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Mike Tyson vs. James ‘Buster’ Douglas: An Oral History of Boxing’s Most Remarkable Upset

Mike Tyson vs. James ‘Buster’ Douglas: An Oral History of Boxing’s Most Remarkable Upset:

Only in a sport like boxing and with an athlete like Mike Tyson could the words routine and destruction fit together. But those are the words HBO blow-by-blow broadcaster Jim Lampley used to describe what everyone thought they were going to see in the Tokyo Dome on February 11, 1990: the “routine destruction” of James “Buster” Douglas. Tyson was 37–0 with 33 knockouts, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the most famous athlete on the planet with the possible exception of Michael Jordan and the baddest man on the planet with no possible exception. As he made his 10th title defense against the lightly regarded Douglas, a second-generation fighter from Columbus, Ohio with four losses and a draw among his 34 contests, Tyson was listed—at the only sports book in Vegas willing to take action on the mismatch—as a 42-to-one favorite.

The opening bell rang a few minutes past noon that Sunday in Tokyo, a start time chosen for the convenience of Saturday-night audiences in the Western world. A quarter century later, what Douglas did to Tyson across 28 minutes and 22 seconds of pugilistic action still stands as the most shocking sports upset either hemisphere has ever seen.

There was destruction, all right, and it was anything but routine.

In this 25th-anniversary oral history, 20 insiders reflect on Buster’s last stand and Iron Mike’s first fall.

JAMES “BUSTER” DOUGLAS: Winning a fight like this, that’s really all I wanted to achieve. People for generations are going to know I existed. They’ll know I was here. I made my mark.

MIKE TYSON: People say it was a perfect storm of all these things that caused me to lose. I don’t know. I just know he kicked my ass that night.


I. INVINCIBILITY AND INCONSISTENCY

DOUGLAS: The first time I remember seeing Tyson was around 1986. Somebody asked me when was I going to fight him, and I said, “When is he going to fight me?” I was the more established fighter. He was just a new guy, but he was gathering a lot of steam with the press.

JIM LAMPLEY, HBO boxing commentator: The only person I remember being perceived as invincible perhaps to the same degree as Mike Tyson was Sonny Liston. Liston was an eight-to-one favorite over Cassius Clay. He was regarded as unbeatable, pretty much in the same way Tyson was—and for the same reason, which is that the public falls for knockout punchers.

BERNARD FERNANDEZ, Philadelphia Daily News boxing writer: Ralph Kiner once said, “Home-run hitters drive Cadillacs, and singles hitters drive Fords.” The technicians, the cuties, they don’t get your blood pumping. The big boppers do—and Tyson was one of the biggest of the big boppers. Tyson was a kick-your-ass guy. He ended his fights with exclamation points, not with periods.

JOE LAYDEN, author of The Last Great Fight: If you were in an arena for a Tyson fight in the 1980s, it felt like you were there to watch an execution. It was just a matter of how devastating and awe-inspiring it was going to be.

BOB SHERIDAN, Don King Productions, international-feed broadcaster: Mike Tyson was considered totally invincible at that time. He would come out with just a towel over his shoulders with the hole cut out, no socks and those black trunks. He’d snarl around the ring before the fights and push his gloves back to try to get as much knuckle into his gloves as possible. I can’t think of anybody else who was that intimidating.

DOUGLAS: He comes to get you. He wasn’t bullshitting. He wasn’t making a party out of it. He was getting ’em over with nice and quick.

DONALD TRUMP, friend and business associate of promoter Don King: I hosted a lot of Mike fights in Atlantic City. I had the Michael Spinks fiasco, where it was 91 seconds and it was over and guys weren’t even in the arena yet. Disaster. Spinks was petrified. Mike had won a lot of fights before they even fought.

LAMPLEY: I think the sense was widespread that Tyson was not going to lose anytime soon, and most particularly the sense was widespread that he would have no trouble whatsoever against Buster Douglas.

J RUSSELL PELTZ, boxing promoter: Buster was the opposite of his father. Bill “Dynamite” Douglas was a wild killer. Buster was a quiet, reserved, sat-in-the-back-of-the-bus kind of guy.

J.D. MCCAULEY, Douglas’s uncle and co-trainer: Buster boxed; he messed around with it. He played with it because it was there for him. But Buster didn’t like boxing.

TIM MAY, Columbus Dispatch boxing writer: Buster was about three, four inches taller than his dad, and he was an athlete. He played high school basketball on a state championship team.

