Listen to our podcasting reviewing the Tyson/Holyfield fight and backstory in full.
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For the November 1996 edition of the show, Bob Bamber, Dan Welling and I travelled back in the time machine to bring you the first ever ‘Boxing 20 Years Ago Podcast’ to cover the first encounter between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, which took place on the 9th of November 1996.
The fight, billed as ‘Finally!’ was held at MGM Grand in front of a sell-out crowd of 16,103, producing a gate of $14,150,700. The fight was televised live on pay-per-view by Showtime. It generated 1.59 million buys, generating over $79 million. It was Tyson’s first defence of the WBA heavyweight championship he had won earlier in the year, and seen by, pretty much everybody, to be somewhat of a foregone conclusion.
Considering this is the first time this website has traversed the world of boxing, we went back in great detail, covering the careers of both guys leading into this first meeting, with full coverage of the build, round-by-round coverage of the fight itself and the aftermath.
The defending champion, Mike Tyson, to this day holds the record as the youngest fighter to win and unify the WBA, WBC and IBF Heavyweight titles at just 20 years, 4 months and 22 days old.
From humble beginnings, Tyson was raised by his mother in and around high crime areas. By the age of 13, he had been arrested 38 times. Tyson’s boxing potential was discovered by Bobby Stewart, a juvenile detention centre councillor and former boxer. Stewart introduced Tyson to Cus D’Amato, who became Tyson’s legal guardian when Tyson’s mother passed away when he was 16. D’Amato is credited by Tyson as building his confidence to a level which allowed him to turn his life around from juvenile delinquent to becoming the youngest world heavyweight champion in history just two years into his professional boxing career.
Tyson had his first professional fight on the 6th of March 1985 as an 18 year old. He had a total of 15 fights in his first year as a professional, winning them all by knockout. He won 26 of his first 28 professional fights via KO or TKO, with 16 of them coming in the first round. This winning streak eventually saw Tyson pummel Trevor Burbick on the 22nd of November 1986 to win WBC heavyweight championship. By the following August, Tyson had added the WBA and IBF heavyweight titles to his collection, amassing a professional record of 31-0. In 1988, Tyson dispatched lineal champion Michael Spinks in just 91 seconds to become the universally recognised undisputed heavyweight champion.
His rise to the absolute pinnacle of the sport was followed by controversy. Tyson, while battling a drug problem, endured a very messy public divorce and fired long-time trainer Kevin Rooney, the man who had taken over training Tyson after Cus D’Amato’s death. D’Amato’s death is attributed by many as the main reason for Tyson losing sight of his career and responsibilities.
Despite these mounting issues outside of the ring, Tyson was able to remain undefeated throughout 1989. But in 1990, the undisputed champion’s 37-0 streak was about to come crashing down.
On the 11th of February 1990, Mike Tyson lost the first fight of his professional career in what is to this day viewed as one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. He was defeated via 10th round KO by Buster Douglas. Tyson had opened as a 1/42 favourite for the fight. Many had expected Tyson to win comfortably in the first round.
Tyson bounced back, winning his next four fights before he would once again find himself at the centre of controversy. He was arrested in July 1991 for rape, leading to a conviction on the 10th of February 1992. He was sentenced to six years in prison but would only serve three, being released in March 1995 and resuming his boxing career. His first comeback fight would smash both PPV viewership and revenue records, grossing of $96 million.
In March ‘96, Tyson defeated Frank Bruno by way of third round TKO to regain the WBC heavyweight title at the first opportunity, and added the WBA belt by defeating Bruce Seldon in September. This set up the long anticipated first fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, dubbed, ‘Finally’.
The Real Deal
Evander Holyfield began boxing at the age of seven. Holyfield won silver at the 1983 Pan America Games and bronze at the 1984 Olympic Games before turning professional.
Holyfield started out as a light heavyweight, building a 4-0 record before moving up to cruiserweight in July 1985. Within a year, he was the WBA world champion. By the early 1988, Holyfield would become the first universally recognised Cruiserweight champion, adding the IBF, WBC and lineal titles to his resume with a professional record of 18-0. Holyfield then announced he would be moving up to heavyweight, with a clash with undisputed champion Mike Tyson in his sights.
At heavyweight, his record improved to 23-0 before the turn of the decade. He was gearing up for a long awaited showdown with Tyson until those plans were thrown out due to Tyson’s shock loss to Buster Douglas. Holyfield would go on to defeat Buster Douglas for the WBA, WBC and IBF Heavyweight titles in Douglas’ first defence. In his own first defence, Holyfield would defeat George Foreman by unanimous decision.
