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Sports Articles: Shocks Part 1 - Mike Tyson v Buster Douglas

Shocks Part 1 - Mike Tyson v Buster Douglas
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Shocks: Part 1 - Mike Tyson v Buster Douglas

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It is often described as the biggest shock in sporting history, the night when the wrecking ball heavyweight force known as Mike Tyson was halted in his tracks by a man who was thought to be nothing more than a quitter. Tyson was undefeated, seemingly invincible and the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world coming into the fight on the back of a 93 second KO of Carl 'The Truth' Williams, whereas James 'Buster' Douglas had already lost a title shot because he lacked the heart to take the punishment that comes with a hard-fought boxing match. It was such a foregone conclusion that Tyson was 42-1 on to win and HBO's boxing analysts Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley had said they expected "another 90 second annihilation". That result was so widely expected that Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press had responded, "oh, about 90 seconds," when a Japanese customs official asked him how long he expected to be working in Japan.

Even to this day Tyson still has an aura about him to people of a certain age. At that time the aura was not just of the aforementioned invincibility, but also that of a wrecking ball that would smash aside anything put in front of him. And yet the cracks in the armour had long-since opened up and, by this point, become huge gaping holes. There were so many signs of a fighter who had lost his way that, with the benefit of hindsight, it looks obvious that a defeat was coming.

Even though he was winning, Tyson was no longer fighting with the style that helped make him a world champion. Most importantly his defence was non-existent, the head movement, the high peek-a-boo hands, they were both gone, along with his trainer Kevin Rooney. Don King was heavily involved in his management and there was an ongoing legal battle with Bill Cayton over that. Probably the most damaging thing of all was his relationship with wife Robin Givens, which was volatile to say the least. On top of all that, the fight with Douglas was seen as nothing more than a warm up before facing undefeated number 1 contender Evander Holyfield.

It was understandable why Douglas was seen as a no-hoper, he was ranked #7 in the world by The Ring and it was believed he lacked heart after his defeat by Tony Tucker in a previous title fight. Buster was winning on the judges' scorecards before, in the eyes of many onlookers, he folded and ended up losing by TKO in the 10th round. However this was not the James 'Buster' Douglas who fought Tucker that Tyson would be facing. This Douglas was driven and determined with no doubts about his desire for this fight. Buster had come through a lot to be in the right place to be the man to take advantage of Tyson being a long way from his best.

Douglas was the son of a professional boxer, William 'Dynamite' Douglas, and his dad had always put pressure on him to be a fighter like he was in his day. They were from Columbus, Ohio and William ran a gym there and would take young James along and train him. However the younger Douglas had other interests according to his grandmother Sarah Jones: "You see, that boy didn't want to box. Boxing was just the only way he knew of feeling close to his daddy." But William saw a chance to get his dreams fulfilled by his son. William had been a tough middleweight in the 1960s and 1970s, but lacked the connections needed to go further. Buster was put off by watching tapes of the beatings his dad would take.

Besides that, James had other skills, and at his high school, Linden McKinley, he played football and basketball, leading Linden to a Class AAA state basketball championship in 1977. He then moved on to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas where he led the 'Red Ravens' and made it into their college hall of fame. He was offered a basketball scholarship with Mercyhurst University but, though Buster wanted to take it, he bowed to pressure from his father and returned to Columbus to focus on his boxing.

Initially Douglas fought under the nickname 'Desert Fox' as someone mistakenly believed that was the nickname of Douglas MacArthur and the nickname was only dropped because his promotional team were worried he might get confused with Syrian boxer Ghiath Tayfour. Buster made his professional debut in 1981 and won his first five fights before entering his sixth fight 20lbs heavier than his usual fighting weight and was knocked out as a result. Early signs of his struggle to focus on training. Douglas went on to win his next six before a draw due to being penalised two points during the fight. He went back on a winning run until his final fight in 1983 when he was dominating Mike White, only to get knocked out in the 9th.

By 1986, Douglas had positioned himself amongst the title contenders in the heavyweight division. When Michael Spinks was stripped of the IBF belt for refusing to defend it, Buster fought Tony Tucker for the vacant title. Once again he was winning only to run out of steam, this time in the 10th. It was now that Buster realised he needed to make changes. There had been a lot of problems with his dad, who would settle disagreements within the camp with his fists. Even when it was his own brother, another of Buster's coaches, who he disagreed with. It led to an extremely tense atmosphere within the camp and training was often conducted with everyone around walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting the older Douglas.

