Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Greatest Boxing Matches of All-Time: Mike Tyson vs. James Douglas (Feb. 11, 1990)

Revisiting what is indisputably the greatest upset in boxing history


By: Jimbo X

When I saw him go down / felt like somebody lied / I had to close my eyes / just to stop the tears
The Killers, “Tyson vs. Douglas

It has to be one of the greatest and most memorable moments in the history of the sport.
Jim Lampley, recounting James Douglas’ victory over Mike Tyson

From 1985 to 1990 Mike Tyson was virtually unstoppable. Over that five-year period, he recorded 37 consecutive wins, including nine successful world title defenses against the likes of Trevor Berbick, Larry Holmes and James “Bonecrusher” Smith. But it wasn’t just the fact that Tyson was straight up smashing dudes left and right that gave him such a gravitas, it was the way in which he obliterated his opponents. He flatlined Carl Williams and Michael Spinks in barely 90 seconds and drummed on Tony Tubbs and Tyrell Biggs so mercilessly, if he was a white man he probably would’ve been indicted by the feds on hate crime charges. Outside of maybe one or two rounds against Tony Tucker back in ‘87, Tyson had never been challenged as a pro boxer.

So when James “Buster” Douglas got the call-up to tango with Mike Tyson on Feb. 11, 1990 in Tokyo, it’s not surprising that most boxing analysts predicted more of the same from Iron Mike. Although Douglas entered the fight on a five-win streak (with victories over previous Tyson victims Berbick and Williams, plus one of the greatest heavyweights of the epoch to never face Tyson, Oliver McCall) NOBODY gave him a shot, with Vegas setting “Buster” up as a 42-to-1 underdog — that is, if the sportsbooks would even take anybody’s money for the fight.

The showdown in the Land of the Rising Sun 30 years ago was supposed to be a textbook mauling. Of course, we ALL know what really transpired under the twinkling lights of the Tokyo Dome that fateful afternoon — an outcome so shocking that, three decades later, not only is STILL the gold standard for boxing upsets, it’s still routinely regarded as one of the biggest upsets in sports history, period.

And what do you know, I just so happen to have a VHS recording of the ORIGINAL HBO presentation on hand for us to revisit, recount and reflect upon right here — so howzabout you and me fire up the old Sanyo and take a timely trip down memory lane real quick?

After a rousing promo utilizing Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" to pimp their own boxing coverage, we get a GREAT montage of Tyson dicking around with sumo wrestlers and beating the fuck outta' the likes of Tony Tubbs, Michael Spinks, Frank Bruno and Carl Williams. "No one in the world can ever take the title away from me," Tyson says in a canned promo, as he and Don King make their way to Tokyo via private jet. Rather ominously, the announcer opens the show by referring to Douglas as Tyson's "next designated victim," which ... well, yeah.

We are coming to you LIVE from the Tokyo Dome, which the announcer mistakenly refers to as Korakuen Stadium. The announcer more or less says half the Dome is empty, although the Japanese being the Japanese, ringside seats are still expensive as fuck. By the way, that announcer is Jim Lampley, who has what is EASILY the greatest bad hairdo in sports commentary history — motherfucker has a coif like Paul Ryan and Butthead's lovechild. He keeps droning on and on about this being a "mismatch," and then we throw it to color commentator "Sugar" Ray Leonard, who isn't called that simply because he's a colored person of color. Of course, Larry Merchant rounds out the trifecta of commentators. He likewise says he believes Tyson is going to buttfuck Douglas into oblivion in 90 seconds. Ultimately, he says he expects Douglas to last "a couple of rounds" and commends him for having a beagle named "Shakespeare." Yep, Emmy-award winning broadcast journalism right here, folks.

What do you mean we weren't getting peak Tyson heading into this fight?

Lampley says Tyson's favorite Shakespearian work is probably "Henry V" or "MacBeth," then we throw it to the back for a segment called "Fire and Fear," where Lampley talks about Tyson living in a "Darwinian arena." Like, metaphorically and stuff. Cue a montage of him wrecking random motherfuckers at will. We get some old home videos of Cus D'amato teaching Tyson how to be an unfettered killing machine. "The best intimidation is to be very meek and docile," Tyson philosophizes. "I wouldn't consider myself an intimidating figure." Yeah, not exactly the soundest quote from a convicted rapist, but who are we to judge? 

