It still ranks as the most bizarre incident in the history of sport. 28 June 1997, and 40 seconds into the fourth round of the world heavyweight championship fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfied. The capacity crowd at the MGM Arena in Las Vegas, and a billion people watching on television, are at first bemused — then stunned — as Tyson bites a chunk of Holyfield’s ear.
Holyfield may have pocketed $33m for his efforts, the highest-ever fee for a single sporting appearance, but history will always remember the fight as “The Bite.”
Nearly fifteen years on, is Holyfield still angry? “Mike Tyson and I have never been enemies. People just perceived that, because we both wanted to be world champion. I really never had nothing against any fighter. Everybody had the right to want to be the very best, but you all can’t be the best at the same time,” he says.
Few wouldn’t argue that bite or no bite, Holyfield has always been one of the best. The only five-time heavyweight champion of the world, and having earned over $230m in the ring, Holyfield is now 49 years old. But unlike many boxers who have struggled to find a career outside the ring, the self-styled “Real Deal” has been equally impressive in the business world. He has a record label “Real Deal Records”, while “Real Deal Promotions” is looking to put on and promote fights all around the globe. Fancy a workout? You could head to one of the many “Holyfield Gyms” in the USA and now India — with plans to roll them out across the Middle East. Then there is the Holyfield Warrior and Real Deal-branded boxing-specific products which include gloves, shoes, shorts, head gear, and punching bags. If that wasn’t enough, there are Holyfield video games, a string of television appearances, and even three cameo roles in movies to his name.
Make no mistake — Holyfield may have been a box office dream in the ring, but he is seriously big business outside it. He explains: “I do consider myself as a business person. Boxing is business. Whatever you do, you have to be a business person to be able to continue to do things that make money,” adding: “There are many things we are looking to do with the brand, especially in the Middle East – so we’ll see, we’re talking to different people about different ventures, and if something is the right fit, we will look more into it.”
Part of the reason the Holyfield brand is so huge today is because of his boxing record, which by any measure is staggering. Forty four wins in 57 fights, 29 by knockout. After winning the bronze medal in the Light Heavyweight division at the 1984 Summer Olympics, he debuted as a professional at the age of 21.
Holyfield moved to the cruiserweight division in 1985 and won his first title the following year, when he defeated Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the WBA cruiserweight belt. He would then go to win the Lineal, IBF and WBC titles, becoming the undisputed cruiserweight champion. Holyfield moved up to heavyweight in 1988, defeating Buster Douglas for the Lineal, WBC, WBA, and IBF titles in 1990.
He holds other notable victories over fighters such as George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer and twice against Mike Tyson.
In boxing circles, he is one of just a handful of “greats”, alongside Ali, Foreman and Frazier. All of which begs the question, how come all these years later, few, if any names rattle off the tongue, and certainly not in the heavyweight division.
Holyfield is quick to lay the blame squarely at the media and boxing commentators.
“I think the big problem is the disconnection from boxing, from I guess the proper media attention that you get from the commentators and the people who put the boxing show on. When HBO and Showtime promoted it properly and put a good spin on boxing, boxers became like heroes. But when you have negative commentators who, every opportunity they get a shot to put a person down, they will put them down, that’s destroyed a lot of people in the game of boxing. It’s self destructing. Who will watch a guy like this? They shouldn’t have commentators who are envious and jealous. It’s almost like somebody say what you done personally in your life and bring it up in your professional career,” he says, adding: “Boxing people need come together and say we got to leave things at home at home, and let work be work.”
There has been no shortage of promising boxers who have fallen foul of the law, but Holyfield is adamant that the media is far too focused on their past.
“Of course it [the media] is to blame. There is envy and jealousy. We as people, we all fall short, and somebody is always looking to bring you down. They look for the reasons to bring you down instead of picking you up. You try to make something grow, you need to think about all the positive things, you don’t go back and look what somebody did when he was eleven years old, and say he’s now 30 but this is what he did when he was eleven, this is why he is crazy. When you were a kid, you act like a kid.”
The former champ goes as far to compare the media focus on boxers as being as intense as that on presidents.
“They [the media] act like this guy is running for public office and they got to go find the same stuff that they find on presidents. Now they are running the country so you got to know that. But boxers, they are just in a sport and they got there through hard work, and because they were the better performer. And now you want to judge them like they are running for office and there are so many choices, you got to get the best character. In sport it’s not like this. These people worked hard,” he says, adding: “There are a lot of people who got great attitude, but do they have the guts to get in that ring? The commentators are bringing the sport down by talking about these people.”
Either way, it is unlikely the sport will ever see the likes of Ali and Frazier again. Looking back, Holyfield himself is quick to acknowledge Ali — who turned 70 last month — as the greatest of them all.
“Ali was the guy they told me I could be like when I was a kid, so I was thrilled that this guy who was the world champion, somebody said I could be like that. Very rarely that when you came from poverty that anyone would say you could be somebody,” he says, adding: “So I watched Ali and I saw all the people who faced him like Frazier — then you found that anyone who fought Ali was tough. So boxing was all about did you fight Ali, and then if you fought him, how well did you do? You only got the chance to fight Ali if you were good. So you got so many fighters who all they say is they fought Ali — to even have that opportunity you had to be good.”
Although Holyfield has earned millions from his fights, he also remains a committed philanthropist, having giving millions to good causes. The Evander Holyfield Foundation has long been a supporter of youth programmes, including several scholarships, leadership academies and grants for youngsters. He has even launched a readership progamme, and is keen to eventually take the foundation overseas.
“It’s not expanded outside the US yet but I would like for it to be a worldwide thing to be able to share with all the countries because the point of being world champion is the world means the world. I look forward to trying to help people and the different problems they may have, and I hope I can bring some help to them,” he says.
Holyfield adds: “The foundation is very important to me because I wouldn’t be the person who I am if it wasn’t for someone helping me. Someone gave me the opportunity. I didn’t come from a well-educated family or a family that had a lot of money, we were considered poor. But I got the opportunity from people who had more. Who I am today is the same person who I was as a kid. To come from where I have, to be the man I am today, there has been a lot of spiritual growth. What you believe is what you become.”
Evander Holyfield has already “become” a great deal, but after talking him to him for an hour, you feel the best is yet to come.