Fourth in a series
Al Bernstein was not at Tokyo Dome for the Mike Tyson-James “Buster” Douglas heavyweight title fight on Feb. 11, 1990, a Sunday.
Instead, he attended a charity event on Feb. 10 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then, because of the time difference, still had time to watch the fight afterward on a Saturday night in the U.S. along with a large throng of celebrities.
But the International Boxing Hall of Fame analyst speaks with clarity when looking back at the fight.
“Everybody was astonished,” was the way he described it.
“Everybody couldn’t wait to get over to see the fight (after the charity event),” added Bernstein by phone from Nevada. “I was like everybody, we were watching it (and) pretty amazed.
“It was the one and only moment in Buster Douglas’ career that he lived up to his potential, because everybody though that Buster Douglas could be a phenomenal fighter. . . . and it was the performance that was by far the best,” said Bernstein, who joined Showtime as a boxing analyst in 2003 after three-plus decades at ESPN and been a part of more than 60 major pay-per view fight telecasts.
Bernstein, who worked on broadcast coverage of Douglas’ next fight against Evander Holyfield in June 1990, recalled that the Tokyo fight took place shortly after after Douglas’ mother, Lula Pearl Douglas, 47, died on Jan. 18, 1990.
“To me that part really resonates because, it’s fascinating. It shows you what somebody can achieve when they are motivated, and he came in, in shape, which he often didn’t do.”
On the other hand, the aftermath of Tyson’s rocky relationship with his ex-wife, actress Robin Givens (they divorced in 1989), and other personal problems proved to be distractions that kept him away from a singular focus on boxing.
“That was the point where “we started to understand there were some chinks in Mike Tyson’s armor, and that would kind of end up being . . . the beginning of his downfall,” Bernstein said.
But if Tyson had sent Douglas packing in, say, 91 seconds — like he did to Michael Spinks in a 1988 bout — or won it by going the distance, would Douglas have gotten another title shot?
It remains a question that can’t be definitively answered. But what remains etched in the annals of boxing concerning Douglas’ next fight is this: the contrast in Douglas’ pre-fight physical condition as challenger and champion was shocking.
“That was the anti-Buster Douglas to the man that fought Tyson (at the weigh-in he was 246 pounds (116 kg), 15 (6.8 kg) more pounds than in Tokyo), because this was a Buster Douglas who was unmotivated, not in shape and really gave that fight away to Holyfield,” Bernstein said of Holyfield’s third-round knockout.
Asked if the Tyson-Douglas fight has grown more famous or infamous over the years with the general public, Bernstein responded by saying, “Famous. People do remember it as an amazing (upset), and it was a good fight, too.
“Everything involving Mike Tyson has its bizarre overtones, literally everything, especially about that period. So I think that’s part of the reason it would be thought of that way, too.”
If Tyson had beaten Douglas in Tokyo and remained the champion for two or three more years, would boxing’s press coverage, ratings and popularity with the general public have grown stronger throughout the mid-1990s?
“No, I don’t, think so,” Bernstein said. “To be honest, I think the 1990s were in some ways kind of an abyss for boxing. It set the stage for when the mainstream media stopped covering it in the United States in 2000 . . . ”
Despite the hype that followed Tyson during the early years of his pro career, which did attract the public’s attention, Bernstein remains convinced Tyson was never going to lift boxing’s popularity.
“I never saw him as a savior for boxing anyway,” Bernstein said.”As far as I’m concerned, Mike Tyson’s overall image for the sport wasn’t . . . I don’t know that it enhanced it.
“He gave the mainstream media one other reason to think that boxing was a freak show.”
In his overall analysis, Bernstein views Tyson’s defeat to Douglas as “a specific demarcation for him, a point at which we can see what’s going on with him, that he’s starting to crumble a little bit.
“So because of that, I think it becomes a point of discussion.”
How did he predict that fight would end? he was asked a few days shy of its 25th anniversary.
Bernstein said, “I thought Tyson would get him in the first four or five rounds. I had heard that Douglas was in pretty good shape, and so I thought that he might be able to move and extend the fight a little bit, but I don’t think I thought it would go past four or five rounds.”
Are there any fights since that one that rank a close second as a shocking upset?
“Wow, I think that one sets the standard,” he remarked. “It’s hard to (even) find a close second to that.”
Besides the eighth round when Tyson sent Douglas to the canvas and the 10th when the latter ended Tyson’s reign, there probably aren’t many other moments from the fight that stand the test of time for the average viewer.
But Bernstein makes a living watching the sport. He pays attention to the little details; it’s a big part of his labor of love.
So what else stood out to him about the action at Tokyo Dome?
“Those rounds when Douglas was just completely dominating Tyson, and how improbable it seemed to everybody,” Bernstein offered, “and that was fascinating to me because he was doing all the things. … To beat Mike Tyson, it was always, in a sense, that you either had to be a monstrous puncher or a really good boxer-puncher, and Douglas turned out to be both in that fight because he boxed very, very well and landed really good power punches as well.
“The idea was that the smaller heavyweights weren’t going to do well against Tyson, but his reach and his height was sufficient to stay at a distance and do all of that.”
Wrapping up a wide-ranging phone conversation, Bernstein, a former managing editor at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago (1974-79), was asked what headline he would have come up with for the Tyson-Douglas fight.
In other words, how would he best sum it up with mere minutes remaining till deadline?
“It would probably be ‘Upset for the ages: Tyson falls to Douglas,’ “Bernstein concluded.
Notable quotes: The following statements were included in an ESPN Classic documentary on the fight entitled “Battle Lines — Tyson vs. Douglas”:
*”It was the greatest upset in boxing history if not in sports history.” — Bert Sugar, boxing historian
*”He hits you like a stick of dynamite and your head blows off.” — Sports Illustrated’s William Nack on Tyson
*”(He was) relaxed. I saw no fear in that man.” — John Russell, Douglas’ assistant trainer on his fighter before the bout
*”They say it was 42-1. It was a thousand-to-one or a million-to-one. No one gave us a prayer.” — Russell