For a time in the early and mid 90s, there were two major professional sports in Atlanta: Braves Baseball and Evander Holyfield. If you were a young fight fan in the south, The Real Deal was your guy. Undersized for a heavyweight, he won with tenacity and an absurd work rate.
ESPN’s new documentary “30 for 30: Chasing Tyson” — which airs tonight — gives Holyfield the attention that he deserved all along by examining the seven-year process of making Holyfield-Tyson. It moves along crisply beginning with Holyfield’s rise to the heavyweight division, giving glimpses back to his childhood and amateur career. It is very clear throughout that Holyfield was living in Tyson’s shadow.
A strong aspect of the film is a reliance on fight footage to help tell the story. I estimate there is 15-20 minutes of actual fight film included in the 76 minute (without commercials) run time. A common criticism of recent boxing broadcasting is that the commentators speak over the action, instead of letting it tell the story. In a film about fighters, telling the story with their performances was the right thing to do, especially given the era in question. The 1990s were a golden era of heavyweights, and Holyfield was the best of the bunch in my opinion.
The narration is comprised largely of recent interviews with Tyson and Holyfield, interspersed with clips of them from the time. It’s amazing how much attitudes soften and opinions change in a span of 20 years. Holyfield still seems to believe he never got the respect he deserved, while Tyson looks back fondly, almost reverentially to Holyfield.
If you’re expecting a slow steady build to an ultimate explosion, it doesn’t happen. Largely, that’s because Tyson-Holyfield didn’t go how anyone expected it to. Tyson opened at 25/1, but odds had dropped to 6/1 by fight time. If you’ve forgotten how good Holyfield was on Nov. 9, 1996, you’ll get a wonderful reminder. It is here that the film is at it’s best. The quality, but not drama, holds steady through the bizarre rematch, aka Bite Fight.
This film is told by, and for, general sports fans. There are aspects that will irritate hard core boxing fans, not the least of which is Jim Gray being featured throughout. Gray is out of place. No matter how long he covers boxing, Gray will never be a fight guy. There is also a sense that Holyfield needed Tyson to legitimize him as a champion. It’s asked outright in an interview clip and the attitude permeates much of the story telling. Only two people seem not to be buying that narrative: Tyson and Holyfield themselves.
Despite the niggling details that fight fans will spot, it’s an enjoyable film, and well worth 90 minutes of your time.
(Photo: Holyfield, left, is inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame by Mike Tyson at the second annual induction gala at the New Tropicana Las Vegas on August 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada; Ethan Miller/Getty Images)