Man, you just have to love that stereotypical chopstick Japanese restaurant font for all of the onscreen graphics, don't 'ya? We watch Tyson watch some guys in wheelchairs play basketball and feed polar bears while wearing headphones. LOL at him impressing all of the Japaheenos with his impressive pigeon-catching skills. Then Merchant goes on a quasi-xenophobic rant about the Japs buying up Rockefeller Center and a whole buncha' movie studios and thi one time he saw a $125 souvenior cantaloupe, which yeah, sounds like something the Japanese would do, alright.

Time for a video vignette profiling James Douglas. They show him running down the snow-covered streets of Columbus, Ohio while "Buster" talks about how his father used to take him to the gym all the time when he was a kid. He says he is sans distractions now, and is ready to show the world what he's REALLY got. Nope, can't consider that foreshadowing, whatsoever. We hear some shit about Douglas' manager, this guy who used to work under Woody Hayes at OSU, and we watch Douglas walk around town in a leather jacket with Macho Man Randy Savage fringes on it. We recap Douglas' loss to Tony Tucker and his astounding mullet, although the announcer totally shits over his five-fight winning streak, even though it included wins over the likes of Mike Williams, Trevor Berbick and Oliver McCall. Then they bring up Douglas' mother, Lula, dying 23 days before the fight at 46. "Now people say Douglas has less chance than ever to win this fight," the announcer declares, because goddamn, irony is a motherfucker.

Oh, and if that wasn't bad enough, the announcer tells us that one of Douglas' baby mamas has a kidney infection and will probably die from it. They recap Tyson's stats as Heavyweight Champ, and yeah, they are quite impressive. The challenger comes out first, accompanied by THIS fucking masterpiece of a song that only took 30 years to make it to the YouTube. He comes out rocking a white, KKK-like robe while his walkout song promises he will "win it all" tonight. "This is more animated than we usually see Douglas," Merchant says. Merchant tells the audience he's making $1 million off the fight, so even if he loses, it's not all *that* bad.

Tyson comes out to some random hip hop song I can't identify, and not that awesomely evil one-note song he came out to that one time in Atlantic City. Cue Merchant's incredibly omniscient quote: "His idea of a date is wham-bam, thank-you sir." Just ... shit, man. Shit.

Tyson totally blows off some Japanese dignitary who tries to give him a ceremonial championship belt before the ring introductions, and we all chortle. 

Douglas is five years older and almost half a foot taller than Tyson. Lamprey reminds us that the three-knockdown rule IS in effect for tonight's gala. "Douglas insists he's going to shock the world in this fight," Merchant says. "If he should upset Mike Tyson, it would make the shocks in Eastern Europe seem like local ward politics." Yeah, I don't get it either, but it's still a HELL of a quote from the old-timer.

Round one. Tyson is in the black trunks, Douglas is rocking the red and white combo. Tyson is head hunting early, but he’s a little hesitant to throw anything too heavy this early in the contest. Douglas with excellent head movement, and he connects on a couple of decent head shots. Tyson clinches. Douglas lands with a HARD left again. Tyson with a hard shot right under Douglas’ armpit. They clinch and Douglas lands two shots off the ropes. So much for a clean break. Another clinch. Douglas with a couple of right hands, and Tyson misses on a huge right of his own. Tyson connects on a left jab and Douglas lands a great body shot in the clinch. Tyson lands a right hook as the bell sounds. Merchant says that was probably the best round he’s ever seen Douglas fight.

Round two. Douglas landed 12 shots in the first round, while Tyson landed just five. Tyson whiffing on the straight jabs and there’s a clinch. Douglas lands a GREAT combo on Tyson’s skull. Tyson is starting to pursue and some HEAVY hands are getting exchanged now. Tyson barely connects on a left hook and he clinches again. Tyson with a very Balrog-like charging left, but it doesn’t really connect. Douglas lands with another right hand. Tyson comes in with a quick left hook. Tyson with a shot to the sternum, then Douglas ties him up. Douglas lands another big right hand and now Douglas is throwing uppercuts LIKE CRAZY. Tyson lands a left jab and that’s the bell.

