30 Years Ago Today: Buster Douglas Knocks Out Mike Tyson

Spoiler alert for those of you who taped this fight and still haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. On February 11th, 1990, in Toyko, Japan, James “Buster” Douglas as a 42 to 1 underdog pulled off the biggest upset in boxing history, arguably in the history of sports. Mike Tyson was one of the most dominate athletes in all of sports up until that point. He had become the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the World ever at the age of 20. By 21, he would be the undisputed World Heavyweight Champion, unifying the WBA, WBC, and IBF championships. By 22, he would defeat the lineal champion Michael Spinks in 91 seconds making him truly undisputed as the most dominate force in the heavyweight division and the Baddest Man on the Planet. Tyson’s meteoric rise to the top at such a young age suggested that he would continue to be a dominate force going into the 90’s. This fight against Douglas was seen as a tune up fight for a future encounter with number one contender Evander Holyfield. No one was taking this fight seriously except for Buster Douglas.

Personally, there are few of us who remember the first time one of our heroes let us down. This fight took place three days before my 10th birthday. Mike Tyson was one of my childhood heroes. I was too little to really understand some of his character flaws. In large part my love of Mike Tyson was tied closely with my love for the 1987 NES Classic Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! I had seen some boxing on tv but really couldn’t appreciate some of the nuances of the sport. All I knew was that Mike Tyson was one of the coolest guys on the planet along with Jim McMahon, Barry Sanders, Bo Jackson, and Robin Yount. I had wanted very badly to see Tyson take on Buster Douglas, hoping to witness Tyson knock out some bum in about 30 seconds. We didn’t have HBO and my Mom remembered the pain in the backside that we had to go through when I talked her into ordering the Tyson vs Spinks fight in 1988. Pay Per View didn’t used to be so easy to order. And to be treated with a 91 second fight, the whole thing seemed hardly worth it. Instead, she promised to have her friend from work tape WrestleMania 6 for me, so I got over not seeing Tyson vs Douglas pretty quickly. Besides, Mike Tyson was going to be on Saturday Nights Main Event shortly after my birthday. Tyson was going to knock out Hogan and help Savage regain the WWE Championship. Mike Tyson appearing in wrestling was two of my favorite things coming together. So I was feeling pretty optimistic going into this fight. When I found out that Mike Tyson had lost, I couldn’t believe it. As in, this did not compute. I was in denial. I had seen Tyson beat Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. I had seen him take out Little Mac with one punch. I was in denial. Then to find out that Buster Douglas would be taking his place to referee the Randy Savage vs Hulk Hogan match on Saturday Nights Main Event, I was crushed. The world is a much simpler place when you are nine.

Mike Tyson would go on to disappoint me pretty much for the rest of his career after the Douglas fight. Whether it be learning the facts of life from an older kid at school when asking out loud why Tyson was going to prison or his comedy fight in his comeback match with Peter McNeely. The time Mike bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear or getting exposed and dissected by Lennox Lewis. And let’s not forget his final match in which he just gave up because his heart wasn’t in it anymore. This night in Tokyo really was the beginning of the end for “Iron” Mike Tyson. The aura of invincibly was gone.

As for the fight itself, the entire HBO broadcast is up on YouTube and I will link to it here. The pre-fight hype really spelled out just how hopeless the situation for Buster Douglas was. Just the way Jim Lampley says the fight is “scheduled” for 12 rounds and points to all the empty seats doesn’t really sell anyone on the broadcast they are about to see. I have to respect the journalistic integrity of Lampley and Larry Merchant, who are calling this fight. They aren’t trying to BS the audience in anyway. They use words like mismatch, non-competitive, and annihilation. Merchant’s first comment is striking. “This match was over before it even began or soon thereafter.” They really capture the mood surrounding the fight. Nothing to see here, folks, but Don King and some Japanese businessmen are paying for this fight so let’s get this over with. At some point during the fight they explain that the Japanese wanted this fight mostly as a status symbol, hosting it at the Tokyo Dome to give people a chance to say they saw Mike Tyson defend his championship. I understand this completely. On May 3rd, 2008, I went to the Home Depot Center in Carson, California to see Oscar De La Hoya take on Steve Forbes. I bought the cheapest ticket possible, nearly at the top of this soccer stadium. I watch the fight through binoculars amongst a group of other common people. But we all get to say that we saw one of the all time great fighters live and in person.

