A Tale Of Two Comebacks: The Legend And Legacy Of Mike Tyson Vs. Evander Holyfield

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With thick plates of muscle and hands as lethal as any heavyweight in the business, Mike Tyson was becoming the monster that boxing fans had been craving. In just his first year of fighting, Tyson had amassed 15 wins, all in dominant fashion. In 1986, his second year as a pro, Tyson pummeled Trevor Burbick to win the WBC heavyweight championship. By 1987, Tyson had all the gold at just 20 years of age: the WBC, WBA, and IBF world championships were in his possession and many boxing pundits wondered what could derail the freight train of terror that he was inflicting in the squared circle. 1988 saw Tyson face his toughest test in the disputed lineal champion Michael Spinks. Within 91 seconds, Tyson dispatched of Spinks and was crowned the universally recognized undisputed heavyweight champion. No one could beat Tyson but Tyson himself, but by 1990, that prophetic statement would come to fruition.

With his marriage to Robin Givens disintegrating, and a drug problem — specifically with cocaine — beginning to emerge, Tyson started to unravel. It didn’t help that Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s trainer and father figure, had died several years earlier and many attribute his loss to Tyson losing sight of his career, goals, and responsibilities. In 1990, Tyson faced the underdog Buster Douglas, who many pegged to lose within the first round as many of Tyson’s opponents did. The fight, held in Tokyo, produced one of the biggest upsets of all-time. Although Tyson knocked Douglas to the canvas in the eighth round, Douglas fought back and propelled a brutal combination of strikes to Tyson’s head in the 10th — Tyson didn’t answer the count.

Tyson’s personal life had caught up to him in he ring and he had lost the undisputed championship amidst reports that he had undertrained for the bout and was physically and mentally unprepared to defend his crown.

…It’s How Fast You Get Back Up

With his personal and professional life on the ropes, Tyson attempted to get things back on track. In his first two fights after the Douglas defeat, he quickly disposed of Henry Tillman and Alex Stewart with his trademark first round assaults. Meanwhile, Evander Holyfield — a fan-favorite and one of the best heavyweights in the world — defeated Buster Douglas for the undisputed crown in Douglas’ first title defense. After Tyson’s two successive wins following the upset, a 12-round title eliminator bout was set against dangerous power puncher Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. Ruddock was coming off an impressive win over Michael Dokes, in which he used a clever left uppercut-turned-straight to almost knock Dokes head clean off, as well as a first-round win over Mike Rouse. During this time, Holyfield was set to defend his titles against George Foreman, but the WBC employed legalities to block the bout stating they wanted the champ to fight Tyson first.

Tyson and “Razor” Ruddock fought in March of 1991. Their first fight was supposed to occur while Tyson was still champ, but he had to withdraw from the bout; this time it was the number one and two contenders battling for a shot at Evander’s title. Tyson knocked Ruddock down twice in the fight although one knockdown was actually a trip but still, referee Richard Steele counted it as a fall. Tyson continued to punish “Razor” with lethal combinations, and in the seventh round, he unloaded a six-punch volley that dazed and stumbled his opponent — Steele stepped in and stopped the bout. It was a controversial stoppage, because Ruddock had not been downed and he seemed capable of continuing. The decision sparked a post-fight brawl and Steele had to be escorted from the ring.

Because of the controversy, Ruddock and Tyson would meet one more time to finally settle their score. This time, Tyson would win by unanimous decision and the number one contender was scheduled to face champ Evander Holyfield on November 8, 1991. Tyson wouldn’t get to the bout though, as a training injury to his rib cartilage caused him to withdraw from the fight. Before their fight could be rescheduled, Tyson hit another roadblock: prison.

On February 10, 1992, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape, and the following month he would enter a three-year prison stint that would all but see his championship hopes fade away in the damning waters of a correctional facility bid. It seemed like the Holyfield-Tyson fight that many wanted to see would never happen: Holyfield lost his undisputed championship crown to Michael Moorer in 1994. He retired following the fight.

Comeback Trails Converge

In 1995, the healing process for both Holyfield and Tyson had begun. In March of that year, Tyson — now a devout Muslim — was released from prison. Also that year, Holyfield, who had to retire from boxing due to a heart condition that was discovered after his bout with Michael Moorer, claimed that his condition was healed after he encountered a spiritual healer by the name of Benny Hinn. Holyfield’s first bout back was against Ray Mercer; he won a 10-round decision. The former champion then faced Riddick Bowe in their third matchup, and although he knocked Bowe down during the battle, Bowe would retaliate by knocking Holyfield out in the eighth round. It would be a minor setback for Holyfield.

Tyson was on his own comeback trail. In 1995, he ran through Buster Mathis, Jr. and Peter McNeeley easily. Shortly thereafter, in March of 1996, Tyson regained some gold in the form of the WBC championship when he beat Frank Bruno. In September of that same year, he regained the WBA championship from Bruce Seldon.

Holyfield bounced back from his loss to Bowe with a sixth round knockout of former champion Bobby Czyz, and now the field had been cleared between these two behemoths of the boxing world. Finally, a bout was scheduled between Tyson and Holyfield for Tyson’s WBA title, and the bout was so anticipated it was called just that: Finally. 

