Nothing is impossible in sport.
But as far as a two-person contest goes, Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson in 1990 was the closest thing to impossible, and remains the bar by which all other sporting upsets are measured.
To put it into context, the unstoppable George Foreman was around 1/7 to beat the past-it Muhammad Ali in 1974; the undefeated Anthony Joshua was around 1/25 to beat short-notice challenger Andy Ruiz in 2019. We all know how those turned out…
But Tyson was as short as 1/42 to beat Douglas. And that was with the one Vegas oddsmaker who actually took bets on the fight; the rest saw it as a walkover. While casinos would offer odds on the round Tyson would beat Douglas, none, barring the Mirage, even offered a price on a Tyson win.
Realistically, Tyson was about 1/1000 to record a 38th win of his career. It would have been less surprising to see the Harlem Globetrotters lose.
So fearsome was Tyson at the time, Douglas’s mother didn’t want him to take the fight.
Tragically, his mother passed away suddenly three weeks before the fight. Douglas was very close with his mother, and the loss provided fresh inspiration, motivation and dedication.
Douglas shrugged off the notion of a postponement, but shortly before the fight, John Russell, Douglas’s trainer, caught his man with a towel over his head after a workout, and upon lifting the towel saw Douglas sobbing, confessing “I miss my mom.”
And strange things can happen when you take something away from a man who already has nothing to lose.
But the reality was Douglas was little more than an interim fight. Tyson had wiped out the heavyweight division, with a bout against cruiserweight champion-cum-heavyweight contender Evander Holyfield the one to make. Promoter Don King, so sure of victory, was announcing the fight with Holyfield before Tyson had taken care of business in Tokyo.
Although the fight was staged in Japan, the 60,000-seater Tokyo Dome wasn’t even remotely full. People simply weren’t prepared to fork out for non-competitive Mike Tyson fights any more.
Tyson had reached mythological status amongst fans and pundits alike, where the prospect of a Tyson defeat was simply impossible.
At an average of 5.2 rounds per fight, Tyson had the shortest title fights in heavyweight history, and that average was set to get even lower.
The professional career of Tyson started a few months before his 19th birthday. In less than 12 months, Tyson had racked up 16 wins, all by knockout, 12 of which came in the first round.
The early stage of Tyson’s career was a highlight reel of destructive knockouts. A teenager who thought nothing of taking one to give one, Iron Mike often neglected his jab, opting exclusively for wild swinging haymakers; hooks, uppercuts and crosses that simply overwhelmed everyone who dared to stand in front of him.
That’s not to say Tyson wasn’t also a good defensive boxer. With excellent head movement, Tyson was able to get up close while evading shots.
But his fights were often akin to watching a lion stalk a gazelle; there was an eerie inevitability about them. Of course all of his opponents will have had their own idea about how to be the one to beat Tyson, but as the man himself said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
This was a boxer uninterested in a boxing match; Tyson went into the ring to render his foes unconscious as quickly as possible, as if earning style points for inflicting particularly concussive knockouts.
He would typically check in on the wellbeing of his defeated, barely-conscious opponent in the immediate aftermath of their knockout, contradicting his prior devastating intentions. Here was a man whose left hook was delivered with an animalistic force, all while carrying a glare of white-hot fury, who’d then put an arm around you to give you his best regards.
With the exception of Tyrell Biggs – who he admitted he actually did want to hurt following a slight around the US Olympic boxing team, which Tyson didn’t make – it was never personal; this was merely business.
Less than two years into his pro career, with 27 wins to his name, 25 by knockout, the 20-year-old Tyson would fight WBC heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick.
Berbick – like most of Tyson’s opponents – was the bigger man, but was splattered to the canvas early in the second round, then resembled an oak tree crashing to the ground with the second decisive knockdown.
Tyson was the scariest boxer in the world with the WBC heavyweight title around his waist.
It was seven fights and 19 months later when Tyson would become the lineal heavyweight champion with his devastating, 91-second win over Michael Spinks.
And Spinks was no journeyman. An undisputed light heavyweight champion, Spinks moved up to take the unbeaten record and heavyweight titles of Larry Holmes, beating him again seven months later.
While Tyson was widely favoured to win, plenty were backing lineal champion Spinks. It wasn’t just that Tyson won, but the nature of the victory. Two knockdowns, 91 seconds; Tyson had hit his peak before his 22nd birthday, and the world kneeled before him.
Iron Mike recorded wins over Frank Bruno and Carl Williams to move to 37-0.
And that’s when it all came crashing down.
Some would argue the beginning of the end actually came in the aftermath of his win over Spinks, when he parted ways with long-time trainer Kevin Rooney. Rooney was the man credited with keeping Tyson on track after the death of Cus D’Amato, who’d had a huge impact on Tyson in and out of the ring in his formative years.
It’s also claimed the early fame and success of Tyson, who’d climbed boxing’s summit all before turning 22, became a factor.
With the world at his feet and his personal life spiralling out of control, Tyson went to Tokyo more focussed on partying than preparing for a world title fight.
