When Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield: 20 years on

Second meeting between heavyweight greats came to a shocking end at the MGM Grand

Why did you do it, Mike? “Because I’m crazy a little bit and was bleeding all over the place.” “I was frustrated.” “I was angry that he was butting my head.” “I just snapped and reacted the way many athletes have done.” I just wanted to kill him.” “I don’t remember much because I was so enraged.” “I wanted to inflict so much pain on him.” “I was pissed off that he was such a great fighter.” “I just wanted to beat him up.” “I was an undisciplined soldier and lost my composure. “I was in a very competitive mood and wanted so desperately to beat him for my own self-aggrandisement.” “I was just upset.”

Over the last 20 years, Mike Tyson has given a variety of answers when asked why he bit Evander Holyfield's ears – both of them – when the pair met at the MGM Grand for a heavyweight title fight on June 28th 1997. Straight after the fight, which was stopped towards the end of the third round, Tyson was in no mood for contrition. "Listen. Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit," said Tyson as he cast his aggression as an act of self-defence.

“This is my career. 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!”

Tyson had already been given two chances to fight that night – when the first bell rang and when referee Mills Lane allowed the contest to continue after he had chewed off a chunk of Holyfield’s right ear and spat it on to the canvas – so his victim act fell on deaf ears, so to speak. “Bullshit,” said Lane. “The butt was an accidental butt. How many times do you want him to get bit? There’s a goddamn limit to everything, including bites.” Lane had been reluctant to stop the fight but decided enough was enough. “One bite is bad enough, two bites is dessert.”


Sympathy was in short supply for Tyson and, after he went home and calmed down a bit, he knew it. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he told his wife Monica. “My fans are going to hate me.” She reassured him, telling him that everybody makes mistakes. Soothed by those comforting words, Tyson smoked some weed, drank some liquor and went to sleep.

Panic, fear and outrage

Back at the MGM, 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 remembers 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.”

The prayer meeting was interrupted when MGM Grand employee Mitch Libonati rattled on the dressing room door. "I have something he probably wants," said Libonati as he held up a plastic bag that contained the wedge of ear Tyson had gobbed on to the ring. Holyfield was taken to the hospital, but the little lump of ear was lost in the ambulance ride. Not to worry. The plastic surgeons did a fine job and, in any case, Tyson later returned the missing piece of ear in a FootLocker advert – and that wasn't even the first time the pair had poked fun at the story in the name of business.

It wasn't so funny at the time though. Barry McGuigan summed up the mood of the boxing world – and the world at large – when he declared Tyson's actions "despicable", "abominable", "totally malicious" and those of a "a spoilt child". That other great boxing champion, Sylvester Stallone, chipped in from ringside with the line of the night: "Boxers should eat before they fight." The recently re-elected President Clinton had time to give a view: "I was horrified by it and I think the American people should be." And Tyson recalls Letterman and Leno making jokes about how he would be fighting on Pay-per-chew and winning the Fighter of the Ear award.

As the news reverberated around the world and some of the press called for Tyson to be banned for life, the man himself wondered why there was such a commotion. “I had no idea what had happened would become such an international incident,” he recalls in his autobiography, which, in fairness, is full of stories that make ear-nibbling sound tame. “My whole life’s been like that. I say or do something I think is small but the whole world think it’s big. Maybe I should have thought about how things will affect me in posterity but I don’t think like that.”

It's hard to know what Tyson really thinks about the bite. The day before the fight he called himself "a professional who doesn't get emotionally involved with anything." But he also famously pointed out that "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Two days after the fight he gathered the media and offered an apology "to the world, my family and to the Nevada Athletic Commission." "I couldn't tell you why I acted exactly as I did," he said as he asked for forgiveness and another chance. But Tyson later admitted he was just "going through the motions" in that speech to appease Don King, who was worried the money train had come flying off the tracks.

Perhaps the truth only really came out when Tyson spoke to Oprah Winfrey about the fight 12 years later. When Oprah asked him about his sham apology, Tyson admitted that he hadn't regretted the bite at the time and that he hadn't been sincere when he delivered his statement to the world. But he said the time had come to say sorry to Holyfield face-to-face. Oprah obliged and set up a show with the two boxers the following week. How's that for a win-win.

“What do you want to say to him?” she asked Tyson as he sat beside Holyfield, looking more nervous than he ever did in the ring. Tyson went for it: “This is a beautiful guy. Me and this guy basically both come from the sewerage and we watched each other grow and become established and esteemed fighters. And I just want you to know that it’s been a pleasure passing through life and being acquainted with you.” Tyson reached out to Holyfield, who shook his hand, smiled, nodded gently and said: “OK.”

