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He Got Up And...

Feb. 19, 1990
Feb. 19, 1990

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Feb. 19, 1990

The Fight
Big Ten
Dan St. John
Bobsled
Track & Field
Sneakers
Point After
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Photo Credits: Sports Illustrated

He Got Up And...

Buster Douglas was floored by Mike Tyson in the eighth round, but then...knocked out Tyson in the 10th round to win the heavyweight crown (no matter what Don King says) in perhaps the biggest boxing upset ever

It was halfway between performance art and barnstorming. A fighter who wears a torn towel for a robe and who cuts down opponents with a terrifying swiftness was embarking on a strange world tour, starting in Tokyo, that was likely to take him to Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Brunei—coming soon to a country near you. His primary appeal was no longer as a fighter, since it had become clear that nobody in this world was capable of defeating him, but rather as an expensive novelty act. “It ain't about if he knocks a guy out,” promoter Don King insisted. “It's about how he knocks a guy out. It's the style, the improvisation.” Even a minute-and-a-half's glimpse—the length of two of the fighter's recent shows—of his savagery was considered good enough value for promoters around the world to bid his price beyond $6 million per appearance. China was said to be interested. Representatives from Zaire and Indonesia were exchanging faxes with King.

This is an article from the Feb. 19, 1990 issue

The arrogance was absolute and, of course, an invitation to disaster. So it was that on Sunday, at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, Mike Tyson, the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, provided real theater. Against a fighter whose principal qualification as a contender was his availability and pay scale, Tyson quickly found himself in trouble, was struck at will with right hands and had his left eye closed after nine rounds. Even with that, it was impossible to conceive what would happen at 1:23 of the 10th round. James (Buster) Douglas, so secure in boxing anonymity that he could not draw the attention of a single photographer as he waited for the weigh-in the day before, lifted Tyson upright with a right uppercut, hit the suddenly defenseless champion with two more punches and then floored the reeling Tyson, already more horizontal than perpendicular, with a chopping left hook.

[pullquote[quote]This is how the latest of sports' sure things, the Tyson dynasty, ended: far from home and entirely removed from expectation and possibility, well short of a $70 million pay-per-view bout this spring with Evander Holyfield and a subsequent program of purportedly easier assignments in other countries.[/quote][/pullquote] 

Tyson, who had never before been knocked down in his professional career, skidded on his backside. As referee Octavio Meyran Sànchez began the 10 count, Tyson flipped himself over and began sweeping the canvas with his right arm. A boxer's reflex is a strange and revealing thing. Finally, Tyson found his mouthpiece, started to insert it backward into his mouth and then desperately climbed to his feet and into Meyran's protective embrace, his good eye fogged in a way you cannot imagine.

This is how the latest of sports' sure things, the Tyson dynasty, ended: far from home and entirely removed from expectation and possibility, well short of a $70 million pay-per-view bout this spring with Evander Holyfield and a subsequent program of purportedly easier assignments in other countries. It was probably the biggest upset in boxing history, and certainly the unlikeliest result of all recent sporting events.

In his five-year career—expressed as 37 victories and 33 knockouts—Tyson had done more than dominate his division. At 23 years of age, he had created an aura of invincibility that far transcended even his considerable boxing skills. In the ring he offered a chilling vision of menace; he was sockless and naked of the baubles and bangles borne by most modern boxers as they enter the ring. His actions were similarly stripped of artifice and pretense; he bored in with a wearing fusillade until his opponent simply crumpled. Until he was sidelined by a chest inflammation for five weeks last fall, the regularity and completeness of his ring destruction had become a fixture on the sports calendar. Few people were surprised when, in June 1988, he dispatched Michael Spinks in 91 seconds or, last July, Carl Williams in 93.

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I'll just hit him, I guess,” he said, without enormous conviction. “It seems as though nobody ever hit him hard enough to gain his respect.”

Buster Douglas
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Douglas was not expected to survive much longer—much less reveal Tyson as mortal. Douglas, from Columbus, Ohio was 29–4–1 and had failed in a 1987 title bid against Tony Tucker. His manager, John Johnson, said Douglas may have been more suited to basketball than boxing. “He's too nice,” said Johnson before the bout. “He can be kind of passive.”

