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The Bite Fight
Tyson, Holyfield, and the Night that Changed Boxing Forever
By George Willis
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 George Willis
All rights reserved.
Third Time's the Charm
It's the fans that make a big fight. They hype it up with their words and finance it with their dollars; they make it glitter with their wardrobes and their own unique style. They debate who will win and they defend their reasons why. They are passionate almost to a fault, understanding the ultimate thrill is to see their warrior render his opponent unconscious. Blood and bruises are expected, if not applauded. That is the essence of the Sweet Science.
It doesn't matter if you're filthy rich or weekend rich, being part of a highly anticipated boxing event can be an orgasmic experience, especially when the coveted world heavyweight championship is on the line.
The Grand Garden Arena at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has become the premiere destination for such events. Since opening on December 18, 1993, it has been host to concerts, award shows, tractor pulls, and beauty pageants. But in terms of sheer anticipation, excitement, and energy, nothing had come close to the excitement that filled the building on November 9, 1996.
Close to 17,000 people — some covered in jewels, some wearing jeans — were all out of their seats standing and cheering as Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield traded punches in the center of a boxing ring. For nine intense rounds, Holyfield, a huge underdog despite being a former heavyweight champion, more than held his own against the heavily favored Tyson, who was defending his WBA heavyweight championship. Tyson thought Holyfield would be easy work, but he was proving to be exactly what his nickname suggested: the Real Deal.
The harder Tyson punched, the harder Holyfield punched back. That's why the crowd was standing. The roars that filled the arena were deafening.
At this point in his life, Tyson had already earned a fortune, lost a fortune, and was now in the process of doing it all over again with little concern about who he faced in the ring. Holyfield was supposed to be another quick payday, a means to collect more cash to spend on houses, cars, women, and jewels. "I'm going to make $30 million Saturday night and sign for another $30 million on Monday," Tyson boasted during the press conference days before the fight.
This first fight between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson had been years in the making. It had been six years since their first fight was canceled and 12 years since they had turned pro. Tyson was originally a 25:1 favorite when the fight was announced, but only a 6:1 favorite when the bell rang to open the first round. Holyfield, a two-time heavyweight champion, was viewed as washed up after three wars with Riddick Bowe and a lackluster showing against the former cruiserweight champion, Bobby Czyz.
But instead of dominating Holyfield as many thought, Tyson was getting battered by the underdog. By the end of the ninth round, Tyson was cut over his left eye and his body and ego were being badly bruised by the determined Holyfield, who was expertly executing a simple game plan. "When he hits me, I'm going to hit him back," Holyfield had said.
That strategy, along with other psychological and technical warfare, had Holyfield winning the bout and ruining Tyson's post-prison comeback, which was being orchestrated by the flamboyant boxing promoter Don King.
Until that night, it had all gone exactly how King scripted it in his genius — for the most part. Tyson's ex-wife, Robin Givens, was long gone, and so too were his former managers, Bill Cayton and Jim Jacobs. Also gone was his longtime trainer, Kevin Rooney, who had molded Tyson's fighting style since he was a troubled teenager living in the Catskills in upstate New York. King had Tyson all to himself now, and his vision to maximize Tyson's earning potential was just getting started.
Three years in an Indiana prison after being convicted of raping Desiree Washington had soured Tyson's mood, but elevated his street cred. Now he was idolized by gangsta rappers and the hip-hop generation. Iron Mike was also now known as "the Baddest Man on the Planet."
He could still knock people out, too. He had wiped out Peter McNeeley in Round 1 of his celebrated comeback fight on August 19, 1995; and after knocking out Buster Mathis Jr. in three rounds the following December, he recaptured the WBC championship by taking out a terrified Frank Bruno in three rounds.
One viable threat to Tyson's supremacy was avoided when Tyson gave up his WBC title instead of fighting the mandatory challenger, Lennox Lewis, a former Olympic champion from England, who was unbeaten. King was not about to risk his hold on the heavyweight championship and its future riches by having Tyson fight the 1988 gold medal winner at Seoul, Korea. At 6950, Lewis was seven inches taller than Tyson and possessed an 84-inch jab that could make it difficult for the stockier Tyson to get inside.
Instead of fighting Lewis, Tyson gave up his WBC belt the same night he knocked out a less-than-imposing Bruce Seldon in one round on September 7, 1996, to capture the WBA heavyweight crown. Owning the WBA or WBC made no difference as long as Tyson had a title and looked invincible.
