If you missed either Part One or Part Two, they can be found here and here.
It took only one round of Tyson-Douglas for me to realize that I might be watching something special unfold that night.
It was a briskly-paced first round, with Douglas giving Tyson just enough lateral movement to keep the champion off-balance and — what was the bigger surprise — the challenger snapping off one crisp, powerful jab after another into Tyson’s face. Douglas’ hands were quick — much more so than they’d been in his title effort against Tony Tucker — and his demeanor was determined. It wasn’t the Douglas I’d expected to see — nor I suspect was it the one Tyson had expected to face either.
Tyson had seemed off his game the entire time he’d been in Tokyo, actually getting floored briefly by sparring partner (and former alphabet titlist) Greg Page during training. Tyson’s camp downplayed the knockdown, but the footage of it that was replayed on the local telecasts was still shocking to the boxing public that saw the champion as virtually invincible. Still, it gave more credibility to the idea that perhaps, if the right challenger came along, Tyson might be beaten. But not by Douglas — no, no one thought that. Except the challenger himself.
When the 1st round had ended, I had turned to my father and said, “At least it’s going to go more than a round.” Douglas had looked good, but it was only for three minutes. I didn’t expect the challenger to continue his pace over the next several rounds, but unbelievably, there it was — the challenger pumping his jab into Tyson’s face, snapping sharp combinations off of the champion’s head. Douglas looked smooth and relaxed and — most important — supremely confident as the fight began to wear on. So many of Tyson’s prior challengers had entered their bouts with him literally frightened into defeat; Douglas, however, hadn’t shown any sign of being intimidated by Tyson’s reputation or demeanor. As one round turned into two — then three– then four and five — I realized that Douglas was doing what no one who’d faced Tyson before had been able to do: he was using his size and strength advantage to push around the bully, forcing his will on Tyson while beating him to the punch. Tyson had slipped into his one-punch mentality, and his stationary head provided an easy target for the challenger. By the middle rounds, my scorecard had Douglas pulling further ahead — and the swelling that was beginning to build over Tyson’s left eye was testament to the performance the challenger was giving: truly the performance of his life.
Douglas had no fear that night — he was a changed man in the ring, and in his life, at least for this fight. His mother, Lula Pearl, had died only three weeks before; given the chance to back out of the fight, Douglas had pressed onward, in memory of her. The people in his camp had sensed that something special was going to happen that night, as the inspiration that Douglas had always seemed unable to pair with his God-given talent was something he’d now magically captured for this one, defining moment in his life. The opportunity to live up to all of the expectations laid upon him by his father, Billy Douglas — the opportunity to justify all of the faith his mother had held in him, throughout all of his darkest moments — that opportunity was standing in front of him in the ring in Tokyo — and he wasn’t about to waste it.
As Douglas continued to pound away on Tyson, I remember remarking to my father, “He can’t really keep this up, can he?” I’d seen so many boxing matches over the years, and in all of them that had followed the same script that Tyson-Douglas was following, inevitably the fighter in Douglas’ shoes would end up winning by knockout. There could be no other ending to the fight — not with the tremendous amount of punishment that Douglas was handing out — but still, there was a surreal feeling of disbelief in what we were watching. My father and I knew — as I’m sure everyone watching at home or in Japan knew — that it would be only a matter of time until Tyson reestablished the natural order of the universe and dispatched Douglas back to the obscurity from which he’d come. The unlikelihood of what we were watching was playing tricks with our perceptions, forcing us to ignore the obvious — and that was that Tyson was headed towards his first defeat.
Tyson watches in disbelief as Douglas climbs back to his feet
As the 8th round neared its end, there was the first moment where balance seemed to be ready to be restored — as Tyson finally caught Douglas with a huge uppercut that sent the challenger crashing to the canvas. “Dammit — he was so close!” I remember saying (or something to that effect). I had been captivated by both Douglas’ effort and by the tremendous sports story in the making that an upset would be, and I’d found myself rooting for Douglas as the fight progressed. Incredibly, I watched Douglas beat the count just as the round ended. “You think he can come back?” my dad had asked. None of Tyson’s challengers had ever done so before.
But in the 9th, I found myself believing in the impossible. Douglas not only shook off the effects of the knockdown, but he reestablished himself immediately, and the fight settled back into the rhythm of the earlier rounds. Tyson was clearly frustrated now, and Douglas pulling himself up from the canvas seemed to sap the last of the champion’s energy. With his eye swollen and almost shut, Tyson was caught by a vicious Douglas combination near the end of that round that wobbled his legs and sent him careening to the ropes.
“He’s hurt! He’s hurt! He’s going to go down!” My father and I had both jumped to our feet, shouting to each other and at the television as if he were working the corner ourselves. My heart was racing with anticipation of a Tyson knockdown, but it didn’t come — not yet.
Tyson crashes to the canvas -- and boxing history is forever altered
As the 10th round began, the challenger continued his onslaught while the champion desperately tried to recreate his one, shining moment of the 8th round, hoping to land the shot that would save his title. But it would be Douglas landing the greatest uppercut I’ve ever seen in a title fight — a right hand that nearly dislodged Tyson’s head from his shoulders and a punch that I’m certain would have knocked out many a heavyweight great that night. As Tyson wobbled again, Douglas followed up with a flurry of punches, capped off with a brutal left hand that sent the champion crashing to the canvas for the first official time of his professional career. I jumped in the air just as Tyson was landing on his back.
The sight of the champion — considered unbeatable — desperately fumbling for his mouthpiece with his glove while struggling to get to his feet, while the referee counted away the last moments of his reign as the self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet” is a sporting image I’ll never forget as long as I live. As much as I’d grown to despise Tyson after his alliance with King and his abandonment of those who’d first brought him to greatness, as much as I’d found myself rooting for Douglas that night to win, I still felt sorry for the now ex-champion. He had been humbled in a way that you don’t see in any other sport but boxing, and I knew at that moment, that his life was forever, irreparably changed.
Below, if you’ve never seen it, the thrilling conclusion to Tyson-Douglas (Rounds 8-10).
Douglas would break down in tears in the ring after the fight, talking about how the memory of his mother had driven him that night, and I found myself in tears as well. The beauty of sports is in its ability to move emotionally the people who witness it, and nowhere could that have been seen better than in Tokyo that night. It wasn’t the greatest fight I’ve ever seen, but it still remains my favorite moment in boxing ever — and that, it will probably stay.
It’s been 20 years since Buster Douglas did the impossible. A lot has happened after that fight to both men — the near-criminal attempt by Don King to have the result reversed because of a supposed “long count” on the Douglas knockdown (a brazen attempt at sports theft that was viewed poorly even by the boxing community, which has been witness to a number of outrageous things over the years), the debacle of Douglas’ reign as champion (which ended with an overweight, out-of-shape Douglas losing his title in a 3rd round knockout loss to Evander Holyfield in his very next fight), and the sad journey that Tyson would take over the course of his life afterward (with lowlights including his bankruptcy and his 1992 rape conviction).
I’d rather not remember all of that, though. I’d rather remember watching with my father the Greatest Upset in boxing history as it took place — and thinking then that nothing was truly impossible.