It is incredible to think that it was 29 years ago that one of the most monumental upsets in all of sports history happened when 42-1 underdog James “Buster” Douglas did the unthinkable, and to many the impossible, when he knocked out the seemingly invincible “Iron” Mike Tyson to become the Heavyweight champion of the world.
Tyson, who was making the tenth defence of the title, was 37-0, 33 by KO, and was the biggest name the division had seen since Muhammad Ali, drawing attention like no other heavyweight could. His power and speed electrified audiences worldwide as he breathtakingly left opponent after opponent in a crumpled heap. Those that had lasted the distance had done so by spending the majority of their fight holding Tyson so tight that you would have thought they were in love with him. Those feelings were not reciprocated.
The choice of Douglas as challenger was viewed as merely a way of keeping active, and also as a warm up to a blockbuster June fight with number one contender Evander Holyfield. Douglas had been toiling away on Tyson’s undercards, steadily putting together a run of six wins, including points wins over former and future WBC champion’s Trevor Berbick and Oliver McCall, since his only other previous title shot, a tenth round stoppage loss to Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF belt. That fight had displayed the best and worse of Douglas, boxing well early before running out of steam. He wasn’t particularly in love with the sport and trained accordingly. But despite a 29-4-1 (1 NC), 19 KO’s record, Douglas had ability, he had just never been as motivated and focused before. But a tragic turn of events before the fight completely changed that when his beloved mother Lula Pearl suffered a stroke and passed away just 23 days beforehand. Originally having the mindset of just proving that he belonged at that level, Douglas was now intent on winning the title in memory of his mother.
The fight was set for the Tokyo Dome, Tokyo, Japan, on 9 February 1990. It was Tyson’s second appearance in the country, having knocked out Tony Tubbs in two rounds whilst defending his title back in 1988. But reports of Tyson’s lack of training and partying were becoming wide spread. And then a video emerged of him sparring former WBA champion Greg Page in which he appeared rusty and sluggish before being knocked down with a right hand. However, the opinion of Douglas was so low that the press just figured that Tyson would walk in, hit him on the chin, and walk out again without a second glance, before heading towards the megafight with Holyfield. The difference in preparation though, would never become so apparent.
With Douglas wearing all white and Tyson in his traditional all black, it brought to mind memories of the old western movies with the white hat cowboy going up against the feared black hat wearing outlaw. It almost mirrored reality.
Douglas came out looking completely relaxed, switching up angles and working behind a thumping jab. It was a version of him that hadn’t been seen before. Tyson was intent on ending matters as quickly as possible but was having trouble getting set as Douglas controlled the tempo. When Tyson did get close Douglas held on, disrupting any rhythm he tried to get going. In round two, Douglas introduced the right uppercut to his repertoire, doubling it up with an overhand right that thudded with regularity against the left hand side of the champion’s jaw. Tyson was looking flat as he struggled to get anything going. Rounds three and four saw Douglas firmly in the driver’s seat, although Tyson connected with a solid left hook that caught his attention. Both men went to work behind their respective jabs at the start of the fifth, but it wasn’t long before Douglas started landing the right again. The bob and weave head movement that had been an integral part of the Tyson image was non-existent. A sharp right hand straight left combo from Douglas drew gasps from the crowd as the scent of an extraordinary upset started to hover around the Dome. As Tyson trudged back to his corner at the rounds end, his left eye was swelling, testament to the damage the challenger was inflicting. Tyson’s legs looked heavy and unsteady through the sixth as he tried to force his way back in to the fight, and round seven followed the same pattern. Midway through, Douglas timed Tyson coming in, landing a crisp one-two that drew more gasps from the crowd. To say that Tyson had underestimated Douglas was a blatant understatement. But in round eight, one punch almost saved his embarrassing performance. With just under thirty seconds on the clock, two heavy right hands from Douglas had the champion backing up. Douglas let a couple more heavy shots go, firmly in control of proceedings. But with under ten seconds left, a short right uppercut from Tyson found its target. Douglas legs gave way as he fell on to his back. It looked to the world like Tyson had just rescued his falling crown. But Douglas hadn’t come this far to throw it all away. Maybe the Buster of old would have, but not this version. Banging the canvas in frustration, he dragged himself up as the count reached “9 1/2”. The bell rang before another punch could be thrown and Tyson’s moment had passed. He jumped on Douglas to try and salvage something at the start of the ninth but Douglas stood strong, powering through with a succession of straight shots that jarred Tyson’s head. With just over a minute left the breakthrough came when Douglas buckled Tyson’s legs with a big left hand. Tyson staggered in to the ropes as Douglas launched his assault, snapping Tyson’s head back as the crowd shreiked in excitement and disbelief at what they were witnessing. The bell must have sounded like an orchestra to him as he wearily made his way back to the corner. It appeared only a matter of time before the championship changed hands. Tyson landed a hard right to start the tenth, but that would be his last hurrah. With just over a minute gone Douglas landed the decisive uppercut, the blow twisting Tyson’s head, knocking the fight completely out of him. Three more clean punches, culminating in a straight left, sent him crashing to the canvas for the first time in his career. It was like time standing still as the referee began to count. Tyson rolled on to all fours, drunkenly trying to insert his mouthpiece as he was counted out upon rising. James “Buster” Douglas had done the impossible. He was the NEW Undisputed Heavyweight champion of the world.
Douglas broke down in the ring afterwards, releasing all of his built up emotion as he dedicated the victory to his mother. Tyson sportingly congratulated Douglas after and vowed to be back.
The aftermath saw Douglas take Tyson’s place against Holyfield, although this time a purse of $24 million saw him return to previous form, turning up in less than pristine condition and surrendering his title by third round knockout. Retirement followed before a comeback after five years saw him with eight wins out of nine fights, but never contending again. Tyson’s life has been well documented but in brief, he returned to become number one contender to Holyfield, but was then sentenced to three years in prison. On return, he regained the WBC & WBA titles but suffered two defeats to Holyfield, effectively ending his time as a top contender, although he remained a major attraction up until his final fight in 2005.
Upsets keep all sports alive. The thought that the underdog can shatter the odds and triumph when all seems stacked against them gives us all that little bit of hope deep down inside. And on that February night back in 1990, James “Buster” Douglas, one of the biggest underdogs of all-time, showed that if you dare to dream, then dreams sometimes do come true.