VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – For MAS, it was the best — and worst — of times.
The historic 1990 Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight at Tokyo Dome would come to represent both the high and low points of his four decade career as an ink-stained wretch of the English daily keyboard.
Indulge MAS, please, while he explains.
To fully comprehend the situation, it is imperative one understand the backdrop for that fight — the tenor of the times, as it were.
The Tyson-Douglas bout went down while Japan was enjoying the high life in the late 1980s and early ’90s, reveling in its brief tenure as the world’s foremost economic power.
Just before the bubble burst.
Those were salad days also for an American scribe scribbling for an eigo paper.
It was during that period that almost everyone who was anyone in the sports world, made his/ her way to Japan — either to perform or make a celebrity appearance.
North American teams, especially, lined up to partake of the good financial times available in Dai Nippon.
(The stars were conveniently aligned for such visits as this was a time when the U.S. economy was simultaneously tanking.)
Among the annual visitors during those halcyon days was the NBA (for both regular season contests AND later for post-season All-Star clashes).
Same thing with NCAA football and basketball.
And the NFL usually sent one of its Super Bowl combatants over to open the exhibition season.
MLB, for its part, trotted out an all-star outfit biannually for a series with NPB luminaries.
But all these visits paled in comparison to Japan landing what was universally considered (at the time, anyway) the single-most electrifying — and prestigious — event in all of sportdom: a world heavyweight championship fight!
This was the piece d’resistance to an already super-impressive international sports smorgasbord available in the Land of the Rising Sun.
And to top it all off, the heavyweight champion at that particular time was Mike Tyson, who was at his peak as the “baddest man on the planet”.
Tyson was the most charismatic fighter — in his own way — since Muhammad Ali in the 1960s.
Yes, Iron Mike was on his way to our not-so-little burg in the Orient.
“Oh, let me sit down, I’m getting all light-headed just thinking about it” best describes Japan’s collective reaction to it all.
It was truly heady stuff.
Naturally, Mike’s actual physical arrival was preceded by an onslaught of Tyson appearances in those, um, ubiquitous Japanese TV commercials featuring foreign celebs that ran back then.
(Think Charlie Sheen popping up out of a manhole and proceeding to plug Madras Modello shoes and you get the picture.)
No matter, it helped add to the unadulterated excitement of — and pride in — Tokyo being the sports capital of the world for at least a week.
As sports events go, it didn’t any bigger than this athletic circus that was about to hit town.
As it happened, it arrived about two hours late. The right-off-the-plane news conference at a plush Shinjuku hotel was delayed that long until Tyson, promoter extraordinaire Don King and their entourage of lackeys and hangers-on could make their way in from Narita Airport.
But what a show it was when they finally did appear.
King came in waving his usual small stars-and-stripes flag in one hand. But this time, in the other, he flapped a mini-Hinomaru.
“Only in America — and now Japan!”, he would cackle, altering his catchphrase a bit, upon ascending the speaker’s dais.
King was his usual loquacious self — in a Yogi Berra kinda way.
Tyson was polite but brief and seemingly more interested in hitting on a nihonjin cutie pie in the front row, interrupting the Q-and-A to ask her: “You look familiar, do I know you?”
(Sheesh, at least be original, Mike.)
The news conference didn’t last long, the entourage was bushed, they explained.
But King promised a public workout session two days hence.
Never shy, MAS hadn’t gotten all he needed for his pre-fight Mainichi Daily News column. So, he boldly accosted King as he descended the dais.
King, sharpie that he was, must have recognized that MAS was the only paleface present and probably decided to make him his mouthpiece in Japan.
Don — looking for all the world like he styles his hair by sticking his finger in an electric outlet — launched into a soliloquy the likes of which MAS had never heard before — and hasn’t since.
King was mesmerizing. Don, you had me at “Only in . . . “
King concluded by saying: “I like your style young man. Would you like to join me ringside for Mike’s workout?”
Do the Japanese slurp loudly when downing udon noodles?
“Hell, yes,” MAS told him.
Two days later, he joined King at the edge of the ring apron in the appointed Korakuen area gym.
To MAS’s surprise everyone else was a good 10 meters back away from the ring — and ROPED OFF!
Even photogs were kept at bay (to prevent, one supposes, the taking of any up-the-shorts shots like the under-the-skirt pics often snapped at ladies tennis matches).
For one hour, Mike jumped rope, exercised, shadow boxed and sparred.
During that same time frame, I don’t know when or how King caught his breath talking to MAS continuously out of the corner of his mouth while eyeing Mike’s every ring movement.
MAS almost needed a second reporter’s note pad to get it all down.
Don touched upon all things Tyson and King.
