today, too.
They’ve subsequently been on Oprah together, and even combined to film a commercial for Foot Locker, in which Tyson – who turned 51 on June 30 – apologised and returned part of his ear in a box.
“Well yes, I respect Mike,” Holyfield says in an instant when asked. “There’s a lot of things Mike did right and when you become so big so quick as he did… He arrived on the boxing scene and a lot of people don’t think about the size Mike is. Mike is not a really big man. He had a powerful punch, but he was this little guy with this powerful punch and was knocking these people out. And they didn’t think about all those big, old giants he had to fight and he was knocking them out, too. It’s amazing how people forget the size of this person. He’s about 5-9, 5-10, his reach is 73 or 72 [listed as 71 inches], something like that. And so everybody he fights had a longer reach but he made up for it with his aggression and his quickness and these things. He used all that he had to become champion and I think people tend to forget about that. We were both on the Olympic squad trying to make the Olympic team [in 1984]. He did not make it. He was an alternate. Then he came back and became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.”
Many will choose to remember that Tyson, the one who romantically shot to fame and stardom under Cus D’Amato. But after that fateful night in 1997, there were many who remember Tyson as little more than a criminal or cannibal.
For Tyson, in his prime, it was about fear. Ironically, on this night, it was about fear. The fear Tyson felt that caused him to lose it. That’s how the victor sees it.
“If I’m not afraid of you, it’s not my problem,” Evander concluded. “It’s your problem. That’s the cowardness of the individual to choose to be afraid. Everybody in the boxing business knows that in a fight you have to be able to take a lick to give one. And being afraid is not so much nervousness, it’s you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. I wasn’t afraid, because of that I did what I was supposed to do.”