25 Years After the Fall: Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas and Boxing's Biggest Upset

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 11, 2015

AP Images

You can forgive "Iron" Mike Tyson for his momentary confusion that fateful night in Tokyo 25 years ago today. After all, a James "Buster" Douglas uppercut had nearly separated head from body. A follow-up flurry had put Tyson to the mat for the first time in his professional career. Things weren't going so well.

In the moment of truth, the time great fighters prove their mettle and make their case for immortality, Tyson had only one thing on his mind: his mouthpiece.

"I knew they wouldn't let me fight without it," he told Bleacher Report, attempting to explain the unexplainable thought process of a badly concussed mind. 

And that's how the baddest man on the planet ended up on his hands and knees, a dazed expression replacing his normally fearsome scowl, searching for his equipment as referee Octavio Meyran counted an end to his reign on top of the sport.

Tyson found his mouthpiece, inserted it halfway into his mouth and wobbled to his feet at the count of nine. But it was too late. Barely able to stand, his career as an undefeated fighter was over. 

Douglas, a 42-to-1 underdog, had done the seemingly impossible: He had beaten the unbeatable Mike Tyson.

The Baddest Man on the Planet

There is a mythology built around Tyson that endures. Even today, after it's clearly been established he was, objectively, the fourth-best heavyweight of his own generation, fans with their heads firmly in the sand continue to compare him to Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and the great Jack Dempsey, warriors nonpareil. 

Something about Tyson was larger than life. Truth, in many ways, is less important to his legacy than the hazy and murky fantasy world, the one where he deposited a cast of disposable afterthoughts on their keisters.

The power of his punches was primordial. Who he beat was less important than the manner in which he beat them. Lunging hooks and uppercuts speak loudly and carry a clear message: This is a man not to be trifled with.

The result was pure Jungian archetype. Tyson attracted people who might not normally be attracted to boxing at all, like novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who introduced the young fighter to New York's intelligentsia in her book On Boxing:

There is the unsettling air about Tyson, with his impassive death's-head face, his unwavering stare, and his refusal to glamorize himself in the ring - no robe, no socks, only the signature black trunks and shoes - that the violence he unleashes against his opponents is somehow just; that some hurt, some wound, some insult in his past, personal or ancestral, will be redressed in the ring; some mysterious imbalance righted. The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, "the wrath of God," comes to mind.

Of course, Tyson's rise was hardly coincidence. His team, led by trainer Cus D'Amato and managers Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, helped create the myth with a carefully crafted public relations plan. Tyson's early and brutal knockouts were packaged into a short highlight reel, complete with his extraordinarily quotable bon mots, and offered to local news teams nationwide.

Lampley in the 1990s
Lampley in the 1990sAl Bello/Getty Images

"At that time, in the middle-1980s, there was no World Wide Web. Local news programs were still the dominant vehicle through which Americans received their information," announcer Jim Lampley, who called the fight for HBO, told Bleacher Report. "And every local news broadcast, generally speaking, would have to fill two-to-three minutes of a half-hour show with sports. Particularly in small markets, where you didn't have professional sports franchises, that wasn't always so easy.

"Cayton and Jacobs edited together a compact, minute-and-a-half collection of Tyson knockouts and sent it to every local sports director in the country. A lot of the knockouts were visually spectacular; guys were flying through the air. So in 1986 and into 1987, if a sports director in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Spokane, Washington, had a given night without any local sports news, an easy way to entertain your audience was running the Tyson highlight reel. Millions of sports fans across the country who had never seen him in a live fight saw the reel and became convinced that this 19-year-old from upstate New York was a kaleidoscopic knockout machine and was going to be an indomitable force at heavyweight."

The result was an incredible grassroots demand for the young heavyweight. By the time boxing insider Larry Merchant brought the tape to HBO executives, Tyson was a star just waiting for his opportunity to shine.

"I originally brought a tape of Mike Tyson's first 10 or 11 fights to HBO at the request of Jimmy Jacobs. I suggested to HBO we might try following this young guy and seeing if he makes it," Merchant, who served as HBO's expert analyst, told Bleacher Report. "There was a genuine excitement about Tyson because people saw him when he was young. They were able to follow his career from an early age. And he was a compelling figure, even when he was a bad boy. He touched a nerve. It was a popular culture moment. He intersected with inner-city music and became a symbol of that movement. He was the kind of athlete who got on the front page of the paper as well as the back page."

In many ways, Tyson's career peaked at the tender age of 22, when he knocked out Michael Spinks in just 91 seconds in June 1988. It was his first fight as a pay-per-view headliner and arguably his greatest moment.

