Third in a series
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
— Nelson Mandela
Two significant historic events happened on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990, in different locales: South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, the nation’s future president, was released from prison after 27 years, and James “Buster” Douglas produced a stunning 10th-round knockout of undisputed world heavyweight champion “Iron” Mike Tyson at Tokyo Dome.
The youngest heavyweight champion in history, making his 10th title defense, entered the fight with a 37-0 record (33 knockouts) and had never been knocked down during his pro career; Douglas (29-4-1) was the 42-1 underdog.
Tyson’s reign ended 28 minutes, 22 seconds into the fight, at precisely 1:22 into the 10th round.
Douglas’ triumph consistently ranks among the top items on the lists of greatest upsets in sports history.
A quarter-century later, Douglas described his victory, witnessed by 40,000 spectators at the Big Egg and shocked TV viewers around the world, as the culmination of a long journey.
“(I’m a guy) who fought for everything he’s got and had to come up the hard way,” Douglas told The Japan Times. “Started from the bottom, because the last time I had actually fought in the amateurs was at 15 (years old), then to come back and fight again at 21 as a pro, that was pretty intense. I had to learn a lot, learn the life of a fighter again . . . and just getting back into it to the point where I became heavyweight champion.”
Three days after the fight, the Rolling Stones, opened a 10-day concert series at the indoor stadium. Greetings concertgoers at the cavernous venue on Valentine’s Day, Stones guitarist Keith Richards said, “I feel better than Mike Tyson,” according to published reports that week.
Fast forward to late January. Douglas said by phone from Columbus, Ohio, his hometown, that his systematic beatdown of Tyson excited Muhammad Ali. And when they met shortly thereafter at a charity function in West Virginia, Ali spoke about it.
“Well, what was really cool was when I met Muhammad Ali . . . and he was talking about how he was reacting during the course of the fight, and that was pretty cool, because he was one of my favorite fighters,”Douglas told The Japan Times.
How did Ali react?
“He was saying how he was jumping up while watching me fight Mike, and the things that I was doing, seeing a big heavyweight box and move, really sparked his interest. I thought that was pretty impressive,” the 54-year-old Douglas said, describing Ali as “animated” during their conversation back in the day. (Years later, author Davis Miller would reveal in his thoughtful tome on The Greatest, “Tao of Muhammad Ali,” that Douglas emulated the legend. “As an amateur,” he said, “I tried to do everything I saw Ali do. . . . Used to wear trunks like his, white with black stripes, still wear Ali tassels. Only arteests wear tassels. I learned a lot from Ali. Learned to be nice to people.”)
Douglas remains impressed with his performance against Tyson, saying if he had been a ringside judge he would’ve scored nine of 10 rounds in his favor.
The lone exception?
The eighth round, when a powerful Tyson uppercut sent him to the canvas.
“I was dominating throughout the fight. It was just that eighth round when I got caught,” Douglas said.
That proved to be a powerful wake-up call.
“I knew I just had to get back on point, and do what had got me to that point, because I had a moment of daydreaming and got caught,” Douglas recalled, “and then I realized he was really still alive because for that instant to be caught with a shot like that (showed) he was still looking. It wasn’t over.
“I started kind of thinking it was over.”
But Douglas reasserted his dominance as the ninth round progressed, landing a flurry of fast, powerful punches with both hands as he backed Tyson up against the ropes.
As soon as the round ended, HBO blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley called it “the most action-filled, heavy-exchange punching round of Mike Tyson’s career.”
Tyson, visibly limited by a swollen, closed left eye, paid the price for those fistic exchanges. Douglas came out on the offensive in the 10th round, In one key sequence, which signaled the beginning of the end, the 191-cm Douglas, who effectively used his left jab throughout the bout, landed pinpoint punches on Tyson’s head and battered face. One devastating uppercut catapulted his foe’s head backward and upward at the same time.
Douglas’ final-round attack was relentless. And he finished off the 180-cm weary champion with a lethal assault: a right-left-right-left combo that sent Tyson tumbling to the canvas and on his back. He fumbled for his mouthpiece as he tried to get up to beat the count, but Mexican referee Octavio Meyran grabbed ahold of Tyson and stopped the fight.
“Sustained accuracy,” Lampley declared, summarizing the effectiveness of Douglas’ punches throughout the fight.
Douglas said he’s probably seen replays of the fight at least 50 times. But he prefers to watch the video alone — “When I just have time to myself, I pop it in and check it out” — and that gives him a chance to reflect on that emotional, triumphant day.