The final straw though was Bill's actions before and during the Tucker fight: "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," said Richard Hoffer in Sports Illustrated. "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 onto the ropes and covered up until the fight was stopped on a TKO. His father walked away in disgust."

The fights had mainly centred around Buster's style. Bill wanted him to be a slugger like he was, to stomp forward and bully opponents physically with power. The rest of Buster's team knew that he had quick feet and movement from his basketball days and they wanted to use that. After the Tucker fight, Buster decided he needed a cohesive camp, all pulling in the same direction, but first he needed to tell his dad. Buster knew he would need an ally in his corner if he was to convince Bill that it was best for all of them and he knew there was no one better to have in his corner than his mother Lula Pearl. When the young Douglas was being bullied at school, it was his mother that convinced him to face his bullies.

"I called my mom and told her I was coming over to talk to dad," recalled Buster. "I knew she needed to be there to help me present my case to my dad." Younger brother Bill remembers their father was furious and the arguments looked like they might tear the family apart, until their mother stepped in and put her foot down. It was then that the older Douglas relented and let Buster do it his way. Buster handpicked a new team and went on a six-fight winning run, the final one a unanimous decision over Oliver McCall, to earn another title shot.

"My mother got wind and my dad was at the kitchen table and my mum said, 'Billy, is this man an animal like they say?' My dad looked at her and said, 'Yeah, yeah he is.' And I'll never forget what my mum asked my dad next. She said, 'Well is he like you?' And my dad said, 'Yeah, he's like me honey. He's a killer.' She said, 'Well I don't want him to fight, my baby is in trouble.'" - Bill on Lula Pearl finding out about the fight.

Initially Lula Pearl went round to Buster's home to try to persuade him to pull out of the fight, but she was convinced by her son that he knew what he was doing and gave him her backing. She was in a very small group of people who thought Buster could win. It is easy to see why people feared Tyson back then. Even putting aside he was undisputed and undefeated heavyweight champion of the world and held the WBC, WBA, IBF and lineal titles, as well as being rated as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world by Ring Magazine. Nobody had even managed to take Tyson beyond the fifth round in a fight since 1987.

Added to that there was his cleverly cultivated image, as recounted by HBO announcer Jim Lampley: "At that time, in the middle-1980s, there was no world wide web. Local news programmes were still the dominant vehicle through which Americans received their information. 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 his 19-year-old from upstate New York was a kaleidoscopic knockout machine and was going to be an indomitable force at heavyweight."

No one seemed to notice what a mess Tyson's life was in, or just believed it did not matter that his wife had publicly humiliated him on national TV before leaving him. That Cus D'Amato's sad absence following his death was affecting Tyson and allowing all his childhood difficulties to resurface. On top of that Tyson was no longer being trained by the team that had made him so indomitable. Instead, thanks to another major problem in his life, Don King's control, Tyson was being trained by Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, mainly because they were cheap. Teddy Atlas summed it up succinctly: "Having Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright train Tyson was like wearing plastic thongs under an Armani suit. Those two guys couldn't train a fish to swim."

It did not help Iron Mike's cause that he arrived in Tokyo early for the fight as he hated it there. The obsessive fan attention meant he would barely leave his hotel room other than to train and most of his time in the hotel room was spent with a succession of prostitutes 'entertaining' him. Despite arriving 30 pounds over weight, Tyson skipped a week of training and was being limited to just one meal of soup and salad a day in an attempt to cut the weight. The Tyson camp had to end a public training session early due to the fighter's exhaustion and then, just 19 days before the fight was due to take place, Tyson was knocked down heavily by sparring partner Greg Page. Tyson was already fighting addiction and depression, even before he got into the ring to take on Buster Douglas on top of that.

Yet no one really gave Douglas a chance, in fact only one person in Vegas placed a bet on the challenger and no one questioned it when Don King announced that Tyson's next fight would be a title defence against Evander Holyfield. The WWE (then WWF) proposed a champion v champion bout with their reigning champ Hulk Hogan, with a $50m payout on the table and a British promotions firm called Winners Worldwide were offering $100m for a worldwide, year-long tour. All of this continued even after the video footage of his knockdown by Page came out publicly.

