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Douglas-Tyson: The upset, 20 years later

07
Feb

It’s 20 years ago this week that James “Buster” Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in one of the great upsets in modern sport and there still is a certain melancholy about Douglas that time has not repaired.

He still gives the impression of a man just awakened from a dream in which he is all he ever wanted to be, a man without regret, and his reaction to being thrust back into an imperfect and unforgiving reality is one that combines resignation and a stubborn despondence.

If you didn’t know better, you would think Douglas had used up his time like the uncountable many who lived their lives from beginning to end giving chase to the glory he achieved in Tokyo on Feb. 11, 1990.

The lives of most men are dreary and humdrum affairs, after all, and the lives of prizefighters, even the pretty good ones, are spent in service of approval and affirmation, which none can know at the time is a no-win endeavor.



Douglas became a fighter in the first place because of his father, Billy Douglas, a hardnosed 1970s middleweight whose stubbornness and pride was such that after James ran out of gas and quit against Tony Tucker in 1987, he walked away from his son’s career in revulsion.

The loss ratified the consensus among those who make a silly living writing about fistfights that Douglas was under-motivated and soft, even if he had been graced with a body and physical skills that made other heavyweights envious.

“What his father could have done with that body,” said those who had seen his father at work and in his prime. “What a waste.”

So it was in the natural order of things that three years later Don King chose Douglas to meet Tyson for the world heavyweight title. And being it was such a mismatch and all, they would put it in Japan, where the sports fans were interminably agreeable and polite no matter the tripe put before them.

Douglas was happy at the chance.

“It was a title fight,” he told me recently when I asked him why he was so much better against Tyson than he’d been against other opponents. ÔǪ When I first fought for the title (against Tucker) everyone kind of gave me a chance to come out and when I came up short they kind of just blew me off. That in itself made me more determined to come back and get another shot and win.

“Of course, I was up against a more dominant fighter in Mike Tyson, but I was just more determined and focused to go out there and make a good showing and win the fight.”

It is said by adrenalin junkies and other adventure-seekers that being in close proximity to annihilation has wonderful effects on one’s ability to focus the mind on nothing but self preservation. Certainly it seemed at the time that survival should be foremost on Douglas’ mind.

Tyson was a phenomenon. Still just 24 years old, he’d defended the heavyweight title nine times and in his prior fight had dispatched the towering and well-regarded Carl Williams with a single left hook.

People who were respected in the business, if you’ll pardon the expression, thought he might be on par with Dempsey and Louis and Ali.

And Douglas was that lazy under-achiever who had quit against the terrifically ordinary Tucker. Thus, the only serious betting that took place in Las Vegas concerned how quickly Douglas would be stopped. Most favored something in the area of five rounds or less.

But an improbable series of events were undertaken that served to propel Douglas out of the career lethargy in which most thought him to be, and to reverse Tyson’s fortunes as well. First and foremost, Douglas’ beloved mother, Lula Pearl Douglas, died of a stroke 23 days before the fight. It galvanized him.

“(It was) most definitely a positive for me. It made me more determined because just before she passed, she came over to the house to check on me and she was asking me questions,” Douglas said.

“She went out and bought a Ring magazine with Tyson in it and read up on him and asked me how I was doing. Once we talked and she left, she felt confident that I was on the right track. She told her girlfriend I was going to beat Mike Tyson.”

There are many stories of fighters and other athletes being compelled by great personal anguish to great achievement.

“I knew it was my time. Being that my mother came over to the house, and at the time she was ill because she passed not too long after, it just made me determined and made me believe in myself more,” Douglas said.

That wasn’t all. Doris Jefferson, the mother of Douglas’ 11-year-old son, Lamar, was being treated in the hospital for leukemia.

Finally, Douglas still was getting over the dissolution of his marriage after his wife, Bertha, left him without explanation.

“Something great must be about to happen to James Douglas,” he said at the time, “because something out there is definitely trying to deter me.”

Tyson, meanwhile, appeared to be in freefall. Rumors were rampant that he’d not trained seriously and had broken camp to party in Hawaii. It wasn’t mere rumor that he’d been floored in sparring by Greg Page, an unprecedented occurrence. Innuendo as to the level of his disrepair was everywhere.

“We arrived in Tokyo and the first thing we learned was that we were not going to have the customary fighter meeting with Tyson because he didn’t want to talk to us,” HBO’s Jim Lampley said.

“I had heard rumors that he was off form. And I heard from a very close inside source that he was morbidly depressed related to the break-up with Robin (Givens) and that he was watching over and over a video tape called ‘Faces of Death,’ which is essentially a snuff film, a compendium of people dying. And supposedly Tyson was watching this over and over.”

Kevin Rooney, who had only recently been forced out as Tyson’s lead trainer, said he knew as soon as he saw Tyson on his way to the ring that his former charge wasn’t in condition.

Forced to watch on television with a friend, of all indignities, Rooney grew fearful for Tyson when he saw that Douglas, for all his past battles with slothfulness, was in top condition.

“I knew Douglas had dedicated that fight to his mother,” Rooney said. “He was in shape, slim and ready to go. If I was there – well, first of all he would have been in shape – but if they had called me to come over at the last minute and he was in that kind of shape, I would have told him to go out there and throw as many punches as he could for as long as he could until he couldn’t do it anymore.”

“And then, when he started to take a beating, I would have threw in the towel.”

