By June 28, 1997, Mike Tyson had a well-deserved reputation for doing and saying outlandish things.
But no one, not even promoter Don King, author of some of the most outlandish words and deeds in boxing history, could believe the acts that were unfolding in front of him on that fateful night 20 years ago.
Tyson was in the midst of a heavily hyped rematch at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas with long-time rival Evander Holyfield. They’d fought in the same ring eight months earlier, and Holyfield had dominated the bout and stopped Tyson in the 11th round to win the title.
Holyfield then proceeded to dominate Rounds 1 and 2 of the rematch. Worse, from Tyson’s point of view, was a nasty gash on his right eyelid that was the result of what referee Mills Lane ruled an inadvertent head butt by Holyfield in the second round.
In the middle of the third round while fighting in the middle of the ring, the boxers were jockeying for position, and leaned their heads next to each other.
Suddenly, Holyfield was stomping up and down, angry and in obvious discomfort. Many in the audience were unsure what had occurred, and had assumed by Holyfield’s reaction that Tyson had hit him low. As Holyfield walked to his corner, Lane picked up Tyson’s mouthpiece, which Tyson had spat out.
When Lane approached Holyfield’s corner, he discovered that Tyson had bitten the top of Holyfield’s ear off.
“Of all the goddamn crazy things you might see,” King told Yahoo Sports, “you would never expect to see one guy bite the other guy’s ear off.”
The first bite didn’t get Tyson disqualified, of course. Lane deducted two points from Tyson, one for a shove and another for the bite, and let the match go on when ringside physician Flip Homansky said it was OK for Holyfield to continue.
Holyfield agreed, because he was angry and wanted revenge.
“It really didn’t hurt that much, to be honest,” Holyfield told Yahoo Sports. “The ear ain’t nothing but flesh. There’s no bone there. My only thing was, I wanted to get him back for doing that to me. That’s what I was thinking. But it didn’t hurt none. I just had to get it stitched up.”
Four years earlier, Holyfield had fought Riddick Bowe, in what became known as “The Fan Man” fight, when James Miller flew into the ring on a motorized hang glider. Miller and his contraption crashed into the television light structure. He fell onto the ring apron and then wound up among the fans in the first couple of rows where he was beaten unconscious by security officers and members of Bowe’s team at ringside while the fight was temporarily halted.
And yet that incident, as surreal as it was, is not the most bizarre moment in Holyfield’s illustrious career.
“I’d have to say ‘The Bite Fight’ topped that,” Holyfield said. “The hang glider, I was just worried that the lights, that thing above the ring, would come down on us. But getting bitten on the ears? Man, that was a total shock.”
The story of perhaps the most infamous night in boxing history began eight months earlier, when Tyson and Holyfield met for the first time.
By 1996, Tyson had regained his position as the sport’s top heavyweight and biggest attraction. He entered the decade viewed as nearly untouchable but was knocked out by a 42-1 long shot named Buster Douglas. Then, he spent three years in prison on a rape conviction.
Easy wins over Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno and Bruce Seldon, none of which went more than three rounds, put Tyson back on top of the boxing world.
Holyfield had fought a riveting trilogy with Bowe, but by the time he signed to fight Tyson, he appeared to be on the downside of a great career. So Tyson was a 17-1 favorite to defeat Holyfield in their first bout.
Lou Duva, one of Holyfield’s long-time associates, was vocal in his belief that Holyfield not only could, but would, defeat Tyson, and he backed up his belief with his money. After Holyfield scored an unexpected 11th-round knockout, Duva told reporters he’d made $250,000 betting on Holyfield.
It was a magnificent performance, but one few saw coming. Holyfield proved to be physically stronger than Tyson, and wasn’t the least bit intimidated.
“Mike had respect for me and what I could do because he knew me from the amateurs,” Holyfield told Yahoo Sports. “We sparred and we were very familiar with each other. … But Mike knew what I could do and no matter what he said, he knew it was going to be a tough night for him. He did a lot of talking saying, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and ‘I’m going to do that,’ but he knew the truth.”
Tyson was used to swarming and quickly overwhelming opponents, but Holyfield blunted Tyson’s aggressive charge and kept Tyson at a distance where he could hit him with right hands and the occasional hook. When they got inside, Holyfield worked Tyson’s body and prevented Tyson from getting his powerful hook off.
Holyfield not only wasn’t intimidated, he was frequently the aggressor. Tyson was in danger of being stopped late in the 10th round, but he survived. Holyfield put an end to it quickly in the 11th.
He blasted Tyson with a right hand, then followed it with a powerful hook to the chin. Tyson, dazed and weary, backed away. Holyfield moved aggressively forward, hunting his prey the way Tyson had done so frequently.
Left hook. Right hand. Left hook. Right hand. Another right hand and referee Mitch Halpern jumped between them to stop it.
