Remembering Douglas-Tyson: still a shocker 25 years later
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Twenty-five years ago today, the sports world – and a sizable chunk of the general public – experienced a powerful “Where were you?” moment. James “Buster” Douglas, who was such a prohibitive underdog that only one Las Vegas bookmaker (the Mirage) was willing to post odds of any sort, became the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world by scoring a dominant, devastating, off-the-floor 10th round knockout over the previously undefeated Mike Tyson.
The combination of the final result, the way it was achieved and the fighter who pulled it off produced global shock waves and the very idea that it happened at all literally drove this scribe to his knees.
I had just returned home from my job on the copy desk of the Parkersburg News and Sentinel in Parkersburg, WV, which I had begun exactly one month earlier. As I walked into the living room, my older sister was sitting to my right and the TV was on. The first image I saw was a close-up of the WBC championship belt.
“Oh, the fight must be over and they’re interviewing the winner,” I thought. “I wonder what Tyson has to say.”
Except when HBO’s cameraman pulled back and panned up, I realized that the belt was around Douglas’ waist, not Iron Mike’s.
Upon seeing this, I dropped to my knees, turned to my right and exclaimed, “No!”
“Yes!” my sister replied.
“How?!” I asked.
“By knockout,” she reported.
“Don’t tell me any more,” I said. “I want to see this for myself.”
As always, I had set the timer on the VCR in my bedroom just before I left for work and I trusted that it had worked properly. It had. Even though I knew the final result, I didn’t know when it occurred or how it was executed. I watched with a mixture of astonishment and exhilaration as I saw the drama unfold, then conclude. The rush was such that it took quite a while to fall asleep. Just as was the case when Leon Spinks upset Muhammad Ali nearly 12 years earlier, I struggled to wrap my mind around the concept that this most unlikely of fighters now held the most celebrated prize in sport.
The announcement of the Tyson-Douglas fight was met with a collective yawn and, in most quarters, the challengers’ chances of success were summarily dismissed. One Sports Illustrated writer captured the mood when he wrote that Tyson would go through Douglas “faster than a plate of tuna in a sushi bar.”
Based on past performances, that line of thinking was sensible. The electrifying 23-year-old champion was 37-0 with 33 knockouts and was making the 10th defense of the WBC belt he won from Trevor Berbick in Nov. 1986. He added the WBA strap less than four months later by beating James “Bonecrusher” Smith, won IBF recognition by decisioning Tony Tucker in Aug. 1987 and earned lineal status four fights later by blitzing Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. “Iron Mike’s” magnificently muscled physique not only produced massive two-fisted power but also generated mind-blowing hand speed. His knockouts were the very definition of the term “highlight-reel material.” Fighters didn’t just fall down; they were splayed, splattered and steamrolled. Jaws were broken; ribs were smashed and psyches were ruined. His menacing disposition in press conferences and inside the ring intimidated even the largest and most imposing of opponents and the fact that Tyson himself stood under six feet made that aspect of his ring profile even more impressive. To many, Tyson indeed was the “baddest man on the planet” and to historians, his physical and psychological supremacy linked him to the likes of John L. Sullivan, Jim Jeffries, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and George Foreman.
His level of dominance also prompted thoughts of what Tyson could achieve. Should he beat Douglas, then turn back Evander Holyfield in their already-scheduled June 18 showdown, Tyson would be in position to perhaps surpass Louis’ divisional (and all-time) record of 25 consecutive defenses and 11 years, 255 days as champion. Heck, by the time Tyson would reach that mark, he’d be only 32.
The conventional wisdom of the time said that the fighter who would beat Tyson would be tall and long-armed, fire snappy jabs and powerful crosses, own a solid chin and possess enough mental fortitude to bounce back from Tyson’s firepower and burn him with plenty of his own. Several Tyson opponents had the physical tools but lacked the wherewithal to sustain whatever successes they managed, mostly because Tyson inflicted enough damage to quell the threats. To date, journeyman James “Quick” Tillis came the closest to derailing the Tyson Express as his wiles got him to within a 6-4 rounds score on two cards while the first-round bombs of Tony Tucker and Frank Bruno briefly shook Tyson’s foundations. Otherwise, it had been one-way traffic.
The 29-year-old Douglas certainly had good physical equipment. At 6-foot-4, he was tall enough and his 83-inch wingspan was a full foot longer than Tyson’s. His jab was the centerpiece of an attack that included a solid right and decent combination punching. He had enough pop in his fists to include 19 knockouts in his 29-4-1 (1 NC) record. He also was a second-generation fighter, for his father was hard-bitten middleweight/light heavyweight Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, who went 41-16-1 (31) between 1967-1980 and had fought the likes of Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure (TKO 10), Willie Warren (W 10), Don Fullmer (D 10), Tom “The Bomb” Bethea (W 10, L 10), Bennie Briscoe (TKO by 8), Willie “The Worm” Monroe (L 10), Victor Galindez (L 10), Matthew Saad Muhammad (TKO by 6) and Marvin Johnson (TKO by 5).