DOUGLAS: I was a forward in high school. I was about six-three or six-four, 200 pounds. But I wasn’t going to go pro in basketball. I knew that wasn’t realistic. My junior year of college I was thinking about boxing a lot because I was seeing it on TV all the time. I would see the amateur fighters and be like, Man, I used to be able to do that! So I made my mind up to give it a shot. My father was excited because that’s what he’d been waiting for.

MCCAULEY: Only thing wrong with Buster was that he was lazy. He was an athlete and really had the skill for boxing. He just couldn’t put it all together.

PELTZ: I promoted Buster for three fights in 1983. He won the first two. The third was against Mike “the Giant” White. Buster was winning every minute of every round, and then in the ninth round he just collapsed. I don’t recall him getting hit with any punches; he was just so out of shape and out of gas that he collapsed and was counted out.

LAMPLEY: In 1989 Douglas struggled to win a title eliminator fight against Oliver McCall. McCall and Douglas were both promoted by Don King, as I recall, and the winner of that fight was going to get the shot against Mike. It was a fight that could have gone either way. Douglas got the decision.

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Tyson, his left eye swollen, prepares with trainer Aaron Snowell for the seventh round against Buster Douglas.

DOUGLAS: The McCall fight, that was a fight I knew I had to win. That put me in line to fight Tyson.

LAMPLEY: By 1990 I’d been covering Tyson’s fights for four years. He had gone through a lot of changes in those four years. First Cus D’Amato [his trainer and father figure] died. Then his manager, Jimmy Jacobs, died. Those were two massive personal changes in his life that also affected his boxing life. And I saw the arrivals of both Robin Givens and Don King.

LARRY MERCHANT, HBO boxing color commentator: Tyson talked about the possibilities of what King might do to him, even while he was signing with him. [Editor’s note: King declined multiple interview requests for this article.]

LAMPLEY: What Don had sold to him was “You’re a grown man; you’re 21; you’re not going to be manipulated by white men anymore. This is the time for you to run your own life and have it the way you want it.” And that opened the floodgates for all of Mike’s worst habits and ideas to take control of him.

FERNANDEZ: He turned everything over to King, who basically let him do whatever he wanted to do.

AARON SNOWELL, Tyson’s trainer: Mike was really in love with Robin Givens. That relationship with Robin, mentally, had a big effect on Mike.

LAMPLEY: I had been watching at close range the Robin breakup and all the unusual events that went with it, including the incident when Tyson ran his car into a tree in upstate New York. It was impossible to tell whether he had fallen asleep at the wheel or whether it was a suicide attempt. There was a lot of speculation.

KEVIN ROONEY, Tyson’s former trainer: Tyson fired me not too long after the Michael Spinks fight. Mike had so much potential, and Cus’s goal was for him to go down as the greatest fighter in boxing history. He would have, if we had stayed together. No one would have ever beaten him. He would have been 100–0.

LAMPLEY: He knocked out Spinks on June 27, 1988. He was probably the greatest he ever was that particular night. He went into the ring the next time, February 1989, against Frank Bruno, and—I think it was the second round—Bruno whacked him with a left hook and momentarily had him out on his feet. Mike had already deteriorated considerably by February 1989.

TYSON: When I was active enough, the machine was oiled, and it was really hard to beat me. But I started fighting like twice a year, once a year. I’m the kind of fighter that’s got to fight four times a year. Once I got involved with guys like Don, they weren’t keeping me busy enough. And since I wasn’t busy enough, I started doing other stuff, getting involved with women I should not have gotten involved with. If Cus had been there, a lot of that doesn’t happen.

MERCHANT: There was a certain arc in his career, and this one was already starting to show signs of a meteor that was not going to fly forever.


II. TRAGEDY AND TURMOIL

DOUGLAS: I knew I was deserving of the title shot. That’s what really kills me. Some people think I was just walking down the street and Don King asked me, “Do you want to fight for the title?” No, I had to win some tough fights to get this opportunity.

MCCAULEY: Buster’s manager, John Johnson, called and told me we were going to fight Mike Tyson. I about passed out. We started saying right then and there, “We gonna be heavyweight champion of the world.”

TYSON: I was not concerned at all, because some guys who I beat easily had already beat him. Tony Tucker, who I beat easily, knocked him out. Jesse Ferguson beat him too. I guess I didn’t have no respect for Buster Douglas as a fighter. If it had been Evander Holyfield, I would have trained more seriously.

EVANDER HOLYFIELD, former heavyweight champion: I was the number one contender, but I had to wait one more fight for my shot. Douglas got his shot first. Don King ran heavyweight boxing and felt I wasn’t a safe enough opponent. He wanted to get Mike one more fight to make some more money.

