The machinery of menace ground to a halt last Saturday. Just
like that, Mike Tyson's dangerous leer was wiped from his
bloodied face. He wasn't so tough. He wasn't that tough. These
things can be discovered very suddenly. You could almost hear
the clanking in the desert air, the train cars piling into one
another as this engine of fear was wrenched to a standstill.
An economic empire had been built on Tyson's ability to paralyze
opponents as much with his dark stare as with his ripping
uppercut. Four times since his release from prison in March
1995, he had immobilized a foe, the job done long before the two
boxers entered. It was a little disappointing, of course, when a
so-called heavyweight champion fainted at the whiff of a left
hook, as Bruce Seldon did two months ago. Still, these bouts had
a perverse entertainment value. They were no longer sport. They
were a spectacle of humiliation. And the promoters, even the
fighter himself, smirked over the disturbing secret of their
box-office power. "Thirty million a whop," Tyson said smugly. To
see a guy give up his manhood.
It was a hateful thing, but there was no stopping it. The
heavyweights were lined up from here to there. Tyson, untested
in these four fights, was nevertheless assigned the ability to
destroy all comers. The quickness of his bouts guaranteed his
invincibility. There was no question that Evander Holyfield,
too, would be run over on Saturday at Tyson's home court casino,
the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Perhaps Holyfield's confidence would
not be shattered, as the others' had been, but he was certain to
be consumed by Tyson's terrible force.
In fact, various agencies had worked mightily to diminish their
culpability in the event of the worst-case calamity. The Nevada
State Athletic Commission forced Holyfield, who was once told
that he had a heart condition, to go through a battery of
medical exams. A pay-per-view retailer offered its customers a
by-the-round price so that fans would not blame cable TV too
much for another one-round blowout.
November 18, 1996
Holyfield, 34, though used up by years of hard fighting and only
4-3 in his last seven bouts, was nonetheless an overachiever who
might endure just long enough to offer the fans a colorful
palette of gore in the WBA title bout. Tyson, 30, apparently
stronger and stronger as his comeback progressed, would cut
through this man whom he had been picked to beat when this bout
was scheduled to take place five years ago, then postponed by a
training injury to Tyson and later canceled by Tyson's rape
conviction. As late as the boxers' walk to the ring on Saturday
night, there was nothing to make you feel that Holyfield could
join Muhammad Ali as the only three-time world heavyweight
champion. Holyfield sauntered in to a soft ballad, singing along
quietly. Tyson, preceded by his professional yeller, Crocodile,
arrived at a gallop. He gave the impression of barely controlled
anger, a desire to hurt that had found a satisfying and legal
Not even what had happened in Tokyo six years ago, when an
out-of-shape Tyson succumbed to Buster Douglas, prepared you for
what happened next. Douglas-Tyson, called one of the biggest
upsets in sports history, can always be explained away by
Tyson's lack of conditioning and desire. In this bout he
suffered no lapse of preparation, no diminished lust for violence.
Tyson and Holyfield met in the center of the ring at the opening
bell and engaged in the kind of furious combat that no
heavyweight fight fan had seen in years. They swung wildly and
then collapsed into clinches, shoved each other away and finally
resumed battle as the cycle began again. It was breathtaking,
especially when it became clear that Holyfield would not be
flattened by Tyson's straight-ahead fusillades. Suddenly
Holyfield, the built-up cruiserweight, seemed formidable at 215
pounds, his 77 1/2-inch reach putting him out of range of
Tyson's 71 inches.
In the second round Holyfield, who is not known as a big
puncher, hit Tyson with a left hand that seemed to stagger him.
At the end of the round Tyson paused on his way to his corner
and looked at Holyfield as if puzzled. In fact he was, as he
admitted later, "blacked out." The fight went eight more rounds,
until referee Mitch Halpern stopped it less than a minute into
the 11th, but afterward Tyson could recall none of them. For
everyone else the bout was unforgettable. Holyfield's constant
pressure was a welcome sight after the weak-kneed efforts of
Tyson's previous opponents, but the challenger was providing
something more than action. By crowding in, he was taking away
Tyson's hook, which is more effective from outside, and
generally he was keeping Tyson too occupied to put together more
than two punches.
Tyson was always a threat, of course, and in the fifth round he
unleashed a right to Holyfield's body and an uppercut to his
chin, reminding everyone of his power. But Tyson was plainly
befuddled, strangely ineffective. The two fighters would clash,
tie up and get broken apart by the referee, and there Holyfield
would be, still standing in front of Tyson.
