A MATCH TO SINK HIS TEETH INTO
June 30, 1997
A heavyweight bout between Mike Tyson and current champ Evander Holyfield turned ugly when Tyson bit a chunk of cartilage out of Holyfield's ear. Paul Solman examines this strange twist and the effect it will have on public support for boxing.
JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, what now and next for boxing and Happy Birthday to Lena Horne. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston has the boxing story.
PAUL SOLMAN: Saturday night in Las Vegas, a dream re-match for the heavyweight championship of the world. Reigning champ and 34-year-old proud Hero Evander Holyfield against the man he took the crown from, convicted felon and crowd villain, Iron Mike Tyson, who turned 31 today. The fight began conventionally enough. It ended in surrealism. This fight was supposed to help return boxing to its glory days when Muhammad Ali enthralled the world with his skills and personality, his ability to promote his latest match-up as the fight of the century.
MUHAMMAD ALI: And all knees shall fall when I get the gorilla in Manila.
PAUL SOLMAN: For all the brutality in their sport, heavyweights like Ali and George Foreman, like many before them, had become American folk heroes. And then in the 1980's, along came Mike Tyson. A street hood from Brooklyn as a kid, Tyson soon became a great boxer, the youngest ever to win the world heavyweight championship at age 20.
REPORTER: Mike, you think you'll be able to handle prison time, Mike?
PAUL SOLMAN: But in 1992, a rape conviction put him behind bars for three years. Boxing was without its most menacing, most famous box office attraction. So when Tyson left prison and began winning again in 1995, there was new hope, and when he lost to former Olympic and world champion Evander Holyfield last year, it only fueled interest in Saturday's re-match. Saturday's fight began with Holyfield winning rounds one and two, but in the second, the men butted heads, opening a gash over Tyson's right eye. He cried foul. The ref said it was an accident. Then in round three Tyson did the unimaginable--chewing through a piece of Holyfield's right ear and spitting it into the ring. He was penalized and warned. Seconds later, he bit the champ's left ear. When the ref disqualified Tyson, he went wild, even swinging at police officers trying to restrain him. After the fight, Holyfield had this to say.
EVANDER HOLYFIELD, WBA Heavyweight Champion: The whole thing is just the easy way to get out of the fight, to foul, because you know you're gonna get disqualified instead of fighting ghrough. That don't show no courage whatsoever. Everybody knows how to get out of the fight. All you have to do is foul. You'll get yourself out and then you can say, well, he didn't beat me.
PAUL SOLMAN: Tyson, still visibly upset, gave his side of the story.
MIKE TYSON, Former Heavyweight Champion: And as soon as he butt me, I watched him. He had me holding and he looked right at me, and I saw him, and he kept going, and he butted me again. He kept going down and coming up, and he charged into me, and no one warned him; no one took any points, what happened. What am I do to? This is my career? I can't continue getting butted like that. I got children to raise. This guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I got to retaliate.
PAUL SOLMAN: President Clinton, an admitted boxing fan, had his own reaction.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I saw the fight, and until what happened, it was a good fight. And I was horrified by it. And I think the American people are.
PAUL SOLMAN: While newspapers across the country wallpapered their front pages with the fight, Tyson faces possible suspension and a fine of up to $3 million, which would still leave $27 million for the fight. Holyfield is due for reconstructive surgery on his ear and will make $35 million, and Showtime will rebroadcast the fight on July 7th.
PAUL SOLMAN: Finally, about an hour ago, Tyson apologized.
MIKE TYSON: Saturday night was the worst night of my professional career as a boxer. I'm here to apologize today, to ask the people to expect more from Mike Tyson, to forgive me snapping in the ring, and doing something that I've never done before and will never do again. I apologize to the world, to my family, and to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, I just--I just snapped and reacted and did what many athletes have done, and have paid the price for it. You have seen it in basketball with fist fights on the floor, in baseball with riots on the field, and even spitting in the face of an official. For an athlete, in the heat of battle, to suddenly lose it, it's not new, but it's not right, and for me, it doesn't change anything. I was wrong, and I expect to pay the price like a man.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now to discuss the implications of all this we're joined by Bert Sugar, a sportswriter and boxing historian, and Steve Buckley, a sports columnist for the Boston Herald. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Mr. Buckley, what does the fight and the apology say about boxing?