JOHN JOHNSON, Douglas’s manager: We went to Tokyo because nobody in this country would pay a fuckin’ penny to see Buster Douglas fight Mike Tyson.

DOUGLAS: My purse was $1.3 million. I think Tyson’s was $6 million. I didn’t care. It was about the opportunity.

JOHNSON: Twenty-three days before the fight, his mom—his best friend—died.

DOUGLAS: I was maybe four or five weeks into training when it happened. It wasn’t sudden. It was a thing that was lingering. She would have better days, and she would have not so good days. But still, it was unexpected.

JOHNSON: Buster said, “My mom wanted me to fight. My mom wanted me to win.”

MCCAULEY: We never broke camp. Not one day off.

DOUGLAS: When that happened, I knew it was my time. I was like, This is ridiculous, you know? They take my mom! So I didn’t want to cancel it. I wanted to make history.

MCCAULEY: He was already locked in. That just locked him in more.

JOHN RUSSELL, Douglas’s co-trainer: Probably about six or seven days before the fight in Tokyo, I remember him looking up at me and just absolutely breaking down about his mom. I threw a towel over his head and said, “It’s okay, man.” But that was it. He’s a strong dude. He never showed one sign of it the whole training camp, other than that.

JOHNSON: It was a great training camp.

TYSON: I came close to pulling out of the Buster Douglas fight. I didn’t want to train. I was 23, and I wanted to party and have fun. Actually, my team had to almost track me down and beat me and have a gun to my head to take me up to training camp.

SNOWELL: There was talk of canceling, but we decided to go ahead with the fight. We thought we’d get through it.

TYSON: Before we left for Tokyo, man, they would hound me everywhere I went. I was at a club and they’re running through the club, yelling and screaming, making a big fit, embarrassing me, telling people, “Tell Mike he’s gotta train! Mike got a fight; make him train!” They were chasing me in my car. I would ram their limousine with my car. That was in New York. I called the cops and told them to stop these guys from following me: “Arrest these guys. They’re following me—they’re part of my team, but arrest them.”

SHERIDAN: Mike had a lot of distractions. I don’t think he wanted to be in Japan. I don’t think he liked Japan. I remember specifically Mike being in a foul mood at the press conference before the fight.

LAMPLEY: When I went to Tokyo for the fight, I was told by someone close to Mike that he was morose, extremely depressed and had been sitting in his room watching over and over a videotape called Faces of Death, which is a horrible, morbid collection of news footage of people dying. I was also told by someone very close to Mike that he’d been taking R&R trips from Japan to Honolulu to party prior to the Douglas fight.

SNOWELL: Well, I don’t know where he was going [laughs], but he was pulling a disappearing act.

FERNANDEZ: We had heard all the stories—that he was in Tokyo, banging four Japanese girls a night. Was that true? Might have been only three. If the old axiom is true—no sex for six weeks before a fight because it takes your legs—then it was amazing Tyson could even crawl into the ring.

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Tyson and King with sumo wrestler Ozeki Konishiki during a workout in Tokyo.

TYSON: My training session in Tokyo sucked. When I came into training camp I must have been 270 or 265. A lot of training camp was spent just trying to sweat off weight. I think I lost most of the weight by having sex with the ladies in Japan. I don’t remember doing any roadwork, maybe once or twice. So I lost the weight in other ways.

SNOWELL: When a great champion like Mike Tyson doesn’t want to train, no one—no one—could have got him to do it. Mike was going to do it his way, and he didn’t care. That was what he said to me: He’d do it his way, and if he got his butt whupped, he’d take the blame. He’s been man enough to live up to that. I respect him for that. Because he knows the conversations we had as fighter and trainer, and when the short end of the stick came up, he never said anything bad about me. Many other people did. He never did.

TYSON: That whole team fucked me up really bad. They weren’t really professional trainers. Aaron’s a good guy and stuff but not really a trainer.

ROONEY: His corner was totally incompetent. They had no idea what they were doing. Tyson was training himself at that time.

MAY: Everybody was wondering why I went out on a limb and wrote that I thought Buster could beat Tyson. The reason is that I saw both camps. I saw Buster in the best shape of his freakin’ career. And if you were over there and saw Tyson and that circus going on around him…. I don’t remember the wording, but I pretty much predicted Buster would beat him in eight rounds.

LAMPLEY: I didn’t pay any attention before the fight to the tea leaves, which became so clear during the course of the fight that I had to kick myself after for having failed to anticipate it. Those tea leaves, when you look back, are very simple. Tyson almost lost the Quick Tillis fight. He went the distance with Tony Tucker. He went the distance with Bonecrusher Smith. He went to the last 10 seconds with José Ribalta. He went the distance with Mitch “Blood” Green. What did all those guys have in common? They were all taller than Mike, and all of them could throw a jab. Buster was six-four, 235 pounds and a former basketball player who had athletic quality. He was probably a better all-around athlete than Green, Tucker, Ribalta or Tillis. Now, add the motivation of the death of his mother and the fact that Buster was, for once in his life, in great shape, and we should have seen it coming.