Later Tyson would say he remembered nothing from the third round
on. Not the sixth round, when Holyfield opened a small cut above
Tyson's left eye with an unintentional head butt and then decked
him with a left hand as 16,325 people chanted Holyfield's name.
Tyson was definitely in trouble. In the seventh he kept looking
to Halpern, complaining about head-butting. And later in that
round he rushed Holyfield face-first and inadvertently smashed
his left eye into Holyfield's shaved head. Tyson gasped in pain,
stood straight up and appealed to the ref again.
A sense that Holyfield really could win swept the crowd, and
chants of "Let's go, Mike!" were squashed by choruses of
"Holy-field!" Tyson tried trading punches with Holyfield in the
10th, but that turned ugly for him when Holyfield hit him with a
powerful combination, followed shortly by a right to the head
and, with eight unanswered punches, backed him into the ropes.
In all, Holyfield hit Tyson 23 times in the 10th. It had been a
long time since anyone had seen Tyson saved by the bell.
The fight was effectively over, but it went 37 seconds into the
11th round, when a big right to Tyson's head slammed him into
the ropes again and Halpern embraced him in protection. "I don't
remember that round," Tyson would say. "I got caught in
Tyson, though dangerous even in his cloudy state, was completely
dominated by a fighter who had been, by the consensus of the
boxing world, shot. Tyson's attempts to bore in were preempted
by right hands from Holyfield. "I've been watching him for years
and years," said Holyfield, who goes back with Tyson to the
early '80s, when the two were fighting as amateurs. "And when he
dips and throws a left hook, either you get hit or you hit him
first with a right hand. You have to beat him to the punch."
In truth, though, that didn't seem a masterpiece of strategy. It
had long been observed that by hitting Tyson first you could
make him pause, derail his reflexes a bit. But his fists were so
fast and his power so enormous that making him pause briefly
only delayed the inevitable briefly.
Outcomes such as Saturday's are a mystery. They cannot be
explained by ring adjustments or training procedures. It's true
that before this fight Holyfield worked much longer than he
usually does, up to 16 weeks instead of the normal six or so,
and much smarter, employing a Tyson look-alike named Gary Bell
for quick-burst sparring. But there's no reconciling Holyfield's
performance with his increasingly uneven career, which had many
of his followers calling for his retirement.
Shelly Finkel, who quit as Holyfield's manager when Holyfield
refused to hang up the gloves after losing his title to Michael
Moorer in 1994, said last week that there were only two types of
fighters who could beat Tyson: big punchers and big men.
Holyfield is neither. "But he has a great ability to
rationalize," Finkel said. "I believe he believes he will find a
way in the ring."
Moorer's trainer, Teddy Atlas, who helped train Tyson during
Tyson's amateur days, said three days before Saturday's bout
that Holyfield rationalizes too much and too often. Referring to
Holyfield's contention that "a tiny hole" in his heart,
diagnosed by doctors after the Moorer fight (a diagnosis later
reversed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and
the Emory Clinic in Atlanta), was cured by televangelist Benny
Hinn, Atlas said, "No offense to anyone's beliefs, but that does
say something about the guy's ability to deal with reality."
Atlas was also concerned about Holyfield's mileage. His three
fights with Riddick Bowe were wars and might have taken their
toll. "I hate to say this," Atlas continued, "but he looked
almost talentless in his last fight, against Bobby Czyz [last
May]. I have a lot of wonderment about what I didn't see in that
fight." The Nevada commission wondered enough to run Holyfield
through the Mayo Clinic but, as reluctant as it was to permit
this bout, had to go along with the clinic's findings, which
showed Holyfield to be in good health.
Holyfield was unperturbed by the fuss. He is literally a
self-made man, having built himself into a heavyweight, and
consequently he has a calm confidence that he can perform any
task put before him. Also, he has a faith in God that can be
maddening to those who believe God might not be a boxing fan in
general or a Holyfield fan in particular. "This fight is
blessed," he said five days before the bout, meaning Evander
Holyfield is blessed.
Holyfield believes that his boxing success is a good platform
from which to spread the gospel. Before Saturday he believed
that people would watch the fight thinking, I want to see what
God is going to do for him against Tyson. "I will beat Mike
Tyson," Holyfield told one interviewer. "There is no way I
cannot, if I just trust in God. God is that good."
