The money counted and the tents folded, the circus finally left
town. There's a lot of cleanup left and the ringmaster has a few
things to answer for, but the fun is over. As it happened, the
chief attraction pretty much exploded in front of everybody last
Saturday night and is not likely to be of much further interest
to these yokels. You can see the train pulling away, gaining
necessary speed, it seems to us, chugging away into history, or
maybe just into another town.
It was quite a stand, though. A convicted rapist of undeniable
ferocity but unknown resolve, Mike Tyson was prodded through a
sordid little act for two years, providing some thrills for the
customers. You could watch him pound Peter McNeeley and Bruce
Seldon senseless and imagine yourself in a whole other epoch.
What else could the point have been? The townsfolk gladly paid
him and his promoters more than $135 million just to watch a
cleverly staged diorama of prehistoric time.
But after this sixth bout following his release from prison,
after he spun out of his handlers' control and became more
menace than is good for family entertainment, it was time to
move on. Watching him bite Evander Holyfield's ears, actually
chewing off and spitting out a piece, as he did in their
rematch, was to be plunged farther back in our evolution than is
comfortable for anybody.
It will be a long time before boxing recovers from this horror.
Tyson, who had been knocked out by Holyfield last November, was
desperate to restore his mystique. The circus wasn't much good
without his threat of brutality. Still it became clear early in
this event that his World Boxing Association heavyweight title
would not be easily recaptured. Holyfield, who had been a
surprise story in the original upset, was still the stronger man
and the better boxer, at least through two rounds. The action
was distinguished by a lot of wrestling to that point, with
Holyfield smartly nullifying Tyson's power. Tyson didn't unload
many of the big overhand rights that he had featured in all his
previous fights, and except for one crashing blow to Holyfield's
ribs, he mustered little attack.
July 6, 1997
Tyson's frustration grew, as he uncharacteristically complained
to the ref about a head butt in the second round that opened a
nasty gash above his right eye. Then in the third round, with
competing chants of "Holyfield" and "Tyson" rolling over the
sold-out crowd of 16,331 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las
Vegas, he either suffered some kind of breakdown or orchestrated
his own strange defeat.
Nobody knew for sure what he had on his mind when he came out
for the round, but it is interesting to note that he tried to
begin it without his mouthpiece. Holyfield pointed it out, and
Tyson was forced to return to his corner and retrieve it.
With less than a minute left in the round, and with no apparent
provocation, Tyson got Holyfield in a clinch, rolled his head up
and above Holyfield's shoulder and spit out his mouthpiece. What
happened next was amazing, assuming you could believe your eyes.
Tyson's mouth reached Holyfield's right ear and with a savagery
that went well beyond what even his promoter could market, Tyson
crunched down hard with his teeth and took a chunk right off. It
was no saving grace that Tyson spit it out.
It was impossible to understand what had just occurred.
Holyfield hopped up and down and spun 360 degrees in pain,
action that was mighty strange if you hadn't seen Tyson just get
a mouthful. While referee Mills Lane tried to sort this out,
Tyson compounded the insanity by rushing Holyfield from behind
and shoving him. Holyfield, shoved and bleeding from an ear, was
well past mystified. Everybody was.
Lane deducted two points from Tyson and let the bout proceed,
which it did with exactly the wild fury you would expect. Maybe
this could be sorted out later. As the action resumed, the two
settled down and fought into another clinch. Seconds later Tyson
found Holyfield's left ear, biting again with clear intention.
He had sampled the whole set! There was no way to reconcile what
was happening with human behavior, or even boxing. Tyson had
somehow, in his frustration, in a defeat that may have been
ordained in his own mind, run amok on the world's greatest stage.
"I was ready to tackle him, throw him down, do something that
would get me disqualified," Holyfield said later.
(Interestingly, in Holyfield's 1996 autobiography, he recalls
spitting out his mouthpiece and biting an opponent on the
shoulder during a Golden Gloves bout when he was 17. No points
were deducted, and Holyfield lost the match.)