ART MANTERIS, Las Vegas Hilton vice president, race and sports book operations: There were only one or two places in Las Vegas that posted a line on the fight. That “42–1” number that’s so famous and quoted so frequently, that was put up by a friend of mine, Jimmy Vaccaro.

JIMMY VACCARO, Mirage race and sports book director: The Mirage was the only casino in Las Vegas that posted odds on the fight. 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. Naturally, every newspaper started to call. We had something that was going to draw a lot of attention. So more money came in. 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.

MERCHANT: There was more discussion of Tyson’s next fight than of this fight. This was just a tune-up. They thought they’d make a quick buck here en route to fighting Holyfield.

MAY: The brazenness of the promoters. Even Donald Trump was there. To fly all the way out there to announce the Holyfield-Tyson fight was hilarious. And it wasn’t “Holyfield vs. the winner of Tyson-Douglas,” it was, “Mike Tyson will fight Evander Holyfield after he beats Buster Douglas in a round and a half.” I asked manager Shelly Finkel and promoter Dan Duva the day before the Buster fight, “Well, what happens if Buster beats Tyson?” They go, “Oh, that’ll never happen,” and they start laughing.

HOLYFIELD: The contract was all worked out for June, how much money I would make and how much money Tyson would make. I was guaranteed $15 million, and I think it was $20 million or $25 million for Tyson. I was in Tokyo because the press conference after the fight would be the first opportunity to announce it. But Buster Douglas stepped in the way.


III. SHOCK AND AWE

RUSSELL: I wrapped Buster’s hands in the dressing room, and he was calm as hell. I put the gloves on him, I put on the mitts, and when I warmed him up, I could feel it. I’ve been working with fighters all my life, and I could feel how good he was.

DOUGLAS: I was cool, calm and collected. I was no fucking worries. You can’t perform like I did and be doubting yourself.

OCTAVIO MEYRÁN, referee: Five minutes before the start of the fight, [World Boxing Council president] José Sulaimán spoke to me, with a witness from Mexico too, Joaquin Badillo, a personal friend of Sulaimán’s. As we walked from the dressing rooms to the ring, Sulaimán 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.” I said, “I’ll never do that. I’m an honest man and I never do that.” Then he told me, “Okay, go out to the ring and do your job the best you can do.”

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Referee Octavio Meyrán counts over Douglas in the eighth round.

MAURICIO SULAIMÁN, son of José Sulaimán: I was not there. My knowledge of what happened is secondhand, through my father, so it would be difficult to address such a comment, because my father has passed away. I think my father has a tremendous legacy, an honorable reputation that was never tarnished whatsoever. So I find this very disappointing, to hear this for the first time in my life from Mr. Meyrán when my father cannot defend himself. My father always met with the ring officials before the fight to discuss concentration, to discuss the rules, to discuss scoring criteria. After 38 years of precedent, nobody could step up and prove one single act of corruption of my father. I find it humiliating to have any comment that would tarnish the image of my father. But only the two of them would know if they spoke.

MERCHANT: One of the things that stood out before the fight was how Douglas trotted to the ring. Most guys are not running to fight Mike Tyson, or anybody else for that matter. And this guy is trotting toward the ring. It turned out to be revealing in its way, as part of the whole narrative.

TRUMP: It was the weirdest fight I’ve ever seen in my life, because it started in the morning, and the Japanese were a different kind of audience. The applause is very polite. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I was watching an audience that was so calm and so beautiful in a certain way—everybody was dressed nicely, everybody was polite, there’s no heckling, no nothing. It was a surreal experience.

SNOWELL: I always say it was so quiet you could hear a rat piss on cotton. The crowd didn’t know how to react.

MERCHANT: They came to see Godzilla, and the wrong guy is Godzilla. And rather than be excited for the underdog, it was like they were depressed because they had come into the wrong movie.

LAMPLEY: It was so quiet you could hear the slapping of their shoe soles on the canvas as they moved around. It was so quiet we wound up delivering our commentary in hushed tones, very similar to the way you would cover a golf tournament. We were almost whispering.

TRUMP: From the opening bell Buster Douglas was phenomenal. His left jab was like a steam piston. He reminded me of Larry Holmes in his prime. That night he looked like Joe Louis would have been no problem for him.

