Part IV—The Knockout Heard Round the World
There is all the difference in the world between an upset and an almost-upset. History is loaded with those who nearly pulled the upset, then faded at the crucial moment. People talk about Princeton’s near-upset of Georgetown in 1990 NCAA Basketball Tournament, how the Ivy Leaguers had the nation’s top team on the ropes into the final moments, before Georgetown squeeked out a one-point victory.
Likewise, Billy Conn’s near-upset of Joe Louis gained the fighter his greatest fame. Ahead on two of the scorecards (and even on the other) after twelve rounds against a tiring Louis, Conn foolishly decided to go for a knockout against a man who outweighed him by 37 pounds. He left himself open, Joe Louis landed a couple bombs, and Conn lost his shot at the title.
After the fight, Conn jokingly asked Louis why he couldn’t let him hold the title for a year. Louis replied, “You had the title for twelve rounds and you couldn’t hold on to it.”
The near-upsets have their place in history, but they are remarkable because they illustrate the difference between the champions and the challengers. History is loaded with underdogs who almost got away with it, only to have the champions wake up just in time, realize they were champions for a reason, and show the other gear that allowed them to stay in front.
As good as Douglas had been all night, there was still disbelief that this fight was going to go his way. The heavyweight division carries a greater possibility for big upsets because the size and strength of the fighters lends itself to more one-punch knockouts. As broadcaster “Colonel” Bob Sheridan put it, the heavyweight division was always “sudden death.” This was especially true with Tyson, who had made his reputation on such knockouts. Let Douglas have seven good rounds. Let him climb ahead on the cards. Sooner or later, Tyson would catch him. Everyone knew it.
What nobody knew was that Douglas still wouldn’t be stopped.
I want to bring it back to the sound of the fight, because that’s the reason I started writing this piece in the first place. Both HBO and Showtime broadcast the fight from the Tokyo Dome, but Bob Sheridan’s commentary for Showtime is some of the best I’ve ever heard. Here are the final three rounds. I’ll break them down, but listen to how Sheridan becomes a believer over the course of these rounds. In round 8, he’s admiring Douglas for having made it so far, but unsurprised when Tyson knocks him down. In round 9, he’s surprised when Tyson can’t finish Douglas, then shocked as Douglas comes back and takes over the round. In round 10, as Douglas sends Tyson out, he rises to the occasion, giving a spectacular call of arguably the most unexpected knockout in the history of boxing.
Let’s take it round by round.
Sheridan’s commentary here is complimentary to Douglas. But like everyone else who watched, there is a certain amount of disbelief that Douglas is going to pull this thing out. Even with Douglas owning the fight, there was still the sense that Tyson was ahead. No one could really accept that Tyson was going to lose. Most were just stunned it was taking him so long to rally that big shot that would send this pesky bastard down. Tyson drops a few good shots in the round, but Douglas keeps coming back, especially in the second half of the round. But Douglas gets sloppy, and at the 2:50 mark of the clip, Tyson lands an uppercut with enough juice that, even though it doesn’t land square, still sends Douglas to the canvas.
This seemed to be the moment everyone was waiting for. Douglas finally on the mat, Tyson finally himself. When Douglas clambers to his feet, Sheridan, like everyone else is surprised. And luckily for Douglas, the shot came at the end of the round, allowing him to take a seat and gather himself.
As a side note, it should be mentioned that Don King later protested the result, saying the referee had given a long count here; that Douglas was actually on the mat fourteen seconds, and not nine, as Octavio Meyran counted. This dispute was resolved in Douglas’s favor, as the official count always stands with the referee. And even if Meyran’s count was long, Douglas was clearly waiting to get up. Note how he strikes the mat in disappointment when he goes down. This is not a fighter struggling for orientation. If Meyran’s count was quicker, Douglas would still have been up on the number nine.
This was the round that really stunned everyone. As good as Douglas had been, now that he’d been knocked down, it was assumed Tyson would finish him off. And indeed, this is exactly what Tyson tries to do. Sheridan’s comments about how Douglas should be given “a lot of credit” point to the assumption that the poor sap is certainly on his way out.
That all starts to change at the 4:00 mark of the clip. Watch how Douglas lands the two jabs, then a right-left combo, followed by a left-right-left combo, to which Sheridan shouts, “Look at this!” Suddenly, it became clear that not only was Douglas not woozy and hanging on, he was actually, even after a knockdown, still the stronger fighter. This was the complete opposite of any other major fight in Buster Douglas’s history.