Holyfield’s next scheduled defence was meant to be against Mike Tyson in November 1991, but the fight fell through due to injury to Tyson and eventually, his rape conviction. Holyfield would instead go on to successfully defend his titles against Bert Cooper and Larry Holmes. Holyfield would lose his championships, and suffer the first defeat of his professional career in a loss to Riddick Bowe. Holyfield then bounced back with a win other Alex Stewart, before defeating Riddick Bowe in a rematch to regain his heavyweight titles in November 1993. He would lose the titles in his first defence against Michael Moorer. In the aftermath of the fight he was diagnosed with a heart condition and had to announce his retirement from boxing.
Within a year, Holyfield had passed the requisite medical exams required for him to return to the sport, stating he had been misdiagnosed due to morphine in his system. He made his comeback with victory over Olympic Gold medallist Ray Mercer. He would then go on to lose the rubber match to Riddick Bowe via 8th round knockout. In May 1996, Holyfield would defeat Bobby Czyz, which set up the long awaited clash with Mike Tyson for November 1996.
Third Time Lucky
The first time Tyson and Holyfield were originally scheduled to fight was on the 18th of June 1990, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Tyson, the undisputed world heavyweight champion, was guaranteed $22 million, and Holyfield $11 million. These plans were derailed when Tyson lost the title to Buster Douglas. Eight months later, on October 25th, Douglas lost the title to Holyfield by a third-round knockout.
Holyfield wasn't afraid of facing Mike Tyson. Despite their initial encounter falling through, the two had famously been in the ring together before; back in 1984 when both were Golden Gloves champions. The story goes that both men were so vicious that trainers had to jump in the ring to separate them before a three-minute round ended. Tyson, then 18, already had the aura of an assassin. But Holyfield wouldn’t allow himself to be intimidated in the same way many of Tyson’s opponents would.
After Holyfield dethroned Douglas, he knew he needed to fight Tyson legitimise the title to himself. “Make the match,'' he famously told Lou Duva, his co-trainer. ''I know Mike. I'll beat him. I know I will beat him.'' Holyfield pushed hard to defend his new titles against the former champion.
This led to the second time Tyson and Holyfield were scheduled to fight, on November 8th, 1991, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It was to be Holyfield's second title defence. Holyfield was guaranteed $30 million, and Tyson $15 million. On September 9th, Tyson was indicted on charges of raping a beauty-pageant contestant. Although some argued that the fight should have been cancelled, it was still set to happen. However, on October 19th, it was announced that Tyson had suffered a rib injury and the fight was cancelled. With Tyson's trial set to begin on January 27th, 1992, no new date was scheduled for the fight. On February 10th, Tyson was convicted of rape and sent to prison for six years.
During Tyson’s incarceration, Holyfield's three losses (two to Riddick Bowe, one to Michael Moorer) cast doubt on if the fight would ever take place. When it was ‘finally’ scheduled for November 1996, Holyfield appeared to be just another dead rubber in Tyson's comeback, having lost three of his last seven fights before the encounter.
Build to ‘Finally’
The long-awaited encounter between the two men was considered to be a forgone conclusion. Don King, Tyson’s promoter, specifically made the fight as he viewed Holyfield as a washed up fighter. This view was shared by the oddsmakers, with Tyson opening up as a 1/25 favourite for the fight. Tyson was guaranteed $30 million, and Holyfield $12 million.
Billed as the youngest heavyweight world champion vs. the only cruiserweight to win the heavyweight title, the promotion of the fight was built around the concept of ‘good vs. evil’. Tyson encouraged this, stating, ‘It’s definitely good vs. evil. He’s the good little church boy. I’m the bad, villainous black man turned muslim. I’m rotten. I’m mean. I’m a bully. I want to hurt him; my only objective is to hurt him’.
John Horne, Tyson’s trainer, took a slightly different view: ‘If it’s good vs. evil, I know the good is Mike Tyson. Evander does not respect Mike Tyson as a person.’
Horne accused Holyfield of saying that he would ‘never fight a rapist’, before Mike Tyson had been tried, regarding their initially scheduled encounter back in 1991. Holyfield outright denied saying this. The controversy stems from a Chicago Sun-Times article which paraphrased Holyfield as saying that he ‘wouldn’t defend his title against a convicted rapist’ but contained no actual quote saying anything resembling this.
Holyfield took a far more spiritual approach in the lead to the fight, his only quote from the weigh-ins as follows: ‘I will do what the Holy Spirit leads me to do’.
Tyson weighed in at 222lbs, the heaviest he has ever been for a fight. Holyfield weighed in at 215lbs.
Tyson comes out fast and hurt Holyfield with a big right cross almost immediately. The announcer says ‘it looks like Holyfield is going to stand toe-to-toe and he is going to get knocked out if he does that’. Tyson continually closes the distance but is unable to land effectively, with Holyfield lander the better blows counterpunching. Holyfield continues to tie Tyson up and shove him backwards throughout the remainder of the round. Tyson lands a punch after the bell, and un-intimidated, Holyfield retaliates and lands one of his own.