DOUGLAS: I wasn’t throwing no bullshit jabs. My left hand was just as hard as my right hand. My jab was better than Larry Holmes’s, way better. I was putting people to sleep with my jab. I was slipping and throwing. I was busy. I was really letting my hands go.

LAMPLEY: From the first minute of the fight, Buster is landing at will, and it’s almost impossible to know what to say, because Mike’s getting his ass handed to him! Larry Merchant was surprised, Ray Leonard was surprised, I was surprised, but you couldn’t miss what you were seeing. We weren’t imagining things. It was right there.

TRUMP: Buster Douglas was beating the hell out of Mike, and I looked at Don King and said, “Don, what the hell is going on here?”

TYSON: He threw good punches, but he didn’t have a devastating punch. He never had me hurt until the very end of the fight. I knew at any moment I was going to hit him and probably he’d be going down or something.

MAY: In the fifth round, Dan Duva gets up, and he’s walking up and down the aisle right next to me, smoking a cigarette. I think it was nonsmoking in there, but he’s smoking a cigarette. He’s like, “I can’t believe this!” I wanted to jump up in his face like, “I tried to tell you!”

LAMPLEY: By the middle rounds Mike’s eye is swelling, and his corner is completely unprepared for that.

MAY: They didn’t even have a stop-swell, so they filled a condom with ice and water and were gonna try to use that. One of the funniest-looking things you ever saw.

LAMPLEY: I looked at Ray Leonard, and he was about to fall off his chair. Ray’s mind was blown. They were as screwed up as they could possibly be.

SNOWELL: A cutman was paid, Taylor Smith. He didn’t have the equipment. As a trainer, when someone doesn’t have their equipment with them, what do you do? You have to make a call from the line of scrimmage. And what was used was a rubber glove and the ice from the bucket, and it’s the same thing—something cold.

TYSON: I don’t think the eye was much of a problem. Look, my corner was a piece of junk, but it doesn’t depend on my corner. It depends on me. It was really my fault. I’m the fighter. Them not having an Enswell made absolutely no difference.

SNOWELL: If he didn’t have the Enswell, that’s my responsibility. I’m the head trainer. I can take that. But the fight wouldn’t have gone any differently with an Enswell. Buster was just on the top of his game. He fought the fight of his life.

DOUGLAS: I was like, Yeah, baby, this is easy. Your ass is mine! And then he knocked me down, because I started thinking about shit. I got overconfident. And that’s how dangerous Mike was—that fuckin’ tenth of a second of thought, and pow!

LAMPLEY: He lands that uppercut and knocks Buster down at the end of the eighth round, and I’m kind of thinking, Buster is not going to beat the count.

MAY: If you’ve ever seen Tyson from behind, you know he was built to throw the uppercut with gusto. And Buster got overconfident there in the eighth round, and boom! I thought he’d blown it. Who gets up from a Tyson uppercut?

DOUGLAS: The first thing I did was a little system check. I didn’t feel hurt. The punch was a forceful punch, but it didn’t have any negative effect on me other than knocking me down.

HOLYFIELD: You could see that Buster wasn’t hurt that bad. He was frustrated. He hit the canvas and got up.

MCCAULEY: Tyson could never hit him twice, and that was the key. If he got two in a row on the head, it would have been big trouble for Buster or anybody else.

TYSON: As you know, that was like a 15-second, 16-second count. I’m not really crying over spilled milk, because whatever happened happened, but I really got suckered out of that one. They really got me good. You don’t need me to tell you it was a slow count. If you’re capable of counting, you can count and find out if it was a slow count.

MEYRÁN: When Douglas was down on the canvas, I put my fingers in front of his face and make my usual count, and he got up. If you see the fight, the counts for Tyson and for Douglas are exactly the same. It’s a 10 count, not 10 seconds. We don’t have a watch in our hands.

SULAIMÁN: I believe the mechanics of the count were incorrect. The fact is when Douglas was down, the guidelines instruct that the first thing the referee does is make sure the fighter goes to the neutral corner. After he does that, he takes the count from the timekeeper and goes on with that count. And that’s where the major controversy was created—the TV views clearly show that Meyrán started at one when the timekeeper was already at four or five.

SNOWELL: To my view, Mike really won the fight. It was two fights. He threw a punch that bailed him out, and the error of the referee, he messed up. I don’t think Buster would have beaten the count if it was a correct count.

TYSON: I’m sure the ref was biased against me. Everybody was biased against me back then. I was like the Floyd Mayweather of back then, pretty arrogant and stuff and saying what was on my mind without having a filter.

