Tim May covered Buster Douglas' upset of Mike Tyson for the Columbus Dispatch, where he's worked since 1976.
May gained renown in boxing circles as the only journalist to predict a Douglas victory. (By a knockout "sometime during the first seven rounds," according to his front-page column dated Feb. 10, 1990, the day before the fight.)
This was not a case of a homer reporter making a prediction to appeal to the locals. May tirelessly followed and reported on the Columbus native's training for the fight and foresaw the constellation of factors that made the upset possible. Basically, May's pick was the sports columnists' Holy Grail: the ultimate prediction.
May, who shared his reflections on the fight in Wednesday's Dispatch, spoke with SI.com about the upset, his memories from fight week and why he felt comfortable picking a 42-to-1 longshot over the Baddest Man on the Planet.
SI.com: How long had you been working for the Dispatch when you were assigned to cover Douglas-Tyson in Tokyo?
Tim May: I started covering Ohio State football in 1984. I also covered boxing from like 1981 or 1982 on. And I also cover auto racing, mainly IndyCar racing. So those were my main three beats -- two sports where you wear a helmet and one where you should.
SI.com: So you'd been covering Douglas from just about the beginning.
May: Yeah, I'd been covering Buster for eight or nine years. I pretty much covered him most of his professional career, at least through the [Evander] Holyfield fight.
SI.com: Following him as long as you did -- and being one of the few members of the Western media who covered the entire fight week in Tokyo -- did you feel like you had the pulse of this story as well as anybody?
May: Yeah, and that's not bragging. That's just because it seems like I was an embedded reporter with Buster and his camp because I'd known him forever. From the moment they made the fight, I did countless stories on them and the progress Buster made.
Buster lost to Tony Tucker a couple years earlier for the IBF championship, when he kind of ran out of gas in the 10th. Clearly the Tyson people made the [Douglas] fight thinking this was going to be a walk-through. Buster always looked pretty good as a fighter and he had a pretty good record at that point.
I watched him get into the best shape of his life. And everyone who was around Buster Douglas always wanted to see that, because they thought, when in shape, Douglas was about as good as there was in the world at that point in the heavyweight division. But he was rarely in that optimum shape. He was motivated to get into the greatest shape of his life for the Tyson fight because he saw that as a challenge, a way to make his mark. It piqued his interest in all kinds of ways.
He looked and ran like a linebacker. He was 6-4, about 230 pounds, he could sprint -- he was a great athlete. If you watch a video of the fight, you can see what I'm talking about: He was cut, he looked like an athletic specimen. On top of that, he had some innate boxing skills, a great jab, really good power in both hands.
The main thing Buster had going for him is that he wanted to beat this guy. He wanted to beat him up if he could. Buster is an extremely nice guy, and sometimes one of his problems was getting nasty. The bottom line was Buster was one of those guys who -- pardon the cliché -- fought up or down to his opposition.
SI.com: In a sense, Tyson was almost the perfect opponent for Douglas, to bring that out of him.
May: Absolutely. That's it in a nutshell. Tyson was absolutely the perfect opponent to touch every button that Buster had. On top of that, as you know, his mom died of a stroke like 23 days before the fight. Everyone wondered what kind of thought that might have put him in, but if anything it just enhanced his resolve. He was clearly a focused dude. He got a little bit of a flu or sickness while he was in Tokyo, but I don't think it bothered him that much because he was still running and doing his training. Bottom line: He was motivated and he put in the work.
SI.com: What did you see that led to your prediction of a Douglas victory?
May: The only reason I was in Tokyo is because Buster was from Columbus. I probably covered three-quarters of his fights leading up to that, including fights in Las Vegas and Atlanta and places like that. Point is, I had seen Buster at his worst and I had seen him near his best. And I saw him during training for Tyson in the optimum shape of his life. And you didn't have be around Tyson much that week to understand that maybe he wasn't.
I remember sitting there with [manager] John Johnson and [trainer] J.D. McCauley, who scouted this fight like football coaches. They just dissected tape after tape of Mike Tyson and the way he fought people. And one of the things they saw was when he fought Frank Bruno -- who was one of the few guys to really stand up to Tyson before this -- Bruno landed a few jabs but he never had the wherewithal or the guts to follow up. He'd throw a jab and back out.
What they noticed was when Tyson got hit with a jab in the face, he'd sort of pause for a second. They kept preaching to Buster to go in there and hit him with two or three jabs in a row. If you watch the tape of the fight, that's exactly what he did. And you can see how beat up Tyson's face is by the fifth round.
I had a lot of "inside information," if that's what you want to call it. I could see that Buster was in great shape, I could see that Tyson wasn't, you could see that the people around [Tyson] were a different group than what he rose to fame with. The bottom line was whether you could stay away from his uppercut. Tyson as never going to be confused with Muhammad Ali. He was not, at least not in my mind, this great overall fighter. He would set you up and throw that uppercut and lift your feet of the canvas and you were done. But if you stayed away from the uppercut and just kept him at jab's length and occasionally threw some other punches, you were going to have a shot at him.
Here was Douglas in the best shape of his life. He had a ridiculous reach advantage. Tyson is even shorter when you see him in person -- he might be 5-11 on his tiptoes. I just thought Douglas would use all those elements to his advantage.
Like I even said, if he stepped in there and took an uppercut, it could all be over too. Tyson ended many a fight with one punch. It almost happened in the eighth round when Douglas made one mistake. I give it up to Tyson. I earned more respect for him from the Buster Douglas fight than any other fight he ever won, because he was getting beat up and he still almost won the fight.
SI.com: Some people have credited the upset to Tyson's lack of preparation.
May: He was in [decent] shape, you just wondered about his focus. A day or two before the fight, Evander Holyfield and his handlers come in there. They're announcing the Holyfield-Tyson fight for May or April at the Taj Mahal or one of Trump's places.
SI.com: They made a public announcement for Holyfield-Tyson during fight week?
May: Oh, yeah. I went up to [Holyfield promoter] Dan Duva after the press conference and I said, "What happens to this fight if Douglas beats Tyson? Would Douglas get the fight?" And he said, "Oh, that'll never happen," meaning Douglas would never beat Tyson. I'll never forget after the fifth round. Tyson was sitting there in his corner and his trainers had that condom filled with ice water on his face because they didn't have a cold-stop. They weren't prepared for this to go longer than two rounds. Duva gets up and he's walking up and down the aisle and he keeps saying, "I-I-I can't believe it."
SI.com: You've worked at the Dispatch since 1976. Most memorable event you ever covered?
I've been privileged. I got to cover Bobby Rahal's victory in the Indianapolis 500 when his car owner, Jim Trueman, was in the pits dying from cancer. He died 11 days later; I'm getting chill bumps just talking about that one. I also covered the Christian Laettner last-second shot against Kentucky in the NCAA regionals. Of course, I've covered Ohio State football since '84, and the Rose Bowl win in '96 and the national championship win in 2002. Those were unbelievable. But I think John Johnson said it best: When Buster Douglas beat Mike Tyson, it wasn't a local or regional or national event. This was a world event. Maybe a billion people for a while knew who Buster Douglas was. What more can you say than that?