Nor did Douglas have much of a plan against Tyson. “I don't know what he's going to do,” said Johnson. “I guess we'll see.”

Douglas himself would be no more specific. “I'll just hit him, I guess,” he said, without enormous conviction. “It seems as though nobody ever hit him hard enough to gain his respect.”

Have fighters been afraid of Tyson?

"That seems to have been the case."

In the end, that was all the plan Douglas had: not to be afraid of Mike Tyson. That he was able to stick to it was remarkable. As Tyson entered the ring, again he appeared to be a primeval force, made for inflicting great harm. He paced between two ring posts against a backdrop of a huge American flag. His cornermen, Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, were similarly functional and low-rent, wearing gray sweatshirts that advertised Anaconda Kaye Sports, a sporting goods company in Schenectady, N.Y. Tyson, despite the six-month layoff since the Williams fight, was a firm 220 pounds, as muscled as ever. At ringside, Holyfield, disappointed that someone had gotten to challenge Tyson first, nevertheless admired the way Douglas strode forth into the maw of disaster. "For once Tyson wasn't fighting a guy who was afraid of him," he said.

And, for once, strange things began happening. Douglas started hitting Tyson with right hands. Tyson had always been hittable, but never to this extent. For the first time, an opponent's height and reach advantage—Douglas is 6'4" to Tyson's 5'11"—seemed important. Certainly Douglas's hand speed was a factor. When Tyson coiled to leap inside, Douglas invariably beat him to the punch with his long right.

This initial surprise played out for two rounds, with Douglas finishing the second with a snappy uppercut to Tyson's chin. Then, in the third, Tyson seemed to regain his form and smacked Douglas with a punishing left to the body. Douglas looked to his corner at that punch, but saw nothing more reassuring than the mild hysteria that held sway there throughout the fight. "Ain't no iron in Mike!" hollered trainer J.D. McCauley, who is also Douglas's uncle.

The challenger's corner grew wilder in the fifth when Tyson was wobbled by a chopping right. Soon, Tyson's left eye began to swell. "I didn't see his punches real well," Tyson said afterward. Nor could he put any kind of combination together against Douglas.

The eighth round opened with Douglas again getting the better of Tyson, but it closed with a sudden, classic Tyson right uppercut that dropped Douglas to the canvas with six seconds left. It was the only time that Douglas got careless, and it nearly cost him his eventual stunning upset. Worse, though, was referee Meyran's shabby handling of the count, which, if promoter Don King has his way, may serve to deprive Douglas of the crown that he rightfully deserves. At the moment Douglas's backside touched the surface of the ring, the knockdown timekeeper began his count. Instead of picking up that cadence, Meyran began his own count, two beats behind.

As generations of felled fighters have done before him, Douglas kept his attention fixed on the referee's hands. As Meyran signaled nine, Douglas rose, but the bell ended the round. If there was any doubt that Douglas was clearheaded and could have risen to his feet on the timekeeper's count, it had been erased right after the knockdown when Douglas pounded his left fist on the mat, in obvious annoyance at his own lapse.

Yet King, who saw his world tour coming to a screeching halt about three continents short of his grand plan, would later seize on the discrepancy in the counts as grounds to bully others into awarding Tyson a victory by knockout. But there was no debating what happened in the ninth round, when Douglas closed Tyson's eye completely. Pushing Tyson into the ropes, Douglas then launched four punches that shook Tyson, whose head flopped backward loosely on its pillar of a neck.

Then came that 10th, with Tyson utterly helpless in the face of Douglas's assault and finally toppling to the mat. At that stage of the fight, it was no longer a shocking development—except to two of the three judges, whose scoring was at best inexplicable. Judge Larry Rozadilla from California had Douglas far ahead, 88-82, but judge Ken Morita, also from California, somehow had Tyson ahead 87-86 and Masakazu Uchida of Japan scored it even. But the point was dramatically made even before Meyran bear-hugged the helpless Tyson, who rose at nine, his mouthpiece sticking grotesquely out of his mouth: Tyson was not invincible, but just a pretty good heavyweight with a nice run behind him and an uncertain future ahead. "Greater fighters than I have lost," said Tyson, ever the boxing historian, hours later.