They couldn’t even be bothered to find out what Buster Douglas looked like when drawing the poster.

The pre-match hype videos for Tyson and Douglas also don’t inspire a lot of faith. The gist of them are that Mike Tyson is a force of nature that has dominated the world of boxing and capture the imagination of all. Also he scared some of the locals while visiting Japan by catching a pigeon with his bare hands. On the other hand, James “Buster” Douglas is from Columbus, Ohio. They even name drop Woody Hayes as having a slight connection to Douglas’ trainer. They did put over that Buster Douglas’ mom had died just weeks before the fight, the implication being his heart might be heavy coming into this match. The boxers enter the ring and they aren’t doing much to even focus on Douglas’ strong points. He might as well have had ‘Opponent’ on the back of his robe.

The Japan Sporting Commission set up a ceremony where want to present Mike Tyson with a belt that supposedly belonged to Joe Louis. Tyson turns his back to them, not acknowledging their existence and completely disrespecting them. I am sure that did nothing to endear him to the Japanese public. The tale of the tape should be the first indication that something isn’t right here because Douglas has pretty much every physical advantage in size and reach. Douglas is in the best shape of his career, ten pounds lighter than his most recent fight with Oliver McCall. Tyson looks bored with this whole thing and just wants to get back to the hotel. Evander Holyfield is at ringside and we are promised an interview with him “in a few short moments.”

Round 1

Douglas takes control of the bout immediately, working the left jab and tying up Tyson whenever he tries to get inside. Douglas displays an uncharacteristic quickness which avoids some of Tyson’s attempts to explode inside and land the combination that will put this fight away early. When Tyson charges forward, Douglas quickly evades the onslaught and ties the champ up. Douglas keeps working the jab and has Tyson fighting his fight.

This is a defining image that really sums up this fight.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Douglas.

Round 2

Tyson explodes out of the corner, hoping to catch Douglas off guard and land the big combination. That doesn’t work. Douglas avoids the onslaught, landing a few blows inside before tying Tyson up. We see a little bit of Tyson’s bob and weave, peek-a-boo defense to avoid Douglas’ reach. Mike quickly abandons that, opting instead to absorb the left jab and try to get inside to land a big uppercut. Douglas is too fast for him, beat Tyson to the punch and landing some devastating rights before tying the champ up. Before the end of the round, Douglas unloads on Tyson and to Mike’s credit, he keeps on his feet. Nothing did too much damage but Douglas is landing his shots and controlling the tempo of the fight.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Douglas. 20-18 Douglas.

Round 3

Tyson tries exploding at the bell again and again get frustrated by Douglas. Tyson through the round does match to get some good shots in at the body but can’t follow up with any of them. He is still looking for the big punch, namely an uppercut, to put this away. Douglas is tiring out some. He is landing his leg jab still and getting in a few combinations when Tyson gives him an opening. Douglas is still doing a good job frustrating the champ by tying him up inside. Tyson is trying to land what he can while tied by but there is nothing behind those punches. Tyson is shows some signs of life. He didn’t prepare well for this fight at all and it shows. Douglas keeps leading with the right cross when Tyson tries to get inside, always being on step ahead of Iron Mike.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Douglas. 30-27 Douglas.

Between rounds we see how ineffective Tyson’s corner is. They basically tell him to stay the coarse and punch on the inside. Tyson rolls his eyes and looks about fed up with this nonsense. Douglas is in his head and Tyson is thoroughly frustrated.