"It was all I would ever think about," Tyson said. "The heavyweight championship. I was going to be a god of war like my trainer Cus told me."

It wouldn't last. Tyson's tumultuous marriage to actress Robin Givens, and their inevitable divorce, seemed to send the young fighter into a tailspin he couldn't pull out of. He had become a star, bigger than boxing. He had become too big to control.

By 1990, when he met Douglas in Tokyo, Tyson's world had collapsed. D'Amato and Jacobs had passed away, just as Tyson's rise began. Their support staff, including businessman Cayton and trainer Kevin Rooney, were on the outs. In their place was Don King, a notorious boxing promoter who always seemed to put his own best interests ahead of his fighter's, and Aaron Snowell, a trainer with dubious credentials and little to recommend him save King's good graces.

This was the recipe for disaster, though few realized it at that time. Tyson had been so dominant, so masterful, that it seemed a given he would continue to plow through pretenders. King, looking to move the fighter from HBO to rival Showtime, was looking to ride out Tyson's HBO deal with a succession of easy fights against unheralded challengers who would presumably do little to upend the apple cart.

Men like Frank Bruno, Carl Williams—and "Buster" Douglas. 

Buster Douglas

There was never a doubt about James Douglas' physical tools. Standing nearly 6'4", Douglas had the quick feet of a basketball player, which he had been, and a smooth jab that allowed him to control the action against almost anyone. 

Buster had skills.

No, talent was never an issue. It was that he didn't seem to like fighting. Boxing wasn't a passion. It was something he inherited from his father the way others might inherit a plumbing business.

A feared middleweight in the 1960s and '70s, Bill Douglas lacked the connections and temperament to make his way to the top. Boxing then, even more so than today, was a political sport. Douglas' skill and willingness to make every fight a scrap, in fact, may have worked against him in a world where every promoter was looking out for his own prospects and stars.

It made no sense to fight Douglas. That was a night of guaranteed pain. That didn't stop Bill, of course. A factory worker by day, he spent nights either fighting or pounding a spare heavy bag in the family's basement. Over 13 years he scored 41 wins, some so brutal his son could barely stand to watch, according to author Joe Layden in The Last Great Fight:

He was struck by the intensity of the violence, and the way the men might as well have been smacking each other with bare knuckles, so light and flimsy were the 10-ounce gloves they wore. ... He couldn't imagine what his father must have endured. And, frankly, he didn't care to find out. ... Boxing held some appeal to James as a competitive endeavor. As a sport. But whatever it was that drove men like Bill Douglas, whatever anger or animalistic instinct carried him through the battle, well, that was lacking in James. And he knew it.

Despite his reticence, in 1981, Buster gave up on his basketball dreams, dropping out of school and making the one phone call that would make his stern father proud: the one asking him to be his trainer as he embarked on a professional career.

Douglas with his grandmother
Douglas with his grandmotherAssociated Press

''You see, that boy didn't want to box,'' Buster's grandma Sarah Jones told Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith. ''Boxing was just the only way he knew of feeling close to his daddy.'"

Like many relationships between fathers and sons in boxing, the Douglas family had its ups and downs. Bill wanted Buster to fight in his style, to be a hard-charging slugger much like Tyson. Others in his camp, including manager John Johnson and Bill's brother-in-law, J.D. McCauley, saw Buster more as boxer than a banger. 

The disputes weren't always conducted in a professional manner. Johnson, a protege of the hyperbolic Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes, never hesitated to speak his mind. Bill and McCauley, once great friends, would openly squabble during training, the verbal battles occasionally turning into fisticuffs.

The build to Buster's fight with Tony Tucker was, according to Sports Illustrated's Richard Hoffer, the most dysfunctional yet:

At one workout for the Tucker fight, Buster drew a crowd with his rope-jumping, only to have Billy try to upstage him with his own jumping. And at that fight, the elder Douglas wore a T-shirt emblazoned BILL ''DYNAMITE'' DOUGLAS. 

Buster got the better of Tucker for most of their fight, but in the 10th round of a scheduled 15-rounder, he ran out of gas, backed into the ropes and covered up until the fight was stopped on a TKO. His father walked away in disgust and, to this day, has never gone to another of his son's fights, although the two of them still talk.

"After that I was kind of written off," Douglas told the Dayton Daily News.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. Buster, without the emotional drain of dealing with his father, won six consecutive fights.

Suddenly, rather than being run out of the sport, Douglas found himself in Tokyo, earning a seven-figure payday for what seemed an impossible task: beating Mike Tyson.

Tussle in Tokyo

Douglas was simply another in a long list of opponents for Tyson. No one seemed particularly enthused by the choice, least of all the champion.