Despite Holyfield’s age, and despite the barreling comeback of Tyson, Evander didn’t seem shaken one bit.

”You got to fight him to get his respect, then box him,” Holyfield told the NY Times. ”You got to box him to get him in a corner, then fight him. He’s probably going to hit me, and I’ll drop, but if I hit him, he’ll drop too. He’s not the type of person to get up a lot. Most punchers aren’t accustomed to taking punches.”

On November 9, 1996, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a big fight atmosphere surrounded the two boxers who were destined to meet five years earlier. Tyson came out strong in the first, using his intensity and combinations to try and bully his older opponent. Out of 50 boxing analysts polled, only one had picked Holyfield to win the fight, and the first round did nothing to change that opinion. But then something began to happen. Just like he said in his pre-fight interview, Holyfield did not back down from Tyson, unafraid to get into violent exchanges before backing off and using his traditional boxing skills to thwart the champ’s barrage of leaping left hooks.

Out-boxing Tyson, and willing to go blow-for-blow with the youngest heavyweight champion of all-time, the rounds began accumulating towards Holyfield’s favor, and in the sixth, it looked like Mike was in serious trouble. That trouble compounded when, in the 10th round, Holyfield battered Tyson with a left-right combination that staggered that champ. Holyfield followed up with a bevy of blows which had Tyson stumbling and the fight might had been over had the bell not rung. At the start of the 11th, Tyson tried for the left hook, but it shot sluggish, while Holyfield continued a series of crisp hooks and straights. After one minute of another assault at the hands of the 34-year old veteran and legend, the referee had seen enough — the fight was stopped and “Iron” Mike had lost his title to Evander Holyfield. The MGM Grand arena, having just witnessed a bout for the ages and history in the making, fell into a frenzy.

In defeat, Tyson was gracious. ”Thank you very much. I have the greatest respect for you,” he said to the new champ in a post-fight interview.

The battle between Tyson and Holyfield was so electric — some even saying the finish was a fluke — that a rematch was demanded almost immediately. The fans would get it, but what they would witness would be a different narrative, one of disgust and controversy.

Tarnish & Shine

I was 15 when I watched Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield II, and even then — as a young fan of the sport — I knew something special was happening. The MGM Grand was electric once again, this time even more so than the first battle. The clinch-heavy first round was fought in a phone booth, with Holyfield winning exchanges in the close range, tying up Mike’s power and negating his left hook. In the second round, it was clear that Tyson’s head was snapping back in the clinch when Holyfield would enter his range. Whether they were intentional or not, Holyfield seemed to be head-butting Tyson and “Iron” Mike was cut over his right eye early in the round. Moments later, Tyson was yelling at referee Mills Lane about the headbutts during another clinch with Holyfield. At the end of the second round, it was clear that Tyson’s demeanor was transforming into one of intense anger — it was palpable.

Tyson came out of his corner in the third round with ferocity, throwing haymakers at Holyfield and keeping his distance; his face was twisted with anger, it was apparent that he was infuriated. Tyson seemed to be winning the round with a few power punches connecting to the head of Holyfield, but when they clinched once again — with close to thirty-seconds left in the third — Tyson turned inward and bit down on Holyfield’s ear. The champion jumped in the air, spinning 180 degrees, clutching the assaulted ear and pointing to it. Mills Lane stopped the action but not before Tyson could rush behind Holyfield and shove him against the ropes. Tyson had snapped.

Both men went to their corners, and as blood spurted from the champion’s ear, Tyson looked on and licked his lips like a hyena. Mills Lane deducted one point from Tyson and the fight was restarted for some reason. With the round coming to a close, they clinched again, and Tyson once again bite into Holyfield’s ear. This time, the champion admonished the bite but decided to continue until the round’s end. As a ring girl circled the area with a 4th round card held high, both corner’s rushed the ring and pandemonium burned through the squared circle. Tyson had been disqualified and a chunk of Holyfield’s ear lay on the canvas.

Teddy Atlas, a one-time trainer of Mike Tyson, said he knew all along that he would resort to these kinds of tactics.

“I told you he might bite him, he might head-butt him, he might elbow him. He knew this. That’s why he went forward with this fight. Soon as he saw Holyfield was going to be the same guy and he wasn’t going to be lucky with a punch . . . which he tried . . . then he went in and did this, which he planned to do, to get out.”

The whole incident was ugly. In the aftermath, Tyson was fined $3 million of his purse and his boxing license was revoked. Within days, though, Tyson apologized.

“Evander, I am sorry. You are a champion and I respect that. I am only saddened that this fight did not go further so that the boxing fans of the world might see for themselves who would come out on top.”

Still, even with the apology, the infamous ear bite remains a black mark on the history of the boxing world. Since then, Tyson has apologized numerous times, citing his anger getting the best of him. These days, almost twenty years removed from the incident, Tyson and Holyfield can sit back and laugh about the matter.

Although it ended in ugly fashion, there’s no question that the Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield feud arrested the sports world for a time. The narrative may be that these two heavyweight legends finalized their fights with an ear bite, but many do not remember that this was a tale of two comebacks that went horribly awry. The standard Hollywood ending did not apply here, unless you consider horror films a part of that tapestry. Whichever way you remember this chapter in the legacy of both fighters, chances are that you will never forget it.