Round 4

Both guys are looking gassed and have slowed down quite a bit. The announcers are seeking answers for what they are witnessing. Tyson firing trainer Kevin Rooney might have something to do with why his is so ill prepared and easy to hit. Tyson keeps trying to explode forward but Douglas keeps tying him up and neutralizing the champs offense. Tyson has some success early in the round, landing some jabs, catching Douglas in the chin. To Douglas’ credit, he keeps on his feet and doesn’t get taken back. It looks like Tyson might win the round but Douglas gets back to working the left jab and explodes with a flurry towards the end of the round. It’s hard to say what landed and what didn’t as both men were trying to land some punches to win the round. Douglas is still controlling the pace of the fight.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Tyson. 39-37 Douglas.

Between rounds we see Evander Holyfield in the crowd, watching a $12 Million pay day against Tyson in June fly right out the window. Evander knows what he is seeing and doesn’t like it one bit.

Round 5

Tyson is lost without a map. There is no explosiveness. No evasion. Douglas imposes his will on Tyson in this round. Douglas works the left jab, Tyson keeps coming inside to try to establish something and keeps catching a right cross of his effort. Douglas has been leading with the right all fight and now it has swollen Mike’s eye shut. Tyson’s legs are getting weak but he takes everything Buster gives him and stays on his feet. I don’t know that Tyson landed a punch that round.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Douglas. 49-46 Douglas.

Between the rounds we see the legendary moment where Tyson’s corner uses a condom filled with ice water to reduce the swelling on his eye. I am only assuming it was ice water, they may have used lukewarm tap water. These corner men were so bad that they didn’t bother to bring the proper equipment. Normally, the corner would have a cold press or end-swell. It’s a piece of iron that is kept cold for occasions such as this. Every fight corner has one. It’s standard equipment. It is so comically amateur that this defies description.

Round 6

Tyson shows some of the explosiveness that he has left, leaping in with lightning quick strikes which aren’t landing. Douglas is still too quick to let these punches land with the effectiveness they need to score the knockout. Tyson looks for the uppercut inside but keeps running into that lead right from Buster. Tyson desperately wants to land the big punch that will end this bout before it gets any further. Douglas is relaxed and in control. He keeps landing two left jabs and a right cross, which has worked for him all fight. Tyson lands a few punch inside but there isn’t much behind those them. Douglas continues to be the ring general.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Douglas. 59-55 Douglas.

Round 7

The song remains the same. Tyson attempts a low blow early in the round. It had nothing behind it and thankfully the ref didn’t see it. For those who question the heart and toughness of Mike Tyson, a lesser boxer would have fallen by now from the beating he has received at the hands of Buster Douglas. Tyson is clearly frustrated and looking for that opening to land the uppercut.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-9 Douglas. 69-64 Douglas.

Round 8

Douglas comes out the first half of the round a bit off. He isn’t throwing many punches, just tying up the champ and taking his time. Buster might be a little too loose and relaxed. Douglas just looks off compared to where he was in the last three rounds. Midway through, Douglas starts landing his left jabs, probably realizing that he has to keep winning rounds if this goes to the 12th. Tyson keeps running into Douglas’ lead right as he comes inside. Douglas sees an opening near the end of the round and starts unloading on Tyson. Tyson takes everything Douglas dishes out then finally hits that uppercut he has been looking for all night,putting Douglas on the mat for the first knockdown of the fight.

This is where we have some controversy. Don King and his people will contest the fight over. The count appears to be a bit slow. The ref and the time keeper are off by about 2 seconds. When Douglas gets knocked down, he punches the mat in frustration. Douglas is listening for the referees count, taking all the time he is allotted before getting to his feet. Having watched this over several times, I am confident that Douglas could have gotten up well before the ref’s count of 9 which would have been the time keepers count of 11.

Douglas gets to his feet and is saved by the bell before Tyson can strike again.

DeDamos’ Score Card: 10-8 Tyson. 77-74 Douglas.