“The thing about it is the emotions that I was going through at the time,” Douglas said. “When I’m looking at it, I can feel everything out, where I was. It’s all there. It’s awesome, man. It brings fresh back a lot of memories and feelings I was thinking at the time.”
The fight was held during a trying time in his life. His mother and best friend, Lula Pearl Douglas, 47, died of a stroke 23 days before the bout. And he dedicated his victory to her.
“Everything he did revolved around his mother,” Douglas’ trainer J.D. McCauley, his maternal uncle, was quoted as saying in The Columbus Dispatch obituary. “Everything he’s ever achieved, he’s shared with her. “He planned on doing a lot of things for her after this fight coming up. He was always thinking of her. It’s hard to explain. She was his centerpiece.”
Douglas didn’t have a long, illustrious reign as heavyweight champion.
He only made one title defense, on Oct. 25, 1990, and was flattened by Evander Holyfield, beaten by way of third-round knockout. He was not in tip-top shape (at 111.5 kg, or 6.8 kg heavier than he was for the bout against Tyson) and lacked the focus and ferocity he had in Tokyo.
He earned a then-record $24 million for the fight, though. Then he retired.
But his lifestyle, especially, his eating and drinking habits caught up with him in the years to come. By 1995, his weight had risen to more than 400 pounds (181 kg) and he nearly died due to a diabetic coma.
He hit rock bottom.
Then he got his life back on track and began preparing for a comeback.
Douglas returned to the ring in June 1996 (a fourth-round TKO of Tony LaRosa) and fought eight more times before retiring for good three years later after a first-round TKO of Andre Crowder on Feb. 12, 1999, in Burlington, Iowa. His final record: 38 wins (25 KOs), six losses, one draw, one no contest.
“We all have tough roads to cross — that’s part of life,” he told the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News in 2011. “But to be able to bounce back and get your life in order, I think that shows a real championship quality.”
Tyson and Don King, his former promoter, both declined multiple interview requests for this article.
Recently, however, Tyson spoke bluntly about his world-famous defeat in Japan.
“People say it was a perfect storm of all these things that caused me to lose,” Tyson told Playboy in a story published last month. “I don’t know. I just know I got my ass kicked that night.”
Analyst Larry Merchant, who worked with Lampley and fellow commentator Sugar Ray Leonard on the HBO telecast, rejected the view that Douglas’ victory was tarnished by a “long count” in the eighth round.
“It was clear that Douglas was capable of getting up at a much earlier count, if he had to,” Merchant told Maxboxing.com‘s Steve Kim in 2010.
“He was on his haunches; he was looking at the referee. He could’ve gotten up at five, six or seven and the whole idea that this was a ‘long count’ scenario is entirely specious . . . ”
King and WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who died in 2014, protested the fight’s outcome, insisting that Douglas shouldn’t have become champion and claiming Meyran’s counting after the eighth-round knockdown was erroneous and saved Douglas from defeat.
“The most shameful aspect of this story is how King and Sulaiman attempted to change the fight into a Tyson knockout, arguing that the knockdown should have really been a KO, thus trumping what took place in the 10th frame,” Merchant was quoted as saying.
He added: “I’ve never seen anything as brazen. To overturn a knockout!
“There were lawsuits about this and I was called as a witness. It was an arbitration and I said, ‘Look, this is just an example of some guys trying to win a fight outside the ring that they couldn’t inside the ring.’ And I asked Sulaiman, ‘Do you know of anything like this in the history of boxing, where a knockout was overturned?’ He said, ‘Oh sure.’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘I’ll get back to you. I’ll let you know.’ ”
“Two decades later, Merchant still hasn’t gotten his answer from the WBC dictator,” Kim wrote.
Douglas maintains an active presence in his hometown and the surrounding areas. Each February, he holds an annual charity fundraiser, which includes the fight being shown for the gathered guests. This year, the fight’s 25th anniversary event, scheduled for Feb. 11 (“Fighting to Save Lives”) features a reception with Douglas and former Ohio State and NFL star Chris Spielman. The Maria Tiberi Foundation (dedicated to fighting the dangers of distracted driving) and the Stefanie Spielman Fund (breast cancer research) are designated charities.
But Douglas’ No. 1 passion, he admitted, is coaching. Since last year, it’s a full-time gig that he’s grown to love.
Douglas works as a boxing coach at Columbus’ Thompson Community Recreation Center, which reopened last summer after new heating and cooling units were installed.
