Underdogs had won title fights before. The swift tide-turning brutality of boxing creates wide chasms through which all manner of unlikely heroes can walk. Champions had fallen at the feet of mere mortals who had never been that good before, and never would be again, on innumerable occasions. But this wasn’t just an upset. This wasn’t just the crowning of a surprising champion. This was a man shooting one of the gods down from the skies. Olympus had fallen. Zeus was tattered, torn and dethroned. James ‘Buster’ Douglas had knocked out Mike Tyson. Nothing would be the same again for the victor, his victim or the sport of professional boxing.
“Prime Mike Tyson” is perhaps the most tired descriptor in all of popular culture. The idea that one man could defeat anyone who has ever lived is a befuddling but remarkably commonly-held belief. Spend enough time on the internet and you’ll see the mythical “Prime Mike” being picked to butcher the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, the Klitschko brothers, Tyson Fury and Batman. “Batman has Robin though? It’s two against one!”, his detractors will say. “Yes, but it’s Prime Mike Tyson” will come the reply, from wise old fight sages that know everything about the sport because they watched a Tyson knockout YouTube compilation.
But this reputation has at least a semi-accurate basis. When Mike Tyson, a child with the squat and muscled build of a man, emerged and started racking-up knockouts in his teens, the sport had never seen his like before. His tender age, his ferocity and his relentless activity (Tyson fought 30 times in his first two years as a pro) were a cocktail that had even the most casual of boxing fans intoxicated.
By 1990, ‘Iron’ Mike was 37-0 (33KOs), held the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world and had barely been troubled by an opponent. The illustrious likes of Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and Britain’s Frank Bruno were among the big men who just couldn’t deal with what is today called “Prime Mike”. It remains the height of absurdity to think he’d destroy any heavyweight living or dead without entering into any sort of debate, but for these years he ruled his sport like an emperor.
As the 90s dawned, and the world began the process of swapping Motley Crue codpieces for Seattle flannels, it appeared the defining fighter of the 80s had quite the decade ahead. Still in his early twenties, and despite outside-the-ring issues with ex-wife Robin Givens, he seemed all set to make the squared circle his fortress for as long as he chose. Once he’d dealt with a routine February 1990 fight with 42-1 underdog James ‘Buster’ Douglas, nothing could stop him punching away at the heavyweight division until it turned to dust.
The problem here is that “routine” title defence. In fairness to those who perceived it as such at the time, reviewing the cold, hard facts of the fight certainly gives the air of light work for ‘Iron’ Mike. Douglas entered the fight with a 29-4-1 ledger, with some of those losses coming in very moderate company. He had fought for the world title before and been stopped by Tony Tucker, who Tyson would later dethrone. ‘Buster’ was your typical heavyweight fringe contender of the era, a solid enough fighter who would not have cracked the top 10 of fighters Tyson had faced up to this point. He got the opportunity simply by being one of the few heavies left standing after Hurricane Mike had blown through the division.
Douglas was expected to provide an amuse bouche for a Tyson fight against Evander Holyfield. The Holyfield fight was the bout boxing was waiting for; Douglas' role was simply to make up the numbers and get knocked out doing it. But Douglas had his own reasons to consider this the most important fight of his life, and the financial incentive to play Mike Tyson’s latest punching bag was not one of them.
‘Buster’ lost his mother, Lula Pearl, at the age of 46 just 23 days before he was due to fight Tyson. The catastrophic loss of a central figure in your life is a seismic event at the best of times, but coming just before a dangerous physical event that requires intense concentration, it’s nearly unthinkable. But Douglas steeled himself, got lost in his training as an escape, and emerged in the best shape of his life. This one was for Lula.
At the iconic Tokyo Dome, the two men met in the centre of the ring. Despite Douglas’ vastly improved physical shape, the bull-necked, heavily-muscled champion seemed to demonstrate that not all heavyweights were created equal. If the eye test wasn’t enough, Tyson hoped to punctuate this fact by scoring the first-round knockout that had become his trademark. The only issue was, ‘Buster’ wouldn’t let him.
Confident from the outset, Douglas jabbed away at Mike, interrupting his usual rhythm and preventing him from fighting on the inside. The liquid head movement Tyson had used to neutralise long-limbed foes was not in evidence, as ‘Buster’ thudded away and tied Tyson up if the champion came too close. Douglas pushed the point home with a crunching uppercut at the end of the second round. This wasn’t in the script. The ice in the champagne bucket in Tyson’s dressing room was melting. The celebrations would have to wait.
‘Prime’ Mike looked like he may never arrive. Perhaps he was away testing his apparently-impervious skills against He-Man, The Undertaker or all six Power Rangers at once? Wherever he was, the man labouring under the Tokyo lights was not him. Perhaps he’d never existed at all, and ‘Buster’ Douglas was simply the first to point out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes.
When ‘the Tyson your most annoying friend has watched on YouTube’ arrived, a noticeable sigh of relief went up from everyone in the ‘Iron’ Mike business. The money train was late, but looked bound to power on when Tyson chopped his challenger, who by now was well-ahead on the scorecards, down to the canvas with an uppercut. The timekeeper tolled a count as soon as ‘Buster’ hit the mat, but the referee picked up his own count two beats into this. Douglas would rise at nine of the official’s count, a point promoter Don King would circle back to in the aftermath.
Tyson could smell blood, something which had proved fatal for his 33 previous knockout victims. But in the process of trying to force the issue, and escape with his championship and unbeaten record intact, the champion created openings for his challenger to fire back. A draining four-punch combo late in the round had Tyson on the brink and, after a brief respite, the upset was back on.
The tenth round had the glistening inevitability of destiny. Douglas sent Tyson’s sight-line skywards with an uppercut. A four-punch salvo followed, sending ‘Iron’ Mike to the canvas for the first time in his career. Douglas hadn’t just tugged on Superman’s cape, he’d blown his nose with it.
An enduring boxing tableau followed, as Tyson fumbling on the ring-floor for his mouthpiece sits alongside Ali’s exhortations to a fallen Sonny Liston as the sport’s defining image. Liston was a hero of Tyson’s, and just like Sonny, Mike would fail to beat the count. James ‘Buster’ Douglas, the 42-1 underdog still mourning the loss of his mother, was heavyweight champion of the world.
There would be unedifying scenes on both sides in the following hours, days and years. All have been recounted in detail and will be again. Douglas having to fight Don King on a legal footing over the “long count”, Tyson’s incarceration, ‘Buster’ meekly surrendering his throne to Holyfield. But this article isn’t about what happened after the end credits rolled. This is about the complete narrative of the destruction of the invincible man, at the hands of someone hardened by the truest of losses.
Thus it feels appropriate to give the final word to Douglas, the same final words he shared on the night during his post-fight interview. When asked how he’d beaten the seemingly unbeatable Tyson, he simply responded, “Because of my mother. God bless her heart”.