Marc Ratner, now a UFC vice president who was the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission in 1997, was so pleased with Halpern’s work in the first bout that he appointed him again to work the rematch. Halpern, though, never made it to the ring on that fateful night.
A few days before the rematch, Tyson’s team began to complain that Holyfield had repeatedly and intentionally head-butted Tyson and threatened to pull out of the rematch if Halpern wasn’t replaced.
The athletic commission backed Halpern, and the complaints from Tyson’s end intensified. Halpern withdrew from the job because he didn’t want to be the focus of attention. He was replaced by Mills Lane.
King hoped that Lane would make a difference.
“Holyfield fought Tyson with three fists – the fists on the end of his arms and his head, which he used like a fist,” King told Yahoo Sports. “It was frustrating for Mike. He complained [to Halpern in the first fight], but how do I say this? Holyfield has a Master’s degree in butting. The referee was doing an excellent job, but he couldn’t see what was going on. I don’t know how [Holyfield] did it, but he was able to butt Mike with his head like it was another fist.”
Holyfield won the first round of the rematch, and was doing well in the second.
As Tyson moved forward to punch Holyfield, his head came up and in. The taller Holyfield bent at the waist and moved toward Tyson, as if to go to the body.
Their heads banged, Tyson’s forehead colliding with the top of Holyfield’s skull. Holyfield said that whatever butts there were in the two fights were simply a result of two aggressive fighters coming after each other and moving forward.
Tyson blamed the cut on his right eyelid on the clash of heads, which he said was an intentional butt. Holyfield said it was from a left hook he connected with seconds after the butt.
It was a deep cut, which Showtime’s Jim Gray got a chance to see close-up when he spoke to Tyson outside the locker room in the tense moments following the bout.
“It was a very large gash where you could see the bone,” said Gray, who won an Emmy for his work interviewing Tyson and others in the aftermath of the bites when chaos filled the arena and casino. “It hadn’t been tended to by a doctor at that point. He couldn’t have been comfortable.”
Tyson’s life forever changed as the bell sounded to start the third round of the rematch with Holyfield. His corner had worked feverishly to stop the blood from the cut on his right eyelid, but only time could do that and time was something they had little of at that point.
The cut was in such a bad place that it was only likely to get worse. Blood was already pouring into Tyson’s eye, obscuring his vision. What he had done, in nearly 11 full rounds of their first fight and two complete rounds of the rematch, hadn’t worked.
Tyson knew something had to change, and so when the bell rang to start the third round, he roared out of his corner. As he did, Holyfield stood solemnly and pointed out to Lane that Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece.
Tyson fought more aggressively in the early moments of the third round than he had in any of the previous 13 rounds over the two fights. The crowd roared at the increase in intensity.
Holyfield was trying to hold off a desperate Tyson when suddenly, Tyson lost his wits and decided to exact his own revenge. He bit Holyfield on the right ear, spitting it out along with his mouthpiece.
Though it was immediately obvious to the Showtime broadcast team what had happened, it wasn’t so obvious to the fans in the arena.
Lane was arguably the best referee in the world, and one renowned for keeping order. At that point, however, he didn’t realize that Tyson had just taken a chunk out of Holyfield’s ear.
Lane saw Tyson’s mouthpiece come out, and per custom, called time. Holyfield stomped up and down and then went to his corner, where he indicated to trainers Don Turner and Tommy Brooks that he’d been bitten.
As Holyfield turned his back, Tyson rushed him and shoved Holyfield with both hands extended. Lane got between them and ordered Tyson to back up. He handed the mouthpiece to the Nevada Athletic Commission inspector in Holyfield’s corner, and then, upon hearing Turner and Brooks complain, checked Holyfield’s ear.
Lane walked back toward Tyson’s corner, where trainer Richie Giachetti was on the apron, and then waved his hand to summon Ratner. As Ratner approached him, Lane shouted, “He’s disqualified. He bit his ear. He’s out.”
Ratner took two or three steps to his right, away from Tyson’s corner, and leaned over the ropes to speak with Lane.
“You’re going to DQ him?” Ratner asked.
“He bit his ear. I can see the bite marks,” an agitated Lane said.
“OK, so you want to disqualify him? Ratner asked placidly.
Lane then shifted and said, “Well, let me ask the doc.” He summoned Homansky and asked if Holyfield could continue.
Ratner said he wasn’t trying to prevent a riot when he asked Lane if he were sure about disqualifying him.
“My football training [as an official] kicked in,” he said. “When everything is going crazy and is hectic and one of the officials says he’s going to throw a guy out of the game, I was taught to ask, ‘Are you sure,’ just to give him a minute to catch his breath and think if that is exactly what he wanted to do.”
It worked with Lane, who allowed the fight to go on, at least for a brief while more.
A more flagrant move was soon to come.
After conferring with Ratner and getting the go-ahead from Homansky, Lane ordered the bout to continue.
