5 Leagues That Didn't Make It

Getty Images
Getty Images

At some point in 2009, the oft-delayed All American Football League might actually start playing games. With any luck, the upstart league will be able to carve away a little bit of the NFL's massive market while giving players like Eric Crouch and Peter Warrick another shot at gridiron glory. It's a tough proposition, though; history is littered with the tales of fledgling professional sports leagues that flamed out quickly. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. The National Bowling League

Most people probably only think about professional bowling when they flip past ESPN on a Sunday afternoon. In 1961, though, professional bowling seemed like such fertile ground for fans that one league wasn't sufficient. Enter the National Bowling League. That's right: league. The NBL wasn't going to be a bunch of solo hotshots out only for their own glory. Instead, the bowlers would play as teams from different cities, and at the end of the season they would compete in the World Series of Bowling. The bowlers really did work as teams; although the rules were largely similar to league bowling, at certain points of the game a bowler could swap himself out for a "wild card" sub to pick up a tough spare.

Unlike its main competition, the Professional Bowlers Association, the NBL didn't have a television deal, so it had to make the bulk of its cash on ticket sales. Matches took place in specially designed arenas that allowed spectators to perch around the lanes. These arenas could only hold 3,250 spectators at the most, though, and the owners had spent millions building the arenas and paying bowler salaries.

And top bowlers didn't want to leave the fledgling PBA to join the NBL. As a result, the mainstream sports media was largely indifferent to the league, and fans didn't show up in the expected throngs. The league debuted on October 12, 1961, and by December 16, the San Antonio Cavaliers franchise had gone under. The rest of the league unceremoniously followed suit five months later.

Although it was short-lived, the NBL had its own scandals. Legendary PBA bowler Don Carter was allegedly offered a bribe to join the rival league. As you'd expect in bowling, the bribe itself was decidedly unglamorous; Carter was supposedly promised a pig farm.

2. The World Football League

Many secondary leagues suffer due to inferior player talent, but the WFL apparently sidestepped that problem by bringing in a number of big NFL stars for its inaugural 1974 season. By offering salaries well above the relatively low NFL wages of the day, league organizers lured stars like Larry Csonka (pictured below with Memphis Southmen teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield) and Calvin Hill (Honolulu Hawaiians) into the league. Moreover, the WFL had several new rules that made the game more exciting. The league moved the goalposts from the front of the end zone, where they resided in the NFL at the time, to the back. Touchdowns were worth seven points instead or six, and in lieu of a kicked extra point after each score, teams played an "action point" from the five yard line. (Scoring on this play was worth a point.) The WFL seemed set to offer a fan-friendly alternative to the NFL.

With this star power and the novel rules, the WFL got off to a hot start in 1974. Teams averaged over 40,000 spectators for their first few games, and it looked like the NFL might have some real competition. The league's organizers talked optimistically of expanding the league to Europe and Asia.

Unfortunately, though, much of this success was illusory; most the people in these booming crowds had gotten their tickets for free or at extremely cut-rate prices.

Actual full-priced tickets proved to be a somewhat tougher sell. While the league had brought in some high-profile stars, the rank-and-file players were mostly guys who weren't good enough to make it in the NFL. The quality of play wasn't terrible, but basically, fans were only willing to attend these games as long as they didn't have to pay full fare for the experience.

By the end of its first twenty-game season, the league was teetering on the brink of insolvency. The lack of funds led to some pretty amusing stories: the MVP of the World Bowl (the league's Super Bowl equivalent) was to receive a cash bonus. Why cash? Supposedly the league didn't want sportswriters sneering that a check from the WFL would surely bounce. The money was piled on a table, and the game's MVPs pocketed the stacks after the game. According to legend, local citizens fed the Portland Storm's roster, and the Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms impounded for failure to pay a laundry bill.

Despite these dire financial straits, the WFL tried to make another run at the NFL's throne in 1975, but its owners ran out of money midseason. The league folded, and the Birmingham Vulcans, owners of a 9-3 record, won the championship by default. Several WFL personalities found NFL success, though. Portland Storm linebackers coach Marty Schottenheimer had a long career as an NFL head coach, and Philadelphia Bell wideout Vince Papale inspired the film Invincible by catching on with the Philadelphia Eagles.