The main criticism against Douglas was that while he was physically superior to his father, he lacked his drive. Three of his four losses were by knockout and the fight most critics pointed to when describing his shortcomings was his 10th round TKO loss to Tucker for Spinks’ vacated IBF title. Scaling a well-conditioned 227, Douglas, the number-two contender, boxed his way to an early lead. But just when it appeared he was on his way to upsetting the 4-to-1 odds against him, Douglas suddenly unraveled. A barrage of unanswered punches prompted referee Mills Lane to stop the fight. Based on that fight, many observers felt Douglas, while owning good physical tools, lacked the mental strength to give Tyson a proper challenge.
In Joe Layden’s book, “The Last Great Fight,” Douglas laid most of the blame on himself but also cited discord between his father and the other two men in the corner, co-trainer/uncle JD McCauley and manager John Johnson.
“I was just going through the motions,” Douglas said in the book. “Watch the tape. You can still see it if you look in the corner. J.D. would go to give me water, and my dad would snap the water bottle out of his hand. And Johnny would just be standing there, saying nothing. It was all mental. There wasn’t any problems with me physically. They always say that bulls**t about me running out of gas. I was in great shape. I was 227 pounds. Physically I was ready for that fight. Mentally? Man that’s something else. I’m telling you, I was on cruise control. I’m lucky I didn’t get hurt, because I was just going through the motions. Shadowboxing — that’s what I was doing. I guess I just got tired of everything.”
Whatever the reasons for Douglas’ defeat, the pre-fight template was established: Tyson would tear through Douglas in short order to set up the superfight with Holyfield. Under virtually every scenario, a prime Tyson would have done just that but a confluence of circumstances served to erode Tyson’s level while enhancing Douglas’.
While Tyson still was years away from his chronological prime, his party-hearty lifestyle and listless preparation devastated him physically while the chaos surrounding his marriage to actress Robin Givens and the legal war between manager Bill Cayton and promoter Don King adversely affected him psychologically. Finally, the removal of trainer Kevin Rooney and the insertion of King-favored Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright would end up negatively impacting Tyson during the bout. Even after Greg Page floored Tyson during a public sparring session on Jan. 23, the champion still was regarded as the runaway favorite. That’s because, at least thus far, Tyson’s troubles weren’t reflected in his in-ring performances. Tyson was riding a six-fight KO string and only one opponent – Tyrell Biggs – managed to last past round five. Douglas, too, had won his last six bouts, including back-to-back wins over former champ Berbick and future champ Oliver McCall.
As Tyson’s life careened wildly from crisis to crisis, Douglas greatly bolstered his prospects on multiple fronts. With his father now out of the corner by mutual agreement, Douglas’ team of John Russell, McCauley and Johnson was solidified. His training sessions were focused, purposeful and productive, resulting in a toned physique and ring tools that were sharpened to the finest edge.
But not all was perfect in Douglas’ world beyond the ropes. He and wife Bertha were estranged while the mother of his 11-year-old son Lamar recently had been hospitalized for a severe kidney ailment. The worst news came during the early-morning hours of Jan. 18 when he was told his mother, Lula Pearl had suffered a massive stroke. By the time he arrived at her home, she was gone. She was just 47 years old.
Knowing his mother would have wanted him to be strong in every way, Douglas remained on track. When he arrived at Port Columbus International Airport to begin his journey to the Pacific Rim, he was a very confident – and exceptionally prepared – man.
The results of his hard work were evident at the weigh-in as the scale read 231 1/2, 11 pounds lighter than in his last fight against McCall nearly seven months earlier. Tyson, who reportedly was as high as 300 when he began training and 240 two weeks earlier, had managed to weigh a relatively svelte 220 1/2. Nothing that happened at the weigh-in persuaded anyone to change their minds about the ultimate outcome. Tim May, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, predicted victory for Douglas but to virtually everyone else, this showcase was the appetizer that was to be served before July’s main course – Tyson-Holyfield. “The Real Deal” himself was at ringside to scout his presumptive opponent – and to make sure the $12 million he stood to make was secure.
Although the 3,000 $1,000-per-ticket ringside seats were filled, large swaths of blue could be seen within the 63,000-seat boxing configuration inside the Tokyo Dome. Those who did buy tickets were subdued, perhaps due to the 12:30 p.m. start time.