If this faith is irksome to some--Tyson, for example, wondered
why God would shine on one side of the street and not the
other--it can be comical to others. During the Philadelphia
revival meeting at which he allegedly healed Holyfield's heart,
Hinn also told the divorced Holyfield that his future wife was
at the same meeting. Sure enough, Janice Itson, who was there,
became Holyfield's wife last month. They share his
54,000-square-foot house in suburban Atlanta, the care of his
six children and, apparently, simple tastes. After they were
married in a small private ceremony, they celebrated with dinner
In the end it seemed things other than Holyfield's religious
faith were at the core of his success in this fight.
Principally, there was Holyfield's huge-hearted determination.
He prays a lot, but he doesn't leave it at that. His work ethic
is renowned, his capacity for concentration phenomenal. And he
has focused on Tyson almost his whole boxing life.
Holyfield says he knew in 1984, when he and Tyson were trying to
make the U.S. Olympic team, that they were destined to meet in
the ring. Back then Tyson was the heavyweight sensation and
Holyfield the light heavyweight. As they stormed through the
ranks, it was natural to wonder if they'd ever fight each other.
Holyfield's respect and affection for Tyson date back to that
time. He recognized the lisping 17-year-old as an outcast, a
little like himself, the Georgian everybody called Country. Both
fighters were ridiculed by the other Olympic hopefuls.
Holyfield, however, saw how hard Tyson worked--"Nobody worked
harder," he says. He befriended Tyson and, on one memorable day,
sparred with him. That session was cut short when the coach saw
how hard they were going at each other.
Tyson became the more famous fighter, and although Holyfield
became wealthy from bouts against George Foreman and Bowe, among
others--earning more than $100 million--he always yearned to
prove himself against the man he considered the best. "When Mike
went away, I lost my desire," he said after the bout, referring
to Tyson's three years in jail. "After that, nobody really got
me up to fight." With Tyson back, the desire was rekindled.
But what of Tyson? He is proving to be increasingly mysterious.
There's still the fierce persona that he trots out from time to
time. He'll show selected interviewers--Roseanne, for
instance--his Nevada house, with its statues of Genghis Khan and
Hannibal, and for the sake of news footage he'll roughhouse with
his pet white tiger, Kenya, who weighs more than 200 pounds. But
another side to him is growing dominant. In a wide-ranging
discussion with boxing writers in Las Vegas four days before the
fight against Holyfield, Tyson was relaxed, more pragmatic than
pathological, almost suburban.
He can change diapers in a pinch, he said, but otherwise he
isn't sure what kind of father he can be to three daughters,
including one with his girlfriend, Monica Turner, a graduate of
Georgetown University's medical school. "I know I've got to tell
them what I did was bad," he said, "but I'm not looking forward
to looking like an ass in front of my kids." He is becoming the
kind of citizen who boasts that he is the first generation of
his family not on welfare. Yet as a paroled felon, he can't vote
or escape his past. He can't make sense of that past, either.
"I'd like to think I was the way I was because of financial
reasons," said Tyson, "and I'd like to think it was because of
environmental reasons, but I don't really believe that."
He is clearly at odds with himself. Sitting in promoter Don
King's house in Vegas, with Mozart piano music playing in the
background, he didn't seem like much of a monster. He was just a
guy who was stretched a little thin. His pride in his
achievements couldn't quite crowd out the disappointments of his
past. He said his life is over; from now on it's just a matter
of providing for his children. He seemed tired. "All I know is
that Saturday I'll pick up $30 million," he said, "then Monday
I'll sign up for another $30 million."
It was a joyless approach. "I'm just here to render my
services," he said. That was before Saturday, when his life got
a little less joyful.
Well, someday he will surely sign up for another $30 million,
perhaps in a rematch with Holyfield, who earned $11 million on
Saturday and stands to make more by fighting Tyson again than by
taking on any other opponent. But after losing the fight, Tyson,
his forehead bruised purple, suddenly seemed a pitiful sight,
almost as frightening in his new mortality as he had been in his
invincibility. Turned out he wasn't monstrous at all--just
another working stiff, just a guy who might not like his job so
much anymore. Asked if he would come back from this defeat, he
spread his hands and said he had to. "I make so much money to
fight," he said, "how can I not come back?"
It seemed like a question he had already asked himself, not
liking the answer then, either.