No Objective Truth

By Gordon Marino on July 13, 2013
No Objective Truth
As though the sport needed it, Iron Mike Tyson’s incisors took a big bite out of boxing.

By the time of their second fight, Tyson owned the black hat. With bible references stitched into his boxing togs, Holyfield was the good guy…

Sixteen years ago Mike Tyson did the unthinkable. In the third round of his attempt to regain the heavyweight title from Evander Holyfield, Iron Mike nestled in close and bit off a chunk of his opponent’s right ear. Holyfield bounded around the ring on pogo sticks of rage and pain.

The referee, Mills Lane, examined Holyfield’s ear, deducted two points from Tyson, and remarkably enough allowed the fight to continue. Seconds later, Tyson pulled his man in close and bit down again. This time Lane disqualified him.

The cigar chomping boxing cognoscenti might have thought they had seen everything in the crazy gloved game; this, however, was beyond the pale. Boxing has given itself some black eyes, but as award winning sports scribe George Willis argues in The Bite Fight: Tyson, Holyfield, and the Night That Changed Boxing Forever, pit bulling in a heavyweight title fight took the crown.

As though the sport needed it, Tyson’s incisors took a big bite out of boxing. After all, who wanted to pay to see a grown man go into the kind of primitive fury you would expect from a five-year-old in a sandbox?

Nietzsche taught that there is no objective truth. All we can do is multiply perspectives and ponder events from as many different portholes as possible. Everyone from promoter Don King to the surgeon who sewed up Holyfield’s ear is given a voice in this balanced account of a bizarre night that would surely stand as the featured exhibit in a boxing hall of shame.

Willis’s text answers a drove of questions. For example, how could the referee let the fight continue after the first bite? It’s the economy, stupid. What happened to the one-inch piece of cartilage from Holyfield’s ear? A bystander found it and rushed it to Holyfield’s locker room.

Or again, how did Holyfield manage to stand up to the golem from Bed-Stuy? The two fighters had sparred as amateurs. Holyfield got the best of it and when their time as pros came, the “Real Deal” reassured himself,  “He (Tyson) ain’t never forgot that and I ain’t never forgot that.”

Pressed to explain the inexplicable, Tyson confessed, “He was head-butting me and I really lost it…I was mad. I was getting dizzier and I felt like I was blacking out like I did in the first fight. Then I really panicked. He had just kicked my ass six months before. I didn’t want that to happen, so I just went for the gusto. I lost my discipline as a fighter and just went for broke.” (p. 175)

Did he ever.

Holyfield, who, as Willis notes, had bitten an opponent on the shoulder in the amateurs, contemplated a tit-for-tat, thinking to himself, “You do it all the way. If I bite him I’m going to bite his whole ear off. ” But Holyfield calmed down. “I realized if I would have reached out and bit him back they would have every right to get rid of the whole game because you got the two best boxers gorging each other.” (p. 145)

Constantine “Cus” D’Amato was Tyson’s Nestor. Even today, decades after D’Amato’s death, Tyson is in constant inner dialogue with the man who taught him, on the one hand, that money was for throwing off trains, but on the other made him understand that boxers need to have a shtick. They have to put fannies in the seats. 

Having a wrecking ball for a fist helped Tyson develop a fan base, as did his ability to ply the good guy / bad guy angle made popular by Ali and earlier by the professional wrestler Gorgeous George.

By the time of their second fight, Tyson owned the black hat. With bible references stitched into his boxing togs, Holyfield was the good guy.

However, Willis, who traces the fuse to the bite fight years back, contends, “What few recognized was that Tyson and Holyfield had plenty in common. They both had the surname of men who weren’t their natural fathers. They both were raised by single-parent mothers. They both endured extreme poverty. They both were motivated by older white men who told them they could someday be champion of the world, and they would both lose their mentors before those prophecies were fulfilled.” (p. 13)

There were also dramatic psychological differences between these bruisers. Holyfield was so at home in violence that he was almost an argument against Joyce Carol Oates’ famous dictum, “One doesn’t play boxing.” In contrast, for Tyson, every bout was a shootout at the O.K. Corral. Both to sell tickets and to intimidate his opponents, Tyson marketed himself as “the baddest man on the planet.” That piece of theater took its toll. “I was too crazy being a fighter,” Tyson revealed. “I had to be the toughest and the meanest. It was too much for me at that stage of my life.” (p. 17).

