Part II—Buster and Dynamite
While the crowd in Atlantic City was still waiting for Tyson and Spinks to shake the building, an upset was brewing in one of the undercard bouts. Mike Williams, a solid punching up-and-comer from Houston, who Ring Magazine listed as their Prospect of the Year for 1986, was getting his ass kicked.
The man doing the kicking was James “Buster” Douglas, a very talented but maddeningly inconsistent heavyweight from Columbus, Ohio, who, at this point, was thought of as more of a journeyman than a contender. It was quite a fall for a fighter who, only the previous year, was fighting Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF heavyweight title. Tucker won that fight on a tenth round knockout, and “Buster” Douglas, who should have been better than he was, appeared to be on his way to the ranks of the forgotten.
Like a lot of boxers, James “Buster” Douglas came from a fight family. His father was middleweight contender Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, who fought the likes of Bennie Briscoe and Matthew Saad Muhammad. Buster as a boxer, although he also excelled as a basketball player. His success in the amateur ranks convinced him to turn pro, and fought his way into contention. He first turned heads in a fight he took on three days notice, winning a decision over Randall “Tex” Cobb. But Douglas couldn’t outrun a reputation as an underachiever. He had three losses on his record by the time the title fight with Tucker came around, all to opponents he had the skills to beat. He was, by all accounts, a very nice young man who had a terrific amount of talent, but not enough drive to train like a champion. In the Tucker fight, Douglas was actually ahead on the scorecards early before tiring in the later rounds. That seemed in keeping with his reputation as an out of shape fighter who didn’t work hard enough, a career underachiever who would now serve as a stepping stone for other, more driven fighters to leapfrog on their way to the bigger names.
The fight against Mike Williams changed that. Williams was the up and comer, whose only loss was a split decision to Tim Witherspoon. Douglas was the has-been he was supposed to take out, another step on his rise through the ranks. At first, that seemed the way it would go, with the younger Williams staying away, making Douglas miss, showing solid defense. But Douglas had a terrific jab, and in the third, Williams walked into one and went down to a knee, stunned. Then, at the end of the round, Douglas put Williams on his butt with another big jab, probably the only time I’ve ever seen a fighter knocked down twice with jabs. Douglas wasn’t perfect that night, as his lack of conditioning did slow him some in the middle rounds, but he was better than anyone expected. In the seventh, he put an exclamation point on the fight, sending Williams out with a tremendous left-right combination and signaling that Buster Douglas wasn’t a has-been just yet.
In 1989, Douglas rode a wave from the Williams fight into matchups with former champ Trevor Berbick and future champion Oliver McCall, who was already getting a lot of work in as one of Tyson’s main sparring partners. Douglas took both fights on decisions, and was once again considered a legitimate contender. However, his thirtieth birthday was fast approaching, which meant his window was closing. At a certain point, a boxer has stopped improving. They have reached the plateau of their talent, and rather than adding to their abilities, each fight takes a little more away. Each fight leaves them a little less prepared for the next one. If Douglas didn’t get another title fight soon, he’d find himself a fighter with diminishing skills, and probably not enough time or energy or ability to make himself a contender again.
Buster Douglas trained, and he waited. And while he put together another solid year, Mike Tyson continued to destroy challengers. He punished the sizable British fighter Frank Bruno for five rounds, then destroyed Carl “The Truth” Williams in 93 seconds, just two seconds longer than it had taken him to knock out Spinks. He was unstoppable, unflappable. He was “Iron Mike,” “Kid Dynamite,” and “The Baddest Man on the Planet.” And soon, he wouldn’t have anyone left to beat.
There was only one person left out there for Tyson to face, a young fighter named Evander Holyfield. Like Michael Spinks, Holyfield was an Olympic medalist (bronze in the light heavyweight division at the 1984 Games). And like Spinks, he had come up from a lighter division (cruiserweight) where he was the undisputed world champion. It was the match-up the boxing world was looking forward to, and it would take another seven years before they would get to see it.
Some moments in sports almost seem destined to happen. The Holyfield/Tyson fight was a given. It would happen. Everyone was waiting for it. But it was the waiting that was the problem. With the fight negotiations coming along at a snail’s pace, Tyson’s team decided to get him a tune-up fight against a man who had been orbiting the contender’s ranks for the past few years.
On February 11, 1990, Mike Tyson would fight the mostly unknown James “Buster” Douglas for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.