TFW when you just realize you're about to lose an $11 million payday.

Round three. They show a replay of Douglas landing two HUGE left hooks in a row. Douglas has landed 52 punches so far in the fight, Tyson just 16. Tyson rips a big body shot and Douglas rattles off some big rights, which Tyson just walks through. Douglas with more jabbing and Tyson is getting reckless. Douglas lands some light lefts and Tyson clinches. Tyson moves in with a right hand and he lands a good body shot. Douglas is still working that right-left combo. Tyson connects on another body shot and there’s immediate separation. Tyson lights Douglas up with a left hook. Then Douglas hits a left uppercut of his own. Tyson clinches with about 20 seconds left in the round. Douglas hits a couple of jabs in close before the bell sounds. Probably Tyson’s best round of the fight so far, although I don’t think it’s enough to win him the score cards.

Round four. Tyson looks frustrated in the corner. Douglas has landed 73 shots in the fight thus far. Douglas leading with the left, as expected. Tyson lands a big right against the ropes. Tyson with another big right and Douglas immediately fires back with a left uppercut. Douglas hits another left uppercut and Lampley talks about him having to use antihistamines earlier in the week. Douglas has found his strategy — hit the jab, and walk away, hit the jab and walk away. Tyson with a hard body shot and Douglas CLOCKS him with a right jab. Tyson’s head movement is definitely lacking so far in this fight. Tyson rips another body shot and Douglas concludes the round with a hard left combo.

Round five. Sitting at ringside is Evander Holyfield, whom Merchant reminds us is guaranteed $12 million to fight Tyson pending he wins this bout. Obviously, Evander has a look of utter disgust on his face, knowing he’s on the precipice of losing a multi-million dollar payday later that summer. Douglas keeps working the jab with extreme success. Tyson finally gets a hard right to land. Douglas rocks Tyson with a concrete right. Tyson with some decent body shots in the clinch. Tyson whiffs on another charging left. Douglas lands another right and a HUGE combo that wobbles Tyson. Tyson leaps inside with a left hook and Douglas responds with another humongous uppercut. Douglas ties up Tyson again and his left eye is starting to swell. “I would think you would have to say this is the most trouble Mike Tyson has ever been in at this stage of a title defense,” Lampley states. To which Merchant responds “This is the most trouble he’s been in at any stage of a title defense.”

Round six. Merchant said that if Douglas continues to dominate, it would create a “new standard of upsets.” Tyson lands a good shot in the clinch. Tyson is starting to bob and weave a little. Douglas misses on a lead-off right. Tyson with an inside uppercut and another big right. Douglas shakes it off. Tyson hits a hard left and there’s another tie-up. Douglas is  starting to work the right hand again. Tyson connects on a left. Tyson misses by a mile on a huge right hook. Douglas lands an uppercut in the clinch and Tyson looks visibly slowed. Tyson swings with a left and a right, but Douglas isn’t fazed. Another clinch, and Tyson lands a decent headshot to conclude the round.

Round seven. That last one may have been the first round Tyson won. Douglas is throwing 50 percent at this point, which is downright absurd against a fighter the caliber of prime Mike Tyson. Tyson comes out with body shots early, but Douglas just no sells them. Tyson with a left hook and Douglas lands a giant combo. Tyson keeps working the body. Douglas is slowing down quite a bit now, but he’s still landing that right hand at will, seemingly. Tyson gets away with a nut shot and the fight doth continue. Douglas lands a looping overhand right. Tyson with a straight left jab in response. Douglas with another hard left and Tyson clinches. Mike lands another low blow and Douglas hits a couple of left jabs. Tyson with a HUGE uppercut and Douglas bullies Tyson into the ropes. Nobody really tries to land anything in the final ten seconds of the round.