Tyson’s corner, which was headed by the inexperienced Aaron Snowell, did not stop it. That gave Tyson the cruel opportunity to demonstrate the size of his heart, which his considerable abilities had in the past kept hidden.

“He took the beating and didn’t look to quit,” Rooney said. “I give him credit for that. Another guy in the shape he was in would have folded in the first or second round. He took the beating like a real professional heavyweight champion should. He could have laid down. He didn’t.”

Indeed, Tyson almost pulled himself from the fire when a desperate uppercut floored Douglas in the eighth. Douglas rose and in the next round continued administering a beating in what, if you didn’t know better, you’d have thought was an empty arena. The stoicism of the crowd added to the surrealistic nature of the bout.

“When viewers get a live prizefight Saturday night in the United States from this daytime event in Japan, what they get is something that is bizarre, and certainly unique among all the other sports events I’ve ever covered in 25 years as a network sportscaster,” said Lampley. “The crowd, which I believe is something close to 40,000 people, is silent. They are watching and they are responding with all the noise you might expect at a symphony orchestra performance or at an art gallery.

“I am calling the fight in what amounts to hushed tones — almost the same tone that I would use to do greenside commentary at a golf tournament. You could hear, more audibly than I had ever heard it, the shuffling of the boxing shoes on the canvas in the ring.”

Lampley said that between the crowd silence and the historic upset unfolding in front of them, the broadcast assumed an understated quality that he nurtured until the fight’s sudden conclusion in the 10th round.

When Tyson, his mouthpiece jutting comically from his mouth, struggled to his feet and into the arms of referee Octavio Meyran, Douglas’ long, sad celebration began, but not before a post fight interview with HBO’s Larry Merchant that was as telling as anything that happened before.

Douglas sobbed. We watched. No one said anything.

“It was a moment when I had fully absorbed the reality that television is a show-and-tell medium,” Merchant told RingTV.com. “I had the thought in my head, saying to myself, ‘this does not require words.’ What people are seeing is genuine emotion pouring out of a guy who had not only pulled off this great victory for himself, but how he had connected it to the loss of his mother. All of this forced him to give the performance of his life, a performance he was capable of but had never been able to realize. And he was overcome with the emotion of it.

“I don’t know how long it went on, I think maybe 20 seconds but 20 seconds is an eternity without any real sound on TV. But it was his moment and my feeling as journalist is that what I’m trying to do is get the truth out there of what that moment looks like and feels like and so it turned out to be a very telling silence.”

There will be much fanfare this week over Douglas and the anniversary. Next week it will be a memory and he will go back to his development company and its interest in building and retail space and other properties in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

He’ll go back to raising his family and to the various organizations and charities to which he lends his name and time. He’ll push the cookbook he wrote for diabetics, “Buster’s Backyard Bar-B-Q – Knockout Diabetes Diet,” back to wishing for Tyson, “all the best. It’s going to work out for him I sure. I wish him happiness and lifelong success.”

And he’ll have his regrets, still, about not having defended the title he won against Tyson. That regret led in part to his comeback in the 1990s, and though he says now that he has come to terms with the way it ended for him, he hasn’t. You can hear it in him. That melancholy.

He shouldn’t fret. Most of us would do anything for just a taste of what he felt in Tokyo 20 years ago this week. Just a taste.

Some random observations from last week:

I don’t know what was more impressive, the way Glen Johnson out-manned Yusef Mack, or that a full commercial break later Johnson was still sweating like he had swallowed a lawn sprinkler. Johnson against Tavoris Cloud will be very interesting indeed. ÔǪ

I think Guillermo Rigondeaux’s secret weapon is that mouthpiece, which, if you didn’t notice, is black with giant white teeth painted on it. Pretty clever if you ask me. ÔǪ

Who else thinks American ringside physicians are getting a little soft? Rigondeaux’s left to the liver was nice, but I half expected them to start prepping Adolfo Landeros for emergency surgery, the way they acted. Has anyone ever died from a hook to the body? ÔǪ

Contrast that with the ringside physician in Mexico, who didn’t let the nick on Edwin Valero’s forehead end things prematurely during Valero’s win over Antonio DeMarco. By the way, if you’re interested in renting out that space on Valero’s skull, give Top Rank a call. It’s perfect for engagement parties and bar mitzvahs. ÔǪ

I wrote some time ago that Valero reminded me of Naseem Hamed. I amend that. He reminds me much more of Ruben Olivares, both in appearance and style. Check out this video of Olivares stopping Bobby Chacon and see if you agree. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiTvwLaU4L4&feature=related

Watching Demarcus Corley try to fight like Joe Frazier was like watching Clay Aiken try to put up sheetrock, if Clay Aiken ever tried to put up sheetrock. Let that be a lesson, boys and girls. Be who you are. 

If Gus Johnson gets any worse at calling fights for Showtime, I will actually start to get nostalgic for the days of Bobby Czyz and Ferdie Pacheco. Do you have any idea how bad that is? 

What’s a bigger gamble, signing a contract with Don King or getting on an elevator with Gary Shaw? ÔǪ

Good for Tomasz Adamek for out-working Jason Estrada. I’m all for anything that gets us closer to Adamek against Chris Arreola. ÔǪ

Nothing against Edison Miranda, but how many big fights does he have to lose before he stops getting big fights?

Bill Dettloff, whose articles can be found every month in THE RING magazine, can be reached at [email protected]

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