Not long after it resumed, Tyson bit Holyfield again. There was confusion as to what had happened, and the bell for the third round rang, so the fighters returned to their corners.
When Lane realized what had occurred, though, he immediately disqualified Tyson.
“We went into the ring to interview Tyson and Holyfield, and it was chaos in there,” Gray told Yahoo Sports. “While we were waiting to talk to them, we had a chance to speak to Mills Lane. He explained why he’d disqualified Mike. The police were getting in the ring and were pulling out their billy clubs. Mike wanted to continue to fight. It was, I don’t want to say it was out of control, but it was on the verge of getting out of control.”
As all this happened, a peace came over Holyfield and he said he knew instantly what he had to do.
He decided on the spot to forgive Tyson, and said not once in the subsequent 20 years has he regretted it.
“Anybody who understands behavior realizes he did this on purpose,” Holyfield said of Tyson. “He wanted out. That’s what that spelled: O-U-T. Everybody who was there realized, you know what, this man couldn’t deal with what was going on, so he found a way out.
“But I knew I had to forgive him, so that’s what I did. I forgave him. I realized that this whole thing was about forgiveness. Everywhere I went, people would say to me, ‘How can you forgive something like this?’ But you know what? Being a Christian means to forgive. Forgiving him was the right thing to do. Really, it was the only thing to do.”
He wasn’t angry, either, but it wasn’t because of purely pious reasons.
“I realized, ‘Hey, in three rounds, I just made $35 million,’ ” Holyfield said. “We fought a brutal, 11-round fight, and we come back a few months later and I made more for just three rounds. What do I have to be angry about?”
Mitch Libonati works in events in Las Vegas, helping to put up and tear down the venue at concerts, shows and sporting events. At the Tyson-Holyfield rematch, he was assigned to the area around the ring.
When the fight ended, Libonati looked down and saw something about the size of a fingernail on the mat.
He realized it was the top of Holyfield’s ear that Tyson spat out.
Libonati collected the ear and attempted to get into Holyfield’s locker room to return it, but wasn’t permitted. He had wrapped the piece of ear in a latex glove and gave it to heavyweight Michael Grant, a training partner of Holyfield’s.
“It was about the size of a fingernail and looked like a piece of hot dog, or a sausage,” Libonati told Yahoo Sports. “I realized it was his ear and I wanted to get it back to him so they could put it back on. I put it into one of those [latex gloves] and went to his locker room to give it to him. They wouldn’t let me in. I was hoping to get to meet Evander, but the locker room was closed.”
Grant gave the glove with the piece of ear in it to plastic surgeon Julio Garcia, who was going to reattach it at nearby Valley Hospital. When they got there, though, the piece of the ear was missing and had somehow fallen out of the glove.
Tyson hasn’t spoken often of why he bit Holyfield in the two decades since, and he couldn’t be reached to comment for this article.
In an interview on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Tyson said, “It doesn’t make no excuse for what happened, but I was just enraged and I wanted to inflict so much pain on him.”
Tyson has always maintained that he bit Holyfield because of the head butts. He said it in Gray’s interview moments after the fight.
“He kept going down and coming up,” Tyson said to Gray during the original Showtime broadcast. “He charged into me. No one warned him. No one took any points from him. What am I to do? This is my career. I can’t continue getting butted like that. I got children to raise, and this guy keeps butting me and trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I gotta retaliate.”
Gray asked Tyson if the bite was in retaliation for the head butts. When Tyson didn’t immediately answer, Gray told him he’d have to address it.
That angered Tyson, who said, “I did address it. I addressed it in the ring. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me. I got to go home and my kids are going to be scared of me. Look at me, man.”
He referenced it two days later in a public apology that was carried live on CNN, ESPN and other networks around the world.
He’s said it in the handful of interviews he’s given on the topic.
Showtime’s David Dinkins Jr., the executive producer of both events, reviewed the fight carefully and said he could come up with no obvious signs of intentional head butts by Holyfield.
“You know how Evander fights, and he’s an aggressive, some would say head-first, kind of fighter,” Dinkins told Yahoo Sports. “There was not an obvious launching of the head or third fist kind of a tactic that was readily visible. In the rebroadcast, we showed some nuanced moments there that tried to substantiate the Tyson point of view but there was nothing that was clearly flagrant.”
Tyson’s license was revoked by the Nevada Athletic Commission and he was fined $3 million, 10 percent of his $30 million purse. It was the most the commission could fine him, and was the largest fine in sports history at that point.
Tyson never again held a world title after losing to Holyfield for the second time. He was 5-3 with two no contests after his bouts with Holyfield to finish his career with a 50-6 record and 44 knockouts. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.
Holyfield fought until 2011, but went only 10-7-2 with one no contest after his Tyson matches. He lost the belt to Lennox Lewis in 1999, but regained a version of it from John Ruiz in 2000. He lost it to Ruiz in a rematch and never held the belt again. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame on June 11 after continuing to box until he was 48.