Round eight. Tyson has landed 21 jabs in the fight thus far. Meanwhile, Douglas has connected on 89. The replay video of trainer Greg Page dropping Mike Tyson earlier in the week, and NOW the reality is setting in that if Mike doesn’t start lobbing some bombs, we are on the verge of a MONUMENTAL upset. Tyson throwing some combos and Douglas clinches. Merchant says this is far from the dynamo we’re used to seeing. Douglas hits a hard left jab and Tyson finally lands a hard uppercut of his own. Both men are looking quite winded. Tyson lands a big shot and Douglas continues to work the jab. Douglas lands to hard lefts in a row. Then he switches to the right double jab and he’s pretty much landing at will. Douglas with a huge left hook and Tyson is just trying to hold on now. And Tyson drops Douglas with a MASSIVE right uppercut with just eight seconds left in the round. And Douglas BEATS THE COUNT RIGHT AT THE BELL.

Round nine. Tyson swinging for the fences now. Douglas gets dirty hit in the clinch and now Tyson is landing some lefts. Now Douglas is unloading a FLURRY of shots and Tyson misses on an inside hook. Tyson gets wobbled by a HUGE right cross. Tyson lands a jab and Douglas follows suit with a straight left. Tyson whiffs on a giant uppercut and Merchant makes a comment about the wrong guy playing Godzilla in this bout. Douglas EXPLODES with a glorious combo, and Tyson starts back pedaling. Douglas has him against the ropes and he is just WHALING on him now. Douglas hits another huge jab and a giant uppercut. Douglas bullies Tyson into the ropes again and Douglas lands another beautiful combo. Tyson wobbles back to the ropes and Douglas can SMELL the blood in the water. He connects on a MASSIVE right hand and there’s separation right at the bell. 

As it turns out, Mike Tyson had one major weakness: being punched in the face really, really hard.

Round ten. Tyson only landed 12 shots in that last round, by the way. Douglas, meanwhile, landed 37. Tyson with a hard right to begin. Tyson clinches and Douglas clocks him again. Both men miss on uppercuts and Douglas goes right back to the leading right/straight jab combo. And that’s when Douglas lands the combo of a lifetime, drops Tyson with 10 unanswered shots and the ref WAVES IT OFF. Your winner, and NEW Heavyweight Champion of the World, James “Buster” Douglas! “This makes Cinderella look like a sad story,” Merchant iconically quips as Douglas’ training camp floods the ring. 

By the way, for those of you wanting a recap of the combo that fell arguably the most dominant Heavyweight Champion of all time, here it goes: five straight left jabs, right uppercut, right hook, left hook, right cross, left cross. The ref stoppage comes at 0:23 of round 10, as Lampley makes a comment about Douglas having a heart the size of Japan’s economic power. Merchant asks Douglas how he won the fight, and Buster responds by saying it was for his recently deceased mom and no, I’m not crying right now, I just have something in my eye. “I was already focused,” Douglas tells Merchant. “That’s what I did, whoop his ass.” He also said it was time for James “Buster” Douglas to come out of the closet, but I don’t think he meant it the way he intended for it to sound. He asks one of his trainers to wipe his nose and reminds Merchant that “a man over 200 pounds has a good shot.” He explains his counter-punching technique against Tyson, adding that he wasn’t afraid because of God or something like that. Douglas’ camp finally gives him the belt, that glorious green and gold one and he tells Merchant that he just followed his dad’s strategy of “keep chopping,” which evidently worked, considering the fact that, and this is Buster’s words, “Tyson is flat on his ass.”

Cue Lampley’s outstanding outro: “Surely, the sentimentalist in all of us wanted to believe that in the wake of the death of his mother, amid the difficulties being suffered by the mother of his child, James ‘Buster’ Douglas could step forth today with a performance unlike any other in his entire career and compete with Mike Tyson. Surely, the realist in all of us said no, that wasn’t really possible. But indeed, it was possible, and it happened.”

Then Lampley does an interview with Holyfield, and holy shit, you can tell he is LIVID about losing that $11 million payday against Tyson. “Buster Douglas was the superior fighter today,” he tells Merchant. “He outsmarted Tyson and he outfought Tyson.” Then Merchant compares Tyson to Secretariat, saying you don’t just get any random 110 pound guy off the street to ride him. By the way, this was Tyson’s first fight after trainer Kevin Rooney left his camp, in case you were trying to gleam some subtext here. “Because one fight like this can cost you tens of millions of dollars in the marketplace of boxing today,” Merchant says. The HBO PunchStat data indicates Douglas landed 230 out of 441 shots while Tyson landed just 101 out of 214. Sugar Ray goes to Tyson’s dressing room, but he ain’t giving us any post-fight comments. Which, naturally, leads Merchant to wrap up the show with an anecdote about seeing tuna at a Japanese fish market, concluding with the almost impossibly succinct final line of the evening “boxing is the theater of the unexpected, and when you least expect it, we had the unexpected.”