From the outside looking in, it seemed things couldn't be better for Tyson. But if he thought he was calling the shots on his career, he was wrong. He'd given up that right days before being released from prison when he signed an exclusive promotional agreement with Don King Productions, giving Don King the exclusive right to promote his bouts. King then used the agreement to negotiate exclusive deals with Showtime Network, the MGM Grand, and the Fox Network, deals that would make King a very rich man and Tyson not as rich as he thought.
Within three years, Tyson would file a $100 million lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in New York, charging King with diverting millions of dollars of Tyson's money through accounting manipulations, improper deductions, and reductions in Tyson's potential profit participation.
Tyson, however, was blind to all that when he stepped into the ring to face Holyfield for the first time. He was looking to replenish his bank account for his next spending spree. The $21.5 million King had given him the day he was released from prison was nearly gone. And the millions he made for beating McNeeley, Mathis, Bruno, and Seldon were being spent like sand through the hour glass.
But Holyfield was supposed to be just another easy fight for Tyson. Despite having won the heavyweight title two previous times, the 34-year-old Holyfield was supposed to be washed up.
He had gone 4–3 in the last seven fights and looked awful in his most recent, a close decision over Czyz. Many in the boxing media had suggested it was time for Holyfield to retire. His skills had seemingly diminished and the health of his heart was also in question.
The belief was Holyfield had waited too long to face Tyson. Yet it was a fight that was inevitable since the day they met as youngsters trying to make the 1984 Olympic team. Holyfield would eventually settle for a bronze medal in Los Angeles and become celebrated because of the humble way he accepted being disqualified for hitting after the bell in his semifinal bout.
Tyson lost a box-off to Henry Tillman and didn't make the U.S. squad. But he went on to captivate the sport with his knockout prowess as a professional. Dressed in black trunks, with black shoes, no socks and no robe, he became an instant sensation, revitalizing the heavyweight division if not all of boxing.
"He took no prisoners and showed no mercy," King said. "He was there to seek and destroy. That's what Tyson was in that ring. He deserved the fanfare and became a phenomenon that was second to none."
Tyson and Holyfield were initially scheduled to meet on November 8, 1991, in Las Vegas, with Holyfield defending the undisputed heavyweight championship he won from Buster Douglas and retained by beating George Foreman. Holyfield was supposed to earn $30 million and Tyson $15 million, the biggest payouts ever. But the fight never came off. Tyson was indicted for rape on September 9, 1991, and while awaiting trial would officially pull out of the fight a month later with a rib injury.
The much-anticipated Holyfield-Tyson rivalry was seemingly over before it began. Tyson would spend three years behind bars on a rape conviction he still disputes. With Tyson incarcerated, Holyfield would lose the heavyweight championship to Riddick Bowe, regain it, then lose it again. He was also diagnosed with a heart abnormality that threatened his career. But by 1996, it was time for the inevitable showdown, a bout that was appropriately nicknamed "Finally."
Holyfield knew he was fit enough in mind, body, and spirit to challenge Tyson. But the Nevada Athletic Commission wasn't so sure. Before granting Holyfield a license to fight, it ordered him to undergo a thorough physical and neurological examination at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Even when doctors cleared him with an abnormally strong heart, there were doubts he had the skills to survive against Tyson. Despite being inactive for three years while serving his prison sentence, Tyson seemed more fierce and menacing than ever, knocking out four fighters in less than eight rounds since being released.
Holyfield's own trainers had their doubts as well, considering how bad he looked during his first few weeks of training in Houston, Texas. Gary Bell, an unbeaten heavyweight from Brooklyn, was brought in to mimic Tyson's aggressive style.
Nicknamed "Bring Da Pain," Bell was about three inches taller than the 59100 Tyson, and he didn't hold back while sparring with Holyfield. After one particularly violent session where Bell was the more dominant fighter, co-trainer Tommy Brooks was starting to believe Holyfield might be in over his head. Brooks had fought for the Air Force, coming up as an amateur during the same time that Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Aaron Pryor, and the Spinks brothers, Leon and Michael, were just launching their careers. He eventually turned to training and joined Don Turner as Holyfield's assistant trainer after Holyfield won the title from Buster Douglas. Brooks had seen the best of Holyfield, but he didn't like what he was seeing early in the Houston camp.
"I'm scratching my head thinking we're in a world of shit," Brooks said. "Everybody is saying we're sending this guy to the gas chamber and he's going to get murdered and blah, blah, blah. So one day I was sitting at the house in Houston and I told Evander, 'You're not making the adjustments like we're looking for.'"
Holyfield gave Brooks a half grin and said confidently, "Once you whoop somebody's ass they ain't never going to forget that ass whopping."
Holyfield was talking about a one-round sparring session he had with Tyson during training for the 1984 Olympics. Everyone on the team was intimidated by Tyson and wouldn't spar with him, everyone except for Holyfield. They were matched together for one round, which erupted into such a ferocious battle it prompted the Olympic coaches to halt the session before someone got hurt.
