“I feel like I’m Norman Bates with all of these doctors.” – Mike Tyson
On June 28, 1997, one of the strangest and most memorable incidents in sport’s history would take place. The “Bite Heard Around the World” as many called it was a moment in the career of Mike Tyson that he would like to erase. Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield used his head as a battering ram, causing cuts over both of Tyson’s eyes. The continual use of his head prompted Tyson to bite both of Holyfield’s ears, causing the disqualification and suspension of “Iron Mike.” The bad boy of boxing had been shelved, but he was also the biggest draw in boxing, so we knew he wouldn’t be away too long.
Tyson would be away from the ring for well over a year and was looking for an opponent that had name value but was viewed as relatively limited. They needed somebody that wasn’t a mover, didn’t have great defense, and was rated. The choice for the return on January 16, 1999, was Frans “The White Buffalo” Botha, 39-1, 24 KO’s, a very impressive record, although many still held him in very light regard.
Much of the career of the South African heavyweight was built on unremarkable opposition. He held wins over notable journeymen like Mike Hunter, Ken Lakusta, Tim Tomashek, and Craig Payne, before somehow getting a title shot against Axel Schulz. Although many favored Schulz to win after his controversial decision loss to George Foreman, “The White Buffalo” got the victory and the IBF Heavyweight Title, which was vacant at the time. Shortly after the fight, however, Botha would lose the title when he tested positive for steroids. It became a no contest, and Michael Moorer would go on to win it.
Botha got his shot at Moorer in his next bout and showed that he belonged in the ring with the best at the time, stunning Moorer occasionally and winning many of the early rounds. Going into the twelfth and final round, it could have gone either way, but an exhausted Botha became easy prey for Moorer, who got him against the ropes and unloaded, forcing Mills Lane to end the bout. It was the first and only defeat on the record of Botha going into this Tyson fight, a ten round contest with no title on the line that actually meant a whole lot more than a championship to the underdog, Botha. A win over Tyson would make him rich and that was his intention: to knockout Mike Tyson.
There was very little attention given to Botha going into the Tyson bout. Most of the press, as always, were enamored with Mike, and he once again began to talk the talk, stating that he “put people into body bags,” and totally dismissed his opponent. It was part of Tyson’s psychological warfare and it had worked so many times before. Opponents were terrified before the opening bell rang and became deer in the headlights, easy prey for the aggressive and attacking Iron Mike. Alex Stewart, Michael Spinks, Frank Bruno, and so many more were terrified of Tyson, and that made for some easy nights, but Frans Botha was not afraid. In fact, he was sure that he was going to win.
Prior to the bout, Botha said all of the right things. He pointed to the fact that Tyson had a very hard time fighting while backing up, as evident in his Holyfield defeats. He expected Tyson to attack early but slow down in the middle rounds where he could be effective, and that his goal was to keep the great infighter on the outside. Frans Botha believed in himself and stated in the days prior to the fight that he “couldn’t wait until Saturday.” Unlike so many other Tyson opponents, he meant it. He wanted to not only silence Tyson, but the media that had written him off the moment that he signed the contract. He was ready physically and mentally to win.
Botha came down to the ring at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada, covered in his customary white fur, representing the “White Buffalo” that he claimed to be. The arena was packed with people eager to see just what Tyson would do, and gave little notice to the opponent coming to the ring. Iron Mike was next to make his way, and he seemed eager and anxious. Many contended that he took Botha very lightly and may have been thinking that he had another Peter McNeeley on his hands.
Despite the defeat to Moorer, Botha was still ranked in the #2 position in the IBF, meaning that a win for Tyson would possibly propel him right into a title shot. Many scoffed at the high rating of the underdog, but he had earned it and was a legitimate top ten heavyweight with a lot of heart. Mike Tyson, 45-3, 39 KO’s, was about to find that out.
Round one began and Botha, looking more fit than ever, began popping the jab and moving. Tyson threw some jabs of his own but missed badly with the first attempted haymaker hooks. Botha was ready for them. Immediately, you saw the influence that the Holyfield bouts had on Botha, has he threw the right hand over and over again, a punch that Tyson was susceptible to. Tyson seemed very rusty and was frustrated early, as Botha pecked away from the outside, landing good right hands, and then, shockingly, Botha excelled on the inside as well with uppercuts and short right hands. This was a huge Botha round, triggering the side of Mike Tyson that the majority of us dislike. With ten seconds remaining, Tyson latched onto the left arm of Botha and twisted his entire body in an attempt to snap his opponent’s arm and end the fight. Botha, panicking, began punching him with the free hand as referee Richard Steele tried to break them up. Both corners ran into the ring as well as security to separate them.
By the time that both men got back to their corners, the bell for round two was nearly ready to ring. There was some question as to whether the fight would even go on at this point. The first round was Botha’s, 10-9, easily, but this fight could have easily been a no contest, and when Marc Ratner, the Executive Director of the Las Vegas Athletic Commission made his way into the ring, nobody knew what the decision would be. Richard Steele was advised by Ratner to warn them both and he did, walking over to Tyson and stating that “you can’t win with a foul” and one of his best lines of the night: “You’ve been here before Mike.” Tyson was flirting with disqualification.