Could that have been what Tyson had in mind? Was this simply
some poorly thought-out instigation, some kind of plan? If so,
he neglected to consider that, win or lose, he would be branded
an animal, with people recoiling from him in horror. With those
two chomps, intentional or inspirational, he had become exactly
the monster everybody suspected he was. Too much monster for
even boxing's good.
Too much monster for this fight. Lane, for one, had seen enough.
"One bite, maybe, is bad enough," he said in his Western twang,
"but two bites is the end of the search."
The chaos was immediate, with Tyson twice rushing toward
Holyfield's corner, and swinging at the police, who had quickly
stormed the ring. The champion's handlers were smug over Tyson's
raging frustration. "A typical bully move," said Tommy Brooks,
who assisted Holyfield's training. "He'd had him all to himself
in the ring, but now with 15 people behind him, he suddenly
wants to fight. A coward."
The ugliness was infectious, spreading through the stands and
into the night. After Jimmy Lennon Jr. read the
once-in-a-lifetime decision ("Referee Mills Lane has
disqualified Mike Tyson for biting Evander Holyfield on both his
ears"), Tyson was showered with empty and half-empty cups.
Police were busy dragging people out of the stands. Hours later
the MGM hotel lobby, around the corner from the arena, was still
a kind of war zone, with fights, fainting women, unconfirmed
reports of gunfire and panicky stampedes.
Holyfield, laughing and joking later at the Valley Hospital
Medical Center in Vegas, seemed the least affected by what had
transpired in the ring. Luckily, a ring attendant had shown up
at his dressing room with almost an inch of his right ear
wrapped in a latex glove. So instead of attending the postfight
press conference, Holyfield went to the hospital, where he
endured a 20-minute procedure to repair the ear. "It was told to
me by the prophets," he said after the surgery, "that the fight
was going to be short, but that there'd be some distractions."
Then he called his kids at home in Atlanta and inquired how
three of his children did at their track meet. As a parting shot
at Tyson, all he could muster was this: "I still love Mike; it's
just those demons that possess him and make him do things. He
needs to find a new savior."
Holyfield's equanimity will become storied, as will his
comeback. At age 34, after a retirement and a comeback that was
so unimpressive that promoter Don King chose him as cannon
fodder for Tyson, Holyfield is in a position to unify the
championship. Besides more paydays like the $35 million he
earned on Saturday, he has more opportunities to spread his
gospel and do some marketing, each with the same zeal. It is
hard to imagine how much more gusto he'll put into the selling
of his new line of Warrior sportswear now that he has time on
his hands; even last week, he was flitting all about Las Vegas,
signing shirts and hawking merchandise.
The real story, however, will belong to Tyson, who is perhaps
more interesting in defeat than he ever was in victory. It is
clear now, after two failed attempts against Holyfield, that he
will never be the fighter he was before he went to prison in
1992. The knockout loss to Holyfield in November could be
chalked up to overconfidence, but Tyson's ineffectual attempt to
outbox him this time around can only spell his doom. At just 31,
he is used up. Without his intimidation, which had no impact on
the first durable opponent in his comeback, he is lost.
Surprisingly, for all that went on Saturday night, he invites
more pity than scorn. The lights hadn't gone out on the canvas
before the easy jokes began to resound. He had been selected
Sportsman of the Ear. He was going to be matched with Hannibal
Lecter. And so on. He will become the stuff of monologues. But
watching him leave the evening, unsure if he would be fined and
suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, be sued by
Holyfield or have his probation revoked because he threw punches
at police inside the ring, was to feel sorry for him. It was
easy to lament his miserable exploitation, the winking hints of
his rehabilitation, the trotting out of one very unhappy person
to satisfy the yokels' curiosity.
Exposed beyond argument, his rage was magnificent and horrible
at once. This was the proudest warrior of his time, reduced to
biting ears and pushing from behind. His struggle to make sense
of it was just as pitiful. Complaining about a head butt, which
Lane had declared unintentional, Tyson said outside his dressing
room, "What am I to do? This is my career. I have children to
raise. I have to retaliate." Pointing to a gash above his right
eye, he said a very unwarriorlike thing. "Look at me. My kids
will be scared of me."