“It’s full circle for me,” Douglas said by phone from Ohio. “It’s where it all started at. And it’s pretty exciting.
“In my camp, there’s a lot of newbies, beginners, which is great,” he added, with enthusiasm. “I really enjoy that because everything is (such that) I’m the first one to get with them and I don’t have to break too many bad habits, you know.”
“I get up in the morning and I prepare for training for the kids,” he went on. After school, “I take them through a workout, mentally as well as physically, talking to them, trying to prepare them for upcoming battles.”
He’s currently training between 10-15 school-age fighters, and his pupils range in age from 8 to adult. The ex-heavyweight champ is also preparing them for an upcoming Golden Gloves tournament.
Douglas describes himself as a laid-back coach, which resembles his personality. He doesn’t repeatedly shout at his charges.
“I just don’t try to overwhelm them and give them a little bit at a time,” he stated. “I’ve even had one kid where one parent said, ‘You’re not hard enough on them.’ I know that wasn’t what I liked. I treat the kids the way I’d like the coach to be.
“You push them but at their own pace.”
Asked to evaluate his coaching ability, Douglas said, “I’m a very good coach . . . because I see the way the kids react once they get in the ring and start actually sparring. I see that they are calm, relaxed and they’re working like we work in the gym, and they are doing what they’ve been taught. I know their nerves are, like, on edge, they are a little excited, so to be able to go in there and feel like you’ve got a game plan is half the battle . . . ”
He added: “We’re having a good time. It’s not all grit and grind because we have different events around town I invite them and take them to, like a little change of pace. . . . We’re creating a good team over here. I’m excited about it.”
Douglas isn’t shy about find other ways to motivate his students, either. A photo that hangs on the wall at the Thompson Community Recreation Center is an ever-present example of what hard work can produce: It shows Douglas with one of his world heavyweight title belts.
“If they don’t think I know what I’m talking about, I point to the wall and say, ‘Anybody have any questions?’ he said with a laugh.
“It’s like, ‘Any questions? Look at the wall, buddy.’ ”
In an ESPN Classic documentary about the Tyson-Douglas fight, Douglas was quoted as saying, “I was trying to show no fear (before the fight).”
In his interview with The Japan Times, Douglas was asked if this intended attitude was one of the keys to victory.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you look like getting in there. . . . Mike was like a monster or something. If you saw the look in his eyes, you were like a lame duck. Not unless you came in there with an Uzi, that would get his attention.”
Boy, did he ever get Tyson’s attention; he destroyed the myth that Tyson was unbeatable.
“That night was magical,” the late CNN sports anchor Nick Charles, who was at the fight, once said. “It speaks to the uncertainty, that anybody’s cloak of invincibility can be ripped away.”
“I think it ranks among the greatest upsets in boxing history; possibly the greatest,” prolific boxing author/columnist Thomas Hauser told The Japan Times.
Indeed, Douglas delivered an epic upset for the ages, one that neither he nor the general public will forget.
In fact, every day something sparks a memory of his showdown with Tyson, his date with destiny. Whether it’s a greeting from a stranger at a grocery store or a moment that occurs during his normal routine, Douglas’ brain is constantly processing those little reminders, he pointed out.
“It’ll always be on my mind,” Douglas said.
At the aforementioned Columbus gym, there are, of course, constant reminders of his ups and downs in boxing and his rise to stardom. It’s an environment similar to the one that his late father Bill “Dynamite” Douglas, an ex-middleweight and light-heavyweight fighter, brought him up in. The elder Douglas served as a trainer at the Blackburn Community Recreation Center in Columbus.
To this day, Douglas genuinely appreciates the public’s admiration and recognition for what he accomplished at Tokyo Dome.
“Yeah, it’s really cool to see people’s reaction,” Douglas said, referring to when they meet him.
He is forever grateful for the fame and fortune that boxing has given him.
“Some people dream about it,” Douglas said. “It’s truly a blessing.”
Naturally, Douglas has been busy in recent weeks doing a series of interviews in the run-up to the fight’s 25th anniversary, including with England’s Daily Mail newspaper.
Despite the celebratory tone of the news coverage, Douglas simply marvels at the passage of time.
“As a matter of fact, after they said it, it’s like, ‘Wow, 25 years, man, in the blink of an eye,’ ” Douglas says.
How apropos. In the time it takes for a few blinks, Douglas transformed boxing history with his epic upset of Tyson in the 10th round. Four final punches that changed history.