His stretch in the joint (for manslaughter) where he “voraciously” devoured the books of the great philosophers.
He did the same with the dictionary — hence, developing his singularly unique speaking style, often imitated but never duplicated.
He had not stolen Tyson, as some had accused him of, he told MAS.
Rather he he had “emancipated” him from the clutches of a contract with his previous managers that was “tantamount to institutional slavery.”
No matter that Tyson would later sue King for his stealing money. This was the gospel according to King.
And, that day, you believed him because the guy could charm your socks off. MAS had to periodically check to make sure his were still on his feet.
Among MANY other things, King talked of the “two witches” (Tyson’s ex-wife — movie star Robin Givens — and her mother) who he says had wrecked Mike emotionally and spiritually.
And now, King said, it was his calling to pick up the pieces and put them back together.
It then became MAS’ task to dutifully note all this info in print.
Tyson was methodical in his workout that day. But he seemed to just be putting in the perfunctory time a fighter knows he must to succeed.
And who could blame him? He was as much as a 42-1 favorite over his foe Buster Douglas.
Douglas, a relative unknown from Ohio, had been selected as the minimally dangerous, designated starch-ee for Mike during his big payday visit to Japan.
No one knew much of — or even cared about — Douglas’ qualifications, or lack thereof.
Folks in Japan were just peacock-proud to be the ones to see firsthand Buster be the latest to have his lights turned out by Iron Mike.
The rest of the world must be green with envy was the prevailing feeling.
It truly was a great time to be nihonjin or a resident gaijin sports columnist.
However, for all of the time leading up to the fight MAS did not see any of the English competition or any foreign writer at any of the press events or public workouts.
Why spend all that money for five minutes of work must have been the sentiment of the foreign and local papers’ bean- counting departments.
When Tyson’s workout finished that day, Douglas then took to the ring.
And the place promptly emptied like someone has phoned in a bomb threat.
MAS accompanied King down to Tyson’s locker room area. There, he chatted with Mike, who was quite relaxed and hospitable.
When asked about the fight, he seemed to have an air of “nothing to it but to do it.”
We took a souvenir photo, shook hands and MAS wished him well before departing.
(MAS later had the pic made into a Christmas card that read: “Mike and Dave Wish You Happy Holidays!”)
Don then grabbed MAS by the arm and said, “Hey, you need ringside tickets to the fight?”
Um, err, ah well, y’see . . .
MAS had long before planned a vacation in Thailand, where his lovely Thai girlfriend had been waiting for months.
That trip conflicted with fight night.
What to do?
Honestly, it really wasn’t all that difficult of a decision to make. MAS couldn’t see the wisdom of canceling his trip to stick around for what was sure to be a quick knockout of a pedestrian foe.
After all, you couldn’t get any closer to Mike than MAS had already been several times. He had enjoyed inner circle access denied everyone else.
Plus, MAS had done his due pre-fight column diligence — it wasn’t his duty to actually COVER the bout.
Thus, King looked flabbergasted and actually a little hurt when MAS politely demurred.
Sawadee kap, Thailand; sayonara, ringside seat to history.
I firmly believe the by-now overused and hackneyed expression “shock the world” originated that day when Douglas scored his truly stunning KO of Mike.
It was probably the biggest upset ever in the world of sports.
Displaying the perfect skills and style needed, Buster craftily and courageously dismantled the fighting machine that was Iron Mike Tyson.
MAS became heartsick watching it all unfold on TV in his Bangkok hotel room.
The sight of the formerly invincible Tyson on his knees and separated from his senses, feebly fumbling for his mouthpiece instead of just getting the hell up was absolutely gut-wrenching.
And it was, well, just sad seeing King grasping at straws afterward, trying to have the result overturned and Mike declared the winner because the referee did not count out Douglas after Tyson had put him down earlier for a full 14 seconds.
Regardless of what is said or written about Tyson and King, MAS had reason to like both.
Maybe he saw their good sides — everyone has one, after all.
MAS’ Thai girlfriend, who had been in the bathroom painting her toenails and such during the bout, reappeared — cotton stuffed between her toes — and gently said to a despondent MAS, “What’s wrong? You look so sad.”
“Well,” MAS answered, “Y’see, I got to know this fighter and his promoter and I . ..”
And then he stopped.
W ho could fully understand — or even believe — the bonding that had taken place, brief as it was?
And how badly MAS felt that he could not be there for Tyson and King afterward — for however little or much it might have been worth.
“How ’bout we go pound some Singha’s, hon?” he suggested, instead.
MAS has never bothered trying to explain his greatest sportswriter high and low — each in the same week — to anyone since.
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