Twenty years ago today, Mike Tyson bit off more than he could chew when he twice sunk his teeth into Evander Holyfield’s ears.
It was a disgraceful and shocking act that left the world watching in disbelief; amid uncontrollable rage, Tyson bit a chunk out of Holyfield’s right ear during their 1997 bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. He was disqualified at the end of the third round.
Lennox Lewis, then WBC world heavyweight champion, feared he would never fight Tyson after what became known as ‘The Bite Fight’.
“One hundred per cent, at the time I thought this man Tyson is a mad man and I will never fight him now,” Lewis told ESPN.
Despite his stint in prison and a stuttering career, Tyson’s rematch with Holyfield was still a huge event that created global interest. It remains one of the most talked about fights in boxing history and set a then-new record for revenue ($100 million).
Tyson, who was sent to prison in 1992 and then resumed his career three years later, had lost the WBA world heavyweight title in a shock 11th round stoppage to Holyfield in November 1996, yet started the rematch a betting favourite.
But Tyson, then 31, quickly unravelled after feeling enraged by what he felt was Holyfield’s deliberate headbutts in the second round. Referee Mills Lane considered it a clash of heads that caused the cut above Tyson’s right eye — which did nothing to calm ‘Iron Mike’.
“He butted me in the second round, and he looked at me and butted me again,” said Tyson at the time. “No one deducted points. This is my career. What am I supposed to do? I’ve got children to raise. He kept butting me.”
The self-proclaimed ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ then took matters into his own hands in the third round as he sank his teeth into the top of Holyfield’s right ear. Holyfield instantly recoiled, jumped up in pain while Tyson spat a piece of his opponent’s ear to the canvas.
“I thought my ear had fallen off,” said Holyfield after the fight. “Look at the bite. I’m missing part of my ear. I just couldn’t believe it — they have rules and regulations for this.”
The saying “once bitten, twice shy” did not apply to Holyfield on a night that defied belief as the two-weight world champion fought on after a four-minute delay with blood streaming from his chewed ear.
Lane deducted two points from Tyson but that did not deter him from biting Holyfield’s left ear before the end of the third round. Tyson had left his stool with illegal intentions at the start of the third and he spat out his gumshield in order to prepare for the attack, leaving Lane with no alternative.
At the end of the third round, Lane disqualified Tyson who then tried to get at Holyfield and his corner amid ugly scenes of pushing and shoving. Tyson also took a swing at a police officer.
“Holyfield is not a tough warrior, he got a little cut on his ear and he quit,” said Tyson, who apologised for his behaviour a few days later.
Later in the night, when the venue was empty, an MGM Grand employee found a portion of Holyfield’s gnawed-off ear in the ring and returned it to the champion’s team.
“It doesn’t show no courage to foul to get out of the fight,” Holyfield told the press before going to hospital. “Fear causes people to do the easy thing, the quickest thing.
“Everybody knows how to get out of a fight — all you do is foul. Then you can say to the other guy, ‘well, you didn’t beat me’.”
Lewis, who would fight both Holyfield and Tyson in the next five years, agrees that Tyson may have been looking for a way out of the fight. Tyson also bit Lewis on his thigh during a brawl at a press conference to promote their 2002 fight.
“What had got him mad was the headbutt, he got really mad and just switched,” Lewis told ESPN. “I saw it coming to a certain degree but just couldn’t believe it. I had to watch it back to see how bad it was.
“Tyson watches a lot of old fighters like Max Baer who could get away with an elbow or headbutt back then. Holyfield was jumping up and down but in the olden days they just got on with it when something like that happened.
“I would have gone berserk if that would have happened to me. I actually thought Tyson was trying to get out of the fight with me because he bit me at a press conference, I thought he was a cannibal, and maybe he was trying to get out of the fight with Evander.”
Holyfield needed eight stitches later that night, but insists he holds no grudge.
“Whenever I see my ears in the mirror, it don’t bother me. I just remember how I made $35 million in nine minutes,” said Holyfield.
Tyson was fined $3m of his $30m purse and, as the biggest name in boxing capable of generating the biggest money, was allowed to resume his career after an 18-month boxing ban.
But he was never the same fighter. The joke was that he would fight Hannibal Lecter next after serving a ban. There was also more turmoil in his private life and a year later Tyson served a prison sentence for an assault charge.
However, Tyson did eventually fight Lewis in a final crack at the world heavyweight title when he suffered a punishing, eighth round knockout defeat.
Holyfield also lost on points to London-born Lewis in 1999 after a controversial draw earlier that year.
Both Tyson — the world’s youngest world heavyweight champion — and Holyfield — a four-time world champion — lost the fortunes from their ring exploits but Lewis says their place among the heavyweight greats is assured.
“I believe that when you look back at them both in history they are there with the likes of Ali, Foreman, Fraser, Louis,” Lewis said. “They all have specific qualities about them. Lennox Lewis has that, Evander Holyfield has that, Mike Tyson has that.”
Holyfield and Tyson are now friends and even made an amusing television advert about ‘The Bite Fight’, during which Tyson calls at his former rival’s house to present him with a piece of his ear in a jar of formaldehyde.