The news broke last week in a flurry of headlines and hastily assembled composite photographs—a scowling Evander Holyfield pasted beside a glaring Mike Tyson. The big bout is on: Nov. 8, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, heavyweight champion Holyfield versus No. 1 contender and former champ Tyson. The numbers are suitably colossal—a projected $100 million gross, with a guarantee of $30 million for Holyfield and $15 million for Tyson—and so is the anticipation. Already the papers are full of comparisons to Ali-Frazier I in 1971.
Yet, come November, the two fighters will be hard pressed to match the infighting that went on last week as their promoters, lawyers and retainers squirmed and maneuvered to forge a deal. The cast that gathered in midtown Manhattan to negotiate the terms of the bout included virtually all the biggest names—and egos—in the fight business. At stake was money and power. For the two boxers the stakes were far simpler. Tyson craves Holyfield's title, and though Holyfield wears the crown, only by beating Tyson can the champion earn the respect to which he feels he's entitled. Fittingly, the two boxers' determination to meet is the primary reason the fight was finally scheduled.
Three weeks ago it appeared that a Holyfield-Tyson match might never take place. Dan Duva, Holyfield's promoter, whose power in the sport rose dramatically when Holyfield won the championship last October from Buster Douglas, had no intention of meeting the demands of Tyson's promoter Don King, which included a 45% share of the purse for Tyson, as well as the pie-in-the-sky notion of options to promote Holyfield's future fights. King, in turn, bellowed to anyone who would listen that he and his fighter didn't need Holyfield. "Mike Tyson is the people's champion," said King. However, for months King had been seeking to have the WBC strip Holyfield of its share of the title because Holyfield had made his first defense against George Foreman, not Tyson. The matter is still in arbitration.
King has more at stake in this heavyweight drama than any of the other players. Many boxing observers think that, after a nearly three-year relationship, Tyson has become edgy and impatient with King. Tyson spent two days last month visiting with boxing adviser (and convicted embezzler) Harold Smith in Los Angeles, a dalliance that reportedly drove King to distraction. If King should lose Tyson, he would have precious little to work with. He is trying to counter Time Warner's TVKO, which has a contract with Holyfield, with his own pay-per-view network, Showtime Event Television/King Vision. But King's only other boxers of note, Julio Cesar Chàvez and Azumah Nelson, are not enough of a base on which to support a pay-per-view operation. (Time Warner is the publisher of SI.)
July 21, 1991
After Tyson's win over Razor Ruddock in their June 28 rematch, King set out to land a bout with Foreman. It was a power move that could well have left Holyfield with his crown, but with little opportunity to parlay it into another megabucks fight. However, the 42-year-old Foreman, whose gallant loss to Holyfield in April left him the heavyweight division's most popular figure, reportedly turned down a $20 million offer from King. Big George, it seemed, wanted a Holyfield rematch.
Which brings us to July 9, a hot Tuesday in New York City. At 2:30 that afternoon, Duva and Holyfield's manager, Shelly Finkel, met with Bob Arum, Foreman's promoter, and Foreman's friend Ron Weathers in TVKO's offices. According to Arum, a deal was struck for a Holyfield-Foreman fight. "Dan and I made the deal," Arum says. "We dotted the I'S and crossed the t's."
Duva insists there was merely an agreement to "principal terms," nothing more.
Says Finkel, "We left it that we would get back to them."
The Duva team had one more appointment—with King. That morning Jose Sulaiman, president of the WBC and an ally of King's, phoned Duva. "Don is ready to get the fight resolved," said Sulaiman.
Duva was skeptical. "I fully believed we'd make no deal with King," he says, "because we weren't budging off our numbers [$15 million for Tyson, $30 million for Holyfield]. I told Arum and Weathers we were meeting with King that night, but I didn't expect to make a deal."
Duva had to meet with the Tyson camp to show that he was at least trying to deal with the challenger. Duva also assured Arum that while Holyfield's camp might prefer a Tyson fight to a Foreman rematch, it would take one only if King and Tyson agreed to the $15 million package.
At 6:30 p.m., Duva, Finkel and lawyer Pat English met with King and his lawyer, Bob Hirth, at the Parker Meridien Hotel. According to Duva, King asked for $25 million for Tyson. "He spoke for an hour on the history of the heavyweight division and on why Tyson deserved more money," says Duva. When King was done, Duva made his offer: Duva's Main Events promotions would pay Tyson $15 million for a November fight or $20 million for an April 1992 fight, with both Tyson and Holyfield allowed one bout in the interim.
King, Hirth and Home left the room for several minutes. When they returned, King said, "We'll take the $15 million," but he also asked for a share of the profits exceeding $45 million.
Duva, Finkel and English retired to nearby Mickey Mantle's restaurant to consider their response over pasta and salad. Duva was convinced that King would reject their counteroffer. But he knew that if King didn't reject it, and Holyfield instead accepted a Foreman fight, "the fallout in the press would be terrible." Holyfield would be accused of ducking Tyson and would almost certainly be stripped of the WBC title.
