Second in a series
Jim Lampley witnessed one of the most unforgettable moments in sport history: The sight of James “Buster” Douglas landing a quick, powerful flurry of punches that knocked out Mike Tyson in the 10th round of their Feb. 11, 1990, heavyweight title fight at Tokyo Dome.
Twenty-five years later, Lampley repeated his play-by-play description of that scene when reached by phone in California.
“It was, ‘Mike Tyson has been knocked out,’ and that’s just a summary line. It wasn’t anything more elaborate,” said Lampley, who was joined at ringside on the HBO telecast by boxing analysts Sugar Ray Leonard and Larry Merchant.
Tyson, viewed as invincible by just about everyone, had entered the fight with a sterling 37-0 record (33 knockouts), while Douglas, the 42-1 underdog, had amassed a 29-4-1 mark.
And then, at 1:23 of the 10th round, history changed in the blink of an eye when Tyson, visibly shaken by the punishing blows inflicted on him by Douglas, couldn’t get back to his feet after being knocked down and referee Octavio Meyran stopped the Sunday fight.
Lampley then declared, “Buster Douglas, heavyweight champion of the world.”
“And that’s as far as we went really other than at the end of the last on-camera (segment),” Lampley recounted. “I offered my estimation that it was the biggest upset in boxing history, and nobody’s ever disputed that.”
Lampley described it as the “most significant assignment” of his career. And there have been countless major assignments. Case in point: In his distinguished career, he’s worked as a TV announcer at 14 Olympics (he surpassed the American TV record of 12 set by Jim McKay).
Douglas, now 54, last fought on Feb. 2, 1999, against Andre Crowder after relaunching his career in June 1996 against Tony LaRosa; the now-48-year-old Tyson hung up his gloves after a June 2005 loss to Kevin McBride.
The legacy of both fighters will be forever linked to their shared 10 rounds in the ring.
With time to reflect on what happened, perhaps it shouldn’t have been as big a shock as it was, according to Lampley.
“I’ve said this many times in the United States, and it always arouses people’s interest and that is that we didn’t see it coming at the time,” Lampley told The Japan Times. “Nobody can make that claim, I think. But looking back and looking carefully at Mike’s career, if you analyze carefully what happened to Mike prior to the fight against Douglas in Tokyo, you could see it coming.
“And the reason that I say that is this: The early string of knockouts was enormously impressive. It was like a cartoon, the highlight reel from his first 19 fights,” said Lampley, referring to 19 knockout wins. In his 20th pro fight, he outpointed James Tillis in a 10-round bout.
That set the stage for Tyson’s next fight, against fellow New Yorker Mitch “Blood” Green, on May 20, 1986, at Madison Square Garden, and a conversation that Lampley still remembers all these years later.
“I took a TV executive to see the fight,” Lampley said, “and I told the executive that he’s the greatest knockout artist of all time and he’s going to knock Mitch ‘Blood’ Green out in the first or second second, and he went the distance with Mitch ‘Blood’ Green.”
Yes, Tyson proved to be human.
“He went the distance with Tony Tucker. He went to the last 10 seconds with Jose Ribalta. He went the distance with James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith,” Lampley went on. “What did all of these fighters have in common? They were taller than Mike and they could jab. If you were taller than Mike and you could jab, you had a chance to be effective against him. Buster was taller than all of those guys and he had a very good jab.
“If fact, if you look carefully at what Buster was: a former college basketball player, 6-4 (193 cm), 235 pounds (106 kg). . . . He was kind of a minor-league prototype for what Lennox Lewis would become.”
He added: “Douglas had the right stuff physically to beat Mike Tyson.
“He wasn’t the only person who could have done it. Lennox probably could have done it two years later, when he had more experience and a foothold in (the division). Mike was never, ever tremendously effective against anybody who was 6-4, 6-5, heavy enough to be in the ring with him, had a jab and any footwork at all. That was a style that beat Mike Tyson.”
* * *
In the run-up to to the Tyson-Douglas fight, Lampley had a full slate of TV responsibilities. In addition to his HBO duties, he worked as a KCBS-TV news anchor in Los Angeles. So he wasn’t in Tokyo for several weeks to monitor Tyson’s progress.