Plain old boxing was hardly enough to rouse his attention in those halcyon days. The champion had many suitors. Winners Worldwide, a British promotion firm, offered $100 million for a worldwide year-long tour. The WWF was proposing a showdown with champion Hulk Hogan that King speculated could be worth $50 million. 

And then there was Evander Holyfield and George Foreman, big-money fights waiting in the wings. With all that excitement in the near-term future, training in the present was a hard sell for Tyson. Douglas was such an afterthought that Sports Illustrated's Pat Putnam speculated he would last "as long as a plate of tuna in a sushi bar."

Tyson Versus Douglas Tale of the Tape
Mike Tyson37-05'10"220 poundsIron Mike
James Douglas29-4-1 (1)6'4"231 poundsBuster

The fight was predicted to be such a blowout that interest was sparse in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. King was forced to bring the bout to Tokyo, where Tyson had already proved himself as a great attraction, selling more than 40,000 tickets on the first day they went on sale for a 1988 title defense against Tony Tubbs. That bout ended in a second-round knockout—few expected better from Douglas.

"Nobody was paying attention to Tyson's shortcomings," Lampley said. "Because everyone—fans, media, and even expertswere all convinced that this was a unique knockout machine who was going to put together a historic record. We blinded ourselves to reality in worship of that particular phenomenon.

"He went the distance with Tony Tucker. He went the distance with James "Bonecrusher" Smith. What did they have in common? They were all taller than Mike. Most of them had decent foot movement and a jab. It was there, in black-and-white evidence, before the Douglas fight.

"It was not a particularly easy matchup for Mike Tyson. But that was obscured by the hoopla with all the knockouts and the 91-second destruction of Michael Spinks. Nobody was focused on, despite all the other fights, that there was a real style issue there."

Almost no one would even take bets on the bout. At the Mirage, where Tyson was a 42-to-1 favorite, the sports book manager compared the fight to "Secretariat running against a Clydesdale." Even Don King, known for his ability to sell ice to an Eskimo, couldn't pretend Douglas vs. Tyson was a competitive event.

King meets the press
King meets the pressSadayuki Mikami/Associated Press

"It ain't about if he knocks a guy out," King told the press before the fight. "It's about how he knocks a guy out. It's the style, the improvisation."

While King was talking his best game, Tyson wasn't living up to his end of the bargain. According to Peter Heller in his Tyson biography Bad Intentions, the champion was more interested in women and food than in training hard. Tyson, none too pleased to be back in Tokyo, where he felt fan attention bordered on creepy, holed up in his hotel suite like a hermit: "He reportedly skipped a week of boxing, some of his other sessions were described as sluggish, he was said to be overweight and his trainer Aaron Snowell even admitted Tyson was eating just one meal a day—soup and salad—to take the weight off."

Signs of rust, of a year of neglect, were showing. Tyson was even knocked down in a sparring session by former contender Greg Page, which finally attracted some interest to the fight. Through it all, Tyson kept a very low profile, fearful of the hordes of Japanese fans who awaited him at every appearance.

"He had been isolated even from people in his camp," Lampley said. "People close to him told me he was hiding in his room watching Faces of Death. It had to do with his divorce from Robin and the shock of all that. And it had to do with some of the public turning against him. He went from being this impregnable colossus to the kind of public figure in whom you can poke holes. And he wasn't emotionally prepared for that. He was a 23-year old kid." 

Much of the blame, though there was plenty to go around, fell on new trainers Snowell and Jay Bright. The two had replaced Rooney, it was rumored, because King could get them cheap.

Tyson trains with Snowell
Tyson trains with SnowellKoji Sasahara/Associated Press

"King doesn't believe in paying trainers the 10 percent they're entitled to," fellow trainer Slim Robinson told Newsday. "But Aaron won't ask for much money. If King pays him $10,000, he'll be happy."

Others were even less diplomatic, including many former Tyson associates. 

"Having Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright train Tyson was like wearing plastic thongs under an Armani suit," Tyson's former trainer Teddy Atlas told boxing historian Thomas Hauser of SecondsOut.com. "Those two guys couldn't train a fish to swim."

Douglas, meanwhile, was finally ready to perform to his potential. Like Tyson, the underdog challenger was competing in the face of almost unthinkable personal tragedy.

His son Lamar's mother was suffering from cancer. His wife, Bertha, had left him unexpectedly months before. And, just 23 days prior to the fight, Douglas's mother, Lula Pearl, died suddenly of a stroke. 

In the wake of this onslaught, Douglas was offered the opportunity to back down from the challenge. Instead, it seemed to galvanize him. His mother had been the only one to believe in him, actually telling her closest friends she truly believed Buster could win. He didn't want to let her memory down. 

