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Ringside reporters recall date with destiny

by

Staff Writer

Fifth in a series

To gain perspective on what it was like to cover the Mike Tyson-James “Buster” Douglas fight, The Japan Times reached out to two veteran newspapermen who pounded out copy at Tokyo Dome for the historic world heavyweight title fight, James Sterngold, working as a correspondent for The New York Times, and Ron Yates of the Chicago Tribune.

Yates worked for 18 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia and Latin America. A four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is professor emeritus and the former dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois.

Sterngold is a senior special writer for The Wall Street Journal.


In the build-up to the Tyson-Douglas fight, how would you describe the media attention and fan vibe — was there a real buzz — in Japan about the upcoming spectacle?

Yates: There was not that much buzz about the fight . . . most boxing experts assumed this was just a tune-up for Tyson’s fight with Evander Holyfield that was to take place that June. Japanese fans knew who Tyson was, but they had no idea who Douglas was. I think a lot of Japanese were simply interested in seeing two heavyweight American boxers pound each other silly.

Sterngold: I don’t recall what the buzz was in its entirety but there was excitement in Japan, which does not get many heavyweight title fights.

So there was some attention paid to Tyson and his entourage. But the buzz in the fight world, as I recall, was that Douglas was a chump and would probably not last more than a couple of rounds. That’s why the NYT asked me to cover the fight. They did not feel it was worth the expense of sending our regular boxing reporter halfway around the world if the fight was just going to last 90 seconds or so. So they chose a correspondent based in Tokyo to provide coverage.

For Japanese-language media, was there a lot of air time and print space devoted to coverage of the fight beforehand? What about in the days immediately after Tyson lost?

Yates: There wasn’t much pre-fight excitement . . . except in the sports papers. Naturally, the Japanese promoters who were working with Don King did their best to generate buzz, but I don’t think the Japanese public was impressed. After the fight, it was a different story. There was speculation that Tyson had been drugged, or that he was high, or that he was suffering from a hangover. In fact, when all was said and done, the conclusion was that Tyson had not taken Douglas seriously.

In terms of human drama, how would you characterize reporting on this fight and all of the various figures involved — Don King, Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas — and how it shaped up?

Yates: After the fight American reporters engaged in a lot of speculation as to the reasons for Tyson’s poor showing. In talking with a few people on the periphery of Tyson’s entourage, most agreed that Tyson’s head was not in the fight. He was involved in a rocky relationship with actress Robin Givens and had just split with his trainer Kevin Rooney, who I was told, was able to keep Tyson focused.

Don King was viewed as a manipulative, greedy sleaze ball by American reporters, but Japanese reporters looked at him as an American oddity.

“He has strange hair, doesn’t he,” one Japanese reporter declared to me. Douglas was viewed as a phenomenon, a curiosity . . . as one Japanese friend told me: “He was an American version of a divine wind.”

Sterngold: It was unusual and exciting. I interviewed Tyson beforehand in his hotel room and it seemed he was not taking Douglas seriously.

He was confident. When I met him he was watching kung-fu fights on the TV, laughing and messing around with friends. He did not want to talk much about details of the fight or his strategy. Japan seemed like a novelty to him but not of great interest.

The fight itself was an amazing drama. It was clear from the early rounds that Douglas was prepared and, even if he lost, he was going to give Tyson a real fight. He was counterpunching really well, letting Tyson flail and throw wild punches. And he kept Tyson at a distance with very effective jabs that were causing swelling around Tyson’s eyes. Tyson was frustrated that he was not able to get inside and demolish Douglas.

Douglas was clearly executing a plan, catching Tyson off guard. He was starting to hurt Tyson and wear him down by the middle rounds, even though Douglas was also taking some very hard shots.

When Douglas was knocked down in the eighth, it appeared it might be the beginning of the end. Tyson floored him with a thunderous punch, but at the count of nine the bell rang ending the round. If anything, that seemed to motivate Douglas and he came back very quickly in the ninth round.

When Douglas suddenly started connecting and visibly stunning a very tired Tyson, it was electric.

In the 10th round it was clear that Douglas was moving methodically toward a knockout and the audience seemed incredulous. People seemed unable to believe what they were seeing.