What Duva didn't know, though, was that at about the time he and his confederates were finishing dinner, Tyson, in King's East Side town house, was telling King to "forget the money." Tyson wanted a shot at Holyfield.
At midnight Finkel and Jesse Spikes, an attorney who also represents Holyfield, placed a conference call to the champion in Hawaii. They explained the situation. The final decision would be Holyfield's.
Though Tyson had been Holyfield's first choice all along—"You can't hide from the fact that Tyson's the man," he says—Holyfield was reluctant to brush aside Foreman, who he thought had stood up for him at a time when King had "disrespected" him. "I don't want to leave him out in the cold," Holyfield told Finkel. Holyfield said he would pass up Tyson for Foreman, unless King accepted the $15 million.
"At 3 a.m. Wednesday," says Duva, "Holyfield-Tyson was off."
Duva phoned Hirth about what Holyfield had said. "Let's meet. I think I can solve [the Foreman problem]," said Hirth.
Later Wednesday morning, in an insurance move, Duva called Arum and told him he would fax him a one-page contract for Foreman to sign and return by 5 p.m. Arum agreed to wait. Duva then went to see King and Hirth at Hirth's office, and it was here that the Holyfield-Tyson deal was closed. When Duva described Holyfield's qualms about dumping Foreman, King began yelling that Foreman himself had been bluffing all along. Hirth produced what he says was a copy of the only contract King had offered Foreman. According to the contract, if Tyson beat Holyfield or won the WBC arbitration, Tyson would defend his title against Foreman before anyone else. King insisted Foreman was using the contract to exert pressure on the Holyfield camp. "Fore man didn't have the $20 million locked up," says Finkel.
In another call to Holyfield, Finkel and Spikes explained the new wrinkles. All things being equal, Holyfield wanted Tyson. But he still made one more try for a November match with Foreman. "O.K.," said Holyfield. "Offer [Tyson and King] 15 now," for a fight before the first of the year, "and 25 if they wait till April."
Duva told King and Hirth of Holyfield's offer. "You should have seen the looks on their faces," says Duva. "They looked at me and they looked at each other, and they turned the $25 million down." Tyson could wait no longer for his chance to regain the title.
Finkel placed one more call to Holyfield to tell him they had just closed on the richest fight in history.
"Fine," replied Holyfield, who insisted that the contract include a clause stating that the winner would make a "best effort" to fight Foreman next spring.
Meanwhile, back in his room at the Carlyle Hotel, Arum was awaiting his contract from Duva. "Like a jerk I waited all afternoon," says Arum. At 3:10 p.m. he phoned Finkel. "I said, 'Where's the fax?' and Shelly said, 'Sorry. We signed with Tyson.' I couldn't believe it."
Though squeezed out, Foreman was philosophical. "I think they both used me to negotiate," he said last Friday from his ranch in Marshall, Texas. "I don't think either guy intended to fight me."
Foreman still has a $10 million deal with HBO for two bouts. Then there's that clause in the Tyson-Holyfield deal. Holyfield is determined to abide by it, saying that if he beats Tyson, he will face Foreman again in April. "I think we both owe him that," says Holyfield. "He was a big part of us getting together."
In the meantime Foreman says he's looking forward to Holyfield-Tyson. "I'm going to buy me six ringside seats, sit back and enjoy it," he says.
Arum is less sanguine. "This is unforgivable, unpardonable," he says. "To use this guy like a fool. It's Machiavellian!"
Arum insists that a deal was closed for a Holyfield-Foreman fight. He also maintains that Foreman's offer from King carried no contingencies. "The only person who's behaved open and aboveboard throughout this deal," says Arum, the wonder plain in his voice, "is King."
Arum promises that Foreman will sue Holyfield and Main Events. "All those guys will be brought to justice," says Arum. "It's not about money right now."
For King, right now, it's about survival. In the end he was forced to accept what was essentially Duva's first offer, though the final details did provide for Tyson to receive 40% of profits above $48 million, with Holyfield receiving 60%. King's share in the promotion will be nominal at best, and he will be unable to claim options on Holyfield's subsequent bouts, a contractual tactic he has often used with other fighters to grab a piece of their future action. Nonetheless, King insists the deal was a success. "I never cease to amaze myself," he said.
In the end, though, it was the boxers who most wanted the match. "I can't wait," Tyson told the New York Post. "This is the fight I wanted."
For Holyfield, the reaction was just as refreshing. Last week he said that he had pondered retirement ever since he won the title. "My goal," he says, "is to retire undefeated—but also to fight the best of my era."
With Tyson as his next opponent, Holyfield will get at least the latter part of his wish. "It is a relief," he says. "Now I don't have to worry. Everything is over. The stage is set."