Ear Bites and Broken Brains

December 5, 2007

In 1997 Mike Tyson did the unthinkable to Evander Holyfield in a boxing match:

Suddenly, with 40 seconds left in the round, the fight takes an ugly and ghastly turn: Tyson gets Holyfield in a clinch, rolls his head above Holyfield’s shoulder, spits out his mouthpiece, and then in an inexplicable and gruesome move, crunches down hard with his teeth on Holyfield’s right ear and bites off a chunk.

Everyone in the stadium is mortified, unable to grasp what they have just witnessed. As Tyson spits out the chunk of Holyfield’s ear, a bewildered and perplexed Holyfield pushes Tyson away, then hops up and down in a frenzied pain, and spins around in a circle in stinging agony.

Gruesome yes and very much against the rules of boxing. The irony, for me, is that losing part of an ear is non-consequential compared to the permanent brain damage boxing can cause. Imagine you are in a hypothetical torturer’s chair, he gives you the option of having part of your ear painfully bitten off or receiving multiple severe blows to the head that will cause your brain to impact the inside of your skull so violently that it will swell and eventually cause permanent brain damage. Hmmmm…. sounds like a no-brainer to me (no pun intended).

Now this is not a rant against boxing but an observation of the power of feeling someone’s pain. The problem with brain damage in boxing is that there are no obvious signs of discomfort, no hopping around the ring, no open wounds gushing blood. We empathize with the chomped ear. Long term brain damage is something we can understand but it does not have the same visceral impact.

This kind of visceral empathy is the mainstay of the nightly news and is used by humanitarian organizations in their plea for donations. Carnage and suffering. Visceral imagery rules.