Bring up Evander Holyfield among friends and most will ask, "Isn't he the boxer who had his ear bit off by Mike Tyson?" Not exactly. While he did lose a piece of it in the infamous June 1997 rematch — set up after Holyfield defeated Tyson with an 11th-round knockout a year earlier — what most don't remember (or know) is that Holyfield made short work of Buster Douglas, the first man to take down Tyson, and went on to become the only heavyweight champion to hold the title four different times, eclipsing Muhammad Ali's record. Still, somehow it's "The Bite Fight" that gets attached to Holyfield's name.
Two decades later, director Steve Cantor compiled Holyfield's tale into a new hour-long documentary, Chasing Tyson. Part of ESPN's critically-acclaimed "30 for 30 series," the film attempts to shed new light (and footage) on what led Holyfield to step in the ring with his controversial counterpart 19 years ago. At the time Holyfield was the defending champ with nothing to prove, but against the audacious "Iron Mike," critics and fans taunted Holyfield: 'Well, you can't beat Tyson.' And even when he did — twice — the humble, soft-spoken yet confident Holyfield was still trapped in the shadow of his larger-than-life opponent.
We recently sat down with Holyfield just hours before the film's New York City premiere to get his take on what it was like to relive his extraordinary career through Cantor's eyes. The 53-year-old also opened up about his family's enduring influence, why he never let Tyson get to him, and the future of heavyweight boxing.
Knowing how to lose sets you up to win
The youngest of nine children, the Alabama native learned early on what it felt like to never win. "I was always last," Holyfield recalls. "I used to complain to my mama and she would tell me, 'That's a part of life, son. Nobody is going to ever let you win. You will always have to strive and never give up.' "
Gamble on yourself
Part of what drove Holyfield was that he saw a semblance of himself in Tyson. "I felt that I was just as good as him, and the only way I could prove that was doing it," he says. "I would look at Tyson and think to myself, 'Man, this guy's arms are shorter than mine. He came from the ghetto just like me. I had a mama, and he had no mama or daddy; he had nobody. We sparred together. He's tough, but I'm tough, too. If he can make it, I can make it.' "
Focus on the positive
"If I go back in time, I'm not going to dig up something that feels bad. I'm going to look for what feels good. The year 1996 was bittersweet for me. That's when my mama passed away. It was also the biggest year of my career. I couldn't allow my mother's death to be a reason for me to quit. I couldn't do it."
Keep moving forward
If 53-year-old Holyfield could say one thing to his 34-year-old self before the first Tyson fight, it would be this: "We live in a world where you're either moving forward or going backward. It's impossible to be at a standstill. You might think you're at a standstill, but in fact, things are getting worse. Keep going," he says. Even today, the same advice applies: "I'm not boxing anymore, but I'm trying to inspire people to play their part in this life."
Learn to roll with the punches
"Everyone has ups and downs. Life is about how you handle it," he says. "Some people win a championship and their life becomes a disaster afterward because of how they handled it." Though Holyfield doesn't name names here, it's obvious that Tyson falls under the camp of post-championship poor decisions (including his three-year stint in jail for a rape conviction).
Know when to keep quiet
It wasn't that Holyfield couldn't match Tyson's big, outspoken personality. He just chose to stay private to protect himself: "I didn't have a problem with Tyson getting so much attention. It didn't bother me, because I didn't want everyone to know everything about me. I've got flaws, too. I worried that with more attention and eyes on me, then people might make my flaws seem larger than life. It wasn't about being in the spotlight for me. It was about where I was at in my life."
Have a little compassion
Tyson gave Holyfield plenty of reasons to get angry in the 1980's and '90s — from calling him an "Uncle Tom" on live TV to biting his ear twice in their rematch fight. But Holyfield never lost his cool. "Tyson said and did a lot of things that were really bad. I remember he once said, 'Evander is only comfortable when somebody white tells him what to do.' He would pull that race card to get me upset. But I didn't. The fact of the matter is, he didn't know any better. My mama and grandma educated me. So I have no excuse to sit here and cuss or clown around with somebody like him. I realize that insecurity makes people fight harder. I wasn't going to let him control my emotions."
Erase underdog from your vocabulary
Going into the "Fight of the Century" on November 9, 1996, Tyson was heavily favored to win, 25-to-1. Despite the overwhelming odds against him, the undisputed heavyweight champion didn't see himself as the underdog. "If you tell yourself you're an underdog, then you are the underdog. I feel that I'm just as good as anybody else. The reality is, if you work at this and I work at this, we both have the right to be the very best. If you beat me 1,000 times, all I need to do is beat you once to keep you from 1,001. All you need is the resilience to keep coming back. There is no failure if you don't quit," Holyfield says.
You've got nothing to prove
Boxing fans wanted to measure Holyfield's success against Tyson. But Holyfield never let them. "I found that any time I set my mind to prove to people what I could do, it didn't work for me," he says. "I wanted to make the 1980 Olympic team, but I didn't. And you know what, I wasn't good enough then. But I did make the team in 1984. That goes to show you that you don't always get what you want when you want it — and that's okay."
Don't call Holyfield the last great heavyweight
A new class is coming up. "The heavyweight division is about to have a rebirth," he says. "You've got Deontay Wilder, [the current WBC world heavyweight champion and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist], Anthony Joshua [the current WBC International and Commonwealth heavyweight champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist], and Joseph Parker [the reigning Heavyweight New Zealand Champion]. I'm trying to do all that I can to make this next generation better. I'm not training anybody because that would mean I want my guy to beat someone up. I'm focused on promoting."
Bite as an absolute last resort
Growing up, Holyfield often found himself pinned to the ground by his brothers. He would beg them to let him go. When they didn't, he would bite them to loosen their grip so he could wiggle free. The way he sees it, Tyson had a similar plan during the rematch fight in 1997. "He bit me because he wanted to get out of the fight," Holyfield says. "It was a highly educated move doing it that way. And it made him even more popular!"
Chasing Tyson premieres on ESPN November 10th at 8pm ET.
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