Douglas had his own personal problems, like Tyson he had split up with wife, on top of that his high-school sweetheart, who had a son with prior to his marriage, had terminal kidney cancer and then his mother Lula Pearl died suddenly at the age of 46, just 23 days before the fight. Buster's team tried to persuade him to pull out of the fight, but Buster told them that his mum wanted him to fight and win and then used that for motivation. Were before he was making excuses to avoid runs, he would run twice as far as expected. Douglas' big weakness, his lack of desire, was gone as he was driven on by his mother's memory, by desire to win for her.

Despite the drive and desire Douglas was showing, Tyson was still not taking him seriously and never bothered to watch footage of his fights. His reasoning being that he had beaten all of the people who had beaten Douglas. The night before the fight Tyson was out partying with Bobby Brown: "We're in Japan. We hooked up. We basically stayed up all night partying with maybe 12 Japanese girls and just me and Mike. It was just the funniest night, ever. We had a ball, but it was just the funniest night ever. I kept tellin' him, I kept tellin' him, and I kept tellin' him....I was like, 'Mike, you need to go get some sleep; you got a fight tomorrow'. He's like, 'Bobby, listen. Buster Douglas, listen - he's an amateur! I could beat him if I didn't sleep for five weeks. Watch how quick this fight ends; this is gonna be one of my quickest fights'. I was like, 'Mike? Alright.' He was like, 'Don't worry, man; you worry so much.'"

While Tyson was not taking Douglas seriously, the challenger's assistant trainer John Russell had a plan to deal with the champion: "You step to the side. 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." Douglas had fought on Tyson's undercard six times and each time Buster had watched Tyson closely. Douglas was as ready for the fight as it was possible to be.

The media were not convinced that Douglas had a chance, in fact just one sports reporter predicted a Buster win and that was Tim May, who worked for Buster's hometown newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch. The only casino running a book on the fight was the Mirage in Las Vegas and their sports book director at the time, Jimmy Vaccaro remembers: "I opened the fight at 27/1. Within probably an hour and a half I had the first bet. I had a guy bet me $54,000 on Tyson to win $2,000. This guy figured he's going to put up $54k and pick up $56k a minute after the fight started. So I changed the price. I went from 27/1 to 31/1. Next guy bet $93,000 to win $3,000 at 31/1...People thought it was like, 'come pick up your money in a couple hours'. It got to 42/1 if you wanted to bet on Tyson." He also remembers taking thousands of tickets on Douglas at small amounts of $5, $10 and $20.

According to fight referee Octavio Meyran, Tyson also had the WBC in his corner: "Five minutes before the start of the fight, Jose Sulaiman [WBC president] spoke to me. 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.'" But none of this was known to Douglas as he jogged to the ring, looking keen to get started, rather than looking like a rabbit in the headlights as most of Tyson's opponents did. Right from the start Douglas took the fight to the champion, using his jab to keep Tyson on the outside as much as possible. Tyson, on the other hand, looked a shadow of himself and was sluggish and the excellent head movement and peekaboo style that took him to the titles was posted missing. It seemed like Tyson believed his own hype and was just looking for a knockout blow.

Douglas was in much better shape than his opponent and he was taking charge in the early rounds, ending the second with a nice uppercut to Tyson's chin. Even when Tyson did hit Douglas with a punishing left to the body, Douglas looked to his corner and then went back to work. Tyson was a different matter, other than that one left he was ineffectual and lacklustre leading his cornerman Jay Bright to scream at him after the third round: "Don't just stand there and look at him, you've gotta work!" It made no difference though and Douglas continued to dominate.

The course the fight was taking caused consternation ringside as Don King, who had both fighters under contract, and Donald Trump began to panic that they were about to lose their goose that laid golden eggs. The pair of them began working on a deal for a rematch and actually shook hands on a deal for a second fight while this one was still ongoing. The ongoing disaster in the Tyson corner between rounds was no doubt a big motivator in getting the deal agreed.

Aaron Snowell and the rest of Tyson's corner were so unprepared for a long fight that they had no end swell (the metal iron that is pressed on swelling to reduce it) or ice packs. When Tyson's left eye began to swell after being pounded by Douglas' right jabs, they filled either a rubber glove or condom (depending on which report you believe) with ice water and held that on his eye between rounds. Snowell even managed to get the chain on his ID badge, which was hanging round his neck, caught between the glove/condom and Tyson's eye. As Snowell moves you can see Tyson clearly wincing in paid as the chain drags across his eye. Despite all that was happening, the corner did not know what to tell Tyson and continued to give him the same advice between each round.