Scoring: 10-10: The best punch of the round was the right cross Tyson rocked Holyfield with in the opening seconds, and it seemed like we may be in for classic early Tyson KO. Holyfield immediately regained his composure and controlled the remainder of the round, manhandling Tyson in the clinch and scoring with good left hooks to the body.
The opening followed the pattern of the first round, with Tyson moving forward but unable to land anything significant before Holyfield tied him up in the clinch. Holyfield lands an excellent counter jab going and Tyson looks for the clinch. The commentators note that Tyson seems unable to bully Holyfield in the way he has always done to lessor opponents. Holyfield then does what no opponent had been able to do to Mike Tyson since Buster Douglas did it almost seven years earlier, drives him back, forces him against the ropes and lands flush punches, most notably a powerful left hook which snapped Tyson’s head back. Holyfield continues to slip Tyson’s punches for the rest of the round. This was most certainly not in the script.
Scoring: 10-9 Holyfield: An excellent round for Holyfield. He forced Tyson back against the ropes and stung him with a hard combination. He was firmly in control and took this round with ease. He used his height, reach and seeming strength advantages perfectly here.
Holyfield presses forward, his confidence clearly growing as the fight progresses. In the clinch, Holyfield lands two flush right uppercuts in quick succession. The ref calls him halfway through the round for the persistent clinching by both men. Tyson lands a cheap shot and the referee tries to force a break and is warned. Tyson wins a few small exchanges following this, but Holyfield largely controls the remainder of the round, following the dominant pattern of pushing Tyson back in the clinches and ‘bullying the bully’.
Scoring: 10-9 Holyfield: Holyfield landed the most effective punches of the round early and proceeded to control the majority of the remainder. This has been fairly one-sided thus far as Holyfield continuously timed Tyson throughout the round.
Tyson hasn’t adapted his game plan at all. Holyfield’s unrelenting dominance in the clinch was evident yet again but the rate of his counterpunching slowed down here. Tyson probably had more success landing individual punches throughout this round than in the three prior, but did no real damage. Neither fighter took control in a particularly notable way.
Scoring: 10-9 Tyson: This round was really close, but Tyson definitely landed with more frequency than he had done previously in the fight, which was just enough for him to edge this round on my scorecard.
They clinch from the off, with regular breaks, but Tyson begins to take control as he starts to throw, and land some combinations. He forces Holyfield back with a hard combination to the body. He then lands a succession of uppercuts to back Holyfield off. Holyfield is barely throwing, let alone landing, as Tyson is able to consistently overcome the reach disadvantage to land punches regularly for really the first time in the fight. Holyfield does grow into the round and begins to land counterpunches as Tyson pushes forward towards the end, but this was Tyson’s best round of the fight so far.
Scoring: 10-9 Tyson: Tyson began throwing fierce combinations to both the head and body here and had his best round as a result.
Tyson presses forward early but Holyfield uses Tyson’s momentum against him and turns him into the ropes. Mitch Halpern judges a headbutt from Holyfield to be accidental but calls time as it has opened a cut above Tyson’s left eye. Back underway, Tyson recklessly presses forward as caught flush by a flurry of punches by Holyfield. Tyson lands an excellent right cross but Holyfield answers with a hard right of his own. The crowd erupts, chanting ‘Holyfield’. Tyson begins to look a little wobbly and walks forward without purpose into a left hook from Holyfield. Tyson tries a left hook, but Holyfield lands a counter left uppercut and drops Tyson! Tyson is knocked down for just the second time in his career. He takes a standing eight count and the fight continues with less than 30 seconds remaining in the round. They tie up, before Holyfield unleashes a barrage of punches, with a few stiff left hooks connecting, backing a stunned Tyson against the ropes. The round ends.
Scoring: 10-8 Holyfield: Wow. Holyfield is in complete control and if he had a little more time would have probably ended the fight in that round. Tyson was saved by the bell there, in a real dangerous spot taking hard shots up against the ropes, on already staggering legs.
Both men clinch in the early going and the ref calls for the break. Tyson is certainly more passive than he has been in every round up until this point. Whenever Tyson does try to close the distance, Holyfield is able to hold him off with his jab, or successfully tie things up if Tyson does get inside. Tyson lunges forward and Holyfield ducks his head, resulting in a hard clash of heads towards the end of the round. Tyson cries out in pain, his knees buckle and the referee calls time.
The referee adjudges the headbutt to be accidental, and the doctor gives Tyson the okay to continue. According to the rules, if the fight has be to stopped as a result of an accidental headbutt after the end of four rounds, the outcome is determined by the judges’ scorecards. Luckily for Tyson at this point, the action continues as Holyfield would have certainly been winning on the scorecards at this point.
