In November 1996, Evander Holyfield shocked the world by defeating Mike Tyson. The fight was the second loss of Tyson's career, and the rematch resulted in what is now known as "The Bite Fight" which took place 14 years ago today.
This was the first major boxing event that I witnessed live on PPV, and from that time on, I was hooked on boxing. First, allow me to backtrack and explain how these two gladiators found themselves in the ring on this particular night.
Tyson and Holyfield were originally scheduled to clash in 1990 when Tyson was the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion, but Tyson was shockingly knocked out by Buster Douglas. Therefore, Holyfield had no choice but to fight Douglas instead. (It only took three rounds for Holyfield to win the championship from Douglas). Tyson was supposed to fight Holyfield for the title the following year, but was convicted of rape and sent to prison.
During Tyson's imprisonment, Holyfield defended the title against Bert Cooper, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. He eventually lost the belts to Riddick Bowe, but recaptured the crown in a rematch. Then, in 1994, Holyfield was outpointed by Michael Moorer, losing the championship again. The former champion was diagnosed with a heart condition and retired.
1995 was the comeback year for both boxers. Holyfield's heart appeared to have been misdiagnosed, and he returned to the ring against the relentless Ray Mercer. (Holyfield became the first man to floor the fighter). But, his comeback was derailed in a rubber match with Riddick Bowe when Holyfield was abruptly stopped. He looked to be a washed up fighter again, just as he had the previous year with Michael Moorer.
Meanwhile, Tyson was released from prison the same year. Almost immediately after his release, he won two of the heavyweight championships. Tyson was easily wrecking his competition, and it appeared to be the 1980s all over again. Though the three-year layoff robbed Tyson of his timing and punching accuracy, he maintained his fast hands and explosive power.
Tyson was supposed to fight Lennox Lewis for the WBC championship, but paid him off and went for Evander Holyfield instead, who looked to be a finished fighter. However, "The Real Deal" had a surprise for everyone. In their 1996 confrontation, Holyfield didn't fear Iron Mike. He out-punched and out-muscled the champion. Tyson's strategy was to get rid of Evander with one big punch early on, but it didn't work. "I knew I could take his punches," Holyfield told ESPN several years ago. Holyfield spent the evening countering Tyson and walking him backwards, where he was ineffective. Tyson was out on his feet in the 11th round when the contest was stopped. We had a new WBA champion.
Some claimed Holyfield's victory was a fluke. Others agreed with Tyson's allegation of headbutts. Some said that Tyson underestimated Holyfield and didn't take the fight as seriously as he should have. A rematch was set for June 1997. Boxing is an unpredictable sport, but what Tyson did that night couldn't have been foreseen by anyone.
June 28, 1997
In the first round, Evander picked up where he left off the previous November. Tyson only threw one punch at a time, allowing Holyfield to respond by countering and clinching. I remember rooting for Iron Mike, but it wasn't looking good. In the last minute of the round, Holyfield realized that Mike wasn't going to fight aggressively or put together any dangerous combinations, so he let his fists fly. They had a few thrilling exchanges, but Holyfield always got the better of Tyson. He kept the challenger on the backfoot, and would unload at least two or three counter punches to every one punch Tyson missed.
Winner of Round 1: Evander Holyfield
Reason: Higher Number of Landed Punches and Ring Generalship
I remember being somewhat bored watching the second round. Holyfield opened a nasty cut over Tyson's right eye with a headbutt. Now, in my honest opinion, I think the two headbutts in this round were accidental. Holyfield has a habit of dipping down for leverage before he unloads. Tyson is also a fighter who fights forward. As a result, both guys were coming forward with their heads at the same time. There were two occasions in this round where Tyson appealed to Referee Mills Lane, who did nothing.
Once again, Tyson wasn't being aggressive enough. There were two scenarios when he leapt in with a big left hook, but didn't follow up with anything. Throwing one punch at a time will never work against a natural counter-puncher like Evander Holyfield. Besides, Tyson has faster hands and a harder punch that Holyfield. Holyfield was also four years older. It should have been Evander who was intimidated; not Tyson.
I was not impressed by Evander's strategy, but I was also disappointed by Tyson's decision to allow himself to "slow dance" with Evander during the clinches. A younger Mike Tyson would have been banging Holyfield's body while in clinches. But the Mike Tyson on this night was submissive to the stronger man. Meanwhile, the challenger had a really bad cut. The blood was on the verge of sliding into his eye.
Winner of Round 2: Evander Holyfield
Reason: Ring Generalship (Despite constant clinching and mauling)
Things picked up tremendously during the third round. Tyson began to fight frantically. He stayed in Evander's face, unloading punches tremendously. He failed to hurt the champion, but his onslaught was so constant that Holyfield couldn't counter. This was the Mike Tyson I was waiting on. If he had fought at this pace during their original fight, I have no doubt that he would have eventually KO'd Evander.
The crowd began to chant "TYSON!! TYSON!! TYSON!!"
Holyfield threw the occasional punch in retaliation, but his only defense to Mike's swarming attack was to clinch. Late in the round, Tyson leapt in with a left hook, but missed and was clinched by the champion. That's when Tyson bit his right ear. (pictured below)
The startled champion grabbed his ear and starting jumping up and down, twirling in circles. I clearly saw the bite, but I thought maybe my eyes had deceived me. Surely Mike Tyson wouldn't bite him. But what I saw was real. Just when Holyfield stopped leaping in pain, he was pushed into the ropes by an angry Mike Tyson. A lengthy time-out ensued. Originally, Mills Lane wanted to immediately disqualify Tyson, but changed his mind after talking to the ring doctor. Instead, two points were taken from Tyson.
The round resumed with 33 seconds left. Tyson charged Holyfield and continued his assault, although neither man landed any effective punches. During a clinch, Tyson bit Holyfield's left ear. Again, Holyfield grimaced in severe pain. The two continued a tentative brawl until the bell rang. Mike Tyson was disqualified for the second ear bite. I remember the ring being crowded and Tyson going beserk trying to get at the champion. My dad told me that they stopped the fight. Bummer.
Tyson's career was never the same after this shameful incident. After being banned from boxing for a year, he fought several more times, but his reputation became a joke; he became more of an ear-chomping punchline rather than a serious contender. He got another title shot against Lennox Lewis in 2002, but was knocked out in 8 rounds. The disgraced contender finally hung up the gloves after losing to a journeyman fighter named Kevin McBride in 2005.
Meanwhile, Evander Holyfield continues to box today. He's currently the WBF Heavyweight Champion at the age of 48.
I feel cheated in a sense because Tyson could have beaten Holyfield. He just didn't have a set strategy. His only plan was to land one monster punch and get an early knockout. It's true that Holyfield didn't fear Tyson and out-muscled him, but he fought a Mike Tyson on the decline with limited skills. If they had fought ten years before, I have no doubt in my mind that the outcome would have been different, especially given Holyfield's bad habit of attempting to go toe-to-toe with big punchers. That decision cost him his first fight with Riddick Bowe, and it almost got him knocked out by Bert Cooper. Holyfield is famous for having a big heart in the ring, but his heart would have gotten him slaughtered by a prime Mike Tyson, who topped Evander in speed, skill, power, accuracy, aggression and timing.
As for Tyson, this bout hurts his legacy in countless ways. Most casual people don't remember that he was the youngest heavyweight champion in history, or that he was the first-ever Undisputed Heavyweight Champion. Some people have forgotten how much of a terror he was in the 1980s. But unfortunately, everybody remembers the bite fight.