When Douglas knocked him down, Tyson was out. He had been very badly beaten.

The last chapter in the story was the effort by Don King to overturn the knockout. He raced up to the press, including me, after the fight and ordered that we not report that Tyson had lost because he had not.

King tried to argue that an incompetent referee had failed to count properly when Douglas was down and that Tyson had actually won at that time. He insisted that he had made some calls and that, without a doubt, the outcome would be reversed and that we would be embarrassed if we went ahead and reported a Douglas win.

Of course, I had already filed a story on the phones at ringside, so I never considered holding back, but King’s tantrum added to the drama. Of course, he failed to change the outcome.

Do you consider this one of the most unforgettable assignments of your journalism career?

Yates: Not really. I had covered the 1988 Seoul Olympic games and organized the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of that event. That WAS unforgettable-especially the boxing match in which a fight broke out in the ring between Korean coaches and the referee when a Korean boxer lost a decision. I was not a sports reporter, but I loved covering sports like the games between visiting major league baseball players and Japanese all stars. The most unforgettable stories I ever covered had to be the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the revolutions in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala in the 1980s.

Sterngold: It was great fun and very, very exciting. But I had more exciting stories.

When the fight ended, how much time did you have to file your first story on deadline? Was there a rush of adrenaline on your part to get it done?

Yates: I was using my laptop and making lots of notes as the fight was progressing. When the fight ended, the story sort of wrote itself. I filed two stories-one to make the first edition and then a longer one that contained more detail for the final edition. There wasn’t really an adrenaline rush-just a lot of shock.

Sterngold: Yes, the surprise knockout added to the pressure to file quickly. Remember, there were no cellular phones at that time, and I did not have time to get to my office to file a story.

I had been sitting at a press table at ringside. There were a couple of phones there, but we had been told that they were solely for the use of the Japanese press and could not be used to make overseas calls.

Given the sudden increase in the importance of the story, and the time pressure because of the time difference with New York, I just grabbed one of the phones and dialed to see if I could get through to the NYT offices in New York. It worked and I had to dictate, off the top of my head, my story to a wonderful editor.

Adding to the difficulty of trying to think clearly was the fact that there was a rock concert that (week, starting on the 14th) in the Egg (I think it was the Rolling Stones) and so workmen started to remove the boxing ring and reconfigure the seating as soon as the audience cleared out.

I was on the phone trying to compose sentences in my head as the workmen pushed me aside and pulled away the furniture and the seating. It was chaotic.

Did you feel additional pressure in your own mind to raise the stakes, so to speak, to deliver a knockout story, what with the knowledge this was one of the recognized biggest upsets in sports history, any sport?

Yates: I knew this was an upset of historical proportions, so there was really no need to raise the stakes, so to speak. The story almost wrote itself.

Sterngold: The opposite. The story itself held so much drama that I did not need to embellish. I composed a fairly straightforward article just describing as clearly as I could exactly what I had seen first hand.

What adjectives, what descriptions,what cliches immediately come to mind in January 2015 to sum up this fight and all that it represented, including the beginning of the end of Tyson’s reign of invincibility?

Yates: Going into the fight Tyson seemed invincible. He was a 42-1 favorite and had amassed a record of 37-0 with 33 knockouts. He captured the heavyweight crown at 20 —younger than any other boxer ever. Douglas had a record of 29-4-1 when he went into the fight-not bad by heavyweight boxing standards.

After the fight Tyson’s invincibility was shattered-though some saw the fight as an anomaly that he would move past quickly. I don’t think he ever did. For Douglas, who earned $1 million for the fight to Tyson’s $9 million, it represented an opportunity to go on to boxing greatness. But he blew it.

When he fought Holyfield in Oct. 1990, he weighed almost 250 pounds (113 kg) and was grossly out of shape. He got a $20 million paycheck for that fight, retired and drifted into boxing obscurity.

Sterngold: It told you that in boxing, as in life, willpower, skill and psychological fitness can make the seemingly impossible come true.

Douglas, who knew people had dismissed him as a loser, had his moment in the sun. Good for him.