Lampley, Merchant and Leonard made their formal preparation for the fight as a broadcast team that weekend, and didn’t speak with Douglas until Friday.
Pre-fight conversations with both boxers were far from revealing, Lampley recalled.
“Buster was attempting to portray confidence that he could so something. All underdogs do that,” he said. “And Mike was at great pains to say all of these rumors that I’m not prepared are bulls—-, and you can count on me to be the same Mike Tyson that I’ve been. In other words, they said the things that we expected them to say.
“Now there were all sorts of rumors about Tyson being distracted. It was indeed a period of upheaval in his life, but we had seen that for a long time.
“Nothing we did in the two days in Tokyo beforehand was going to provide some dramatic insight, only just the rumors that Mike was distracted,” Lampley admitted. “Mike wasn’t really prepared, and of course the understanding also that Buster’s mother had recently died and he was close to her. He had a new emotional incentive to bring into the fight something that might otherwise not have been the case.”
The heavyweight title fight (Tyson’s WBC, WBA and IBF belts were up for grabs) began at noon on Sunday, staged at the time for the prime time TV audience in the United States on Saturday night. The Japanese crowd, meanwhile, was far from typical for Lampley, and the atmosphere that developed throughout the fight.
It was, Lampley remembered, “the quietest arena I’ve ever been in.”
“It was so quiet that we heard the slapping of Mike’s shoe soles against the canvas as they hit the ground,” Lampley said.
“Later in my career, I hosted golf on NBC, so I later became practiced in the kind of hushed tones that golf announcers tend to use when they are covering golf tournaments.”
At the outset of the fight, Douglas exhibited impressive form that foreshadowed what was to follow.
“In the first round, the style advantage for Douglas was beginning to be visible — from the beginning,” Lampley recalled. “He lands his jab repeatedly, and somewhere in the latter part of the first round, he throws the first right hand over the top, right on Tyson’s chin, and I’m not going to say our jaws were dropping, but we were all very aware of the surprise, which was that Buster was . . . basically doing whatever he wanted to do offensively, and we all didn’t see that coming.”
As the fight marched on and Douglas continued to dictate the action, Tyson’s left eye began to develop severe swelling. But his new co-trainers, Aaron Sowell and Jay Bright, didn’t have one of the key tools of the trade, Enswell, a small piece of metal used to apply pressure on areas affected by major swelling and bruising. Instead, Tyson cornerman Sowell put ice in a latex glove — it resembled a large balloon — to work on Tyson’s mashed-up face.
In one poignant moment of commentary, Leonard, who had surgery to repair a detached retina in his left eye in 1982, lashed out at Tyson’s team.
Lampley remembered Leonard saying, “(Tyson) couldn’t get anybody competent to treat the swelling eye. It was damaged now.”
But still the champion emerged to deliver his trademark attacking style, and it paid off as he sent Douglas tumbling to the canvas in the eighth round.
“We weren’t surprised when Tyson finally landed the uppercut and knocked Buster down,” Lampley admitted. “We were watching all along for Mike to somehow erupt and produce something that might turn the fight around.
“But none of us at that moment saw the notion that it was a long count . . . He got up at nine, which we see all the time.”
In the aftermath of the fight, Tyson’s camp, led by Don King, protested the fight’s outcome, and the WBA and WBC didn’t awards its title belts to Douglas immediately — not until Feb. 13. The so-called long count, during which Douglas was not back on his feet before the requisite 10 seconds, involved fight referee Octavio Meyran, who later admitted he started his count after the timekeeper’s count.
“And then the fight went on, and the quiet continued, and the event produced this growing aura of being something almost surreal,” Lampley recalled. “It was unexpectedly quiet. Our voices, because of the nature of the event and the atmosphere, got more and more hushed, quieter until we sounded like guys calling a golf tournament. . . . ”
“If it happened in the United States, the aura of the crowd would’ve already been at high volume and intensity the way they normally are.
“When Buster landed the last combination and Mike was counted out while he was looking for his mouthpiece on the canvas, my comment, as simple and understated as it could be was, ‘Mike Tyson has been knocked out.'”
And that marked the end of an era.