RUSSELL: I like Mike. I really do. I think he’s a good guy. But if I ever see him, the first thing I’m going to say is, “Hey, Mike, you don’t count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. You count one thousand one, one thousand two.” He says Buster got a long count. That’s bullshit.

DOUGLAS: His count was longer than mine. What the fuck is he talking about? Come on. That’s silly. That just don’t make no sense. He can say whatever, man. He got tore the fuck up.

TYSON: I went to get him, but then the bell rang, ding, right as I went to go for him. If that knockdown had come with 30 seconds to go in the round, I’d like to believe I would have finished him. I’d like to believe that. But I can’t say for sure.

MERCHANT: It looked like it could have been the beginning of the end for Douglas. You didn’t know it was the beginning of the end for Tyson.


IV. BEGINNING AND END

SHERIDAN: The biggest shock to me was the manner in which Buster Douglas was able to absorb the punishment he took in the eighth round and come back out and have such a great ninth round. That was extraordinary. Nobody had ever done that against Mike Tyson, get knocked down and come back.

JOHNSON: When the ninth round started, Mike came out and fuckin’ nailed him. Then shortly thereafter, Buster got him pinned up against the ropes and annihilated him. He hit him with what we call the stick, a straight left hand, that would have knocked him into about the third or fourth fuckin’ row if it hadn’t been for the ropes.

MAY: The ninth round was as great a round of heavyweight boxing as I have ever seen. I get goose bumps now just thinking about it.

JOHNSON: Buster went out in the 10th round, and he made that step over to the right and caught him with an uppercut, missed him with a hook, brushed him with a right hand, and Mike started down and Buster threw a straight left back up the middle, and he just followed Mike and drove him into the canvas.

DOUGLAS: Those punches were some of the best punches I ever landed, that four-piece. It started with a great uppercut, and then I kept punching and drove him into the ground. Like my father always said, “You just keep punching until they’re not there.”

RUSSELL: When he hit him with the uppercut, I swear to God, I thought he knocked his head off! You could hear it, it was like a frickin’ sledgehammer.

DOUGLAS: I expected him to get up. But then when I saw him on all fours, fumbling around for that mouthpiece, that’s when I knew it was over.

TYSON: I don’t remember much. I was in a fog.

SNOWELL: I went into the ring to get Mike. He was up on his feet. He said, “What happened?” I said, “Look, you got knocked out.” I just grabbed him and hugged him and said, “You’ll be all right.” I said, “Now you learn.”

TYSON: I’m okay with watching replays of the knockout. That happened. I knocked out a lot of guys, so it’s only right for me.

DOUGLAS: The idea that Tyson wasn’t at his best and that’s why I beat him—I think he was pretty close to being pretty damned good, because that shit I was landing on him in the 10th was the same shit I was landing on him in the first round. And he was taking it pretty damn good then. So he was ready. That was a beatdown. He got beat up. I was like, “As long as you want to take it, I’m gonna give it to you.”

JOHNSON: Did he overlook Buster Douglas? Absolutely. But if you know anything about boxing and how strenuous it is, to take the ass-whipping that he took for 30 minutes, what kind of fuckin’ shape do you have to be in? You gotta be fuckin’ Superman. Fuck anyone who says that—he was in great fuckin’ shape. Aaron Snowell said he was in the best shape.

SNOWELL: Mike wasn’t in superior shape, but he was in condition. Because you can’t take them shots that he took, not being in some kind of condition.

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Tyson and Snowell work out as trainer Jay Bright watches.

MERCHANT: I just think it’s an alibi. He was in reasonable shape. I had heard that he’d blown up to 250 or 260 or something—but that’s on him! If he had amateurs in his corner, that’s on him! That’s not an excuse. That’s just a revelation of his commitment and his character as an athlete. I’m not sure how much he trained or not. But from the way he fought the fight, he didn’t look to me in terrible condition. I think it was, at the very least, exaggerated because of the shock of the outcome and because people wanted to believe he was invincible.

LAMPLEY: It’s the most memorable fight I’ve ever called. It’s the most important fight I’ve ever called.

JOHNSON: In the interview at the end of the fight, Larry Merchant said, “Buster, why were you able to do what no man was ever able to do and beat Mike Tyson?” And Buster said, “Because of my mom.” And he looked up in the air, and he looked back, and he said, “God bless her heart.”

DOUGLAS: Everything had built up inside, and finally, during the interview, I was letting that out. It hit me.

MERCHANT: When people ask, I always tell them that’s the best interview I ever did, having the sense at that moment to let it play.

SHERIDAN: I don’t know if there was any other night in history that Buster Douglas could have done what he did. Everything was lined up for him, and everything was lined up against Mike Tyson.