The preview

‘Tyson in five,’ wrote Kevin Mitchell in the Observer on the Sunday before the fight

In a famous American fight restaurant called Wolfie's many years ago, Kingfish Levinsky, old and sad, turned to a brother in arms, Muhammad Ali, young and proud, and uttered in front of a bemused clientele: "They ask me why you always win, Cash. I tell 'em because you know all about losing. You understand Cassius? You understand how it feels to lose? That helps you keep winning." Nobody wanted to listen to the old man. Except Ali.

For someone who introduced himself to the world as The Greatest, such truths came more easily than a wider audience might think possible. He’d been beaten up on a regular basis as a teenager in Louisville by a bully he would later “whup” with gloves he’d lost, bad, as an amateur he’d had his liberty threatened and his livelihood taken away by his own government. Ali knew about losing all right. Like all the great fighters, though, he was accustomed to coming back from adversity.

What he did not know that day in Wolfie’s, but would subsequently learn in full, was that even he could not keep coming back for ever. In the ring, anyway. “How’s it feel to lose?” Kingfish insisted. Ali paused, looked at his intent audience. “Naked, King. Naked and cold.”

It is highly unlikely that Mike Tyson has had this dialogue for a long time. Cus D’Amato would tell him, sure enough, that he should use the fear of losing to his advantage. “Fire can warm your cold body or burn your house down,” Cus had said. “You’ve got to know how to use that fire.” But Cus died far too early to help Tyson when he needed it most.

When Iron Mike was knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo just over seven years ago, his promoter, Don King, not wanting to associate with a loser, tried, unsuccessfully, to fix the result by twisting the very limp arm of Jose Sulaiman, the president of the WBC. When Tyson was belted senseless by Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas last November, King patted him on the back and signed up the winner for the rematch. Tyson that night was the most abject and lonely figure as he slunk away through the stunned but indifferent crowd.

The return fixture is this Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It promises to be an explosive and emotional encounter, defining not just what remains of each fighter's career but, more importantly, the shape of Tyson's destiny. There is a real danger that a third defeat for the most vulnerable of ogres will drain basic survival skills that have already been stretched beyond their limits. Larry Holmes once said Tyson would end up in jail or the cemetery before he was 40. Larry's been half-right already.

If Tyson loses again, the friends on whom he has lavished cars and money since his release from prison will be gone soon enough. King will probably not linger long with Mike. Then Tyson will be in for the toughest fight of all. King knows a thing or two about switching camps. He stepped over Joe Frazier's fallen frame to embrace the winner, George Foreman, in Jamaica in 1973. He did it again the following year when Ali beat Foreman in Zaire. He grinned alongside Holyfield in November but, be in little doubt, he will hug Tyson like a brother once more if Holyfield falls apart on Saturday night.

So, there is more at stake here than a version of the world title. Holyfield, who took the championship in eleven rounds with a surgeon’s detachment, appears to have maintained his almost manic level of commitment, while Tyson has come out from behind the dubious warmth of his managerial apron strings to declare that he is ready to tear the champion’s head from his sculptured body.

Those of us who are paid to pontificate were so certain last time that Holyfield was risking not just a beating but irreversible damage to what looked like a used-up fighting engine. Now a measure of calm has entered the debate. The odds are about even, with no sure money going in either direction. Countless reruns of the tape from the first encounter only confirm general impressions that the winner kept his form and focus under pressure, while Tyson's resolve ebbed more from his lack of success with single blows than from a systematic beating by his opponent. Surely it will be more of the same? If, as Mickey Duff observes, Tyson is a bully – "but a bloody good bully" – it is reasonable to speculate that Holyfield has the tools to undermine him again, that he "has his number".

His trainer, Don Turner, one of the fight game's better brains, had worked out last time that persistent counters with the right hand would not only keep Tyson at bay, slowing his one-paced and predictable assaults, but would discourage him once the weight of his punch had dissipated. So every time Tyson launched his left, he bought a right: that information will be stuck in Tyson's computer on Saturday night and it will be fascinating to see if he has the ability and the will to do anything about it.

I think he has: and this is why. If there is one lesson Tyson took away from the first encounter with Holyfield it is that he had underestimated the man’s strength. Tyson had fairly deduced – like the rest of us – from Holyfield’s most recent outings that he was a fading fighter. What he did not count on was that Holyfield’s inner resolve – fuelled, he says, by God – was such that he could lift himself for one more awesome effort.

Tyson knows that now. He will not risk complacency. If he does he is finished, and not just in this fight. Nobody wants a washed-up demon. His only cachet has ever been as the intimidating force of the division. If he is destroyed again, Tyson’s days in the upper flight of boxing, the only place he’s safe, are done. Tyson, no philosopher, is life-smart none the less. He can see the ambush up ahead.

