30 Years Later: Douglas vs. Tyson


By: Sean Crose

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the fact that Tyson-Douglas, perhaps the greatest upset in the history of organized sports, went down thirty years ago on this date. If we were to go back thirty years beyond the Tyson-Douglas fight, Muhammad Ali – then Cassius Clay – wouldn’t have even turned pro yet. It really has been a long time, so long that it’s difficult to imagine today’s young boxing fans grasping what a big deal it was. Back then, in the dawn of the 1990s, an athlete could be a celebrity. Not just a famous figure in the sport’s world, but a national figure – scratch that – an INTERNATIONAL figure, one as well  known as the most famous world leaders and entertainment icons.  It may seem impossible to get one’s head around the fact that Tyson was as famous in his prime as Donald Trump, Barak Obama, and the Queen of England are today, but there it is. Along with basketball great Michael Jordan, Tyson transcended sports.


There was good reason for this, aside from the fact that the world wasn’t as fractious and niche centric as it is in 2020. For Tyson was terrifying. Terrifying. It’s said that Michael Spinks, his biggest, most esteemed opponent at the time, was essentially frozen stiff for the few seconds it took Tyson to mop the floor with him in their 1988 heavyweight title bout. Tyson didn’t beat opponents, he went through them. When he hit a man, it seemed like a piece of the man was being removed from his body. By 1990, Tyson was already well into showing public signs of the dysfunctional behavior he would soon become notorious for. Still, no one – no one – expected Tyson to lose a fight anytime in the near future. He was simply that dominant.


Enter one James “Buster” Douglas, a talented, if not particularly focused, heavyweight who flew to Japan to face Tyson in Tokyo with greater than 40-1 odds against him. It wasn’t that the public didn’t give Douglas much of a chance, he was given no chance at all. If the world thought of the 29–4-1 fighter at all, it was as a space filler, someone to keep the 37-0 Tyson busy until the chance to face rising heavyweight Evander Holyfield came along. Yet Douglas chose the occasion to be more focused than he ever had been. Having just lost his mother, the challenger was pouring all his energy into facing Tyson. What’s more, Tyson was having issues of his own at the time. He was dropped in training and no longer had the masterful Kevin Rooney in his corner. Looking back, it was a perfect storm.


The fact that it would be a different kind of night for undisputed heavyweight champ Tyson became evident in the first round, when Douglas put a masterful jab to work. The fighter known as Iron Mike had finally met a man he couldn’t push around. Not that it was going to be an easy night for Douglas. This was Mike Tyson, after all. Even a Tyson who wasn’t at his best was world’s better than most other fighters out there. In fact, Douglas went down in the eighth. The man got up, though, and continued to out box and beat Tyson up. Then in the tenth, the unthinkable happened: Tyson went down – and didn’t get up. There was a new heavyweight champion of the world…and the world expressed its shock.


It was the beginning of a long public slide for Tyson, both in and out of the ring. Arguments from team Tyson that Douglas had benefited from a “long count” after he had been dropped in the eighth went nowhere.


Although he regained the WBC and WBA heavyweight titles later in the 90s, Tyson was never to win another major fight. As for Douglas, he lost focus, showed up overweight for his first defense against Evander Holyfield later in 1990, and promptly got knocked out in the third. Still, there would always be his stunning win over Tyson. In a sense, Douglas would always have Tokyo.

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