Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who penned an epic series for The Japan Times examining the legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics last fall, has lived in Tokyo for decades. He is a keen observer of the ties that bind the United States and Japan, especially through the prism of sports.
In a recent interview, Whiting offered his analysis and recollections of the Mike Tyson-James “Buster” Douglas bout (Feb. 11, 1990) with the broader picture of that era at the height of the bubble for the Japan’s economy.
“I thought Tyson looked lethargic and by all accounts he did not take the fight very seriously — sort of like the MLB ‘All-Stars’ who played in Japan last fall,” Whiting said. ” I also remembered thinking that it was probably a mistake to hold the fight in Tokyo because the city’s night life would be too much of a distraction — especially for someone like Tyson.
“They held the fight in Tokyo for economic reasons. Most fight fans in the U.S. thought the match with Douglas would be inconsequential — just a warm-up for an anticipated match with Evander Holyfield. Holding it in Japan would generate more interest. Moreover, at that time, Japan was at the peak of its economic power, buying up expensive properties like Rockefeller Plaza and Columbia Studios.
“Staging a heavyweight title match would be yet another important status symbol. The Nikkei had just hit its all-time high two months earlier and the yen was the world’s most powerful currency. So it made economic sense for Don King and the rest of the Tyson team to hold the fight there.”
He added: “The fight happened at a time when heavyweight title matches still had a lot of cache — a lot more than they do now. Ali-Frazier fights in my humble opinion, represented heavyweight boxing at its peak. Everyone in the world stopped to watch. And when Tyson was champion, the title still meant a lot. Now mixed-martial arts seem to have eclipsed heavyweight boxing in popularity.”
Whiting wasn’t at Tokyo Dome for the fight, but clearly remember details from that day.
“As I recall, I watched it in some izakaya in Shimbashi with a crowd of drunken Japanese sarariman,” he said. “Everybody there expected Tyson to kill Douglas and was extremely disappointed when he didn’t; surprised how big Douglas was and how easily he dominated the match. Tyson looked out of it. Japanese I talked to there thought it was fixed.”