"Something great must be about to happen to James Douglas," Douglas said at the time. "Because something out there is definitely trying to deter me."

Rather than wilt, Douglas rose to the occasion. A man once known for his excuses, doing everything in his power to avoid the grinding roadwork that gives boxers the stamina to survive 12 long rounds, was running twice as long as scheduled.

But it was his jog to the ring, complete with bouncing tassels, that gave people pause.  

"Who had ever seen a fighter run to the ring to fight Tyson? He wasn't walking to an executioner's chair. He was jogging to a throne," Merchant said. "It was the first sign something different was going on. We didn't know it. But it revealed itself soon enough."

The Upset

Douglas, despite the long odds and history of failing to rise to the challenge when it mattered most, didn't come into the Tyson fight despondent. Too many fighters, in his mind, had given up before the first punch was thrown. 

His team didn't look at Tyson as an icon. They saw him as just another fighter—a dangerous fighter, yes. But invincible? Hardly. 

In assistant trainer John Russell's mind, Tyson was a train. When he was steaming forward, there was a lot of power behind him. But if Douglas stepped to the side, avoiding the bull rush, much of that momentum would be lost.

"You step to the side," he told Douglas in training. "You don't back up because the train runs right over you. If you back up against Tyson he's going to run right over you. Just keep moving to the side. Don't let him get set."

Tyson's success, Team Douglas believed, was predicated on speed. But that required him to be planted and was effective only on his own terms. If Douglas kept moving, using his size and reach to frustrate Tyson, he could take the champion out of his comfort zone. And once he did that, it was anybody's fight.

SulaimanHolly Stein/Getty Images

Though few believed Douglas was the man for the job, King's close confidantes, like WBC president Jose Sulaiman, had seen enough to apparently grow worried. While the world dismissed Douglas' chances, Sulaiman made contingency plans—just in case the worst happened.

"Five minutes before the start of the fight, Jose Sulaiman spoke to me," referee Octavio Meyran told Playboy's Eric Raskin. "... As we walked from the dressing rooms to the ring, Sulaiman took my shoulder and he told me, 'If you see Tyson hurt, be nice with him. If you see Douglas hurt, stop the fight immediately.' I said, 'I’ll never do that. I'm an honest man and I never do that.' Then he told me, 'OK, go out to the ring and do your job the best you can do.'"

From the very beginning, the fight looked like anything but a one-sided mismatch. Douglas came out pumping his left jab, doubling up at times and adding a right hand for good measure. One round passed. Then another. Suddenly it was evident that the force of nature the crowd had paid to see wasn't showing up. Or if it had, it wasn't in the form of Mike Tyson.

"They came to see Godzilla, but the wrong guy turned out to be the monster," Merchant said. "People came for a show, not for a fight. That was not the point of bringing Mike Tyson there. So there was this eerie kind of silence."

By the end of the fifth round, Tyson's left eye had begun to swell badly. In his corner, Snowell did his best to limit the damage but didn't have the tools he needed to truly minimize the harm and keep Tyson's vision intact. The corner had no enswell, an indispensable device used to prevent swelling. They didn't even have ice. Instead, they were forced to make due with what was on hand.

"It was the most graphic symbol, the perfect symbol, of everything that had happened in Mike's world since the moment Jimmy Jacobs died," Lampley said. "When Jimmy died, that's when the world changed. The cocoon protecting Mike was gone. King swooped in and took over. From there comes the whole downward spiral.

"Now all of the sudden, Mike has a swelling eye and these guys are holding a condom with water on it. And you realize, it's amateur hour. They don't even have a clue. The champion of the world doesn't even have a professional corner. It's like a newspaper cartoon. It tells you everything you need to know about where Mike Tyson is at that moment."

Still, despite Douglas' steady performance, there was the sense that Tyson could explode at any moment. Buster's corner, despite their success, seemed on the verge of hysteria. In Tyson's corner, it was as if they knew their time would come.

Douglas survives
Douglas survivesAnonymous/Associated Press

And it did.

"We were waiting for the moment when Mike would arrive," Lampley admitted. "There had to be one big eruption. You had to expect it. Mike had great power in both hands and surely, at some point, Douglas would make a mistake. And sure enough, at the end of the eighth round he got hit with an uppercut and went down."

Douglas seemed more angry than hurt, slamming his fist into the mat and carefully following the referee's count, making it back to his feet before the count of 10.

"It was a good shot, but I was coherent," Douglas told Layden. "I was alert and aware of everything."