In a way, Tyson was born to lose: from the day when he was two years old and his father left home, through dark, wild days on whisky and drugs, in the despond of conviction for his sexual weaknesses, at every turn with a coterie of users. Now, “naked and cold”, he really is on his own. I get the feeling he will relay his lonely desperation to Holyfield the only way he knows how. Tyson in five.

The fight

Richard Williams reported for the Guardian on the Monday after the fight, Tyson’s 31st birthday

The richest prizefight in history ended with a moment of genuine violence in Las Vegas on Saturday night when Mike Tyson, the former world heavyweight champion, was disqualified for biting Evander Holyfield, the current title-holder, who was taken to hospital to have a piece of his right ear sewn back.

“Boxers should eat before they fight,” said Sylvester Stallone, watching from the ringside at the MGM Grand Garden hotel and casino. But the reality was that professional boxing had plumbed new depths thanks to the action of a man whose career has been studded with violence, inside and outside the ring.

Tyson, who is 31 today, was behind on points when the latest incident took place in the third round on Saturday, after he had unsuccessfully complained to the referee about Holyfield’s use of his head. He ejected his gumshield, drew Holyfield into a clinch, and bit a piece out of the top of his right ear. As he spat it to the canvas, the reigning champion danced away to his corner in a frenzy of pain.

The referee had been unsighted when the bite occurred, but he could not miss the tooth marks, or the blood that poured down Holyfield’s neck. Nevertheless, he ordered the two men to fight on. A few seconds later Tyson was gnawing Holyfield’s other ear. The new wound was less spectacular, but the contest was over.

Not the mayhem, however. As the ring filled with hangers-on and security men, an exchange of words with one of Holyfield's seconds prompted Tyson to attempt a new assault on his opponent. In front of an audience including Tiger Woods, Whitney Houston, Jack Nicholson, Donald Trump and the Rev Jesse Jackson, the violence swirled as police tried to keep the two men apart.

Tyson appeared to aim blows at several of the uniformed officers and later there were scuffles when plastic glasses and bottles were hurled as he left the arena to the boos of most of the 16,000 spectators. Tyson defended his action in a brief TV interview, but he was immediately handed a temporary suspension from boxing and his $30m purse was withheld pending a meeting of the Nevada State Athletic Commission on Tuesday. As a man who is still on parole following a jail term for rape, he may be in even bigger trouble.

Holyfield was later released from Las Vegas’s Valley Memorial Hospital, where a small piece of his right ear, retrieved by a ring attendant, was stitched back on. He will undergo plastic surgery at a later date. “When he bit me the first time, I couldn’t believe it,’ he said. But it was in keeping with boxing’s surrealistic sense of propriety that he would not rule out a rematch, on one condition. “He’s gotta apologise first.”

The aftermath

Evander Holyfield published his autobiography, Becoming Holyfield, in 2008 and gave the Guardian a few exclusive extracts. In this one he talked about the night he fought Tyson for eight minutes, made $35m and lost a piece of his ear

When the bell rang, Mike wasted no time. He came to the middle and threw a hard right. I deflected it and threw one of my own. His hands moved faster than I’ve ever seen them move and his body movements were quick, too. He seemed to snap back and forth like a plucked string and his reflexes were tuned to the max. However, I sensed that there was something timid and tentative in him that I hadn’t seen before. Mike was throwing some solid punches, but I barely felt them and I could tell that was worrying him.

My guys were confident that I’d taken the first round and I was too. I was forcing Mike to fight my style, not his, and I was landing more and better punches than he was and controlling the action. I won the second round, too, and started thinking about how I was going to knock Mike out. I wasn’t interested in winning a decision.

The third round was a different story. Mike was so rattled that he came out of his corner without his mouthpiece and had to go back for it, but he hunkered down and came at me hard, throwing a lot of solid shots and getting out of the way of a lot of mine. Using all of his speed, power and wiles and staying in control of himself, he was getting the upper hand. I thought Mike’s aggression could win him this round unless I scored some decisive shots or knocked him down. That he had finally found his rhythm made what happened next even more mysterious.

With about 40 seconds left in the round, we clinched again. Mike’s face was at the side of my head and he started doing something odd, kind of working himself around until his mouth was close to my ear. He didn’t seem interested in getting in a few rib shots while we were waltzing around, just in manoeuvring his face to the side of my head.

At just about the time I was starting to wonder if this wasn’t something I should pay a little attention to, I felt a pain like someone had just stuck a red-hot poker into the side of my head.

