The best of boxing is in the rearview mirror, and perhaps we got the last look at the last gasp of the heavyweight division in ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary this week, “Chasing Tyson.”
Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson will forever be linked to the infamous “Bite Fight,” when Tyson bit off pieces of Holyfield’s ear in a June 1997 bout that ended in a three-round disqualification and sparked a riot at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas.
But the fight of note — the thing of beauty — was the first fight between the two, which took place in November 1996 in that same arena. It was the last great heavyweight title fight.
Holyfield and Tyson danced around each other from the days they competed in the amateurs, first in a sparring session during the Olympic trials in 1984 and then, according to legend and lore, in confrontation over a game of pool at the Colorado Springs training site.
Their boxing lives took different paths after that. Tyson was the phenomenon who captured worldwide attention as the youngest heavyweight champion in history at the age of 20 and as a devastating knockout artist. Holyfield was the bronze medal light heavyweight in the 1984 Olympics who worked his way through the ranks — first as a cruiserweight champion and then finally as heavyweight champ, when he knocked out Buster Douglas, who had upset Tyson in February 1990, in three rounds later that year.
The two were supposed to meet in a title bout in 1991, but Tyson suffered a rib injury that postponed the fight. Then came the fateful night in Indianapolis, when Tyson was charged and later convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington, a Miss Black America contestant, and wound up serving three years in prison.
Holyfield would go on to lose his title to Riddick Bowe, win it back in a rematch, and lose it again to Michael Moorer, where questions were raised that Holyfield was suffering from heart damage. His loss to Bowe in their third fight did nothing to allay those fears.
Then it appeared that Holyfield was all but done when he met former cruiserweight champion Bobby Czyz at Madison Square Garden in May 1996. He stopped Czyz in five rounds, but looked as bad as someone could look while winning a five-round technical knockout over an overmatched opponent.
Tyson, meanwhile, left prison in 1995 and reestablished himself quickly as a fearsome force of nature, stopping club fighter Peter McNeeley in 89 seconds and Buster Mathis Jr. in three rounds.
He recaptured the World Boxing Council heavyweight title by stopping champion Frank Bruno — who was seen blessing himself about a dozen times walking up to the ring — in three rounds in March 1996. Tyson added the World Boxing Association heavyweight belt when he knocked out champion Bruce Seldon in one round, through Seldon appeared to go down from a blow that didn’t seem to connect.
Tyson was back, with two heavyweight titles, and seemingly invincible — and there was Holyfield, unfinished business, low-hanging fruit out there for Tyson to cash in on and pick off easily, so much so that the fight was scheduled just two months after the Seldon bout.
People forget that the narrative before this fight that people feared for Holyfield’s life. He has looked so bad in the Moorer, Bowe and Czyz fights — and Tyson looked so frightening — that Holyfield, the former heavyweight champion, was a 25-1 underdog going into their bout on Nov. 9, 1996.
The Nevada Athletic Commission was so concerned that they ordered Holyfield undergo a series of extensive medical tests that went beyond normal requirements before they sanctioned the bout.
Holyfield, though, knew something that no one else did. He knew how to beat Tyson. He knew how to beat him in that pool room in Colorado Springs and he knew how to beat him in the ring that night in Las Vegas.
“I realized that a person like Tyson was like a bully, and all my life, me and bullies just didn’t get along get well,” Holyfield wrote for Boxing News earlier this week. “I realize that they can only take from people who they feel they can take advantage of. I’m not taking anything away from his ability, but I realized that I could take his shots, but could he take mine? But bullies don’t like people to fight back. They just like people to get out of the way.”
That was it. Holyfield stood there and went toe-to-toe with Tyson, and when Tyson would land a blow, Holyfield would answer back and answer back quickly, never backing down.
“The art is not to see how hard he hits, but to see how he reacts when I hit him,” Holyfield wrote. “Every time he did connect with a punch, I wanted to make sure I got in the last punch. It is important to get in the last punch because it is the last punch that you remember. So, in every round, I made sure I landed the last punch so he can think about how hard it was.”
The fifth round was where you knew that this was going to be Holyfield’s night. Tyson landed his best shots, a devastating combination, and Holyfield didn’t flinch, responding quickly with his own combination.
It was then when you saw the spirit go out of Tyson, who realized he was about to take a beating.
Holyfield continued to take Tyson apart until the 10th round, when a shot by Holyfield sent Tyson into the ropes, where Holyfield took target practice. Tyson was out on his feet at the end of the round. He returned for the 11th round, but after Holyfield landed a series of blows that sent Tyson back into the ropes again, the fight was stopped.
Holyfield was heavyweight champion again — and this time, secured his legacy in boxing history. After the infamous “Bite Fight” rematch eight months later that ended with a Tyson disqualification in three rounds, Holyfield won a rematch with Moorer to capture the International Boxing Federation version of the heavyweight championship, and, after a successful defense against Vaughn Bean, fought Lennox Lewis in two forgettable fights — the first a draw and the second a decision loss to Lewis.
Tyson was done as a fighter after that. He was fined $3 million and suspended indefinitely by the Nevada Athletic Commission. He didn’t get back in the ring until January 1999, when, after losing the first four rounds against Frans Botha, landed a desperation shot to knock Botha out — and was nearly disqualified in this fight for trying to break Botha’s arm in a clinch.
Then wa the no-contest against Orlin Norris 10 months later, ending when Tyson hit Norris after the bell in the first round and Norris could not return for the second round. It was downhill after that — despite being propped up for a bogus showdown against Lewis in June 2002 that ended with Tyson going down in eight rounds. The final blow was at Verizon Center in June 2005 when club fighter Kevin McBride stopped Tyson in six rounds.
Holyfield would go on to fight until 2011, when he finally called it quits at the age of 49, desperate to become heavyweight champion one more time.
The heavyweight championship though, had long since lost its glory — the last worthy moment in November 1996, when Evander Holyfield destroyed the myth of Mike Tyson.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.