Fight #35: Evander Holyfield vs. Mike Tyson 1, November 9, 1996, MGM Grand, Paradise, NV
I have a vivid memory of watching this fight live. Throughout my childhood, whenever there was a big pay-per-view fight, I always asked my Dad if we could watch it. He always said no, quite reasonably, given the cost of watching boxing as a PPV attraction. This is why I did not get to see big fights like Leonard-Hagler or Tyson-Spinks live. I usually watched them the next week when they re-aired on network television or HBO.
When Mike Tyson defended his heavyweight championship against Evander Holyfield in November of 1996, I was a sophomore at George Washington University. It was Rush Week, and my roommate was considering joining a fraternity. I had absolutely no interest in being in a frat, but I saw that as part of Rush Week the fraternity was hosting a screening of the fight for free. So I tagged along for the event. When we got there, it was still a few hours before Tyson and Holyfield were set to make their ring walks. But I looked at the crowd at the frat house and parked myself with the best seat right in front of the television, where the undercard fights were airing. For the next few hours, I fended off several pitches by frat brothers, my focus on the undercard fights. By the time of the main event, the room that was airing the fight was packed, but I still had the seat right in front. My willingness to be solicited to join a frat just to watch a boxing match should have probably tipped me off that I really loved boxing. But it would be many more years before I figured that out.
When this fight aired, Tyson had been out of prison for less than two years following his rape conviction, and had fought four forgettable opponents, winning each time by knockout. Judging by the ratio of white frat boys who were backing Holyfield this night (all but one!) Mike Tyson was the enemy of White America, and apparently the enemy of the viewing audience and the crowd at the MGM Grand that night as well. I would wager that Holyfield was more popular this night than Frazier was the first time he fought Ali, though the comparisons between the fighters pretty much end there. Despite his status as villain, Tyson was a heavy betting favorite, as Holyfield had lost three times since first gaining the heavyweight title over James "Buster" Douglas in 1990, including twice to Riddick Bowe and once to Michael Moorer. We'll see all those fighters later on in this list. In fact, most predicted that Tyson would knock Holyfield out within the first few rounds of the fight.
From the start of this one, that seemed to be exactly Tyson's intention. Within the first five seconds of the fight, he hit Holyfield with a leaping left hook to the side of the head, then followed up with more scoring punches. To blunt the attack, Holyfield opted to hold Tyson whenever he got on the inside. Tyson was a historically great inside fighter, so this was certainly a smart strategy. But Holyfield deployed it so much in this fight that at some point he probably should have had a point taken away from him.
The first four rounds were fairly uneventful. Tyson missed most of his big shots and didn't really put many combinations together. Holyfield held on the inside, and even started pushing Tyson across the ring, in a clear attempt to wear Tyson down physically and mentally. To be honest, Tyson looked a touch out of shape for this fight, and wasn't able to refuse the clinches the way he could have ten years earlier, when he first claimed the heavyweight title as a 20-year-old phenom. Besides the holding, Holyfield also showed some good defensive skills in this fight, slipping a lot of Tyson's punches on the outside and effectively blocking much of Tyson's attack.
Until the fifth round. Early in this stanza, Tyson nailed Holyfield with a hard right to the body followed by a scorcher of a right uppercut. For the first time in the fight, Holyfield took a few steps back. He suddenly looked winded and unsure of himself. Tyson then followed up with additional punches, but the ferocity of the old Tyson wasn't quite there. He won the round handily, but honestly I think it's at this point that a prime Tyson would have knocked Holyfield out. Instead, he merely won the round. He was well in the fight--at this point I had Tyson winning three of the first five rounds--but his inability to finish here must have put some doubt into his mind.
In the sixth round, Holyfield got dirty. Again, Tyson came out and looked initially to be the stronger fighter. Holyfield took care of that by ramming his head against Tyson's, opening up a small gash just above Tyson's left eye that obscured Tyson's vision and made him angry. Then, later in the round, Holyfield hit Tyson with a low blow, unnoticed by the referee who was blocked from seeing the punch. In a fair world, Holyfield would have been docked a point right there. But boxing is never fair, and so the fight continued. An angry Tyson then leapt in with a wild right hand that missed, and Holyfield countered with a hard right uppercut that actually hit Tyson on the chest, but nonetheless sent him tumbling to the canvas because he was off-balance at the time. That 10-8 round put Holyfield up on my card, and he would remain in control for the rest of the fight.
For the next three rounds, Holyfield consistently frustrated Tyson with constant, repetitive holding. He didn't land a lot of meaningful shots, but he was dodging most of Tyson's punches, and Tyson, perhaps enraged by the head butting and low blows, gave up on his combinations and focused on trying to get a one-punch knockout. He never came close. Instead, at the end of the tenth round, Holyfield caught a weary Tyson with a string of straight rights and lefts that had him nearly out on his feet, stumbling back to his corner when the bell sounded. Early in the 11th round, Holyfield resumed the assault, and Tyson retreating to the ropes and all but out, was saved by referee Mitch Halpern, who waved the fight off. One year earlier, Halpern had been heavily criticized for failing to stop a fight in which Gabriel Ruelas was put into a coma from which he never awoke. Holyfield's victory brought joy to a frat party in Washington DC, and marked the crowning achievement of his career.
That night, I also was rooting for Holyfield. Rewatching the fight today, I found myself pulling for Tyson, even knowing the outcome. I do think Holyfield got away with some dirty tactics to turn the tide of the bout. The two would rematch seven months later, but the less said about that, the better. Once Tyson bit off a piece of Holyfield's ear (in continued frustration over Holyfield's actual head butting, let's remember), his career as a top heavyweight was essentially over, but his new career as a burgeoning would-be reality TV star was just beginning.
Today, both Holyfield and Tyson are justly enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, despite Holyfield's late-career connections to steroids, and despite Tyson's...well...everything. Recently Tyson made some cash boxing in an "exhibition" against Roy Jones Jr, and now there are rumors that the 58-year-old Holyfield will face off against the 54-year-old Tyson in another "exhibition." Hard pass.
One other note on this fight: The referee, Mitch Halpern, was just 29 when he served as the third man in the ring for this, his biggest fight. He was scheduled to serve as referee again for the rematch, until Tyson's camp demanded he be replaced by Mills Lane. They were still angry that Halpern had failed to punish Holyfield for his roughhouse tactics in the first fight. Instead, Mills Lane got the nod, and the role of disqualifying Tyson from that fight after Tyson bit off part of Holyfield's ear. That launched Lane into a brief and regrettable career as a television judge in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As for Halpern, well, he committed suicide with a bullet to the head in the year 2000. Dead at the age of 33. Man, boxing.
Here is a video of the fight: