On February 11th, 1990, James “Buster” Douglas, an astounding 42 to 1 underdog, knocked out undisputed World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson in the tenth round of their title fight in front 50,000 spectators at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. In the 23 years since this occurred, the knockout has been cited on multiple occasions as one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
The thinking sports fan is typically dismissive of narratives suggesting that outside circumstances can heavily impact the performance of an elite athlete. Certainly, great athletes have good days and bad days, but in order to attain the heights of their profession, they must possess the ability to avoid distractions. And besides, it’s not as if the majority of us, who have no degree of actual involvement in the life of Athlete A can say for certain that he or she would be positively or negatively affected by Circumstance X.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, we might be able understand how Tyson, who so quickly and easily demolished all of the heavyweight competition in his path prior to his fight with Buster, was not truly the favorite he was believed to be given the distractions in his life and lack of motivation. Sports Illustrated’s Richard O’Brien recalls the outside elements that might have afflicting the champion at the time:
There was just so much wildly entertaining, People magazine-worthy stuff going on in Tyson’s life. There were the contract battles between [Don] King and [Bill] Cayton and the marital battles between Tyson and actress-wife Robin Givens (Tyson would file for divorce in October of that year). There was even Tyson’s burgeoning academic career. (He had recently been awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Central State University in Ohio — a fact I mention only so that I can cite his speech at the commencement ceremony, in which Tyson said he wasn’t sure what sort of doctor the degree made him but that looking out at “all the fine sisters in the audience,” he hoped it was a gynecologist. Clearly, this was a man with issues.) By the time everything was settled and Douglas, by process of elimination (read: willingness to accept less money), was installed as the next opponent, the focus was less on inside the ring than out.
In addition, Tyson had left his longtime trainer Kevin Rooney. And almost everyone had assumed the fight with Douglas to be little more than a tune-up to shake off any ring rust that might have accumulated since his 93-second knockout of Carl Williams seven months prior to the match in Tokyo.
Distractions alone don’t explain the result, though, as Douglas also had more than a fair share of outside forces potentially influencing his performance. His mother passed away three weeks before the fight. His son’s mother was diagnosed with a severe kidney ailment in the lead up to the bout. And just for good measure, he contracted the flu only a day in advance of facing Tyson.
From the outset of the fight, something was different. Whether this was the result of Douglas not being intimidated by Tyson – something unfamiliar to anyone who had watched his recent run of highlight reel knockouts – or it was because the champion’s mental vulnerabilities were making his challenger only appear courageous - a debate that still rages – Iron Mike was made to look human for the first time by Buster Douglas. Despite the judges’s score cards, which were revealed after the fight to have questionably discerned an even fight, those assembled at the Tokyo Dome and huddled in front of television sets around the world were almost unanimous in their belief that Douglas was beating Tyson through to the eighth round.
Then, a patented Tyson uppercut to Douglas’s chin seemed to make sense out of all that was happening. With ten seconds remaining before the end of the round, Douglas was sent to the canvas by the devastating Tyson punch. He received a nine-second-count before the fight resumed. However, this was the first sign of the Tyson that was so dominant of his division prior to this bout. Finally, that fighter was going to make an appearance and restore order to the world.
Unfortunately, perceptions and preconceived notions are never perfectly accurate. The eight round knockout is little more than a footnote, now. A later one was to take hog the fame.
It would come in the tenth round, but it was the ninth in which the damage was inflicted. Tyson came out swinging, most likely believing that a) he had hurt Douglas in the previous round; and b) he needed to hurt Douglas more severely to win the fight. Unfortunately for the champion, Douglas got the best of their exchanges, memorably connecting with a four-punch combination that likely would’ve ended Tyson’s night if not for the nearby ropes.
Tyson came out in the tenth like a blinded animal threatened by everything. He flailed and hoped for contact. Meanwhile, Douglas gave understanding to anyone curious as to how something so barbaric could be referred to as a sweet science. The underdog controlled the champion, keeping him at a distance with his jabs, before unleashing an uppercut of his own that snapped Tyson’s head backwards like reverse mousetrap. Douglas, suddenly a vicious shark with blood particles from a potential victim teasing his nostrils, delivered four punches to Tyson’s head that sent the young fighter to the canvass for the very first time in his career.
It was over. The referee counted up to ten, but anyone who had seen the previous round knew that the damage sustained by Tyson was too much for any mortal to take and hope to continue. It wasn’t for lack of effort on Tyson’s part, who, in a moment made iconic by a Sports Illustrated cover, placed his mouthpiece half in his mouth, and attempted to get up on legs that wanted no part of such action.
James Buster Douglas was the new and undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World.
His first title defense would come against Holyfield, and the result – a third round knockout of the overweight Douglas – lent credence to the idea that the fight in Japan wasn’t indicative of either fighter’s true talent, and also sent Douglas, perhaps wisely, into retirement.
Tyson would go on to fight four more times before a rape conviction sent him to jail. Upon his release he won two of the then-splintered titles at his weight class before losing them both in a fight with Holyfield. Other circus show fights followed, including a mismatched title challenge against Lennox Lewis in 2002, but it was never the same. Neither Tyson’s ability to dominate or boxing as a whole was ever able to recover.
The now infamous image of the Sports Illustrated cover and the memory of the faded Tyson fumbling with the mouth guard was as definitive of a moment in dividing eras of a sport as is likely possible.