Today marks 20 years since Mike Tyson's second match with Evander Holyfield, an event remembered for the moment in the third round when Tyson twice bit Holyfield's ears, tearing off a chunk or two. The referee, Mills Lane, wanted to disqualify Tyson after the first bite, which left Holyfield bleeding copiously from his right ear. After a pause, in which Lane penalized Tyson two points on the scorecards, the action resumed, with about 30 seconds left in the round. Tyson bit Holyfield again, this time on the left ear. The round ended shortly afterward, and between rounds, Lane disqualified Tyson. This sparked a melee in the ring, an eventual stampede in the MGM Grand's casino, rumors of gunshots, and who knows what else. Just another night at the fights!
Tyson-Holyfield II, the richest fight in boxing history at the time, was a fiasco for the sport and especially for Tyson, the low point of his career in the ring. As a fighter, he was a sideshow after this. At the time, the episode was seen as another black eye for boxing, and time-honored, predictable condemnations of the sport ensued. Even the White House weighed in. "As a fan, I was horrified," said President Bill Clinton. (At least he admitted he was a fan!) And after the condemnations, the jokes: Tyson was the Heavyweight Chomp, the Sportsman of the Ear; Holyfield was the Real Meal; the bout was seen on Pay Per Chew.
In the 20 years since, it has become commonplace to blame the ear-biting incident for the decline of boxing. It certainly did boxing no good, adding to its scandalous reputation, but the real reason we think of Tyson-Holyfield II as some kind of turning point is because it marked the end of Tyson as a competitive force--and with him went lots of public enthusiasm. It so happens that the ear-biting incident coincided in time with the beginnings of a tectonic shift in the heavyweight division, in which long-dominant Americans would make way for fighters from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The heavyweight division lost its traditional American orientation, and with it, a focal point for American boxing interest.
There are many other factors, of course, in the much-discussed decline of boxing, and most long predate 1997. But I think the Bite Fight, depressing as it was, is more of a distraction than a cause. If Tyson had done such a thing a decade earlier, when he was at his fighting peak, he would have paid his fine and gotten back into the ring--and we all would have ponied up on pay per view. In terms of what they'll tolerate, sports fans are very forgiving. And boxing fans are infinitely forgiving.
In 2013, the New York Post's George Willis published an excellent book on the whole episode, The Bite Fight, which offers compelling portraits of Tyson and Holyfield before and after their showdowns. It's a very good read.
Finally, a cheerful postscript: 20 years later, Tyson and Holyfield have made amends, and both seem to be doing well. Tyson, in particular, has authored a personal reclamation that I doubt one in 1,000 people would have thought possible in 1997. Holyfield rolls on being Holyfield (a good thing, that). Not all boxing stories have sad endings.