Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

1. James “Buster” Douglas KO 10 Mike Tyson: Feb. 11, 1990, Tokyo Dome, Tokyo, Japan


Forget about the “Miracle Mets” who stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series. Forget about the Joe Namath-led Jets who toppled the powerful Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Forget about the 1983 North Carolina State team that won the NCAA college basketball title, the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics or Upset’s upset of Man O’ War in the 1919 Sanford Memorial. There is only one shocker that tops all shockers in the history of sports, much less boxing – James “Buster” Douglas’ knockout of Mike Tyson to capture the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.

The 42-to-1 odds that favored “Iron Mike” weren’t an accurate reflection of the enormity of this upset. The 42-to-1 number is quoted only because one casino dared to put up odds at all. Tyson-Douglas was the ultimate “off-the-board” fight, for Tyson had looked nothing but monstrous in building a 38-0 (34) record that included nine title defenses, of which six were for the undisputed championship. At age 24, Tyson appeared on track to shatter Joe Louis’ decades-old records for title defenses (25) and length of reign (11 years 8 months). Aside from Evander Holyfield – who was at ringside in Tokyo because he was scheduled to get the next crack – no one appeared to be a genuine threat to end Tyson’s reign of terror.

As together as Tyson seemed in the ring, that’s how chaotic his life outside it was. His marriage to actress Robin Givens was falling apart, the power struggle between promoter Bill Cayton and promoter Don King was reaching the boiling point and the leadership vacuum that came with trainer Kevin Rooney’s departure was beginning to manifest itself more firmly. One sparring session with former WBA titlist Greg Page resulted in Tyson being knocked down and unlike his previous visit to Japan leading up to his second-round KO of Tony Tubbs, Tyson had nowhere near as much fun. Even though he was the world heavyweight champion and was capable of generating tens of millions of dollars per fight, life, from his perspective, couldn’t have been much more stressful.

On the other hand Douglas was dealing with a different and far more sobering brand of stress – the loss of a loved one. His mother, Lula Pearl, died 23 days before the Tyson fight and his son’s mother was ill with a severe kidney ailment. Such issues could have either depressed Douglas to the point of impotency or inspired him to heights he otherwise never could have reached. Fortunately for him, the latter happened.

Up until this point Douglas had been an above-average talent with below-average ambition and results. The son of ultra-tough fringe contender Billy “Dynamite” Douglas boasted a modest 30-4-1 (20) record but most associated him with his failed 10th round TKO to Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF belt, a bout he appeared to be in command of before disaster struck. His critics said he didn’t have the heart to take the final step toward greatness but Douglas and his brain trust believed differently.

An intensely focused Douglas worked himself into sensational condition and the 231½ pounds spread over his 6-foot-3½-inch frame looked athletic and strong. Tyson looked cosmetically well at 220½ but the psyche housed within was in shambles.

Douglas seized the lead instantly by working behind effective jabs, accurate right crosses and whipping combinations. More importantly, Douglas radiated a fearlessness that was absent in most Tyson opponents. Douglas’ agility was stunning but his growing lead in many minds was even more so.

Tyson’s corner was in as much disarray as their fighter. Douglas’ blows inevitably swelled Tyson’s eye and because the corner didn’t have an Enswell they resorted to using a rubber glove filled with ice water. They also didn’t have a Plan B when their initial instructions failed to work.

And yet Tyson almost lifted himself out of his crisis in the final seconds of round eight when an exquisitely short right uppercut floored Douglas for a nine count. Tyson tried to consolidate his advantage in round nine but Douglas showed incredible gumption by fighting him off and lacing him with combinations that had him hurt badly by round’s end.

Through nine rounds Larry Rozadilla’s 88-82 card for Douglas reflected most observers’ opinions but he was out-voted by Japanese judges Masakazu Uchida (86-86) and Ken Morita, who incomprehensibly had Tyson ahead 87-86. Believe it or not, Tyson was still in range of winning a decision if he had been able to produce a rally down the stretch.

He wasn’t. Or rather, more accurately, he wasn’t allowed to.

Douglas completed the greatest fight of his ring life midway through round 10 when, after a series of light jabs, he unleashed a corkscrewing right uppercut that snapped Tyson’s 20-inch neck upward and a final straight left that drove him to the floor. Upon impact Tyson’s mouthpiece flew out and in his scrambled state he put its retrieval above beating Octavio Meyran’s count. Only after stuffing in the gumshield backwards did he stagger up, but it was too late. The undefeated record, the three heavyweight title belts and his chance to achieve unblemished immortality were all gone.

The new heavyweight champion of the world became a star the instant Meyran waved off the fight and the bulletins describing his triumph left the world in open-mouthed awe. The inconceivable had become reality and because of that all impossible dreams now seemed within reach.

More than any other event in sports history, Douglas-Tyson illustrates the power of possibilities. It also is why we continue to watch sports in general, because one never knows from which direction the next surprise will come. All we, as sports fans, want is to be there when it happens.



Photos / THE RING, Getty Images (Bradley-Pacquiao by Jay Directo, Spinks-Ali by Dirck Halstead), AFP (Tyson-Holyfield by Jeff Haynes; Tyson, Holyfield and Don King by John Gruzinski, Foreman-Moorer by John Gurzinski)

Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.comto arrange for autographed copies.

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