Friday marked the 20th anniversary of one of the weirdest and most infamous moments in sports – the “Bite Fight” between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, during which, Tyson bit off part of Holyfield’s ear.
The pair faced off seven months earlier in a match billed as “Finally.” Plans for an earlier bout were derailed when Tyson lost a tune-up fight against Buster Douglas then went to prison from ‘92 to ‘95. Holyfield won that first fight, stopping Tyson in the 11th round after two big headbutts from Holyfield cut Tyson deeply around the eye in the sixth and seventh rounds.
In the rematch, Holyfield headbutted Tyson in the second round, forming a deep gash that threatened to end the match early. In the third, Tyson came out looking to put Holyfield down, stringing lethal blows together in combos of three and four punches.
With 40 seconds or so left in the round, Tyson leapt in with a hook, the fighters wrapped up, and Tyson bit Holyfield for the first time. The announcers were shocked, as was Holyfield, who jumped up and down and gestured to referee Mills Lane. In a matter of seconds, the doctor sprang into the ring, the athletic commissioner hopped up on the side of the canvas. Boos rained down from the crowd.
Lane hustled between the commissioner and the doctor. He motions to disqualify Tyson, but the commissioner wasn’t on board. The doctor deemed Holyfield able to go on fighting. Lane deducted two points from Tyson, and the fighters squared up. All these decisions were made in under three minutes.
The fight got exciting for 10 seconds or so, before Tyson bit Holyfield again, clear as day. Lane separated them and let the round peter out. Lane immediately disqualified Tyson, and the ring filled with the fighters’ teams, officials, MGM Grand staff, camera men, law enforcements officers, who restrained Tyson. Holyfield wisely slipped out among the chaos.
“One bite is bad enough,” Lane later said. “Two bites is dessert.”
“Fighters should eat before they fight,” quipped Sylvester Stallone, who’d watched the fight from ringside.
In the locker room after the fight, an MGM Grand employee delivered the severed bit of ear back to Holyfield in a plastic bag. Holyfield took an ambulance to the hospital but lost the ear on the way. He received eight stitches.
The incident became fodder for late night television at the time, and even Bill Clinton said he was “horrified” by it. The athletic commission banned Tyson from boxing for a year.
A few days later, Tyson gave a half-hearted apology, and over the next decade or so, he always wavered on an answer when people asked him why he did it. At times he said he was frustrated by Holyfield’s headbutts, at other times he said he was frustrated by Holyfield’s skill. Sometimes he said he just snapped the way athletes caught in the moment can snap, while other times he simply said, “I was upset.”
Tyson’s career remained turbulent – bankruptcies, felonies and drug use – until his retirement in 2005. In 2009, Tyson and Holyfield met again in an interview with Oprah, where they shook hands. Holyfield, it seemed, had long made peace with the Bite Fight. In a 2013 Footlocker ad, Tyson rings Holyfield’s doorbell and returns the lost piece of ear. In some ways, the Bite Fight became a cultural moment bigger than both of them.
Life is long, I guess.
Both boxers were born into poverty and rose to legendary status. They made their fortunes, lost them, and gained them back again. Tyson has made his way back into the public eye as a much calmer man. It makes you consider what grudges are worth hanging on to. It gives perspective to the big events that feel so monumental. Whatever wave is shaking your ship today will pass, one way or another. What then?