But King was not willing to allow his investment in the franchise called Mike Tyson to take the hit that inevitably comes from losing a title fight. King summoned officials from two of the major sanctioning bodies, the WBC and WBA, and representatives from the Japan Boxing Commission to a small room off the arena. Emerging two hours later, King called a press conference to announce that tapes of the bout clearly showed that "two knockouts took place, but the first knockout obliterates the second. Buster Douglas was knocked out, and the referee did not do his job and panicked. As the promoter of both fighters, I'm only seeking fair play."

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But the damage is pretty much done. All King's men can't put Tyson together again.

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Two hours after that declaration, King again summoned the press. This time, he brought along Meyran, who said, "I don't know why I start my count and make my mistake. Yes, he was down longer than 10 seconds." Also in attendance was the fallen champion. His swollen left eye hidden by dark glasses, he said, "I thought I knocked him out. I thought he was counted out."

Not surprisingly, given the sway he holds over the sport, King's transparent attempts to alter the obvious were persuasive enough for the WBC and WBA to announce that they would suspend recognition of the outcome until further review, which is expected to take place during this coming week. Even as Douglas relaxed in his hotel room with the WBC belt around his waist, the organization's president, Josè Sulaimàn, was saying, "I'm very confused." Later, at the second press conference, he was no longer so confused. He said a rematch "was absolutely mandatory." But the damage is pretty much done. All King's men can't put Tyson together again.

Of course, if you want confusion, boxing is, once more, for you. For starters, there is the blabbering of governing bodies whose only apparent purpose is to collect sanctioning fees. Tyson had consolidated all three titles—WBC, WBA and IBF—on Aug. 1, 1987, but because the Japan Boxing Commission does not recognize the IBF, no one from that organization was represented in Tokyo. Yet the IBF did sanction the fight, and does not recognize the challenge to Douglas's victory. So at the very least, Douglas now holds the IBF title.

Still, King presumably has the clout to force a quick rematch. Meanwhile Holyfield's representatives, promoter Dan Duva and adviser Shelly Finkel, were insisting that they had an agreement with the WBA and King that says Holyfield is to meet the winner of Sunday's fight—whether Tyson or not. In any case, that fight, scheduled for June 18 in Atlantic City, has plummeted from pay-per-view status. "Did that cost us money?" asked Duva, whistling. He pretended not to be apoplectic.

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"The easiest part is winning," he said at King's tawdry press conference. "The hardest part is coming back."

Buster Douglas
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That's not the least of it. Former champion Greg Page, whose career was reborn when he decked Tyson while sparring with him three weeks before the fight, was supposed to fight Tyson in the fall. King said he was negotiating to stage the event hard by the crumbled Berlin Wall. Another bout suddenly on hold: an all-the-money-in-the-world showdown between Tyson and George Foreman. Presumably that notable promoter, the Sultan of Brunei, has now cooled on the idea of Tyson destroying somebody in his courtyard.

Yet even in defeat Tyson looms over this sport. And it was left to him to provide the only sensible comment from the defeat. "The easiest part is winning," he said at King's tawdry press conference. "The hardest part is coming back."

Seemingly lost in all of this is Douglas, who had been presented as a likable but hopeless victim. Both Tyson and Douglas, who is 29, must now think of the legacies they will leave, not the ones they live up to. Tyson, who wallows in boxing history, continues to search for his place there. That place in history is no longer so secure, and to recover it, Tyson must now embark on a different tour than King had planned.

Douglas's place in history is more tenuous. Only hours after the greatest victory of his life, machinery was set in motion to reduce the rewards of his reign. His ability to dramatically increase the $1.3 million he earned from this fight (Tyson got $6 million) may be compromised. Yet minutes after the knockout, there could have been no qualification of his achievement. His 11-year-old son, Lamar, wearing a Buster Douglas cap, was hoisted onto his father's shoulders. An overhead camera, which was beaming images to a stadium screen, pulled back to reveal a wild clot of people in the ring, pushing and shoving. As the camera continued to pull back it was possible to see that Douglas, his son on his shoulder, was for once in his life, however briefly, the center of attention.