“There is another way to look at the Tyson Bite affair. Try this. The bites were against the rules and should be penalized, but they were understandable and even justified. The sanctified Holyfield was fighting dirty. The ref was doing nothing to stop it. Tyson had to defend himself. The tradition in boxing is, if you’re being fouled, foul in return.
Much of the commentary assumes that Tyson often commits fouls and that the bites are merely an extreme version of his usual unsportsmanlike tactics. Yet, despite being hyped as a monster throughout his career, Tyson is not a particularly dirty fighter. He rarely throws low blows even though he’s shorter than most of his opponents. He hits on the break or after the bell occasionally, and he can wield a potent shoulder and elbow. Sometimes he clinches too much. This pattern is run-of-the-mill in the dirty boxing spectrum. Only the bites were extraordinary.
No one but Mike Tyson himself knows what was going on in his head that night, and his public apology explicitly said that he ‘snapped’ as a result of the severity of the cut over his right eye caused by Holyfield’s head butt in the second round. Immediately after the bout he said Holyfield was butting repeatedly and he had to retaliate to prevent further damage.
Tyson’s version of events has been ignored, discounted as lies. Sports Illustrated described the butes as ‘completely unprovoked,’ and that is the prevailing view.
. . .
Having watched the videotape of the three rounds of the fight several times in slow motion, I think Tyson was telling the simple truth. Holyfield was head butting repeatedly and intentionally. The ref, Mills Lane, was doing nothing to prevent it. Tyson retaliated for furious revenge and to convince Holyfield to stop the tactic.
. . .
The ringside commentators and the hundreds of reporters in the arena all bought the years of hype from both sides. Holyfield, the Christian Warrior, is good and everything he does is saintly. One irate fan told us, ‘It’s not so much the bite as who he bit!’ Tyson, the street thug, is bad. They’ve been wanting to punish him for a long time. Apparently there is nothing on the planet more terrifying and evil than a bad black man.
Tyson faced a press conference alone the Monday after the fight and read a complete apology. He said he was wrong to bite. He said he would accept without contest whatever punishment the Commission handed out. He asked not to be suspended for life. He didn’t blame Holyfield or Mills Lane or anyone else. He took total responsibility for his actions. Many reporters dismissed the apology claiming it was ‘spin doctors’ at work. No. ‘Spin’ is when you try to pin the rap on somebody else. ‘But is he sincere?’ they keep asking. Please. Obviously Tyson is deeply sorry. Nobody goes looking for this kind of shit storm. Did anybody ask if Bill Clinton was ‘sincere’ when he apologized to the victims of the Tuskegee Experiment?”
– Katherine Dunn, giving the broader context for the most famous sports bite of all time in her report “Defending Tyson: The Bite Fight” for the July 9, 1997 issue of (defunct) PDXS newspaper. The essay is included in the 2009 collection of Dunn’s boxing writing, One Ring Circus