25 years later: Buster Douglas recalls destroying the Mike Tyson mystique
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Boxing history is replete with upsets, some bigger than others, but when James “Buster” Douglas followed a brutal right uppercut with a chilling three-punch combination to floor “Iron” Mike Tyson in Tokyo, Japan, in the 10th round, the world stopped.
It is exactly 25 years since the “Baddest Man on the Planet” was beaten for the very first time and, in retrospect, Tyson’s downfall came at the end of an enthralling and action-packed prizefight.
An overmatched challenger against a lethal world champion is frequently a recipe for disaster but Douglas didn’t just tear up the script, he put it through the shredder and lit a match.
“My manager called in late ’89 and told me the fight was on,” said Douglas, who still resides in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “I’d lost a championship fight to Tony Tucker a few years earlier and this was another opportunity for me to reach my goal.
“I was excited and very confident that I could beat Tyson, so I got myself in great condition and weight-wise I was perfect. At 231 pounds I was quick with my hands and the movement was there.”
Mike Tyson at 20 years old was, and remains, the youngest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history.
He won the WBC title from Trevor Berbick in 1986, unified the following year by taking down James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Tony Tucker, for WBA and IBF belts respectively, and made the division his own private slaughterhouse.
Still, despite the odds, John Johnson, Douglas’ manager, was equally confident ahead of what was perceived to be yet another easy night’s work for Tyson, who had built up a formidable record of 37-0 (33 knockouts).
Johnson said, “I love Mike but a lot of opponents were scared to death of him and Buster wasn’t. We thought we could make him quit in seven or eight rounds but, to be honest, he proved me wrong and took his beating like a man.
“And contrary to what’s been said about Tyson’s poor conditioning, you don’t take an ass-whipping like that for 30 minutes unless you’re in great shape. He went into seclusion in Japan, trained hard, and all the distractions with Robin Givens, or whatever her name is, were behind him.”
The Douglas performance, which would be light-years ahead of anything he had produced in his career, was largely due to diligent physical preparation. However, the tragic passing of his mother, who was only 47 years of age, galvanized his warrior spirit during a torturous training camp.
Douglas said, “I wanted it more than ever. I talked to my mother about a week before she passed and she was so excited. My mother felt really confident that I was going to do it and her belief in me was a real inspiration when that bell rang.
“Her words gave me so much positive energy.”
The challenger entered the ring on Feb 11, 1990, and did not wear the doomed expression of a deer caught in the headlights. He was warm, loose and ready for action. Tyson’s own entrance was eerily quiet in well-mannered Tokyo and when he did shirk the traditional toweling robe, the monster man appeared distracted and almost bored by the pre-fight pageantry.
“I felt good and I was ready,” said Douglas, who was 29 years of age at the time. “A lot of opponents were too defensive when they fought Tyson but I was well aware of his capabilities. I knew I could compete against him but I couldn’t win on the retreat.
“You had to give Mike something to think about, so the idea was to get my punches off and not stand in front of him. That strategy was working from the opening bell and as the rounds passed I got more and more confident.”
Tyson was caught by dozens of meaty headshots in the first half of the fight and, if anything, proved his thirst for combat. The undisputed champion, who had never absorbed such a battering, advanced in straight lines, searching for the equalizing bomb, but his offense was thwarted by a sharp left jab and punishing right hands to the skull.
Suddenly, in Round 8, Tyson landed the jaw-busting shot he’d been looking for.
“When Mike dropped me with the uppercut I knew he was still alive,” said Douglas, who was saved by the bell. “I got too comfortable because everything was going my way and Mike looked like he was fading. Suddenly he catches me and that was a great shot.”
Despite protests from “Team Tyson” that the challenger was the beneficiary of a long count from referee Octavio Mehran, the rest is history. Douglas rallied, hurt the champion badly in the ninth, and made boxing history at 1:22 of Round 10.
“When I put Mike down with the combination I initially thought he was going to get up,” said Douglas, recalling the moment of a lifetime. “It’s when he started to reach for his mouthpiece that I knew he would run out of time. That told me he was hurt and the referee counted him out.
“Words could never describe the feeling I had. It was a dream come true to become heavyweight champion of the world and carry those belts. It was just unbelievable.”
Douglas had begun boxing after being inspired by his father, Billy, who competed against a myriad of talented middleweights in the 1970s. He had now reached the pinnacle of his profession and many believed that a bright and lucrative future lay ahead.
“If Buster had stayed in shape he could have been champ for a long time,” said Johnson, with an undercurrent of frustration. “He had size, quickness, punch resistance and a terrific left jab. Other than Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, Buster had the best jab in heavyweight boxing history.”
“The fans can look back now and say he was a one-fight wonder but Buster prevailed on the biggest night of his life. How many fighters can say that?”
Following the Tyson drama another great fighter stood ominously in the new champion’s path. Evander Holyfield had established himself as the finest cruiserweight of all time and then set his sights on the glamour division.
Douglas would receive a record-high $24 million for the mandatory title defense but “The Real Deal” swatted him aside effortlessly inside three rounds in October, 1990.
“In the Holyfield fight you didn’t see the best of me and I feel really bad about that,” said Douglas, his tone changing perceptibly. “There was so much going on after I won the title and I didn’t get a moment of peace, with legal matters (relating to business) hanging over me.
“I would love to have held the championship longer than I did but I feel good about what I did accomplish. Winning a world title is the ultimate dream for any fighter and nobody can take that away from me.”
Following the Holyfield humiliation, Douglas retired for six years. He eventually returned and notched up a string of victories, but a first-round knockout loss to Lou Savarese removed his ambition permanently. After two more fights he retired in 1999 with a record of 38-6-1 (25 KOs).
The former champion, who is now 54 years old, remains a down-to-earth and affable personality. He has every right to feel satisfied because, ultimately, his day in the sun was as sensational as any the sport has ever seen.
“I train a lot of young amateur kids now,” said Douglas. “It’s like full circle for me because I’m back in the gym at the beginning of a journey, only now I’m on the other side of the ropes.
“I’m just glad to give something back to the sport and I’m having a ball.”
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing