Buster Douglas shocked the world when he knocked out Mike Tyson
Thirty years ago, when the only place you could legally gamble in the United States was Las Vegas and Atlantic City, you could have walked into any casino on the strip or the boardwalk and wagered on just about anything.
You could have bet on which movie would win the 1990 Academy Award, Driving Miss Daisy, Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, or My Left Foot.
You could have wagered that the Buffalo Bills, coming off their Bickering Bills season, would make it to Super Bowl 25.
You could have even dropped some money down on the longshot Cincinnati Reds winning that year’s World Series, and if you did, wow, good for you.
But on the night of Feb. 10, 1990, trying to get any action on the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas heavyweight championship fight was virtually impossible. Almost every sports book refused to lay odds on the fight because it was considered a one-sided travesty, a classic mismatch that Don King couldn’t even sell in this hemisphere, so he had to take his circus all the way to Tokyo.
Oh, you could bet on which round Douglas would get knocked out, but only the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas was taking wagers on who would win or lose, and the odds on Douglas were set at 42-1. It was a lose-lose proposition for the bookies because Douglas, a non-descript 29-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, was thought to be the latest tomato can propped up for Tyson to pummel into submission.
Tyson had never lost, never been knocked down and never even been challenged in 37 professional fights, and there wasn’t a soul alive who actually thought Douglas – whose primary qualification for a shot at the heavyweight title was his availability and his cheap price tag – could last more than a few rounds with Tyson.
Tyson was a vicious, cold-blooded punching assassin who had knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds and Carl Williams in 93 seconds. He was maniacal, the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet.” Douglas was, in the words of his manager John Johnson, a fighter who was sometimes, “Too nice. He can be kind of passive.” This was going to be a massacre.
Sometime during the seventh round – with the invincible Tyson clearly in the battle of his life and obviously losing to this Rocky-like underdog – Evander Holyfield leaned over to his manager Dan Duva at ringside and said, “For once Tyson isn’t fighting a guy who’s afraid of him. Buster wants to win the heavyweight championship of the world and he doesn’t care who this guy is.”
And so Douglas did, in the 10th round, pounding Tyson with a flurry of destructive haymakers that separated the 23-year-old champion from his mouthpiece and his senses, and sent him crashing to the canvas with a thud that could be heard around the world.
In the 10 seconds referee Octavio Meyran stood over Tyson counting him out, the boxing world was turned on its ear. The sight of Tyson – his left eye nearly swollen shut, his right eye enveloped in a fog the likes of which only London sees – groping around trying to find his mouthpiece, then inserting it backward into his mouth, was almost surreal.
Douglas, standing in a neutral corner, couldn’t believe his eyes, couldn’t believe what he had just done. This puffy man who had lost his mother to a stroke less than a month earlier; who was estranged from his father and one-time trainer; whose wife had recently walked out on him; and whose first wife and mother to his 11-year-old son was losing a battle with leukemia, had pulled off the greatest upset in boxing history.
Reflecting on his tortuous personal life before the fight, Douglas had said, “Something great must be about to happen to James Douglas because something out there is definitely trying to deter me.”
Knocking out Tyson would qualify as something great, if not improbable.
“This is a dream, this is a dream,” Douglas said in the ring afterward. “I’ve watched this on HBO a thousand times. I’ve said, ‘One day it’s going to be me wearing that belt.’”
It was clear from the moment the fight began that Tyson, who did not train very hard and weighed a robust 220 pounds, was not ready to wage war. It almost seemed like he expected to hit Douglas, who would then fall, and another $6 million payday for a couple minutes work would be his.
Douglas had said before the fight, “The key to beating this guy is that when you hit him, hit him with a lot of power. It seems as though nobody ever hit him hard enough to gain his respect.”
Douglas hit Tyson numerous times in the first three rounds and the ringside consensus was that Douglas won all three rounds. Tyson put together an impressive flurry at the end of the fourth, but then Douglas did the unthinkable in the fifth – he stood right in front of Tyson and mauled him with various combinations, a strategy that no one before him had even imagined employing against Tyson for fear of painful retribution.
The sixth and seventh rounds were mostly uneventful, except for the fact that the fight was still going. Tyson had rarely gone this length, and with his eye puffing up and the mighty power of his punches disappearing, he began to sense that he was in trouble.
Like a champion, he battled back and with six seconds left in the eighth round Tyson thought he had won the fight when he caught Douglas with a classic right-hand uppercut that knocked the challenger down.
Two things happened as soon as Douglas hit the floor – the ringside timekeeper began his count, and Douglas pounded the floor with his fist in anger for making a mistake, a clear display that he was not hurt, and that he would be able to rise easily.
One thing that did not happen when Douglas went down was the referee, Meyran, beginning his count. He did not start until the ringside count had reached four. Thus, with Douglas watching Meyran’s hands and rising at the count of eight, a controversy was born.
Douglas was on the canvas for 12 seconds which would constitute a knockout, but because the referee’s count is official, Douglas was spared.
Of course, there was no question that if Meyran had begun his count properly, Douglas would have still gotten up at eight because his senses were intact. But when the fight was over, King immediately filed a protest saying that Tyson should be declared the winner.
“There were two knockouts, but the first knockout obliterates the second,” King said. “Buster Douglas was knocked out, and the referee did not do his job and panicked. As the promoter of both fighters, I’m only seeking fair play.”
Meyran admitted his mistake and acknowledged that Douglas was down for longer than 10 seconds, and Tyson said, “I thought I knocked him out. I thought he was counted out.”
Douglas quelled any doubts about his physical status in the ninth when he punished Tyson with head and body shots, closing his left eye for good, and then in the 10th, Tyson was virtually defenseless as Douglas rocked him with a right uppercut that sent Tyson reeling backwards. Douglas followed with a right, a left and a right, then finished him with a sweeping left hook that brought 30,000 Japanese spectators at the Tokyo Dome to their feet in disbelief.
“So I lost,” Tyson said upon his return to the United States a few days later. “I’ve lost before and I’ve always come back. I look forward to coming back again.”
Sadly, this was the beginning of the end for Tyson, as well as Douglas.
Tyson, once on his way to becoming the greatest heavyweight boxer in history, never regained the undisputed title. King had demanded a rematch with Douglas after the knockdown controversy, but he was denied because contractually, the winner of the fight had to defend the title against Holyfield.
That bout took place in Las Vegas on Oct. 25, 1990, and a grossly overweight Douglas was knocked out in the third round. Holyfield was not obligated to fight Tyson, so he didn’t, leaving Tyson to beat a number of outclassed opponents, while praying for a chance to win back his crown.
Holyfield was going to give Tyson his opportunity, but then Tyson was found guilty in February 1992 of raping a beauty pageant contestant in Indianapolis named Desiree Washington.
After spending three years in an Indiana prison, Tyson returned to the ring, beat up a few skill-less fighters, then finally got his shot at Holyfield, but not at the title, in Las Vegas in November 1996. But he was no match for Holyfield. Holyfield knocked him down in the sixth round and eventually stopped Tyson early in the 11th.
The rematch came a few months later in 1997, and this time, Tyson disgraced himself by biting off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear in the third round, drawing a disqualification and a one-year banishment from the sport.
Douglas’ loss to Holyfield ended his 15 minutes of fame. He never fought for the title again, and in 1994, weighing nearly 400 pounds, he nearly died after spending four days in a diabetic coma.
Douglas was hospitalized for a week, and afterward began to get his life back in order. He shed about 150 pounds and even made a brief return to the ring, but he was never given another title shot.
Though his career didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, Douglas can forever cling to that night in Tokyo when he accomplished the impossible.