Part III—The Perfect Storm
The genius of fighters like Rocky Marciano, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler is not only in the ways they found to continually defeat their opponents, but in the ways they continually managed to avoid beating themselves. Even the greatest fighters occasionally leave themselves open to upsets. Some fighters underestimate their opponents. Joe Louis underestimated Billy Conn and would have lost the title if Conn had stepped back and let the fight go to the cards. Some fighters have problems with self-control. Roberto Duran frequently went on eating binges after his fights, and regaining his fighting form in time for the next bout became increasingly difficult as he got older. Some fighters don’t train hard enough, thinking they can walk through the fight. Sonny Liston did that in preparation for his bout with Cassius Clay. Clay knocked him out, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and nearly fell into the same trap eleven years later in Manila, when a supposedly washed up Joe Frazier gave him the most brutal fight of his life.
In these cases, the fighters expect their talent to save them should they get in trouble. This is a form of hubris, and it is very difficult to defeat. If your fights consistently leave you going through the motions, it won’t be long before you stop thinking you can be beat. For these fighters, the saying goes, their greatest opponent is themselves.
Mike Tyson’s camp in Tokyo was in chaos. Tyson wasn’t training, wasn’t working hard enough. He was reeling from his brief marriage and highly publicized divorce from actress Robin Givens, who claimed he’d beaten her frequently. He’d severed ties with the last remnants of the camp of Cus D’Amato (the man who’d been like a father to Tyson in his formative years) when he fired longtime trainer Kevin Rooney. Now, he was surrounded by hangers on and yes-men, and paraded around as the prize pony in the stable of promoter Don King. It was Givens who had convinced Tyson to bring in Don King, and it was King who had convinced Tyson that he, and no one else, had the best interests of Tyson’s career at heart.
Tyson’s behavior was a whirlwind of bad omens. Car wrecks. Stories of him going on rampages. New people all around who seemed eager to fleece him for his money. Press coverage everywhere he went. He wasn’t prepared, and his lack of self-control was regular public fodder for a press corps that found their access to the champ severely limited.
Aaron Snowell, Tyson’s new trainer, was alarmed at how difficult Tyson was to deal with. He often refused to run in the mornings, and frequently ignored his trainer’s instructions. Oliver McCall, who had lost to Buster Douglas, tried to alert Tyson to the danger he was facing.
According to McCall: “I looked at Mike, I said, ‘Listen, don’t undersestimate Buster Douglas. I lost to Buster. You talking like…he ain’t nothing.’”
Tyson didn’t take Buster Douglas seriously, but he didn’t seem to take anyone or anything seriously anymore. With all the distractions and no one to hold his frequent mood shifts in check and keep him focused, Tyson was on his way to the worst night of his career.
And still, none of this would have mattered if not for the circumstances on the other side. Many assumed that Tyson, on his worst night, would beat Buster Douglas (or almost anyone else) on his best night. Add to that the fact that Buster Douglas never seemed to have a “best night” due to his frequent lack of training and preparation and, even with all the problems, Tyson still looked unbeatable.
Then, just over three weeks before the fight, Douglas’s mother, Lula Pearl, died of a stroke.
In interviews, Douglas referred to his mother as his best friend, and there were stories of how she would drag him off the basketball court and down to the boxing gym so that his father could continue training him. Douglas now had the title shot his father never got, and the opportunity his mother always wanted him to have. His trainer suggested canceling the fight, but Douglas refused. He dedicated his upcoming performance to his mother and locked in to his training. By the time the fight came around, Douglas was in excellent shape and more focused than at any other point in his career. He was determined to fight the fight of his life. Most importantly, when he entered the ring, he had no fear of the man in the other corner.
For Mike Tyson, fear was a powerful weapon. He’d grown accustomed to winning easily and quickly, due in no small part to the fear he inspired. Good fighters, even great fighters like Michael Spinks, came out flat footed against him. They weren’t fighting to win. They were fighting defensively, trying not to get killed. Douglas, on the other hand, came out those first few rounds in the Tokyo Dome, and came right at Mike Tyson. He went toe to toe with the champ. Even when Tyson finally started to get aggressive in the third round, Douglas refused to back down. And even with his reputation for fading in the later rounds, it became clear as the fight went on that Douglas was not only in to make a decent showing, but that he was about to give Tyson the fight of his life.
By the fifth round, Mike Tyson was backing down in the face of Buster’s powerful, loaded up shots, and his corner was shockingly unprepared to deal with the damage he was taking. Aaron Snowell hadn’t even bothered to pack and endswell (a piece of metal used to control swelling), and had to resort to filling a rubber glove with ice water and holding it against Tyson’s swelling eye. The commentary went from surprise that Douglas wasn’t down, to admiration that he had come to fight, to a growing awareness that Tyson was primed to get knocked out. After seven rounds, Buster Douglas was winning nearly every round and showed few signs of slowing.
But before he could knock out Tyson, he’d have to overcome his long history of fading at the end, not to mention a monster punch that Tyson was keeping in the tank.