Scoring: 10-9 Holyfield: I have to say, I think Holyfield is exceptionally lucky that the headbutt was deemed accidental. Tyson pressed forward with intent, and Holyfield just leant his head down towards Tyson and caught him exactly where the cut over his left eye was. I’m not sure dropping your head forwards towards a shorter opponent is a particularly natural movement if looking to avoid punches. That being said, and with the headbutt deemed accidental, this was clearly Holyfield’s round again. He controlled Tyson with his jab throughout fairly comfortably.
Holyfield continued to control Tyson with his jab on the outside and uses his strength to control the clinch on the inside. Even when Tyson does land, Holyfield lands right back, and probably has more power behind his punches at this stage. Tyson looks for a powerful right hook but Holyfield slips it and lands one of his own. Holyfield comfortably sees out the rest of the round in the same manner.
Scoring: Holyfield 10-9: Another comfortable round for Holyfield, perfectly exploiting his reach advantage to control Mike Tyson, who looks like he has no idea how to turn this fight around.
Holyfield is in full control as Tyson continues to miss wildly. Whenever Tyson does land, Holyfield digs in and never looks hurt. The crowd again begin chanting ‘Holyfield’. Holyfield backs Tyson against the ropes but eats an uppercut, and both men begin to throw wild punches before they clinch.
Scoring: Holyfield 10-9: This was Tyson’s best round since the 5th – but he still lost it. Holyfield again controlled the fight following the same pattern that’s worked so well for him throughout.
Tyson started this round positively, landing a few combinations as Holyfield looks to tie him up. Holyfield gets caught with hard straight right by Tyson, which sends him back, and that’s the first time since Tyson’s very first punch that Holyfield has seemed like something has hurt him. Tyson follows it up with a crisp left hook and Holyfield grabs on. After the break, Tyson looks to hurt Holyfield again but is unable to do so, with Holyfield having regained his composure and once again assert control of the contest. Tyson was far too passive in the immediate aftermath of those punches, but I’m not sure he had much else in him. With less than 20 seconds remaining in the round, Holyfield lands a perfectly placed counter right to the head and rocks the champion. Tyson, instead of forcing a clinch, tries to continue to trade shots despite being dazed. Holyfield lands another huge right which buckles Tyson’s legs and sends him stumbling across the ring, barely managing able to stand. Holyfield lands a huge flurry of at least eight more punches before the end of the round but Tyson, somehow, manages to survive. Tyson is completely out on his feet.
Scoring: 10-9 Holyfield: What a round. Tyson landed two of his best punches of the entire fight and Holyfield came back and nearly finished the contest. I have no idea how Tyson didn’t go down in the last few seconds of that fight. He was completely out of it as he staggered back to his corner.
Tyson still doesn’t look right at the beginning of this round; I wonder whether his corner shouldn’t have sent him back out there. Holyfield quickly begins landing brutal combinations almost at will, and sends Tyson flying back into the ropes. Mitch Halpern has seen enough, and steps in to rightly call the fight after 37 seconds of the 11th round, and we have a new Heavyweight Champion of the World. The crowd goes absolutely ballistic. Tyson wasn’t all there as he came out and Holyfield made short work of finishing him off here. That was awesome.
Holyfield not only wasn't afraid of Mike Tyson, he was tougher and stronger. In the immediate aftermath of the fight, the New York Times wrote;
‘It was as if Evander Holyfield were an evangelist missionary beating up a tribal executioner, a teacher's pet battering the schoolyard bully, a friendly sheriff gunning down the notorious gunslinger, and with his 11th-round knockout on Saturday night, he's now the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion.’
In the build to the fight, Tyson had only interacted with Holyfield through sharp glares and snarls, but at the press conference, as Holyfield walked in, Tyson turned and smiled. ''I just want to shake your hand, man,'' Tyson said. He acknowledged he couldn’t remember being knocked down in the sixth round, being battered in the final seconds of the 10th, or remembering the referee, Mitch Halpern, rescuing him after 37 seconds of the 11th.
Since his release from prison, Tyson fought a total of 18 minutes 20 seconds across four fights. By the seventh round on Saturday night, he had surpassed that.
''I was tired. He just kept fighting. I got caught in some exchanges. In the last round, I didn't know where I was at.” Then he smiled and offered his right hand to Holyfield, sitting nearby. ''Thank you very much. I have the greatest respect for you.''
The late Cus D'Amato taught Tyson that boxing wasn't so much a clash of power and strategy as it was of wills. And because Holyfield hadn't been afraid of Tyson, he was able to impose his own will while breaking Tyson's.
This shocking upset set the stage for an immediate rematch between the two, scheduled for June 1997. You may well have heard about that one, and recall something about an ear bite. We will be covering that fight in the June 1997 edition of the podcast!