Before considering what happened on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo -- that moment summed up so memorably, and yet so inadequately, by Sugar Ray Leonard on HBO as "Unbelievable!" -- cast your mind back to Atlantic City less than seven months earlier.
On the night of July 21, 1989, in Convention Hall, 23-year-old undefeated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson defended his title (his unified title, mind you) against Carl "The Truth" Williams. Tyson, who had become the youngest heavyweight champ in history when he KO'd Trevor Berbick in November 1986, was 36-0 (with 32 knockouts) and making his eighth appearance in a title fight. He took all of 93 seconds to dispose of Williams, dropping him hard with a single left hook. Though Williams would complain that the fight was stopped too soon ("It wasn't like I was disbobulated," he told the assembled press afterward), the truth was that The Truth was toast -- and that Tyson appeared to be on an unstoppable tear. "The Beatings Go On" was the headline on Pat Putnam's story in Sports Illustrated. And everyone, from the two hair-raising Donalds at ringside (Trump and King), to boxing writers, to the millions of fans who in those days actually cared about boxing, assumed they would continue to do so.
Meanwhile, on the undercard that night, 29-year-old James "Buster" Douglas earned a 10-round decision over Oliver McCall. There had been a time when Buster was viewed as a comer. The year before, on the Tyson-Michael Spinks card, he'd looked sharp in stopping Mike Williams in seven (dropping Williams at one point with a jab), and coming into the McCall fight Douglas was being mentioned as a possible challenger for Tyson. But, in what was something of a pattern for Buster, he seemed to torpedo his own cause; he beat McCall, but was lackluster at best. Commenting on the fight for HBO, Jim Lampley observed, "Douglas is a plodding fighter who has difficulty looking spectacular." (Remember those words.) I know that I sat at ringside and thought, "Well, we won't have to watch Buster Douglas again after this."
Indeed, promoter Don King, who had wrested control over Tyson's career from the fighter's longtime manager, Bill Cayton, quickly moved on from Douglas. Other possible opponents were mentioned -- Michael Dokes, Italy's Francesco Damiani -- but the real focus was on a showdown with undefeated former cruiserweight champion Evander Holyfield sometime in 1990. That bout, all concerned agreed, would make real money. Who Tyson ground up in the meantime was of little consequence.
Besides, there was just so much wildly entertaining, People magazine-worthy stuff going on in Tyson's life. There were the contract battles between King and Cayton and the marital battles between Tyson and actress-wife Robin Givens (Tyson would file for divorce in October of that year). There was even Tyson's burgeoning academic career. (He had recently been awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Central State University in Ohio -- a fact I mention only so that I can cite his speech at the commencement ceremony, in which Tyson said he wasn't sure what sort of doctor the degree made him but that looking out at "all the fine sisters in the audience," he hoped it was a gynecologist. Clearly, this was a man with issues.) By the time everything was settled and Douglas, by process of elimination (read: willingness to accept less money), was installed as the next opponent, the focus was less on inside the ring than out.
Which, of course, through hindsight, helps explain why Douglas' 10th-round knockout of the 42-1 favorite Tyson in the Tokyo Dome on Feb. 11, 1990, was anything but "unbelievable," no matter what Leonard proclaimed and most observers felt. Indeed, hindsight has helped turn the Tyson-Douglas fight into the urtext of the inevitable upset: Mike was distracted; he wasn't motivated; he was looking past Douglas; he had abandoned his original trainer, Kevin Rooney, and was no longer doing the things that had made him invincible; he was working with an inexperienced corner; Douglas, meanwhile, was fighting over his head, inspired by the death of his mother, Lula Pearl, 23 days before the fight.
Knowing all that, it is almost impossible to watch the fight fresh today. The original feeling at the opening bell -- that it was just a matter of time (Ninety-one seconds? Ninety-three?) before Iron Mike finished this guy off -- has been replaced by the knowledge that in less than 10 rounds Tyson is going to be crawling around on the canvas groping blindly for his mouthpiece. As a result, Tyson looks somehow reduced from the start, short and comically stumpy. However, if you can look at it with fresh eyes (and, thanks to ESPN Classic and YouTube, you have infinite opportunities), you will see a hell of a fight.
The 6-foot-3½ Douglas, fighting at a for-him-trim 231½ pounds, was anything but plodding. And Tyson, though a touch heavy at 220½ and showing less movement than once did, was still a formidable force. The early rounds feature a lot of action and some real back-and-forth exchanges. Douglas, fighting tall and moving Tyson back with that thudding jab, shows the blueprint for how to beat a fighter who until then everyone assumed was unbeatable. By the fifth round, it was becoming clear that Tyson was taking some real punishment. Yet at the time, almost everyone watching -- listen to the announcers -- assumed it was still only a matter of time before Tyson turned the tide with some huge punch. The truly amazing thing, looking back now, is that he almost did.
In the eighth round, Tyson, battered and tiring, landed a huge right uppercut that dropped Douglas to the canvas. It was the signature moment of the bout for me, one that defied the accepted wisdom about both men -- that the bully Tyson, once backed down, would give up and quit trying to win; and that Douglas, though capable of excellence, would fold when the going got tough. Tyson was never more serious or committed than he was with that uppercut. And Douglas, though clearly rocked, looked more disgusted with himself than discouraged and he beat the count and went right back to work.
Two rounds later, he finished his remarkable job with a devastating combination that put Tyson down and out and prompted Leonard's "Unbelievable!" It may not have been that, but certainly Tyson-Douglas was surprising, revealing and thrilling. It turned boxing on its head and proved to be the dividing line in the career of the sport's most important figure. For all those reasons, it's worth looking back at in every detail. Believe it.