George Willis says that in 2011, when he was covering Showtime's regrettable Pacquiao-Mosley pay-per-view, he was told by network executive Matt Blank that someone should write a book about the notorious "Bite Fight," the Mike Tyson vs Evander Holyfield rematch from 1997 that busted records and left one superstar fighter with missing chunks of ear, and the other in the midst of a mental spiral that would send him crashing from once-great heights.
Blank was correct when he said that the book deserved to be written, and Willis, the New York Post boxing reporter, does an admirable job making it more than a simple collection of sordid details covering that single night, or even just their two-fight professional rivalry, which is memorable for good and bad reasons -- reasons that dealt boxing a heavy blow while elevating its mainstream coverage, proving that not all press is good press.
While Willis could have simply focused on the fight, or the pair of fights, he instead chooses to go back to the very beginning for both men, from their impoverished childhoods growing up in Brooklyn and Georgia, to the moments that boxing touched their lives and gave them a way out of the ghettos, and on through the road that would eventually lead them to one another, at the time seemingly better late than never, arguably now better never than ever, at least in terms of what it did to the sport.
Willis details Tyson's relocation to the Catskill Boxing Gym, where aging Bronx-born trainer and manager Cus D'Amato took a special interest in a 12-year-old Tyson, telling him soon that he would go on to be heavyweight champion of the world, and the youngest in history, at that. He also plunges into Holyfield's humble beginnings, where he, too, was told of his destined greatness.
That both Tyson and Holyfield wound up living up to what their earliest mentors prophesied is an incredible enough story. Both men became world heavyweight champion after those guiding lights had extinguished, and it was a source of pride that they lived up to what they wanted so desperately to achieve in the sport, in large part because they wanted to make good on the promise and potential that someone else saw in them at tender ages.
An early focus in the book is on the first time Holyfield and Tyson met, when both were aiming to make the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. Heavyweight Tyson and light heavyweight Holyfield sparred one another, Holyfield accepting the challenge after others had tired of getting worked over by Mike, and the intensity that raged forth from both of these exceptionally determined young men, to the point that the session had to be stopped.
At that same time, Holyfield says they had a staredown over a game of pool, with Tyson backing off. It was then, Holyfield says, that he knew he would beat Tyson if they fought, categorizing him from there on as a bully who didn't respond well to resistance or the other man fighting back, a trait that would indeed haunt a younger, more volatile version of Tyson than we know today.
Willis breaks down the fight nearly happening in the early 90s, after Tyson was shocked in Tokyo against Buster Douglas and Holyfield smashed the fluke champion. The fight could have been enormous then, but life intervened, and Tyson wound up doing time for a rape conviction in Indiana.
It was 1996 before they met again, with Holyfield emerging victorious, as you know, in large part because he had been right those many years prior about Tyson: The bully, like so many bullies, crumbled when someone stood up to him, and through Holyfield's nearly pathological level of dauntlessness and determination to prove skeptics wrong -- which both he and Tyson did many times over from prior to that first encounter and on -- "The Real Deal" stopped the favored Tyson, just when it was thought that Evander had been damaged into washed-up territory.
The meat of the book, of course, is the Bite Fight itself. Willis goes into great detail to cover not only what happened between the ropes, including the post-fight melee with an uncontrollable Tyson completely losing his head after the fight was stopped, but the frightened panic that engulfed the entire MGM Grand Garden Arena that night in Las Vegas, and the chaos that resulted in the casino itself being shut down for a period of time following the fight's sudden and bizarre conclusion.
Willis also goes beyond the fight, speaking with Tyson and Holyfield about their later bouts, which ultimately turned into the rapid descent of Tyson's career and Evander's never-ending and sadly delusional quest to again become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
The roles of referees Mitch Halpern (first fight) and Mills Lane (second fight on short notice, replacing Halpern) are dissected, as well as other in and out of the ring factors that shaped the men over the years and showed in the way they handled that night in '97 and beyond.
Willis speaks with those who have been up and down the road with the two legendary fighters, names like Ronnie Shields, Tim Hallmark, Larry Merchant, Don King, Marc Ratner, Kathy Duva, and many more, as well as getting frank modern day statements from Tyson and Holyfield themselves, with Tyson, in his new persona as a defiantly happy family man with a new lease on life, even providing the foreword for the book.
If you're looking for a solid new boxing read, The Bite Fight is certainly worth a look.
Disclosure: Bad Left Hook was provided a review copy of the book.