If you missed Part One, you can find it here.
The warning signs were all there — you just had to look a little bit deeper to find them.
The first blow to Mike Tyson’s career wouldn’t be anything that took place in a ring — rather, it was the death of his mentor (and father figure), legendary trainer Cus D’Amato (who was best known for having trained former champion Floyd Patterson) in November of 1985. Tyson was still young and impressionable at the time of D’Amato’s passing, and in time, we would learn that the elderly trainer had played a large part in keeping his fighter out of trouble — and in covering up those problems when they did occur. D’Amato’s death left a vacuum in Tyson’s life that would never be filled; though D’Amato had already turned over the reigns of handling the fighter to trainer Kevin Rooney.
The management of Tyson’s career was first overseen by two men who had worked closely with D’Amato to guide the young fighter’s path, — they being Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. Tyson was extremely close to Jacobs, and he respected him greatly, always listening to what he had to say — with Cayton, however, the close relationship was not there — a factor that would be instrumental in later events. When Jacobs died of leukemia in 1988, the stability of Mike Tyson’s life took another crushing blow. The vultures of the sport — such as notorious promoter Don King (with his long history of exploiting fighters for his own benefit) — were hovering nearby, waiting for their opportunity to sink their talons into a vulnerable Tyson. The deaths of Jacobs and D’Amato, as well as Tyson’s own belief in his invulnerability in the ring, led to two ill-fated marriages — one to actress Robin Givens, the second a professional wedding of his career to Don King Promotions.
With his tumultuous marriage to Givens headed quickly to a divorce, and the squabbling between King and the only surviving member of Tyson’s original management team in Cayton over Tyson’s career, the backdrop was set for Tyson’s fall. Without the loyalty to or close relationship with Cayton that he’d had with either D’Amato or Jacobs, Tyson was ripe to listen to the seductive promises made by King — as well as the veiled accusations by the promoter that the people running Tyson’s career were not looking after his best interests. With that approach, King was finally able to convince Tyson to jettison all of those who had been with him from the beginning. More notable than Cayton’s departure would be that of his trainer Rooney — a strong detractor of King’s influences — a loss that, at the time, seemed manageable — but which would also prove devastating in the months to come .
King’s people having assumed control, Tyson’s path to his eventual defeat in Tokyo was then set — even if no one realized it at the time. Instead of a hard-working practitioner of the sport in the disciplined, no-nonsense camps run by Jacobs and Rooney, Tyson was now the head attraction of a traveling circus, led by the ringmasters of King and Givens, with a growing entourage of hanger-ons who were more concerned with themselves than Tyson’s success in the ring. Tyson’s training habits suffered, and his once-effective style quickly deteriorated. While the early Tyson had been a deceptively effective defensive fighter, who finished his opponents off with quick, bursting combinations — now, he had been reduced to a plodding fighter who marched straight in to his opponent, who ignored the body-punching that had been so effective for him, and who now eschewed combination-punching for the one-punch knockout.
The problems from these changes in Tyson’s approach didn’t manifest themselves immediately — after an eight month layoff following the Spinks win (the longest of his career at that point), he knocked out European challenger Frank Bruno in 5, and followed that up with a 1st round demolition of Carl Williams five months afterward. But to those people like myself who did look deeper, it was apparent that Tyson wasn’t the same fighter who had beaten Berbick, Holmes, and Spinks. I remember thinking that the loss of Rooney would come back to haunt Tyson at some point and that the “new” Tyson was definitely not an “improved” Tyson — but who would be able to take advantage of the champion’s growing shortcomings? Maybe Holyfield, I had thought — but that fight would have to wait until Tyson took care of business in Japan against James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990.
I had watched a little of Douglas over the years, and I had never been all that impressed with what I had seen. Douglas carried into his title challenge an unassuming record of 29-4-1 — with 3 knockout losses as part of his resume. The 6 foot-4 inch tall Douglas was certainly talented; he was quicker than his size might have indicated, with the ability to move around the ring and snap a crisp jab into an opponent’s face — when he was in shape, that is (which was always a hit-and-miss proposition for the heavyweight contender). Douglas’ biggest drawback was that he seemed top have no passion for the sport, making him a sharp contrast to his sometimes-trainer — and father — Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, a fighter known in his career for his tenacity and heart in the ring. The relationship between father and son was often strained, as the younger Douglas’ inability to fully realize his potential seemed to drive his father crazy.
I had watched Douglas lose on a 10th round knockout against Tony Tucker only a little more than two years earlier, in a fight that exemplified the best — and the worst — of Douglas. Douglas had looked good in the early rounds, building a lead on the judges scorecards, but he faded in the later rounds. When he was finished off in the 10th, he looked more tired and disinterested than hurt. After the loss, I thought I had seen the last of Douglas as a heavyweight contender, and I didn’t think the sport would be any worse off as a result. When he was announced as the tune-up opponent for Tyson before his superfight with Evander Holyfield, I saw a mismatch in the making. While Douglas had “earned” the championship shot on the basis of 6 consecutive wins following the defeat to Tucker (the most notable being a knockout over fellow contender, a glass-jawed Mike Williams and decisions over a washed-up Trevor Berbick and future alphabet-champ Oliver McCall), it was apparent to everyone in the sport that Douglas had been selected only as a “safe” opponent for Tyson to quickly demolish.
As champion and challenger went to Japan, most of the boxing community had to stifle their collective yawns. The question wasn’t who was going to win, but as to how quickly Tyson would knock Douglas out. There would be only one casino willing to even put odds on the fight — the Mirage — which had Tyson as a commanding 42-1 favorite. I wasn’t the only one who thought that those odds weren’t long enough.
The fight would take place on a Saturday night here (which translated to Sunday morning in Tokyo), February 11, 1990. Along with my father (who was also a huge boxing fan), I religiously followed all of Tyson’s fights, watching them live whenever possible. With the Tyson-Douglas fight being broadcast live in HBO, this would be another one of those occasions — though we almost didn’t see this fight take place. “It’s just going to be another one round knockout,” I remember, even today, my dad telling me beforehand. “Why bother?” he asked.
“Why not?” I’d replied. “Maybe it might be a good fight, at least for a couple of rounds,” I reasoned.
Little did we — or the sporting world — realize then the magnitude of what we were about to see.
For The Greatest Boxing Upset Of All Time, Part Three, click here.