Round 9

This is the pivotal round of the fight. How will Douglas respond to getting knocked down? How much does he have left? If he can’t maintain control of this fight, be the ring general Douglas has been for the previous 8 rounds, Tyson will take control of the fight and score the knock out. Douglas has to show that he has conditioning and heart that he has lacked his whole career, notably in his only other title fight against Tony Tucker. Douglas rises to the occasion, tying up the champ and taking his time to clear the cob webs. Tyson looks to quicken the pace of the fight, to land that final punch that will end the fight. But Tyson is running on empty too. Douglas unloads on Tyson with a flurry of blows with 2 minutes to go in the round. Tyson answers back and wobbles the challenger. Douglas keeps on his feet and goes back to neutralizing Tyson and slowing him down. Then with a minute left, Douglas opens up his offense again. Tyson gets to the ropes to keep him on his feet. Douglas punches himself out trying to get Tyson on the mat but Tyson keeps on the ropes. Tyson clears his head and looks to land a few bombs but there is nothing behind his punches. He misses more than he hits and the round is mercifully over. It was gut check time for Douglas and he make a statement. He is still in this fight and not going anywhere.

DeDamos’ Score Card 10-9 Douglas. 87-83 Douglas

Round 10

Tyson comes out with a nice right, tagging Douglas in the side of the head. Now it’s Tyson looking to tie up Douglas who is looking for an opening to put this fight away. Douglas finds that opening mid way through the tenth. Douglas opens up with a fiery combination, knocking down Tyson for the first time in his professional career. Tyson looks for his mouth guard as he flounders around the mat. Tyson can’t get to his feet by ten and his on dream street. James “Buster” Douglas has done the impossible. He has overcome 42-1 odds and beat the undefeated Mike Tyson to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. No one believes what they are seeing.

Buster Douglas overcame the death of his mother two week before the fighter and the mother of his child being hospitalized with kidney issues to take on the biggest challenge of his career. And he won. One only sports book would even take bets on this fight. This was the ultimate underdog story of a man defying all expectations, tapping into all of his potential, moving past a career of underachievement, and putting it all together on one night to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. The way he prepared for this fight, Douglas could have beaten anyone that night. Tyson came in completely unprepared and when he wasn’t able to intimidate his opponent, he didn’t know what to do.

Tyson showed the kind of class that would be the hallmark of his career, quickly exiting the ring without acknowledging that the man who beat him just had the fight of his life. He didn’t shake the man’s hand or congratulate him. Imagine that ending to Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. “You didn’t do shit, Little Mac. I’m going to tie your ass up in court. Screw you, pal.” Buster Douglas makes sure to credit his mother and his father for this win. His dad had been his trainer early in his career but following the Tony Tucker fight, Buster made the hard decision to fire his dad. According to the shoot interviews I have watched, it seems like Buster Douglas didn’t respond well to his father’s constant pressure on him, which lead to Buster’s underachievement in much of his career. Still, Buster loved his father but to get to the next level, he had to go in another direction. The post match interview with Evander Holyfield, he is trying to put a good spin on things even though a lot of money just slipped through his fingers. He is saying the right platitudes but the look on his face tells a different story. It would be six years before the world would see Tyson vs Holyfield but that is a story for another day.

The judges score cards are the biggest travesty of this fight. The American judge had it at 88-82, which is pretty close to where I had it. He must have scored the 8th a 9-9, giving that round to Douglas. Maybe I have a lot to learn about scoring. The first Japanese judge had Tyson leading 87-86. The second Japanese judge had it tied 86-86. I don’t want to accuse anyone of being bribed by Don King but that is better than the alternative. At least being on the take would make sense. I invite you to watch this fight and tell me what your score card looks like. I can’t imagine any unbiased person could watch this fight and have Tyson winning it or a tie. If this had gone 12 rounds, either they were going to rob Douglas of the decision or those two judges had no business judging a boxing match or anything else for that matter. I hope the judge who had Tyson ahead on his card was either in King’s pocket or they have such poor judgment that they was never allowed to judge anything ever again. Not a wet t-shirt contest, a hot dog eating contest, and certainly never judge his neighbor.

