Archdeacon: On the 25th anniversary, a first-hand account of the Bite Fight

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Having finagled my way past security, I was outside the door of heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield’s dressing room at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on that bizarre night exactly 25 years ago today.

I was hoping to find out just what had happened when a guy hustled up with a rubber glove and blurted to the muscled beef on the door: “I have something Mr. Holyfield needs!”

As he waited for the skeptical guard to return from Holyfield’s inner sanctum, the guy — who said his name was Mitch Libonati — opened the glove and allowed me to take a peek inside.

Although it looked like a dirty piece of chewed-up gum, it was, in fact, the top part of Holyfield’s right ear that Mike Tyson had just bitten off in a rage and then spit onto the canvas in the third round of their heavyweight title fight.

It was an act that turned the most anticipated fight in over decade into a night of total anarchy. And now, if you watch ESPN this week, into a “whodunit mystery” that lasted for years.

In my career, I’ve covered hundreds of fights in Las Vegas, and, in that time, I’ve witnessed all kinds of things good and bad. But never anything like this.

I was sitting ringside that night in a sold-out arena where some people had paid $5,000 for a $1,500 seat. My wife Kate had come with me, but I couldn’t afford a prime seat so she was up in the top of the arena, rubbing elbows with the colorful crowd — think of the bar scene in Star Wars — that shows up in Vegas on a big fight night.

Tyson and Holyfield had fought just seven months earlier in Vegas, as well. That time — although he had spent nearly three years in prison after a rape conviction — Tyson was making his first title defense against Holyfield after having regained the heavyweight crown with a first-round knockout of Bruce Seldon.

While he, too, had been a two-time heavyweight champ, Holyfield came into that first bout a big underdog.

Instead, he dominated Tyson, cutting him with an accidental head butt, then dropping him and finally winning on a 11th round TKO when referee Mitch Halpern stopped the bout.

Even so, Tyson was made a 2-to-1 favorite in their June 28, 1997 rematch. With Holyfield being paid $35 million and Tyson $30 million, it was the richest bout in boxing history.

And once again Holyfield dominated, stunning Tyson with an overhand right in the first round and cutting him above the right eye with another head butt — ruled unintentional by ref Mills Lane — in the second round.

A noticeably frustrated Tyson left his corner for the third round without his mouthpiece, but Lane sent him back to get it.

But some two minutes later, during a clinch, Tyson leaned up and bit down on the champ’s right ear.

Holyfield shrieked in pain and grabbed at his ear as he began to hop up and down while bleeding profusely.

Tyson, who had spit the ear to the canvas, was pushed to his corner by Lane while ringside physician Dr. Flip Homansky tended to Holyfield.

Eventually — after two points were deducted from Tyson’s round score — Holyfield agreed to continue.

But 20 seconds later — even after having been strenuously warned by Lane — Tyson again bit down on Holyfield’s ear. This time he just scarred it because the champ twisted away.

Tyson was disqualified and would later lose his boxing license for year and be fined $3 million.

After the fight, an enraged Tyson claimed he was just retaliating for the head butts and that Holyfield had actually been the one to quit.

Over the years I had gotten to know Tyson pretty well. I’d covered nearly half of his fights and been with him on several occasions away from the ring, some of which I truly enjoyed, some of which I did not.

But, like many others, I didn’t buy Tyson’s claim this time.

The ring bully had been exposed, and rather than be embarrassed again, he was desperate to find an escape route.

He figured disqualification was better than being knocked out the way he had been by Buster Douglas seven years earlier.

Mayhem following the fight

Although a polarizing figure, Tyson always drew a crowd as was the case that night in Vegas 25 years ago when the famed Strip was crammed with people in the party mode.

And some 90 minutes after the fight, when I left the Grand Garden to find my wife and some friends from New Zealand, I got as far as the MGM gift shop when I head a “Pop! Pop! Pop!”

It sounded like gunfire and came from a bar around the corner. That’s when I heard a woman scream “He has a gun!”

People began to stampede through the casino. There was another “Pop! Pop! Pop!”

And while you could smell cordite and three employees told me it had been gunfire, the police and MGM officials claimed it was not.

An MGM flak later said the sounds were champagne corks being popped.

Regardless, mayhem followed.

Young guys who had been swilling magnums of Dom Perignon from the bottle were now fighting and clobbering each other with their weaponized bubbly.

Black jack tables were overturned, and some people were scooping up tens of thousands of dollars in casino chips. Most folks hid behind overturned crap tables and slot machines. Diners fled the restaurant, leaving their meals on the table. In the end, 40 people were injured.

I finally found my wife and the others all huddled behind a bank of slot machines.

One woman from New Zealand, who had been in tears, said she just wanted to go home.

And she didn’t mean her room.

Where’s the piece of ear?

While all this was happening — according to the ESPN “SC Featured” segment being aired this week — the piece of ear that was found by Libonati, an MGM employee, was brought into the dressing room where Homansky looked at it, put it into a red biohazard bag and gave it to a trusted paramedic, Brian Rogers, who was accompanying Holyfield to Valley Hospital Medical Center.

Once there, Jones said he gave the bag to a nurse who brought it to the attention of surgeon Dr. Julio Garcia.

But as Garcia got scrubbed, the bag disappeared.

Garcia said Holyfield didn’t seem that concerned as he completed the 90-minute reconstructive surgery.

Initially, according to the ESPN report, Garcia never mentioned seeing the ear. Since no one knew that, the rumors spread.

There even was speculation that a sports collector had gotten hold of it.

While that might sound bizarre, consider that everything from the jockstrap Joe Frazier wore the night he beat Muhammad Ali in 1971 to Ty Cobb’s dentures and Andre Agassi’s fake pony tail have sold at sports auctions over the years.

Finally, Holyfield put an end to the mystery and said someone from his camp pilfered the ear.

“I got a messed up ear, but I’m good,” he said. “I got $35 million.”

In the years since, he and Tyson have actually become friends. In 2009, Tyson apologized to him on Oprah.

Four years later, the two made a Foot Locker commercial which began with Tyson knocking on Holyfield’s door to give him a gift: The piece of ear he’d bitten off.

Just this year, Tyson began selling cannabis edibles in the shape of an ear with the top gnawed off. He calls them Mike Bites.

It’s been a quarter century since Tyson and Holyfield met in ring, but the impact of their fistic encounters still resonates today.

Trust me, I know first-hand

Three days after that first Tyson-Holyfield fight, my wife and I got married in Las Vegas.

While I appreciate the fighters providing the setting, there has been a time or two over the years when I found myself listening to a lecture for yet another of the boneheaded moves — and I’ve had plenty — that I wished Mike Tyson had gotten to me first.

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