3. Roller Hockey International

Remember inline skating? Vaguely? Back in 1993, it wasn't a fad; it was a new youth movement that was never going to die. And thus, the RHI was born to capitalize on it. The league had teams across the U.S. and Canada, and played with rules that were subtly different from the NHL's. Aside from the obvious lack of ice, teams had four skaters and a goalie instead of the NHL's five, and games consisted of four 12-minute quarters rather than three 20-minute periods. Teams competed for the Murphy Cup, which the Anaheim Bullfrogs won twice, cementing their place as the Red Wings of roller hockey.

The league operated from 1993 to 1997, took a year off in 1998, and then returned in 1999 for a final season/death wheeze. Like most leagues, it produced some quality players; Saint Louis Blues goaltender Manny Legace put in some time with the Toronto Planets.

4. International Volleyball Association

It's tough to find many specific details on this short-lived volleyball league. Teams competed from 1975 to 1979, and the IVA was revolutionary for being a coed pro sports league. The league's teams were all located in the western United States, although the El Paso-Juarez Sol made good on the "international" part of the association's name by paying tribute to the Mexican side of the border.

By all accounts, some truly world-class volleyball players spiked and set in the IVA, including Polish Olympic gold medalist Edward Skorek. The most famous player in league history, though, was undoubtedly former NBA star Wilt Chamberlain, who played for the Orange County Stars in 1977, possibly because of the coed rules. Chamberlain also served as the IVA's president and was enshrined in the IVA Hall of Fame.

5. The XFL

The NFL may have good football, but does it have attitude? Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon thought not, so in 2001 he launched the XFL, an alternative, rougher football league. Almost everything about the eight-team league was designed to be edgy, unlike that stodgy old NFL. Who needs a coin toss to determine possession when you can throw a ball on the ground and have players scrap for it? Why not let the public-address announcers trash talk the opposing team and its fans? Why not just let defensive backs push receivers at any point until the ball is thrown? And can't we finally let football cheerleaders play up their sex appeal after centuries of confining them to shapeless burlap robes? The XFL sought to answer all these questions.

Unfortunately for McMahon, the answers weren't quite what he anticipated. Having a pre-game scrum to determine possession is a fantastic way to injure players, trash-talking PA announcers are incredibly obnoxious, and receivers generally can't catch passes if they've been pushed to the ground. On top of that, there are certainly many reasonable complaints one could make about NFL cheerleaders, but "not skanky enough" doesn't appear anywhere on that list. The second-rate talent, combined with the rule allowing defensive backs to eviscerate receivers, kept scoring low and games excruciatingly boring. Even after the "you're allowed to bump receivers" rule was changed four games into the season, things didn't get much better. Grammarians everywhere turned up their noses at the league's rampant, inappropriate overuse of the letter "x," particularly in the names of the Memphis Maniax and Los Angeles Xtreme.

This wrestling-style attitude did little to bring in fans, and after the Xtreme won the inaugural season's Million Dollar Game, the league ceased to Xist. League MVP Tommy Maddox spent some solid years as the Pittsburgh Steeler's quarterback, and league icon Rod "He Hate Me" Smart enjoyed some success as a kick returner for the Carolina Panthers. Perhaps the league's most enduring effect, though, was introducing the flying Skycam to football coverage. The aerial camera has since become an integral part of NFL and college football broadcasts.

Why did Mr. Smart put "He Hate Me" on the back of his jersey? Here's what he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2004:

"Basically, my brother's my opponent. After I win, he's gonna hate me. It is what it is. It's a saying I was saying when I'd feel something wasn't going my way. For example, (when) I was on the squad in Vegas and coach was putting other guys in, (if) I felt I'm better than them, you know, hey, 'he hate me.' See what I'm saying? Give me a chance. That's all I ask. It came from the heart. Within. The way I felt."

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Roomba/Amazon

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Nintendo

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.