Following this fight, Don King and the Tyson camp almost immediately protested the decision. The WBA and WBC were willing to take their complaints seriously but ultimate this never went any where. For Buster Douglas, having his title win tied up in court by Don King really messed with him. For the moment though, Buster Douglas was a household name overnight. WWE quickly replaced Tyson as the special guest referee for The Main Event match between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. To my disappointment, Douglas didn’t help Savage win the belt. Sega made a deal with Buster Douglas to quickly put out a video game. They repackaged the 1988 boxing title Final Blow , which had not been released in North America, as James “Buster” Douglas Knockout Boxing. Douglas even appeared in the “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t” commercials. The idea being Nintendo has Tyson in Punch Out, well we have the guy who beat Tyson therefore we have the better game system. Douglas picked up some acting gigs and media appearance. I don’t know if he was prepared for becoming a media sensation overnight.

On October 25, 1990, James “Buster” Douglas defended his undisputed World Heavyweight Championship against Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield. Douglas came into the fight out of shape and unprepared. He was quickly dismantled by Holyfield, being knocked out in the third round. This was a disappointment for pretty much everybody. Douglas had really turned the corner on his career in the fight against Tyson. Boxing was desperately in need of stars and if Douglas had been able to make a competent showing against Holyfield, it would have been good for the sport overall. Douglas didn’t return to his pre-Tyson form in this fight. He was worse than he had ever looked in his career. Douglas blames this on the prolonged court battle with Don King and being distracted by the threat that his win in Toyko could be taken away. It’s hard to believe that no one in Douglas’ camp could have gotten through to him. King was a snake in the grass and these sort of tactics were well within his character. But King also didn’t have a leg to stand on. If in fact Douglas was distracted by this legal battle then his team failed him terrible. Let the lawyers handle the legal matters, get your fighter focused on what he has to do in the ring. That didn’t happen. Douglas would disappear from boxing until 1996. He had ballooned to over 400lbs and slipped into a diabetic coma. It was a near miracle that Douglas survived this coma much less returned to the ring. Douglas would win a series of fights against tomato cans, never really able to regain the footing he once had in his career. Buster Douglas would quietly retire in 1999. Today, Douglas is at peace with his life and career. He makes occasional media appearances. It seems like he is in a good place in his life and has no regrets.

It is well documented what happened to Mike Tyson following this fight. A downward spiral began that lasted him the rest of his professional career. Tyson would go on to have some big fights and big pay days. But he never was the same boxer after this fight with Douglas. Truthfully, firing Kevin Rooney as his trainer and the death of his mentor Cus D’Amato may have been the real beginning of the end for Tyson but the lose to Douglas was a moment in time where we can pinpoint the wheels falling off. In 2005, Tyson would have his last fight against Kevin McBride, a young prospect but not someone seen on Tyson’s level. The fight went to seven rounds. To start the seventh, Tyson refused to leave his corner, giving up on the fight and boxing. In a rare candid moment, in the post fight Tyson admitted that he didn’t have it anymore and it was disrespectful to the sport for him to come out here and embarrass himself. When asked if he was worried about disappointing the fans Tyson said that the fans knew his career ended in 1990. It’s a heartbreakingly honest interview in which Tyson says what everyone already knew. It’s worth watching the McBride fight for the post-fight interview alone. Boxing can be a world with a lot of dishonesty so to see someone be so brutally truthful was unusual. Today, Tyson seems to be in a good place in his life. He has tried to make peace with his past and make amends from some of his terrible deeds.

Buster Douglas was never that good before, he would never be that good again. But on one night in Toyko, Buster Douglas put everything together to be the ultimate underdog story and fought a nearly perfect fight.Few underdog stories even compare. Perhaps only The Miracle on Ice is a bigger upset in the history of sports. Upsets are part of what makes sports interesting. People love the idea that on any given day, the 42-1 long shot can pull it over and be the World Champion. Whether it’s the 1994 Denver Nuggets knocking off the first seed Seattle Super Sonics in the playoffs. The 2003 Florida Marlins knocking off the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees to an improbable second World Series title. Sports often go the way we expect them to, with unbelievable talent becoming champions and dynasties. But sometimes Mazeroski hits a walk off home run. Sometimes Havichek steals the ball. Sometimes we do believe in miracles. And sometimes Buster Douglas can beat Mike Tyson.

Author: Michael DeDamos