STEVE BUCKLEY, Boston Herald: The apology says nothing to me because there was a prepared statement. And I find it ludicrous that he would bring in Robby Alamar's spitting incident last year.
PAUL SOLMAN: That's in baseball.
STEVE BUCKLEY: In baseball. What the fight proves is something I've felt for a long time, and I may be in the minority--I don't know--is I think boxing is a sham. I put it right down there with maybe not the outcome but the whole pageantry and everything that goes into it. I put it right down with professional wrestling and roller derby. And with all the training that we sportswriters have, what are we talking about? We're talking about a man that bit another man's ear. I find it reprehensible.
PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Sugar, how do you respond to that? You've been a sportswriter and boxing writer for a very long time.
BERT SUGAR, Boxing Historian: Well, the first part of his statement I agree with. I think the apology excused everything but the attack on Pearl Harbor. I mean, it was just--they swept everything in. As to boxing being down there with roller derby at its best moments, no, it is a beautiful sport. At its worst moments, he's right. But boxing is--has rules. Society has rules. You must adhere to those rules. You can't do what Mike Tyson did, and I think that he was wrong. Apologies don't wash it out, and boxing--well, it'll go on. It has suffered black eyes, black ears, whatever, throughout its history. It is traditionally a great sport. It is sociologically a way for the kids to get out of the ghetto, barrio, tenement, whatever. This was terrible. This was reprehensible. This was beyond it.
PAUL SOLMAN: Is it a legitimate sport anymore, Mr. Buckley?
STEVE BUCKLEY: The sport is. What's happened to the sport is not. In terms of getting out of the barrio, the ghetto, and all this, keep in mind that pro football, pro basketball, hockey, there are so many more venues now for kids to escape to from these places.
PAUL SOLMAN: Right.
STEVE BUCKLEY: And I don't think boxing is getting the greatest athletes anymore. The problem I have with boxing--the problem I have with boxing is that they can take any event and through clever marketing and TV and Pay-Per-View and all that, they can make it something far more than what it is. This Tyson McNeely thing a few years back was an absolute embarrassment.
PAUL SOLMAN: What do you mean by that?
STEVE BUCKLEY: Tyson coming out of jail and fighting Peter McNeely, who is a ham-and-egger--turning it into a big comeback fight--if that was another sport, the athlete in question would be doing some kind of rehabilitation project in the minor leagues and getting his game back in sync, as opposed to turning it into a big world event.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, are you suggesting it's fake? I mean, if you're comparing it to roller derby.
STEVE BUCKLEY: Oh, no, it's not fake. I don't think that the outcome is fake, though that's certainly been in question a number of times. I can name lots of fights that I've seen where the setup of the fight has been in question. The outcome is never in doubt. I covered a Marvin Haggler fight once. I forget who he was supposed to fight before he beat Alan Minter for the Middleweight title in 1980. The opponent he was to have fought bowed out from some injury or something. All of a sudden they line up Bobby Boogaloo Watts, and they term it a grudge match because he had beaten Haggler earlier in his career, and--now it's a big grudge match. And it's what they make of it. We all knew Haggler was going to win. That was never in doubt. It's what they turned it into that I found.
PAUL SOLMAN: So somewhat fake, I mean, in the sense of--
STEVE BUCKLEY: The outcome was in doubt, but you kind of knew who was going to win. It wasn't like it was predetermined, but this was a farce, this particular fight, and I've seen too many of those over the years.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, Mr. Sugar, what do you like about boxing?
BERT SUGAR: Well, I'm asking Mr. Buckley--while he looks at pro-basketball and pro-football as a way out--I don't see every kid standing in the doorway, asking to get out seven foot tall or three hundred and ten pounds. Boxing does have aspects. I appreciate your point. I said you overstated it. I love boxing. I love mano a mano. If you have a little boy, at the age of one he balls up his fist. If you have a little girl, at the age of one she cries. It's primordal. It's there, and at its best, it's balletic. At its worst--
PAUL SOLMAN: Poetic?