Now let me tell you, I’ve felt my fair share of pain in the ring. I’ve had my nose smashed, my shoulder muscles ripped, my kidneys nearly destroyed and my chin crunched by some of the hardest-hitting guys alive. I was well familiar with every type of pain you could possibly experience during a fight, but this ... this was different.

For one thing, I didn’t know it was coming, so there was surprise and shock thrown in. For another, I didn’t know right away what had happened. All I knew was that one of the sharpest pains I’d ever felt was lancing into me from the vicinity of my right ear. I spun away from Mike and jumped high into the air, looking like a cat that had just stepped on to the third rail. I was in agony, and as I danced around trying to deal with the pain, I noticed that there was blood streaming down my face and shoulders.

What the heck had happened? Did I get shot by a sniper? I hadn’t heard any guns being fired. “He bit him!” someone was shouting, a note of hysteria in his voice. I touched a glove to my ear but it was like putting a blow-torch to it. I pulled my hand away quickly and blood flew from my glove.

Meanwhile, the referee Mills Lane had made a T of his hands, suspending the fight. While he was trying to figure out what to do, I walked to one side of the ring and tried to touch my ear again. But Mike wasn’t finished. With my back to him and before Lane had a chance to stop him, he ran at me and with both hands gave me a hard shove, throwing me into the ropes and almost knocking me off my feet. Had the fight been restarted? I immediately turned and saw him on the other side of the ring. If the fight was back on, why had he run away? I didn’t care. I sprinted across the ring to get at him, but Lane jumped in front of me and confirmed that the fight was still suspended.

I didn’t need to complain to him about Mike hitting me from behind while we were on hold. He’d obviously seen it. Once he determined that Mike was going to stay put this time, he came over to see me. Then he said, “I’m going to disqualify him.”

“Don’t do that!” I pleaded. That would be a lousy way to end this fight. Lane thought about it for a second, then put his hand up on my neck and turned me so he could have a look for himself. He didn’t like what he saw and walked over to the other side of the ring where he motioned for the doctor and the boxing commissioner to come in.

The doctor, Flip Homansky, turned my head to look at my ear, then pulled back in surprise when he got a good look. “You OK to fight, Evander?” he asked. “Huh? What do you mean?”

“Your ear,” he said, pointing to it. It hurt. So what? “Let me fight,” I said. “I’m gonna knock him out.” I had no idea yet that Mike had actually bitten part of my ear off, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

The doc said I could go on. Lane told us he was going to deduct two points from Mike and let us keep fighting. Lane called us to the middle and he looked angry. After he got us going again, we tried to get back into our rhythms. It seemed to be working, but 13 seconds into the restart we fell headlong into the Twilight Zone. Mike grabbed hold of me, pulled me in close and clamped his teeth down on my other ear.

The pain was blinding, but I was so shocked that he would do that again that it took about two seconds for it to sink in. I jumped away but this time I wasn’t going to hop around and take a chance on having the fight stopped. I was going to knock Tyson out right now. As I launched myself directly at him, he was standing there beckoning to me with both hands and yelling “Come on!”.

I realised at that moment that he was out of control, and I grabbed hold of myself, hard. This was no time to get angry and emotional. That’s exactly what he wanted me to do, forget my technique and my training and just stand there swapping punches with him. That would take me completely out of my game. There was only one course of action open to me, and that was to resist the temptation to land the big haymaker and do what I do best: box, not brawl.

I got back into position and started throwing jabs. Mike tried to draw me inside but I wasn’t buying it. My ear hurt like blazes but I avoided the temptation to swipe at it. There were only a few seconds left in the round anyway and soon we were back in our corners.

Lane thought he’d seen Mike bite me again but wasn’t sure. “He bit him again!” the same guy from before started screeching, even as my corner men worked on both my bleeding ears. Lane came over to see for himself, and that was it. He went over to Mike’s corner and informed them that he was stopping the fight and disqualifying Tyson.

The ring began filling with people: my guys, Mike’s guys, fight officials, wives, uncles, who knew what all, plus a truckload of security people. I didn’t think anything of it but couldn’t see much from my sitting position. Then I realised that half the people in the ring were fighting each other, and when I stood up, I saw the reason why.

Mike had come completely unglued. He was clawing and fighting his way across the ring to get at me, throwing wild punches at anything in front of him. His own people were trying to hold him back, but he still managed to deck a security guard. Eventually, a whole platoon of security guards backed him into his corner and kept him surrounded.

“How’re you doing, Holy?” someone asked. I smiled. “Still the champ, ain’t I?”

The last word

"For an athlete in the heat of battle to lose it is not new, but it isn't right. I only ask that it's not a penalty for life." Mike Tyson.

(Guardian service)