The bell rang seconds later to end the round. Douglas had survived. The dream was alive. In some ways it was the defining moment of the fight. Despite being battered throughout, Tyson rose to the occasion. And, when Douglas got the opportunity, he did too. It would have been easy for him to quit and take the moral victory and stay down where it was safe. He had already outperformed expectations.

Instead, he rose to his feet, 231 pounds of steady perseverance. 

"Tyson said everybody has a plan until he gets hit," Merchant said. "Douglas got hit. But he got up."

By the time the ninth round began, it was as if nothing had happened. Tyson came out fast, but Douglas met him punch for punch. It was the most competitive round of the fight, but by the end the challenger was again firmly in control.

It was all the champion had left. In the 10th round, he was all but through.

"I don't know how I thought I could have won," Tyson said. "I wasn't training properly. I had it coming."

An uppercut, this time by Douglas, started a four-punch combination that ended with Tyson on the canvas for the first time in his career. David, against all odds, had slain Goliath. 

SADAYUKI MIKAMI/Associated Press

In the ring after the dust had settled, Merchant took his time in a masterful post-fight interview.

"Douglas was so overwhelmed and emotional that he had to step back and try to compose himself," Merchant remembered. "It went on, in television time, forever. Him standing there and me waiting for him to pull himself together, with the camera capturing his emotion, both mourning and celebrating at the same time.

"I'd been in television for 15 years by that time. And there were certain things I had learned after being a print guy for so long. And the most important one was, this is show and tell. When everyone can see it, you don't have to sell it. As I stood there, I was saying in my head, 'This is show-and-tell.' And people were watching this guy reveal the most primal feelings that he had.

"That's why I just stood there. I knew the story was being told, without words, at that moment. Then he stepped forward to explain that his mother had inspired him. It was an extraordinary narrative. That particular moment was important to me. It was good television." 

The Aftermath

Immediately following the fight Merchant, Lampley and HBO producer Ross Greenburg dashed out of the stadium and to the airport, their flight on Singapore Airlines looming. 

"The instant the telecast was over, we are in a manic race to Korakuen Airport. We thought we'd catch it easily with a second- or third-round knockout," Lampley said. "But now it's a problem, because the fight has gone almost the distance. It isn't until the following day that we hear about King's protest. As that was happening we were on a flight to Los Angeles."

Before Douglas had a chance to celebrate his win, King called a press conference to protest the outcome. Spared the bright lights of HBO and much of the American media, which hadn't felt the fight worthy of their time, he brazenly contended that the count in the eighth round had been too long. 

Tyson and King postfight
Tyson and King postfightGeraid Herbert/Associated Press

Douglas, according to King, should have been counted out. Tyson, therefore, should still be the champion. The referee, Octavio Meyran, was forced to apologize for his "mistake." The WBC and Sulaiman seemed on board as well.

As Douglas returned home from Tokyo, it was still unclear whether he would be officially declared the champion of the world.

"King stopped James Douglas from getting his just glory," Johnson told Sports Illustrated's Hoffer. "It was like Tyson was still champion, and the fight had never taken place."

Tyson vs. Douglas: By the Numbers
FighterPunches LandedPunches ThrownPercentage
Buster Douglas23044152 percent
Mike Tyson10121447 percent

Not even King could pull off a robbery quite so blatant. Had it gone to the cards, he might have managed it. Despite Douglas' outstanding performance, landing more punches than Tyson threw, the judges didn't see the fight his way, embarrassingly scoring it a draw.

But a knockout is a knockout. Tyson and King, eventually, had to concede defeat.

MerchantDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

"I testified at an arbitration hearing in support of Douglas, along with a montage that showed most knockouts rarely if ever happen in 10 seconds," Merchant said. "That they were 10 counts. Not 10 seconds. When it was all over, they didn't get away with their heist."

For Douglas, it was a brief reign on top. The pressure of being champion was too much, and the collapse of his support structure limited him to a single defense, a loss to Holyfield that October.

"The fight in me was gone," Douglas told ESPN.com's Jemelle Hill. "I was distraught. I was just in a shell. No one could understand my plight. I lost my best friend, my mother. I had really no one to turn to."

Tyson, famously, would also never be the same man. In 1991, he was arrested for raping Desiree Washington and eventually served three years in prison. Though he would later return to the ring, he was never the same fighter who had captivated America in his youth.

Nothing that followed, however, could fully erase the memories of that magical night. It was the greatest upset in boxing history and a fight for the ages.

"It was a show from start to finish," Merchant said.  "And it knocked out all the fiction ever written or filmed about the underdog in boxing, including Rocky. And it was real. You couldn't make it up."

Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, were gathered firsthand. 


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