Holyfield vs Tyson - 'The Bite Fight' 20 Years On
It's been 20 years since the infamous fight that would go down in history as the 'Bite Fight'. James McHugh recalls a surreal night in Las Vegas...
By 1997, Mike Tyson had a well-deserved reputation for doing and saying outlandish things. But no one, not even promoter Don King, responsible for some of the most outlandish words and deeds in boxing history, could believe what would unfold in front of him and a sell-out crowd of over 18,000 spectators on that fateful night of 28 June 1997.
Evander Holyfield had agreed to step back into the ring and face Tyson in a rematch for the WBA Heavyweight Championship, having wrested the title from 'Iron Mike' the previous November.
The rematch was set for The MGM Grand in Las Vegas and was billed as 'The Sound and the Fury.'
In the same ring eight months prior, Holyfield had dominated the bout and stopped Tyson in the 11th round in a huge upset. During that fight, a headbutt by Holyfield, ruled accidental, had opened up a cut on Tyson’s eye and upset Mike and his corner, who had repeatedly complained that Holyfield was intentionally headbutting and that the referee had done nothing to reprimand him.
The rematch began with Holyfield dominating and winning the first three rounds on most observers' cards. During the first round, an overhand right from the 'Real Deal' stunned Tyson, but Mike fought back immediately pushing Holyfield backwards.
Round Two, Holyfield ducked under a right and, in doing so, headbutted Tyson and opened a large cut over his right eye. Understandably Tyson was becoming frustrated.
During the third round, Tyson came out of his corner without a mouthpiece, but was then instructed by referee Mills Lane to insert one before the round began.
In the middle of the round, while fighting in the middle of the ring, the pair were jockeying for position, and leaned their heads next to each other.
Forty seconds into this round, Tyson had Holyfield in a hold and, as Tyson moved, he bit Holyfield's right ear, causing cartilage damage and blood to appear on Holyfield and on the ring. Tyson spit the piece of cartilage on the floor while Holyfield was visibly in pain from the bite and, for good measure, shoved him on to the ropes too.
When referee Lane approached Holyfield’s corner, he discovered that Tyson had bitten the top of Holyfield’s ear off. Lane deducted two points from Tyson, one for a shove and another for the bite, and let the match go on when the ringside physician said it was ok for Holyfield to continue.
Holyfield agreed - because he was angry and wanted revenge.
During another clinch, Tyson then bit Holyfield's left ear. Holyfield threw his hands around to get out of the clinch and jumped back. The second bite just scarred Holyfield's ear but Lane still didn’t stop the fight, so the two continued fighting until the round ended.
When Holyfield and Tyson walked back to their respective corners at the end of the third stanza, the second bite was discovered and the fight was stopped, with Lane disqualifying Tyson.
Ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. read out the decision, saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, this bout has been stopped, the referee in charge, Mills Lane, disqualifies Mike Tyson for biting Evander Holyfield in both ears, the winner by way of disqualification and still the WBA Heavyweight Champion of the world, Evander 'The Real Deal' Holyfield!
As mentioned earlier, fight fans had become accustomed to Tyson's ability to shock, but now those at ringside in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, as well as the millions who tuned in around the world, were about to witness what happens when 'Iron Mike' really loses his temper.
Following the announcement Tyson was hell bent on leaving a trail of destruction, gunning for his opponent and anyone who tried to get in his way. He tried to assault Holyfield in his corner, throwing wild erratic punches at not only stewards but members of the police.
The chaotic scenes didn’t even stop once Tyson was out of the ring. Whilst walking back to his locker he was struck by a bottle of water which a fan had thrown in his direction. Instantly Tyson, his instructor and manager, tried to climb over a temporary railing and up into the stands. Unable to do so, Tyson then made obscene gestures to the crowd, and made his way up the side of a stairway. Once again he had to be restrained as he was led off.
Despite having part of his ear bitten off, Holyfield managed to have it reattached. Lane picked up the lobe from the floor of the ring and handed it to one of Holyfield's team, who put it in ice and passed it on to the doctor. It was then sewn back into place that night.
Tyson was fined $3million of his $30m purse and ordered to undertake community service. His boxing licence was suspended, indefinitely at first, but following an appeal to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, just over a year later his licence was reinstated.
Over the last two decades, Tyson has given a variety of answers when asked why he bit Holyfield’s ears.
Straight after the fight, he was in no mood for apologies, casting his aggression as an act of self defence.
“This is my career," he claimed. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”
Meanwhile, Holyfield was offering up a prayer of forgiveness for his disqualified opponent. “Down in my locker room there were several dozen people in various states of panic, fear and outrage,” he later recalled in his autobiography.
Holyfield asked them to link hands so he could say a word to the Lord. “The first thing I did was wave them all to silence and lead a quiet prayer, in which I forgave Mike.”
As the news reverberated around the world, many fans and media called for Tyson to be banned for life.
“I had no idea what had happened would become such an international incident," Tyson later stated in his autobiography, which, in fairness, is full of tales that make his ear-nibbling sound somewhat tame by comparison.
But the wider fascination with Tyson 'the monster' created such box-office curiosity that he was always certain to return to the ring. By the time it happened Holyfield, not only the 'Real Deal' but a true gentleman, had expressed understanding and forgiveness.
Regardless of what Tyson said then or might say today, there was no excuse for the ear-biting incident and the repercussions that followed were inevitable. Even 20 years on, the gruesome act committed by Tyson is just as shocking as it was on that surreal night back in 1997.