It was Saturday night, February 10, 1990 in the United States, or if you were in Tokyo Japan, it was the 11th. And Mike Tyson 37-0 (33) was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and was in Japan for the second time in two years to defend his heavyweight title. His opponent was Ohio native James “Buster” Douglas 29-4-1 (19). After the fight Douglas would say that he drew strength from his mother Lula Pearl’s passing 23 days prior to climbing into the ring to challenge Tyson for what was then the biggest prize in professional sports.
At the time, Tyson was viewed as a human wrecking machine and at 23, was thought to be in his prime. Douglas, 29, was a fighter of considerable talent, who defeated three fighters (Trevor Berbick, Greg Page and Oliver McCall) who won a piece of the title at some point during their careers. However, the knock on Douglas was that he seen as a fighter who lacked dedication and drive. This of course changed, at least for one bout, the night he touched gloves with Tyson.
On the night of the fight, the 5-10, 220 1/2 Tyson was a ridiculous 42-1 favorite over the 6-4, 231 1/2 Douglas. And by the middle of the first round it was apparent that the odds-makers tremendously overrated Tyson and dramatically underrated Douglas. Douglas, showing no signs of being intimidated by Tyson, came right out and started jolting Mike with hard jabs and right crosses that landed flush on his chin as he tried to get inside. On this night Douglas was beautiful and couldn’t have fought more purposefully and efficiently. So much so that Tyson was hit more cleanly by Douglas through the first seven rounds of the fight than he had been in his previous 37 bouts combined. Other than for a momentary defensive lapse in the eighth round when Tyson dropped him for an eight count with a right uppercut, Douglas dominated the bout. As the fight progressed, Douglas began drilling Tyson with right uppercuts as he tried to forge his way inside, and in the 10th round it was a right uppercut that for all intents and purposes knocked Tyson out and relieved him of his title.
Douglas’ upset of Tyson was monumental and left the boxing world in shock. Immediately after the fight the excuses for Douglas winning and Tyson losing were falling out of the sky. These ranged from Douglas losing his mother actually became an advantage, something that wasn’t hinted at before the fight and that Tyson was partying too much with Japanese women and wasn’t up for the fight. Yet Tyson endured a beating and still was strong enough to drop Douglas with a single uppercut deep into the fight, thus exposing the myth he was completely out of shape.
Once the shock of seeing Tyson lose lessened, everybody wanted to see a rematch to find out if it really was a fluke or whether Douglas just had the right size and style to handle Tyson. But Douglas wanted to break his ties with promoter Don King and eventually bought out his contract and made his first defense against the mandatory challenger Evander Holyfield, 28, 24-0 (20). Holyfield had been slated to fight Tyson in a mega showdown between career rivals after Tyson presumably beat Douglas, but Douglas killed the chance of that happening, at least in 1990, with his knockout of Tyson. So instead of fighting Tyson in a rematch, Douglas agreed to meet Holyfield on October 25, 1990 in Las Vegas. At that time Holyfield had only fought six times as a heavyweight after relinquishing his cruiserweight title. The thought by Team Douglas and an overwhelming majority of the boxing public was, if Douglas can beat Tyson, then the former cruiserweight champ shouldn’t be much of a problem for him.
Oh, how wrong they were…
As fighters, Tyson and Holyfield couldn’t be more different. When Douglas took the title from Tyson, he used his long reach to hit and punish Mike on the way in. And since Tyson came in crouching, he was right there to be hit with a right uppercut – he practicality moved right into its path trajectory. The right uppercut was pivotal in Douglas hurting and slowing Tyson down…..the only problem with that was, Holyfield fought more straight up and was usually too far out of range for the uppercut that Douglas was looking to land. What worked against Tyson for Douglas, winning the fight at long range and finishing it with the uppercut, wasn’t there versus Holyfield. Holyfield had faster hands than Douglas and nullified his left jab. Once Douglas couldn’t land the jab, his offense was stymied and he began reaching and over-committing, which left him wide open to the head.
Well, the uppercut that put Tyson’s head on a swivel missed against Holyfield in the third round. Evander smartly took a half step back as the uppercut was short, then drilled Douglas with a straight right hand to the chin — and Douglas’ title tenure ended eight months after it started.
After the fight some said Douglas was too cocky and blew the fight at the weigh-in when he scaled 246, 15 pounds more than when he fought Tyson. But Douglas being 246 didn’t determine the fight. Sure, perhaps Douglas may have put up a better effort had he been fighting at 231, but that wasn’t what lost it for him.
The reason Douglas lost to Holyfield was because a) Holyfield was beyond a doubt the greater fighter and b) he had the perfect style to foil Douglas. Buster’s weight would’ve never overcome Holyfield’s strategic advantage.
I said in 1990, and feel even stronger in my conviction today that Douglas should’ve given Tyson a rematch. Douglas-Tyson II would’ve been huge, just as Holyfield-Tyson II was after Evander became the second fighter to beat Mike in 1996. Had they fought a rematch, Douglas would’ve entered it with all the confidence in the world and Tyson would’ve been the one second guessing himself once Douglas started raking him in the face again with hard jabs as Tyson tried to press the action. Also, regardless of how hard Tyson trained for the rematch, he couldn’t change his stripes and fight a different style. Douglas had the style to trouble and beat Tyson. The only problem Douglas might have encountered in the rematch was, a more focused and determined Tyson may have overcome the style disadvantage with his career riding on him winning the fight.
”I’m not going to make excuses,” said Tyson. “The new champion won the title. The only thing I ask for is a rematch. Once I get a rematch, I’ll take care of everything.”
”The name of the game,” said King, ”is money. Buster Douglas is not going to fight anybody else in the world and make as much money as he will fighting Mike Tyson.”
Based on what both Tyson and Don King said a few days after Tyson lost to Douglas, you can see that Tyson would’ve been highly motivated and focused the second time around, and King was right pertaining to the money. Fighting Tyson again would’ve equaled the $25 million Douglas earned fighting Holyfield, and if he lost the rematch against Tyson, as long as he made a good showing, the boxing world couldn’t line up fast enough to pay twice the amount of money to see the rubber match between them.
After losing to Holyfield, Douglas didn’t fight for six years. He returned to the ring in 1996, but was nowhere near the fighter he was the night he scored the biggest upset in boxing history. He went 8-1 versus a string of journeymen and never fought again after February 19th, 1999, almost nine years to the day after winning the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.
Looking back 25 years, Douglas would’ve been better off fighting Tyson in a rematch than fighting Holyfield. He could’ve parlayed the signature fight of his career into two more big fights and paydays instead of only one. And think of how big he’d be historically had he beaten Tyson in the rematch? And based on their first fight, that isn’t even a mild reach to ponder.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com