"He ain't ever forgot that and I ain't never forgot that," Holyfield told Brooks. "I'm not scared of him and he knows I'm not scared of him."
Holyfield's lack of fear was evident in the days leading up to the fight, when Tyson and his entourage heckled him with taunts and threats. "I want to hurt him," Tyson said with a menacing grin. "Whether it happens in 30 seconds or 10 rounds, my objective is to hurt him."
Though nearly all the boxing experts were picking Tyson to win easily, there were a few that thought Holyfield might be competitive, including famed Kronk-trainer Emanuel Steward and former-champ Buster Douglas, who scored boxing's biggest upset by knocking out Tyson in Tokyo in 1990. "Tyson is the stronger puncher, but Holyfield is the better boxer and the media isn't giving him enough credit," Douglas said. "It won't be a short fight. It's going to be an exciting fight. Evander is going to fool a lot of people."
Ron Borges, then with the Boston Globe, was the only sportswriter predicting a Holyfield victory. But amid the pessimism of Holyfield's chances was a late groundswell of support from those willing to risk money on the fight. Several huge bets for Holyfield were waged just before the bout, three of $100,000 or more and one of $15,000 by Brooks, who had pooled together money from family members. Holyfield's trainer, who once thought his fighter was "in a world of shit," was now confident of victory. "Once we arrived in Las Vegas, I saw that little swag on him," Brooks said. "I knew we were in the house now."
The game plan Holyfield and his trainers worked on for weeks in Houston was not complicated. First and foremost, Holyfield could not show any signs of intimidation or fear. Secondly, when Tyson punched him, he had to punch him back just as hard if not harder. Third, Holyfield would stay low, keeping Tyson from getting inside and unleashing his powerful uppercuts that had produced many of his 39 knockouts to that point. "Don't let Mike get lower than us," Brooks had told Holyfield repeatedly during his training camp. "When he gets low, you've got to get low right with him and beat him to the punch." And perhaps most importantly, Holyfield had to force Tyson to fight backing up. That meant imposing his will on Tyson.
That strategy was put to an immediate test soon after Gerald and Eddie Levert finished the national anthem and referee Mitch Halpern gave his last-minute instructions. As the bell sounded to begin Round 1, Tyson went to the center of the ring and behind a lazy left jab he fired a thunderous overhand right that landed flush on Holyfield's cheek.
It was a punch that would have finished many of Tyson's previous opponents, and even Holyfield jumped back from its force. He bounced off the ropes before quickly gathering himself and putting his gloves up as Tyson came in for further assault.
A clinch, the first of many during the fight, forced the slender Halpern to step in and separate the heavyweight boxers. It gave Holyfield additional time to recuperate before he announced his presence by firing his own right hand that hit a ducking Tyson on the top of the head. It was the start of a fiercely contested opening round with Tyson throwing straight right hands to the head and uppercuts to the body and Holyfield countering with his own combinations.
By the end of the round, Holyfield was working his game plan. He matched Tyson punch for punch, and stayed as low as his opponent. And when they clinched, Holyfield began walking Tyson back toward the ropes or pushing him off to show he was the stronger fighter.
If Tyson didn't initially know he was in for a long battle, he knew it at the end of the first round. Tyson hit Holyfield with a right hand — left hook combination just after the bell and Holyfield answered with a message-sending straight left of his own.
The first round had gone about as well as could be expected for Holyfield. He had taken Tyson's best punch, showed him he wasn't intimidated and was making him fight backing up.
"All you got to do is stay calm and it's you," Turner told Holyfield in the corner. "You see everything. You're the bully in here. He ain't the bully."
It was clear Holyfield had the more experienced corner. By the time Tyson and Holyfield met, Tyson had split with Rooney, who trained him at the beginning of his pro career until he became the youngest heavyweight champion by beating Trevor Berbick at age 20.
But less than three years later, amidst the turmoil of his marriage to Robin Givens and the expanding influence of Don King, Tyson fired Rooney. The firing came soon after Tyson's 91-second knockout of Michael Spinks, a moment often considered the high point of his career. For his fight with Holyfield, Tyson was trained by Jay Bright, one of his friends he grew up with at Cus D'Amato's home in the Catskills. Bright had little experience training for big-time fights, but Tyson was searching for someone he could trust, while King was looking for someone he could control. With Bright as Tyson's trainer and John Horne and Rory Holloway serving as co-managers, Tyson was in charge of Tyson.
Excerpted from The Bite Fight by George Willis. Copyright © 2013 George Willis. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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