BERT SUGAR: Balletic, not poetic.
PAUL SOLMAN: Balletic. So like a ballet. How do you explain--
BERT SUGAR: Sugar Ray Leonard. Muhammad Ali--some of these fighters--Sugar Ray Robinson--were brilliant and beautiful to watch. At its worst it is a brutal, horrible sport, but let me just go to another point Mr. Buckley made. America's into pageantry. They don't call the Super Bowl a football game. It's the Super Bowl. And 1984 was the last time the American Football Conference won. It's still a big game. Yes, there is something in football that evens it up. It's called the point spread. So it doesn't matter who wins as long as you bet with the bookies and have the right points. But it's not just a game. It is "the" game. It's an event. Americans buy events. I love the trapping. A heavyweight championship fight, an event.
PAUL SOLMAN: So how important is pageantry then? This is pageantry; this isn't sport. Or I take it that that's part of what--
STEVE BUCKLEY: I misunderstood. I thought I came here to talk sports tonight. Now we're talking events, and I think what Mr. Sugar did was make my point for me, is that you can take anything and put it inside that ring, aim the cameras at it, turn it into an event, have Pay-Per-View audiences, bring in Sly Stallone and Michael Keaton and all the celebrities, and--
PAUL SOLMAN: Who were sitting ringside.
STEVE BUCKLEY: --turn up the volume and make it an event. And I submit that many of these events are nothing of the kind.
PAUL SOLMAN: Nothing of the kind in the sense of being sporting events.
STEVE BUCKLEY: In the sense of being important, in the sense of being compelling, in the sense of being historic. Was what we saw Saturday night historic? I don't think so.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, I mean, it was certainly unusual.
STEVE BUCKLEY: It was historic in the sense that we're all laughing at it now. And why are we sitting here now discussing the future of boxing--and by the way--given my own designs, I get rid of the sport because I think it's barbaric, but why are we sitting here now discussing the future of boxing because a guy bit a guy's ear off? Shouldn't we have done it a few years back? It happens all the time where guys get killed inside the ring. Isn't the right platform to be discussing the future of boxing and not this nonsense?
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, so Mr. Sugar, should boxing be banned then?
BERT SUGAR: I think we did this a couple of years ago, and even the AMA--though Mr. Buckley didn't back off--no, period, end of paragraph. I can't give you all the reasons we don't have enough time.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, give me a couple of reasons anyway. Give us a couple of reasons.
BERT SUGAR: First of all, it has given a tremendous amount of opportunity to people. It is a legitimate--on a given level, Mr. Buckley is right about one thing--sometimes there are mismatches. I've seen them. They're called the Boston Red Sox against anybody in the American League. It happens in other sports. I don't know why he has singled out as if it doesn't happen in other sports.
PAUL SOLMAN: Well, nobody bites anybody's ear in other sports, Mr. Sugar.
BERT SUGAR: Well, I've seen people bite Conrad Dobler I've seen get bitten by Leroy Jordan in a football game. It happens. No, the ear was sad. That transcended anything I could ever--I'm not pretending to apologize for that, please. What I am saying is that boxing is--albeit admittedly so--it is legalized assault. So is pro-football in the trenches. Ask the guys who play.
PAUL SOLMAN: What do you say to somebody who thinks it was a disgusting spectacle on Saturday night, who's just saw in slow motion what happened and thinks it was just revolting?
BERT SUGAR: I would say they're right. How's that? I'm not apologist up and down the line. I stand for the sport. I love the sport. That was mayhem, pure and simple.
PAUL SOLMAN: And, Mr. Buckley, how do you respond to someone who would just be completely revolted by what they just even saw on our show?
BERT SUGAR: I agree with his answer. It was mayhem, pure and simple. That doesn't surprise me. You teach these guys--you teach these boxers to get in there and win and fight and kill, kill, kill; Burgess Meredith telling Rocky, eye of the tiger and all that, so the boxer did his job, and maybe he overdid it, and that's what happens.
PAUL SOLMAN: All right. Well, thanks very much both of you.