The news broke last week in a flurry of headlines and hastily assembled composite photographs—a scowling Evander Holyfield pasted beside a glaring Mike Tyson. The big bout is on: Nov. 8, Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, heavyweight champion Holyfield versus No. 1 contender and former champ Tyson. The numbers are suitably colossal—a projected $100 million gross, with a guarantee of $30 million for Holyfield and $15 million for Tyson—and so is the anticipation. Already the papers are full of comparisons to Ali-Frazier I in 1971.
Yet, come November, the two fighters will be hard pressed to match the infighting that went on last week as their promoters, lawyers and retainers squirmed and maneuvered to forge a deal. The cast that gathered in midtown Manhattan to negotiate the terms of the bout included virtually all the biggest names—and egos—in the fight business. At stake was money and power. For the two boxers the stakes were far simpler. Tyson craves Holyfield's title, and though Holyfield wears the crown, only by beating Tyson can the champion earn the respect to which he feels he's entitled. Fittingly, the two boxers' determination to meet is the primary reason the fight was finally scheduled.
Three weeks ago it appeared that a Holyfield-Tyson match might never take place. Dan Duva, Holyfield's promoter, whose power in the sport rose dramatically when Holyfield won the championship last October from Buster Douglas, had no intention of meeting the demands of Tyson's promoter Don King, which included a 45% share of the purse for Tyson, as well as the pie-in-the-sky notion of options to promote Holyfield's future fights. King, in turn, bellowed to anyone who would listen that he and his fighter didn't need Holyfield. "Mike Tyson is the people's champion," said King. However, for months King had been seeking to have the WBC strip Holyfield of its share of the title because Holyfield had made his first defense against George Foreman, not Tyson. The matter is still in arbitration.
King has more at stake in this heavyweight drama than any of the other players. Many boxing observers think that, after a nearly three-year relationship, Tyson has become edgy and impatient with King. Tyson spent two days last month visiting with boxing adviser (and convicted embezzler) Harold Smith in Los Angeles, a dalliance that reportedly drove King to distraction. If King should lose Tyson, he would have precious little to work with. He is trying to counter Time Warner's TVKO, which has a contract with Holyfield, with his own pay-per-view network, Showtime Event Television/King Vision. But King's only other boxers of note, Julio Cesar Chávez and Azumah Nelson, are not enough of a base on which to support a pay-per-view operation. (Time Warner is the publisher of SI.)
After Tyson's win over Razor Ruddock in their June 28 rematch, King set out to land a bout with Foreman. It was a power move that could well have left Holyfield with his crown, but with little opportunity to parlay it into another megabucks fight. However, the 42-year-old Foreman, whose gallant loss to Holyfield in April left him the heavyweight division's most popular figure, reportedly turned down a $20 million offer from King. Big George, it seemed, wanted a Holyfield rematch.
Which brings us to July 9, a hot Tuesday in New York City. At 2:30 that afternoon, Duva and Holyfield's manager, Shelly Finkel, met with Bob Arum, Foreman's promoter, and Foreman's friend Ron Weathers in TVKO's offices. According to Arum, a deal was struck for a Holyfield-Foreman fight. "Dan and I made the deal," Arum says. "We dotted the I'S and crossed the t's."
Duva insists there was merely an agreement to "principal terms," nothing more.
Says Finkel, "We left it that we would get back to them."
The Duva team had one more appointment—with King. That morning Jose Sulaiman, president of the WBC and an ally of King's, phoned Duva. "Don is ready to get the fight resolved," said Sulaiman.
Duva was skeptical. "I fully believed we'd make no deal with King," he says, "because we weren't budging off our numbers [$15 million for Tyson, $30 million for Holyfield]. I told Arum and Weathers we were meeting with King that night, but I didn't expect to make a deal."