He did not stick around to answer the obvious questions (what
will Holyfield's kids think of their dad's scarred ears?) but
rushed away in a cobalt Range Rover, his putative co-manager,
John Horne, at the wheel. The last we see of Mike Tyson on
Saturday night, the car is blocked by a limo in a driveway
outside the MGM, a fight fan calls him a chump and Tyson curses,
struggling with the door handle, telling him, "You m-----------,
I'll kill you!" A policeman pushes the door shut, and the car
speeds onto the strip, south into the night.
The saddest part is not this impotent rage but the sure
knowledge that Tyson understood his promotional fraudulence and
suspected how total his failure had been. There had been no
conviction behind his return, no grasp for greatness, just a
commercial opportunity. His base brutality, most of it a memory
but some of it enacted against feeble opponents, was paraded in
the center ring for all to see.
Fight by fight, though, it became apparent that Tyson was
growing aware of this manipulation. The first time around, on
his way to a championship by age 20, there was a sense of
urgency to nail titles and grab money before he exploded. And he
did explode, the rape being the most obvious aspect of his
headlong descent into a world of consumption and arrogance.
The second time around, after a prison sentence that seemed to
both mature and embitter Tyson, King ushered him along in
similar haste, gathering paydays and titles without regard for
real competition or Tyson's supposed place in the game. It was
all about money, pay-per-view hits, hotel contracts. Even Tyson,
whose pride and integrity had never been questioned, began to
understand that he was part of a sellout.
How many times, in his defiance, had he pointed to his wealth?
On the Monday before the fight, after King had begged for him to
meet with writers, Tyson again sounded the familiar notes of the
suburban dad, a guy who does a day's work, gets paid and goes
home to the kids. His kids' welfare is particularly important to
him. "I had an alcoholic and a pimp for parents," he said. But
his kids have a "fighter who's rich" to take care of them.
"They're going to have a great life."
He had finally married Monica Turner this year to consolidate
his growing family, and although he didn't let on that she was
that big a part of his life, there was a sense that he finally
had something to sacrifice for. And if the sacrifice was his
integrity as a boxer, that seemed acceptable to him. He was
willing to market himself for the greater good of his wealth,
his family, even at the expense of a more reasoned career path.
"I want to take the punches so they don't have to take the
He even recounted a revelation provided by a boyhood friend he'd
seen recently, a guy now on the skids. The man told Tyson that
his brother had made a huge score. Tyson, intrigued, wondered
how. The man said that his brother had a family and a job. Tyson
was surprised. "Now that," Tyson said, "is doing good."
At the same time, though, he was protective of his loneliness,
saying, "I have no friends." He seemed to wallow in self-pity,
railing at the media, which make him out to be a "monster,"
which have no love or respect for him. King and Horne and
co-manager Rory Holloway served their purposes, but nothing
more. Nobody was allowed in his life without a purpose.
When it came right down to it, he said, he felt a kinship with
the tragic heavyweight Sonny Liston. "It may sound morbid and
grim," said Tyson of the man who lost his title to Muhammad Ali,
"but I pretty much identify with that life." He didn't mean
Liston's heroin habit or even his defeats, just his loneliness.
"I think he wanted people to respect and love him, and that
never happened. You know what I mean?"
He added, as his colleagues and supplicants squirmed alongside
him, that "basically I've been taken advantage of my whole life.
I've been abused, I've been dehumanized, I've been humiliated
and I've been betrayed."
He is so tragically conflicted--he wants to be the wholesome dad
he never had; he wants to be Sonny Liston--that it's a wonder he
didn't unravel before this. It's not pleasant to have a chunk of
each of your ears bitten, but it may be sadder still to feel
your only way out is to bite someone else's.
Now it's over. He can still fight--and apparently wants to, as
his profuse public apology on Monday made clear--though not as
well as Holyfield. It wouldn't take a promoter half as smart as
King to market someone as skilled as Tyson still is. But that's
not the point any longer. He had a good little run, a lot of
people made money, but nobody wants to see this kind of misery
made public. Whatever happens next is best played out behind the
tent's closed flaps, in some other town.