Part I—The Destruction of Michael Spinks
This past February marked the twentieth anniversary of the greatest upset in boxing history. On February 11, 1990, unheralded fringe contender James “Buster” Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson, known at the time as “The Baddest Man on the Planet.”
I want to talk about the sound of that knockout, primarily because it is one of the few aspects of this fight that I’ve never seen talked about. Not just the sound of the gloves hitting their targets, but of the commentary and, especially, the crowd in the Tokyo Dome. The reaction to the knockout is the primary reason I find it so fascinating. It’s like hearing a commentator and a crowd react to a mountain springing up in the middle of Manhattan.
But first, a bit of context.
It is difficult to describe to people who never saw him fight exactly how unstoppable Mike Tyson was when he first came up. He knocked out Joe Frazier’s son Marvis in thirty seconds. He took down Trevor Berbick and James “Bonecrusher” Smith to win the WBC and WBA titles before his twenty-first birthday. He was already the youngest heavyweight champ in history when he beat an undefeated Tony Tucker for the IBF title (a title Tucker won with a victory over James “Buster” Douglas just two months earlier).
Mike Tyson had unified the heavyweight belts, which was impressive by itself. But it was the way he did it. You didn’t watch Mike Tyson fight because you thought he would lose. You watched him to see how long it would be before he turned his opponent into a shivering puddle on the mat. I saw every one of his title fights in those days. I remember seeing him KO the much larger Frank Bruno in the fifth round and thinking Bruno had done a great job surviving four and a half rounds. You didn’t beat Mike Tyson. You went as long as you could for the moral victory.
When the subject turned to who could actually beat Tyson, other than God, there was only one person anyone could think of. His name was Michael Spinks.
Spinks was a great fighter. Truly great. A Hall of Famer, in fact, and one of the greatest light heavyweights to ever pull on the gloves. After unifying the light heavyweight belts, he moved up to the heavyweight division and shocked everyone by handing the legendary Larry Holmes the first two losses of his career. As a result, even though Tyson had all three belts, there were some out there who considered Spinks the “linear” heavyweight champion.
Spinks was 31-0 and had never even been knocked down. Tyson was 34-0 with 30 knockouts and, likewise, had never paid a visit to the mat. I remember looking at an issue of Sports Illustrated shortly before the fight, with a picture of Michael Spinks on the cover, right next to the words, “Don’t Count Me Out.” Michael Spinks is the younger brother of Leon Spinks, who pulled off one of the greatest upsets of all time when he defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title in only his seventh pro fight. Many people wondered if Michael might be able to shock the world in the same way.
The fight took place in Atlantic City on June 27, 1988. Tyson was known for his extremely intimidating demeanor in the ring. He would often stare down opponents from the moment he entered, through the referee instructions, right up to the opening bell. For whatever reason, he didn’t do so on this night. He barely looked at Spinks before the fight started. I’m sure some people might have thought this was an indication of insecurity. It wasn’t. The fight ended in 91 seconds.
Have a look. Listen to the list of Spinks’ accomplishments. Then watch what happens.
Mike Tyson was three days shy of his twenty-second birthday and had just destroyed an Olympic champion and one of the best boxers in the world in half a round. Look at Spinks on the mat. His muscles in spasms, his leg twitching involuntarily from the force of the blow he’s just received. Tyson put his hands out, as if he was asking us, Is that enough? Can we all now agree that nothing can touch me? That I will remain this strong, this invulnerable, this terrifying for years?
We could. Mike Tyson was three days shy of his twenty-second birthday and had just destroyed and Olympic champions and Hall of Famer in half a round. Spinks would never fight again, and everyone watched him stagger from the ring that night, they must have been wondering the exact thing commentator Bob Sheridan vocalized:
“And now the question is, Who in this world has any chance against this man?”
As it turned out, someone did have a chance. And it was probably the last fighter anyone in the world would have expected. This is interesting, especially when you consider he’d fought in the same arena that very night.