Editor’s note: Looking back at one of the greatest upsets in sports history, The Japan Times is featuring a series of stories over the next several days to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Mike Tyson-James “Buster” Douglas fight on Feb. 11, 1990, at Tokyo Dome.
Lennox Lewis’ global ascent as a premier boxer truly began less than two years before James “Buster” Douglas shocked the world on Feb. 11, 1990, at Tokyo Dome and knocked out previously unbeaten world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson in the 10th round.
Lewis grabbed the super heavyweight gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Fast forward to Jan. 31, 1990 — 12 days before Tyson and Douglas stepped into the ring in Tokyo — and Lewis, the future undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, earned a victory in his seventh pro bout by way of a second-round TKO of the immortal Noel Quarless at York Hall in London. After that win, Lewis had just under two months to prepare for his next fight, a March 22 showdown with Calvin Jones at Gateshead Leisure Centre in Tyne and Wear, England, which ended 2:34 into the first round as Lewis KO’d Jones.
At that formative time in Lewis’ celebrated boxing career, he has distinct recollections of his fight preparation and the state of heavyweight boxing, too. In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Lewis, now 49, shared some of those memories.
“I was in training camp preparing for a fight and that upset motivated me ’cause it showed that me that the man I wanted to beat was beatable,” Lewis said.
“I was very surprised because Douglas was suffering from a death in his family (his mother), so I did not think his performance was going to be as good as it was.”
The psychological impact of Tyson’s stunning fall was significant, according to Lewis.
“Tyson’s defeat gave me a goal to be successful because he was the man that everybody wanted to defeat,” Lewis noted.
This interview, of course, did not include a time machine. But Lewis was asked to ponder this go-back-in-time question: If someone had told you before the Tyson-Douglas fight that Douglas would win the fight, what would you have said to them?
He responded by saying, “Possibly but not likely, because Douglas had the boxing ability, but I didn’t think he had the heart to be successful.”
That stinging critique was an opinion shared by many boxing observers.
There were serious doubts about his commitment to fitness and his mental toughness in the ring. (In a May 1987 fight against Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF heavyweight title in Las Vegas, Douglas “tired in the desert heat,” en route to a 10th-round TKO loss, Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune reported that July in an article about Tucker.)
So, then, was the fact Douglas was listed as a 42-1 long shot a real exaggeration of the Ohio native’s chances against Tyson?
“No really,” Lewis said. “I think it was exaggerated, but anything can happen because he is a big man and weighs over 230 pounds (104 kg) — it takes only one punch and not necessarily a hard punch.”
After Tyson sustained the first loss of his pro career on that surreal Sunday 25 years ago, it’s became almost a cliche to write/say something to his effect: Tyson’s aura of invincibility was shattered once and for all.
For someone whose career overlapped Tyson’s and who would go on to make nine title defenses as a heavyweight champion, Lewis recognizes that there were definitely B.D. (Before Douglas) and A.D. (After Douglas) chapters in Tyson’s career.
“Yes, it looks like it affected Tyson’s career in a negative way,” Lewis told The Japan Times.
Finally, more than 12 years later, the two men would square off in Memphis, Tennessee, with Lewis’ WBC, IBF and IBO heavyweight title belts on the line. Lewis dropped the former champ in the eighth round to retain his titles on a June 2002 night.
That fight in Elvis Presley’s old stomping grounds won’t go down as one of the most memorable in boxing history.
But the same can’t be said for what Douglas accomplished a quarter-century ago in Japan’s capital city. Lewis declared that 50 or 100 years from now people will still be talking about that fight’s outcome.
“I think when you look at upsets and fighters that you wouldn’t expect to lose that definitely ranks as one of them,” he said.
“That fight in Tokyo with Douglas-Tyson was a historic fight to Tokyo,” Lewis commented, without stating that it was only the third world heavyweight title bout to be held there.
It followed the Tyson-Tony Tubbs mano-a-mano encounter in March ’88 (Tyson won by a second-round TKO) and the George Foreman-Jose Roman contest (Foreman ended it by knockout 50 seconds into their fight) on Sept. 1, 1973, at Nippon Budokan.
“What happened in the fight was also historic so you could say it is written in history,” Lewis said.
“Tokyo should feel proud and honored to have hosted a heavyweight fight of this magnitude and we look forward to more of these types of events in Tokyo or Japan where the world can attend.”