By Thomas Gerbasi
Mike Tyson was in the jovial mood that has been his usual one these days, far removed from the time when a simple question from the media could provoke a surly outburst. So while in New York City last month for the launch of George Willis’ book “The Bite Fight,” which chronicles the second fight between Tyson and Evander Holyfield in 1997, Tyson was asked if it was difficult to go through memories of that time, which certainly weren’t good, all over again.
“That’s so awesome you said that because at the time they weren’t great at all, but they are now,” he said. “They’re great moments now.”
In a bizarre way he’s right. They’re not great in terms of wanting to pat “Iron Mike” on the back for biting Holyfield’s ears – not once, but twice – and earning a third round disqualification, but when you read Willis’ book, it reminds you of how pivotal a moment that fight and its aftermath was in boxing history. For the longtime New York Post sports reporter and boxing beat writer, he couldn’t have come across a better book topic.
“I was just looking for a good book project, and when this came out of nowhere I thought number one it was a story that everybody, at least in boxing, if not sports, remembers,” he said. “It had national appeal, it had longevity, it had stars in Mike Tyson and Holyfield, it had some controversy, and it had never been written about. So I thought those were pretty good ingredients to at least give it a shot. And through Mike’s cooperation and Evander’s cooperation, and with everybody in boxing all having a story to tell about whatever they want to talk about, you get a bunch of good stories together.”
That’s the beauty of “The Bite Fight.” Despite Holyfield-Tyson II being perhaps the most written about and analyzed fight of its time, Willis has found stories that even the most diehard Tyson or Holyfield fan probably hasn’t heard, or at least not from the different perspectives given. And as the book progresses, you see how the careers of the two heavyweight greats not only intertwined, but how they were almost destined to be linked with each other then, now, and forever. But Willis says it wasn’t tough digging up the gems that are sprinkled liberally throughout the book.
“It really wasn’t difficult,” he said. “If you go and look at the tape, you just look at the people who were in the pictures. You know them, I know them, so you just go talk to them and ask them what happened. And they’ll tell you a zillion stories about that night. So you get all these little stories and sort of put them together.”
The stars of the show are Tyson and Holyfield though, as new interviews with both add the new perspective that only time can give you. At the book launch party, Tyson talked about that night, and he was characteristically blunt.
“I wanted to win real bad,” he said. “I was in good shape for the fight, and I remember we were clashing heads. I was hitting him with my head too, but I felt myself blacking out, and I was trying to complain to the referee, Mills Lane, during the fight, and he just didn’t give me any love at all. I just didn’t care anymore. I was a pretty narcissistic kind of guy back then, and I thought I shouldn’t have even got disqualified. That’s how I felt at the time. Now I’ve received a lot more knowledge of right and wrong.”
That comment drew cheers from the crowd as Tyson laughed, but he got an even bigger roar when longtime New York boxing scribe Tim Smith asked him why, with all the other fouls available to him, he chose to bite Holyfield.
“Because everything else didn’t work,” said Tyson. “The elbows didn’t work, the headbutts didn’t work.”
That candor is evident in the book, and that’s a good thing, because Willis admits that the Tyson of several years ago probably wouldn’t have even been interested in participating in such a project.
“It was perfect timing because he’s at a place now where he’s sort of come to grips with his past and is more concerned with his future,” he said. “It’s not something he tries to run away from, so he’s very open about it, and I think he understands that that’s as much a part of his legacy as the great knockouts and winning the heavyweight championship.”
But as crazy as that night in Las Vegas was, in putting together the book, Willis found out that several of the people he spoke to wouldn’t even call it the craziest.
“It’s interesting because as I was talking to people, and telling them I was doing this project about the Bite Fight, they would always say ‘yeah, that was a crazy night, but the Fan Man fight, now that was really crazy,’” he said, referring to the night the “Fan Man” parachuted into the ring during the Holyfield vs. Riddick Bowe rematch in 1993. “So I think that maybe the people who were at both fights think the Fan Man bout was a little bit more crazy and surreal.”
Well, considering how good “The Bite Fight” is, let this serve as a formal request for a Fan Man book as a sequel.