It reached the 8th round and Douglas dominated it, pushing Tyson back onto the ropes in the dying seconds only for the champion to launch a big right uppercut that knocked Douglas down. The referee's count reached 9 when Douglas got up and the bell sounded. The knockdown gave Tyson hope and he came out for the 9th aggressively looking to capitalise on the knockdown but Douglas held him at bay and managed to completely shut Tyson's right eye. As the two traded punches a four-punch combo from Douglas staggered Tyson back into the ropes. Now it was Buster's turn to chase the knockout, but Tyson hung on to see out the round.

A badly hurt Tyson tried to push forward in the 10th but his lack of vision in his right eye enabled Douglas to pick him off with jabs before he landed an uppercut that stopped Tyson in his tracks. Four more punches to the head followed and Tyson was down for the first time in his career. A clearly confused champion was on his hands and knees on the canvas fumbling around trying to find his mouthpiece rather than just getting up. Eventually he found it and shoved one end in his mouth and tried to get up with the other end hanging out of his mouth but the referee counted him out.

Buster remembers the moment he knew he had won: "I thought Tyson was getting up until I had seen him looking for that mouthpiece and then I knew he was really hurt. So anytime you know you only got ten seconds to get up so you aren't going to worry about anything but just getting up first. So when I seen him looking around for that mouthpiece I knew he was really hurt." The official scores after 9 rounds were, bizarrely, 87-86 for Tyson from one of the judges, one had it 86-86, while the other had Douglas winning 88-83. Douglas was in tears in post-fight interviews after being asked why he was able to win: "Because of my mother....God bless her heart."

However Buster's big moment was ruined when his manager informed him that Don King had filed an official protest against the result due to a long count in the 8th. It was later found that both counts were long, possibly due to confusion between the timekeeper and referee. The protest caused a public outcry as the WBA and WBC refused to recognise Douglas as the champion. It was four days before pressure from US state commissions and the British Boxing Board of Control, who all threated to withdraw from the WBC, led to both the WBA and WBC finally recognising James 'Buster' Douglas as the new world champion.

For Tyson, it meant a huge loss of future earnings, though he had received $6m for the Douglas fight, while Buster got $1.3m. However a slew of fights had been in the works, such as one against former champion Greg Page, who had knocked Tyson down in sparring three weeks before the Douglas fight. There was a Sultan of Brunei promoted match against Foreman that was shelved and, most of all, his next fight was scheduled to be the biggest purse ever guaranteed in boxing, with $22m on the table for his 18th June scheduled fight against Holyfield. Tyson was never the same fighter ever again, with no Kevin Rooney training him and his aura of invincibility blown, his life gradually spiralled down into self-destruction.

Buster was able to milk the moment and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title "Rocky Lives!", as well as taking Tyson's spot as special guest referee for a WWF (now WWE) wrestling match. Sega also seized the moment and brought him into their advertising fold as they produced James 'Buster' Douglas Knockout Boxing (which was actually just Final Blow with a characted renamed Douglas) in response to Nintendo's Mike Tyson Punch Out!! Douglas was heavily involved in their 'Genesis does what Nintendon't' advertising campaign.

There was also the little matter of a rematch being offered to Douglas, with huge sums on the table, but after his post-fight experience Buster refused to work with Don King or the rest of the Tyson camp and so broke his contract with King to sign a deal to fight Holyfield for $24.6m. Trump had been desperate to host the rematch in his Atlantic City properties, which were in financial difficulties, but Douglas chose to pay him and King compensation of $4.5m rather than work with them.

Sadly Douglas was also never the same again, he had his moment ruined by the protests and his motivation was gone now. He came in to the Holyfield fight 6.6kg heavier and clearly overweight. Holyfield knocked him out in the third round to end his reign after 8 months and 2 weeks. Douglas then retired, but continued to put on weight until he reached around 180kg (400lbs) and nearly died in a diabetic coma. Afterwards he went back into training and came out of retirement to fight a few fights, winning 6 in a row before a disqualification win over Louis Monaco, who had knocked him down after the bell and Douglas was unable to continue.

Buster went back into retirement in 1999 with a final record of 38 wins 1 draw and 6 losses. Nowadays he spends his time volunteering to help local kids, mostly in the local boxing gym. Though, once a year on the anniversary of his win over Tyson, Douglas once again becomes a celebrity and finds himself being asked once more about a rematch, even now 31 years after the original fight.

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Written by Tris Burke June 11 2021 18:50:09