Much to his own disappointment, Iron Mike never had the mettle to do what all boxing greats do, namely, come from behind in a fight that they are losing. However, outside the ring, Tyson has demonstrated an almost miraculous resiliency.

After jail, drug rehabs, scores of parking lot scuffles, and the death of his daughter, the fighter who for decades had been poised on the ledge and heading for the pavement has backed away and into his own formidable life instincts.

Where he once did his acting in the ring, Tyson has taken his thespian talents to the stage in his Spike Lee directed monologue, Undisputed Truth. In February, Tyson brought his show to Chicago. About two thirds of the way through the performance, he gave a warm personal shout out to Evander Holyfield who was sitting in the middle rows of the theater. Earlier in the day, Tyson embraced Holyfield and made a public appearance with him. Trying to help Holyfield market his barbecue sauce, the man who was once literally biting mad joked, “Now, if only I could have put some of this on your ear.”

A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino writes on boxing for the Wall Street Journal. He is on the board and works with boxers at the Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis, as well as at the Basement Gym in Northfield, MN. You can follow him on Twitter at @GordonMarino.

Special thanks to the Wall Street Journal

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  1. George Thomas Clark 04:19pm, 07/16/2013

    Right - Prime Holmes definitely takes any Tyson.  Old Larry shouldn’t have fought Young Mike just as Old Ali shouldn’t have taken on Young Larry.  Of course, guys don’t know - or won’t acknowledge - they’re old until they have to.

  2. raxman 04:02pm, 07/16/2013

    Tyson could bang and he was great for the sport but apart from that I - and I accept that i’m often alone in this opinion - think he is probably the most over rated fighter in history. in his hey day when on top of the world he beat a whole load of second rate fighters. they talk about today being a weak HW era but I believe the late 80’s are not far behind - berbick, smith, Thomas and tucker were totally second rate. and although stylistically Tyson probably always beats spinx, he and holmes were both well out of the game. a prime holmes destroys Tyson. the bob and weaves’ natural enemy is the jab. Tyson to a prime holmes would’ve been as Patterson was to Liston.
    I also reiterate the point of my learned friends below - Tyson was a bully. and like all bully’s when it gets tough for them they give up

  3. Gordon Marino 06:45am, 07/15/2013

    I’d would like to think otherwise but I’m inclined to agree Kurt. Although I have to say that I have a lot of suspicions about the way and quickness with which Holy developed from a light heavy to a full blown heavyweight.

  4. Kurt 06:31am, 07/15/2013

    I dont think Tyson could have ever beaten Holyfield.  Its common knowledge Holyfield got the better of Tyson when they sparred in 1984 before the Olympic Trails.  Even in Tysons heyday 1986 - 1990, Holyfield had the mental and physical makeup to defeat Iron Mike.

  5. Gordon Marino 10:25am, 07/14/2013

    Though I was an ardent Tyson fan, have to agree with your analysis!
    Thanks for the comment.

  6. George Thomas Clark 10:23am, 07/14/2013

    What Tyson did in the second Holyfield fight was analogous to Liston declining to get up in the second Ali fight.  Both Tyson and Liston, supreme bashers when they overwhelmed opponents, were disinclined to take beatings from guys who had their number.  I do not criticize them for that.  But it must be noted.

  7. Gordon Marino 10:14am, 07/14/2013

    I was - am - a huge Tyson fan but pretty early on he stopped coming behind the jab—- and moving his head. Plus he had issues with asthma. Holyfield could always take a shot and answer with one or more of his own. Thanks for your comment

  8. Eric 06:29am, 07/14/2013

    I admired both of these fighters as fighters but really don’t have a helluva a lot of respect for either as men, especially Mr. Tyson. I think Tyson would’ve destroyed Holyfield had this bout taken place in 1990-1991. I was still shocked when Holyfield put that beating on Tyson in their first fight, after all, Holyfield had even struggled a little bit in taking out “little” Bobby Czyz in a prior fight leading up to Tyson. Holyfield ranks right up their with fellow ring immortals like Marciano, Frazier, and Basilio when it comes to will and heart, what a warrior. Tyson had it all except physically, but he was proven to be a front runner or bully, and his absence of heart and will to win cost him from being the greatest of all time. Tyson had the talent and skills to be the GOAT, but it just didn’t work out that way. Both of these men could be placed in the top 10-15 of all time heavies.

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