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After knocking out Tyson in the 10th round to win the heavyweight championship, Douglas celebrates his victory in the ring.

TYSON: If it hadn’t been Buster Douglas, it would have been someone else. I wasn’t working on my fight game too much then. If I’d fought Holyfield in the fall, he would have beaten me, absolutely.

DOUGLAS: I’m sure somebody would have gotten to Tyson soon if I hadn’t. But I took advantage of my opportunity. That’s all.


V. CONTROVERSY AND JUSTICE

RUSSELL: After the fight, when we were still in the ring, I was looking for King. That son of a bitch didn’t even use the steps; he climbed right up on the apron, and he was like a maniac. I said, “I told you, Don!” He looked at me and said, “Get the fuck away from me. I’m protesting!”

MEYRÁN: Don King was very angry. I don’t know how else I can tell you. The face of Don King was like a monster. José Sulaimán was very angry too.

05 myketyson ent

Promoter Don King and Mike Tyson at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

DOUGLAS: Maybe an hour and a half after the fight, I heard they were having a meeting. Don was protesting the fight, the long count and all that. I thought that was such coward shit right there. They were whining, whining. Still today, whining.

MERCHANT: This is just a case of people trying to win outside of the ring what they couldn’t win inside of the ring.

SHERIDAN: It was the genius of Don King, trying to intimidate the WBC into making it a no-contest so they would have had to do it again and Mike would have retained his title.

MAY: There was a fight between two sportswriters at the press conference predicated over whether to give Tyson the belt back. They started scuffling and had to be broken apart.

MEYRÁN: At the press conference, Tyson was to my left, then me, José Sulaimán and Don King. And Sulaimán, with his elbow, nudged me two, three times, to answer to the press, say no, say no, say yes. Some people told me they would cancel my plane ticket back to Mexico.

SULAIMÁN: After the fight, the Japan Boxing Commission instituted a formal request of review. It was not the World Boxing Council ordering the review. Don King made a protest, and the commission, which is the local authority, proceeded to accept the protest and to make the review. There was a meeting at the Tokyo Dome, and Meyrán spoke. The commission presented the dispute and the tape was reviewed. Then the WBC called for the WBC board of governors to meet to have a final resolution.

TYSON: You know, Don King’s going to try to do anything he can to get ahead in the situation. That’s the hustle of the game, and I understood that. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. I was hoping that it did, though.

MAY: It was professional boxing and Don King was involved, so anything was possible. And José Sulaimán was there, and he seemed interested in making sure justice was done. [laughs]

SULAIMÁN: The final resolution was to recognize Buster Douglas as the champion.

MEYRÁN: That was the first time in my career anything like this happened. And then, my career is over. José Sulaimán and the rest of the WBC team never called me again.

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The official poster advertising the Tyson-Douglas fight in Japan.

SULAIMÁN: Octavio Meyrán was present in the appeal of the fight, and he spoke. He said he made a mistake. And then I guess he thought about it during the flight. He arrived back in Mexico and he became very defensive and aggressive about the topic. He took a personal position against the WBC, or not to be with the WBC. So it is not that he was discriminated against or put aside. It is more that after that big controversy, he just went to a different path.

MCCAULEY: When it was all over and done with, I’m glad Don King protested. He got his own self in trouble by protesting the result and taking us to court, because his contract with us read that he had to have Buster’s best interests at heart at all times. How can you do that when you file paperwork claiming Mike Tyson beat him? That’s how we got out of our contract with him. So I’m glad he protested. Otherwise we’d still be paying him money. [laughs]

MAY: Things got settled. I think there were a couple million dollars involved. Buster got free and clear, sort of—you always use “sort of” with Don King.

TYSON: When I got home from Tokyo, a lot of pressure was released off me, that I was no longer the champion. It was a relief. People didn’t look at me as invincible anymore. I became more human after that, and that’s absolutely a good thing. People realized, this is a human being. He has a heart. He’s somebody’s child. He’s not the monster he appeared to be. A lot of people cried when I lost. But it’s not like the people around me turned their backs on me. I still had a lot of friends, because I still had a lot of money. They only leave when you don’t have no more money.


VI. BUSTED AND BROKEN
DOUGLAS: We were prepared for the fight, but we weren’t prepared for the aftermath of winning the fight. That’s where we got swallowed up, because they come out, man. Hangers-on.

RUSSELL: I went with him to Vegas a couple of times, and we should never have done that. It was pandemonium, man. He was a fuckin’ hero. I told him, “Hanging around with you now is like hanging around with the Beatles and Michael Jackson.”

