Mike Tyson: Why He Bit Evander Holyfield's Ear

Two of the most infamous incidents of Mike Tyson's life take center stage in the second part of ABC's Mike Tyson: The Knockout documentary which airs tonight (June 1).

The episode delves into Tyson's conviction and sentencing for the rape of 18-year-old Desiree Washington in 1992 and him biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear five years later.

Even by boxing's at times absurd standards, the latter incident was so astonishing that it remains hard to comprehend 24 years on. The fact the fight was broadcast to a worldwide audience only added to the sense of macabre theatre.

Speaking to reporters in the aftermath of the fight, Tyson claimed the bites were retaliation for being head-butted in the second round.

Tyson had repeatedly complained about being head-butted in the first fight and Holyfield had opened a large cut over his right eye after ducking a punch in the second round.

Referee Mills Lane—who was brought in as a late replacement following protestation from Tyson camp over the selection of Mitch Halpern who had officiated the first fight—deemed the head-butt accidental and declined Tyson's demands to penalize Holyfield.

"Holyfield butted me in the second round and then he butted me again. He looked right at me and came right into me," Tyson said in the aftermath of the fight.

"What am I supposed to do? I've got children to raise. He kept butting me. Holyfield is not the warrior he claims he is. He got a little nick on his ear. [...] He didn't want to fight, regardless of what he did. Look at me."

Tyson and Holyfield first fought at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in November 1996, when Holyfield stopped "Iron Mike" in 11 rounds in a major upset, becoming only the second boxer to defeat Tyson after James "Buster" Douglas had shocked the world by knocking Tyson out six years earlier.

Seven months later, Tyson sought revenge when the duo again collided at the MGM Grand.

Instead, he got his boxing license temporarily revoked by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and faced a legal bill amounting to approximately $3 million.

With 40 seconds left in the third round, Tyson got Holyfield in a clinch, before rolling his head over his opponent shoulder, spitting his mouthpiece and proceeding to take a chunk out of Holyfield's right ear. In a shocking coda to an already ghastly incident, Tyson then spat out the chunk onto the canvas.

The sight of a bewildered Holyfield pushing Tyson away before jumping up and down in agony made headlines around the world. Bleeding badly from his ear, Holyfield then turned back towards his corner after Lane stopped the bout.

At this point, Tyson attacked Holyfield again, shoving him in the back and forcing Lane to intervene again. The fight eventually resumed following a lengthy delay after a physician examined Holyfield and determined he could continue, while Lane penalized Tyson with a two-point deduction and warned him about his behavior.

"One more like that and you're gone," he said.

Lane's warning went unheeded as Tyson bit Holyfield again almost as soon as the bout resumed, clinching his teeth around his opponent's left ear.

This time Lane eventually stopped the fight.

Bedlam followed, with Tyson looking to assault Holyfield in his corner and subsequently taking a swing at a police officer who had entered the ring as chaos unfolded and the former champion had to be walked to his corner by security.

In 2013, in an extract of his book Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography, Tyson went even further.

"I just wanted to kill him [Holyfield]," he wrote.

"Anybody watching could see that the head butts were so overt. I was furious, I was an undisciplined soldier and I lost my composure. So I bit him in the ear.

"People were pulling me and blocking me and [Holyfield] was standing in his corner, huddled up [...] I was still trying to get at him. I had 50 people on me and I was still fighting the cops."

Tyson's boxing license was reinstated just over a year later and he returned to the ring in January 1999, fighting another eight times and winning on five occasions.

During an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009, Tyson apologized for his actions and made amends with Holyfield, who forgave him.

Evander Holyfield against Mike Tyson
Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson fight for WBA World Heavyweight Title on June 28,1997 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Fight was stopped in the third round and Tyson was disqualified for biting Holyfield on both ears. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

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About the writer

Dan Cancian is currently a reporter for Newsweek based in London, England. Prior to joining Newsweek in January 2018, he was a news and business reporter at International Business Times UK. Dan has also written for The Guardian and The Observer. 

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