His training camp was a shambles. He was knocked down in a sparring session, and his conditioning was poor. Tyson deemed Douglas an amateur, whose record of 29-4-1 simply didn’t stand up.
In the end, it set up a fight between a man who felt he couldn’t lose and a man with nothing to lose.
So many observers expected Tyson to be out of there in the first round; his own corner didn’t even have the equipment to deal with a troubled Tyson. They’d pay the price for that as the fight wore on.
A shock wouldn’t have been Douglas winning, it would have been Douglas still being conscious after 12 minutes.
People – correctly – claimed that Tyson wasn’t in the best shape of his career, and that Douglas was in the best shape of his, and that his mother’s passing had given him a renewed focus, creating a perfect storm. But it should not be ignored that Douglas fought a very tactically astute fight.
Douglas was the heavier man; the taller man with the longer reach, and he utilised this perfectly.
Right from the off, Douglas engaged Tyson in a clinch if he got too near. The first such clinch came five seconds after the opening bell. From there, Douglas would use his superior reach to keep the Baddest Man on the Planet at a distance with a laser-sharp jab, taking the first round.
A sign of things to come came after the call of ‘seconds out’ prior to the second round, with Tyson’s corner slow to put his mouthpiece back in.
After a solid first round, Douglas opened up more in the second, landing a series of good shots, with Tyson unable to impose his expected dominance. It was a testament to Tyson’s chin that he wasn’t more troubled by the shots he took.
The third saw Tyson become more wild and aggressive, but again it was Douglas with the more telling shots.
The challenger had won all three rounds and made that four three minutes later. More rapid-fire lefts and rights were landing. If you had no idea who was who you’d swear Douglas was the champion and Tyson the challenger. Tyson’s left eye was now swollen, and that’s when the corner troubles really began.
A latex glove filled with water was used in place of the traditional enswell, used to suppress swelling on a fighter’s face, which hadn’t even been brought to the ring. After all, why would Tyson need an enswell? Why would his corner need to suppress any swelling? The plan – the expectation – was that Tyson wouldn’t even be returning to his corner.
Douglas, who’d suffered with illness prior to the fight, had begun to slow down around the halfway stage, but the man who’d been the bully for all of his 37 fights was being bullied. Douglas was using his physical dominance to toy with Tyson.
But, as the saying goes, you don’t play boxing.
Douglas for a split second was perhaps over-confident, and Tyson landed a flush uppercut to fell the challenger. The count was undisputedly slow, and certainly beyond the 10 allowed seconds. But Douglas regained his composure, and rose before the end of the referee’s count with the bell giving him another 60 seconds to recover.
The champion was unable to build on the momentum, with Douglas producing a herculean effort to rise from the canvas to almost put Tyson down the following round. Only the ropes kept Tyson on his feet, with Douglas launching – and landing – massive haymakers to the head of Tyson, whose left eye was now almost totally shut.
Then in the 10th and final round, both the inevitable and the impossible happened.
James ‘Buster’ Douglas knocked out Iron Mike Tyson.
The same uppercut that floored Douglas would put Tyson on the brink. A right-left-right-left combination put him on the mat.
Iron Mike attempted to put his mouthpiece back in mid-count, but could barely get to his feet and was deemed unable to continue.
The previously-invincible Tyson couldn’t tell whether he was in Tokyo or Timbuktu.
Even after the fight when he’d begun to regain his composure, it was relayed to him by his cornerman Aaron Snowell how the fight had ended.
It has been widely referred to as the biggest upset in sporting history for more than 30 years, and it will likely remain so for another 30 years. And there’s no arguing that, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that within the context of the fight, it wasn’t remotely an upset.
Despite one judge inexplicably scoring the fight 87-86 in Tyson’s favour, when he won at most three of the nine completed rounds, Douglas was much the better fighter throughout. The fight was level with the judges at the time of the knockout, and that was harsh on Douglas. Tyson had taken an absolute beating, and would’ve been extremely lucky to have maintained his unbeaten record.
Tyson’s myth had been shattered. The man who could’ve gone on to become the greatest heavyweight of all time had lost to a man nobody thought could win, let alone would win.
King, who’d seen the millions of dollars for the prospective fight between Tyson and Holyfield evaporate in front of him, protested the outcome, referring to the slow count.
The count was slow, but the referee’s count was final, and the protest was dropped days after the fight.
The aura of invincibility, which alone was enough to beat half of Tyson’s opponents, was gone. Partly owing to three years in prison, Tyson wouldn’t fight for the heavyweight title until 1996, but later that year he’d lose to Evander Holyfield. The fearsome, ferocious Tyson of the late 80s was a distant memory, and he’d never be a world champion again.
Understandably, Douglas was never able to sustain the level that took him to boxing’s summit, and underprepared, he lost inside three rounds to Evander Holyfield, prompting his retirement.
Douglas would stage a comeback six years later, winning eight of his nine final fights, but never got near another heavyweight title.
Not that it mattered. Douglas had achieved the impossible. Douglas beat Tyson.