MCCAULEY: He wasn’t getting the work done. It was nothing like the Tyson camp. I was mad at him, but he didn’t want to hear my mouth. I was going to make him do things the right way. He was looking for the wrong way.

RUSSELL: It was a nightmare. Everybody was fighting, and everybody was looking to buy fuckin’ houses and smoking fuckin’ pot instead of worrying about the fuckin’ fighter. I talked to him a few weeks before the Holyfield fight, and I said, “Let me call the fight off. Let me postpone.” He goes, “No, I want to go ahead with it.” Look, the payday was huge. At that time, it was the largest purse in the history of sports. I talked to Buster about canceling it, but I mean, if I was in his shoes, I wouldn’t have either.

MCCAULEY: He was guaranteed all that money. All you got to do is answer the bell, hear it go ding, and it’s your money. We knew Buster could get lazy. So once he got his hands on all that money, he got lazy.

DOUGLAS: The money had nothing to do with it. It was just, man, come on, I went from being nonexistent to the world heavyweight champion, and everybody wants your attention. It’s an adjustment, man.

Mainimage MikeTyson Ent

Douglas lands a hard right to Tyson’s face during the bout.

TRUMP: The problem with Buster Douglas is he absolutely let himself go to hell. He was a very talented fighter who could have been the champion for a while. And instead he fought the wrong guy. He fought a man named Evander Holyfield, who is the most underrated boxer there is. And Buster Douglas got blown out.

HOLYFIELD: Of course, when I beat Buster they said, “You ain’t no real champ. You didn’t beat Mike!” I said, “Yeah, but I just beat the guy that beat him.”

RUSSELL: Buster never recovered from the Holyfield loss. It just ate him up, because he knew he was better than that. He was just killing himself. He was drinking and eating himself to death. Him and his dad were training a kid and they called me to come to Atlantic City to work his corner. When I saw James, I didn’t fuckin’ recognize him. He was about 400 pounds.

DOUGLAS: I was depressed.

RUSSELL: I went down to Florida and said, “I’m gonna get you back into shape.” I remember us going to the park, and he couldn’t fuckin’ run. I didn’t go down there for him to fight. I just went down there to try to save his life. One day I took him to the gym. I could hardly get his headgear on him, he was so big. We sparred with a guy, and I saw he still had it a little bit. I started getting him in shape, and that was the start of his comeback.

DOUGLAS: That comeback, that was just so I could go back and do it right. That was about wanting to end my career on a better note.

RUSSELL: If we would have beat Lou Savarese in 1998, we had the rematch with Tyson for good money.

TYSON: Lou Savarese knocked him out in one round. That was the end of him.

MERCHANT: I don’t think people will remember anything else about Buster Douglas except the Tyson fight. I guess you could say that, to the public, Douglas is like the guys who assassinated presidents. He’s Lee Harvey Oswald or John Wilkes Booth.

TRUMP: What Buster Douglas did was take the mystique away from Mike Tyson. Just totally took the mystique.

LAMPLEY: I love Mike, but I have said this to him myself: He’s the most overrated heavyweight champion of all time. And he has said to me that he sees the argument. He does not argue the point, because he’s a student of boxing history, and frankly at this point he’s more interested in giving credit to other people. It’s not a denigration of Mike. It’s just a statement on how the audience responded to those knockouts and had overblown in their own minds the significance of his knocking out Michael Spinks and Carl “the Truth” Williams in 91 or 95 seconds.

LAYDEN: I think our memory of Tyson is shaded by everything that happened from 1990 on. To the casual observer, he’s not this guy who for four years was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. He’s a guy who went to prison and whose life became this horror show.

TYSON: Since I lost to Buster, I went to prison for three years, came back, became champion again twice, and I just keep overcoming adversities, you know? A man is not defined by his sporting events; he’s defined by how he lives his life. My boxing career is like a blur, like it never existed. Taking care of my kids, paying bills, paying taxes, paying tuitions for school, that’s just what it all comes down to now.

LAYDEN: I honestly didn’t think he’d ever get to this place. At any point after the Douglas loss, if you had been told that Tyson was dead of a drug overdose or a car accident or some violent episode, would you have been surprised?

ROONEY: He seems to be in a good place now, and I am truly happy for him.

DOUGLAS: He really pulled it together, no doubt. I’m definitely happy for him. That’s really cool, what he’s doing and what he’s achieved.

TYSON: It’s not life in the slow lane; it’s life in the catatonic lane. I never wanted to be an average guy, an average joe. All my life I fought against being an average joe. I guess that’s just what it was supposed to be. I’d rather have a few people who love and care about me than have a thousand people around me who don’t really care about me.

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