Boxing: Tyson's bite puts his sport on the line

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As the Nevada State Athletic Commission prepared for today's disciplinary hearing into the sensational ear-biting conclusion to Saturday night's world heavyweight fight in Las Vegas, it was not just Mike Tyson's future, or his $30m (pounds 20m) purse, that were at stake in America, but the future of the sport of boxing itself.

Meanwhile Tyson himself - who celebrated his 31st birthday yesterday - was nowhere to be found.

On the second day after the fight, arguments were still raging about whether boxing or Tyson was primarily to blame. The director of the Nevada commission, Marc Ratner, described the outcome of the fight as "a sad day for boxing". A commentator for the right-wing Washington Times, Thom Loverro, said Tyson's action on Saturday night in twice biting chunks out of Evander Holyfield's ears had "changed the face of boxing".

The US boxing promoter Rock Newman blamed the presence of so many "bodyguards and hangers-on" in the ring at title fights these days, claiming that they had provoked the extraordinary scenes at the end of the Tyson fight.

Even the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, joined the debate. Asked to comment during a press conference at which he was presenting his latest tax cutting proposals, he said he was "horrified", but delicately tried to separate the sport from this one incident.

"I saw the fight," he said, "and until the biting incident happened, it was a good fight. I was horrified by it, and I think the American people are." He said he did not know what the role of the federal government should be in regulating boxing, but "as a fan, I was horrified".

There were, however, differing opinions as to whether Tyson should forfeit his purse for the fight and whether his career was now effectively over. The most charitable view came from a Newman, who said: "This guy put his life on the line and he deserves to be paid." The most severe judgment came from a number of professional sports commentators, who said that Tyson should be barred for life.

Several noted that he risked returning to jail. Tyson is on parole after serving six years for rape, and could be returned to prison if the authorities decide to charge him with assault either for a blow he is allegedly struck at a Las Vegas police officer during the melee on Saturday night or for the action of biting Holyfield in the ring.

This eventuality was seen as unlikely - the police are not expected to press charges - but Holyfield's attorney, Jim Thomas, has confirmed that he will wait for the commission's verdict before deciding whether to pursue legal action against Tyson.

"I believe the action of Mike Tyson was actionable. Whether Evander Holyfield wants to do anything about that, we'll have to decide," Thomas said. "Both of us feel for the good of this sport, which Evander has put a lot into over the years, there needs to be serious consequences."

Whatever stance they took, and however distasteful they found the prospect, few US commentators were prepared to bet that there would never be a re- match.

In Britain meanwhile the British Boxing Board of Control has urged that strong action be taken against Tyson. Its general secretary, John Morris, has sent a personal letter to Ratner, in which he wrote: "Now world boxing will be watching Nevada for action. Obviously you may know mitigating circumstances that we could not, but it does seem as if only the sternest of decisions can rescue the image of the sport."

Amid general condemnation, there was one voice of support for Tyson from Britain - from the former world welterweight champion Lloyd Honeyghan. A friend of Tyson's, Honeyghan said: "Holyfield should stop being a big baby and get on and sign for the next fight. Holyfield head-butted in the first fight. And he did it again in this fight. It was a professional head-butt. We've all done these things if we can get away with them.

"I thought Mills Lane was the best referee in the world. But he was wrong this time. He never warned Holyfield. Mike got frustrated because the referee wasn't protecting him. I don't blame Tyson. I would have done the same - if I thought I'd get away with it."