The crowd erupted as both men stood in their corners and the referee signaled to ring the bell. The drama was building and there would be more bang for the buck as the two gladiators went head to head again, but it didn’t take long for Tyson to try again, nearly breaking Botha’s arm with the same tactic. Botha screamed at Steele: “He’s trying to break my arm!” Yet another attempt would be made just twenty seconds later, undetected by Steele. These were tactics to get Botha to fight him and not to box and move. He wanted the stationary target that he expected.
Another attempt followed by a raking of the face of Botha with the bottom of Tyson’s glove was enough for Steele to deduct a point. It seemed that the “new” Mike Tyson was much like the old one, and his claim of Botha elbowing him fell upon deaf ears. Steele did the right thing, and the strange battle continued.
Tyson just can’t find the rhythm in the ring and can’t pull the trigger on the inside. Realizing just how rusty Tyson is, Botha begins to relax, throwing uppercuts from the outside and bouncing around with his hands down. Botha would finish the round with some good right hands, while Tyson finished with an elbow to Botha’s chin after the bell, prompting another warning from Steele. Botha’s round, 10-8, giving him a 20-17 lead.
Round three began and Tyson still had trouble finding the mark. Botha continually lands the right hand to both the body and head of a confused Tyson. The bout finally seems to be settling into a normal boxing match and away from the madness that Iron Mike can sometimes bring to the game. It was an easy round for Botha, increasing his lead to 30-26. As “The White Buffalo” walked back to his corner, Tyson just stared at him, angry and still trying to intimidate him.
Botha walks around the ring nonchalantly with his hands by his side, mocking Tyson, who is not amused. The hooks are still missing and he is not finding any formula to make it work against Botha. The crowd erupts as Botha sticks his chin out with his hands down and parades around the ring. You can almost hear Rocky Balboa speaking to Clubbler Lang in the rematch: “You ain’t so bad.” That was what Botha was telling Mike and the crowd, and they loved it. As much as they loved the indestructible force, there is a deep love and hope for the underdog.
It was another great round for Botha, and when the bell rang ending it, he walked backwards to his corner, staring Tyson in the face, and the crowd ate it up. This was his moment in the sun and he was enjoying it and so was the crowd. They came for a massacre and they got a fight. 40-35 for Botha.
The fifth round was more of the same as Botha played with Mike and landed his chopping right hand over and over again, one of which seemed to rattle the former 2-Time Heavyweight Champion. The slight change in this round came with a minute to go, as Tyson began landing hooks…the hooks that were missing for the first four rounds. The stamina problem that Botha had was rearing its ugly head and Tyson sensed it. With ten seconds left to go, a straight right hand knocked Botha down. He never saw it.
The count began and he tried valiantly to rise to his feet, and he did at nine, only to fall back into the ropes. Steele jumped in and so did Tyson to prevent him from falling again. Mike Tyson had a history of assisting fallen opponents back up to their feet and he did a variation of it here. Whether it was genuine concern for Botha or to leave an impression that he was a nice guy only he would know, but the important thing was that he survived to fight another day. The money train, Mike Tyson survived a scare and was now able to move on to bigger and better things.
The comments after the victory were full of pain and anger, as Tyson proclaimed that he was “ready to die” and that he “demanded respect.” The countless negative articles concerning his boxing career and out of the ring activities had consumed him and he seemed to be looking for another fight. Shelly Finkel, the “advisor” to Iron Mike, stated that they were looking at Vaughn Bean and Lou Savarese as a possible next opponent in the comeback of Tyson. They would end up choosing Orlin Norris, and that would lead to another “Tyson Moment.”
If the Frans Botha fight told us anything, we learned that the 1999 Tyson was nearing the end of his career with slower reflexes and wider punches, but he still maintained the power that would make him competitive and dangerous. It also showed just how fragile Mike was mentally, resorting to tactics that could have ended the career of Botha.
Frans Botha would continue his boxing career, facing off against future WBO Heavyweight Champion, Shannon Briggs, settling for a draw, in a bout that most thought that Botha clearly won. In 2000, he stepped up to face Lennox Lewis for the WBC, IBF, and IBO Heavyweight Titles, and for the first time in his career, he would be destroyed easily and early with punches that literally lifted him off of the canvas.
After four victories over mediocre opposition, Botha was once again in line for a title shot, this time against WBO Heavyweight Champion, Wladimir Klitschko. He would fight well, but succumb to the power of “Dr. Steelhammer” in round eight. In one of my favorite fights of Botha’s career, the “White Buffalo” took on the “Black Rhino” Clifford Etienne, in a bout where both men were knocked down, and Mike Tyson was supposedly awaiting the winner. Although a Tyson-Botha II was unlikely. Most suspected that the prospect, Etienne, would defeat Botha and go on to face Iron Mike. Botha won the fight clearly to most, but settled for a draw, and Etienne got his fight (all 49 seconds of it) with Tyson.
Like many other boxers that have earned some name recognition, Frans Botha moved on to the Mixed Martial Arts, competing in the K-1 competitions, making a lot of money, and losing the majority of his bouts.
The Tyson-Botha presented the return of the bad boy to the sport that had sorely missed him since his suspension. Mike Tyson was back and he was warmly welcomed despite some questionable tactics and comments during and after the fight. The fans got what they bargained for. Mike Tyson has been described as a freight train barreling down the tracks without a conductor. The train ran over Frans Botha and kept the career of the former champ alive and he now focused on smart matchmaking en route to a title shot. Like him or not, he was still the most interesting man to wear boxing gloves and was still the hottest ticket in town when he fought, and the people were eager to see him again.