They check out the judge’s scorecards and one Japanese guy actually had Tyson LEADING on points heading into the tenth round, somehow, while another one had the fight scored 86-86. So yeah, had this thing gone the distance — well, we coulda’ been in store for some all-time bullshit right there. And to wrap it up, Lampley reminds HBO viewers that They Live is coming on next, unless they live on the West Coast, in that case they’re getting Police Academy 6. And a reminder, the next HBO boxing special is gonna’ be Julio Cesar Chavez taking on Meldrick Taylor LIVE (30 years ago) on March 17 — you know, the one considered by many boxing purists to be the absolute best fight of the entire 1990s. We run down the producers and directors and technical supervisors for the special, and yep — that’s all they’ve got for us outta Tokyo.

Oh, so THAT's how you win Punch-Out!!

The horribly poetic thing about this fight was that, not only did it spell the inevitable end of Tyson’s career, it also spelled the end of Douglas’ as well. Right from the get-go there was controversy swirling around the round eight knockdown, which Tyson’s camp endlessly protested was a slow-count — even now, Douglas’ title win is seen by way more people than you’d probably imagine as a tainted victory for that reason alone. 

Buster’s Championship reign was a short one, as he dropped the the WBA, WBC and IBF belts to Evander Holyfield just eight months later, getting his ass WRECKED in exactly the kind of three-round slaying that most people expected to be his fate in the Tyson bout. After that, Douglas retired for the better part of six years, returning to the ring in 1996 for the first of nine more matches. Alas, instead of duking it out with the top heavyweight contenders of the day, he was relegated to boxing guys who still don’t have Wikipedia pages at casinos in Mississippi and shows in Idaho, which, yeah, has to be one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune for anybody who had his own Sega Genesis video game just half a decade earlier. 

And as for Tyson, well, we DID review The Undisputed Truth a couple of years back, but for those of you looking for the Cliffs Note version, he wrecked Henry Tillman, Alex Stewart and Donovan Ruddock twice before Desiree Washington accused him of raping her. Thus, he got sent to the slammer for five years, came back to the ring in 1996, beat up some cans, got his ass kicked by Evander Holyfield (twice) and rounded out the twilight of his fighting career with unimpressive wins over guys like Lou Savarese and Cliffored Etienne and even more unimpressive losses against the likes of Danny Williams and Kevin McBride before finally calling it a career in 2005.

Even three decades down the line, there is so much lore about this fight. By his own admission, Tyson said he went into the fight about 30 pounds overweight and didn’t even bother training for the bout, let alone watch any of Douglas’ own fights prior to the contest. Rather, Tyson was too preoccupied with eating nothing but fat-burning soup and having sex with 17-year-old maid and wondering whether or not he should tell Japanese media that he planned on making Douglas just as dead as his mother to hype up the spectacle. So ill-prepared for the fight, Tyson’s cornermen didn’t even bring an ice pack with them and had to use a stuff latex glove as an impromptu aid to bring down the swelling — adding to the comedy of errors, at one point in between rounds the necklace of one of the cornermen got stuck in Tyson’s heavily damaged eye and, as legend has it, dragged all the way across his face and fucked up his other eye, too.

When people use the adjective/adverb “greatest” as a phrase enhancer, it’s usually done without regard to the taxonomical weight of the term. “Greatest” doesn’t simply mean something that’s better than most other shit, it means something has profound and significant influence. And there’s no denying that Tyson vs. Douglas is one of the greatest boxing bouts of all-time in EVERY classical sense of the term. It was historic, it was hard-fought, it was thrilling, it was captivating and it completely changed the landscape of an entire sport. And 30 years later, it STILL feels like a seismic event whenever I rewatch it, as if the ripple effect of the bout is still reverberating out across the space-time continuum.

And if THAT doesn’t speak to the intrinsic greatness of this bout, folks, I don’t know what does.

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