As the round progresses, watch the bounce in Douglas’s legs. Then watch at the 5:26 mark, as he stuns Tyson, driving him back into the ropes. I remember my jaw swinging open when I saw this exchange. At 5:40, Sheridan shouts, “Who would EVER have expected this?” No one would have. Douglas dominated the round, and it suddenly seemed that Tyson might not have another good chance to put Douglas away.
It is interesting to note that, after nine rounds, and despite completely dominating the fight, Douglas was only ahead on one of the scorecards. Another judge had it for Tyson by a point, and the third judge had it even. If the fight went to a decision, there’s a chance Douglas might have had the fight stolen from him.
That wasn’t about to happen, however. One minute into round ten, Buster Douglas finished off the greatest upset in boxing history.
I’ll stick to the knockout, and I’ll stick to the sound of it. It starts at the 7:47 mark of the clip. Douglas, after a couple jabs to get Tyson’s hands up, sneaks a massive uppercut through the hole that lands flush on Tyson’s chin. Listen to the entire Tokyo dome react, as Sheridan says, “OH! THERE’S A NICE UPPERCUT BY BUSTER!”
Douglas follows with a left, a right, and a hard left—“LOOK AT THIS! HE’S KNOCKED MIKE TYSON DOWN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HIS CAREER!”
The crowd in the Tokyo Dome erupts, aware they are seeing something they’ve never seen before, and Octavio Meyran begins his count. Four. Five. Six.
“HE’S IN BIG TROUBLE!”
The crowd. Listen to the crowd. As Meyran’s count progresses, they steadily grow quieter. It’s almost like you can hear them holding their breath. The air gets sucked right out of the arena.
Tyson grasping for his mouthpiece, completely disoriented.
“HE MAY NOT BE ABLE TO RECOVER!”
Dead silence in the dome.
Tyson staggering. Meyran waving his arms.
“HE’S NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!”
Meyran wrapping his arms around Tyson to keep him from falling.
Listen to the crowd. All the air that got sucked out of the arena as they collectively held their breath during the count comes rushing back out in what can only be described as a collective gasp of shock. Yells, shouts, but all of it registering the impossible. Sheridan screaming now.
“UNBELIEVEABLE!!! UNBELIEVEABLE!!! UNBELIEVEABLE!!!”
The crowd roaring. Douglas being mobbed with his hands in the air. Sheridan saying the most unthinkable of phrases.
“BUSTER DOUGLAS IS THE NEW HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WORLD!”
There wasn’t much more for Douglas after this fight. Galvanized by his mother’s death, he’d given the performance of his life. Afterward, he went back to his old ways. Poor conditioning, poor training. Because the Tyson fight was considered to be a cakewalk for the champion, no rematch clause was included in the contract. As a result, Douglas fought Evander Holyfield instead. He was paid 24 million dollars for the fight, showed up out of shape and sloppy, and was beaten to a pulp by the supremely conditioned Holyfield in three ugly rounds. He retired off and on for the next several years, and his heart was clearly no longer in the sport. He had all the money he’d ever need.
The luxury nearly destroyed him. His weight ballooned to 400 pounds and he went into a diabetic coma, from which he barely recovered. In recent years, he’s made public appearances and taught boxing around the Columbus area, generally keeping a low profile, usually only appearing when people want to discuss Tyson.
While that certainly is a decent enough ending for the fighter, it is a little disappointing for anyone who saw what he was capable of that night in Tokyo. Buster Douglas was a very talented boxer who simply did not have enough desire to become as great as his talent might have let him become. Had he applied the dedication to the rest of his career that he did to the Tyson fight, who knows how great he might have been?
Mike Tyson’s life and career, both rocky before the fight, began to spiral out of control after the fight. He won four more fights, and was ready to fight Evander Holyfield for the title in November of 1991, before a rib injury forced a postponement. Shortly after this, he was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison and four years of probation.
He was released after three years and began a comeback, winning two of his belts back quickly with victories over Bruce Seldon and Frank Bruno. It seemed, at the time, that Tyson was back to stay. He looked every bit his old dominating self, and he finally faced off against Evander Holyfield, the man he’d been waiting to fight when he went to prison. The fight took place on November 9, 1996, five years and one day after their original fight date. For the second time in his career, Tyson suffered a humiliating upset, as a supposedly over-the-hill Evander Holyfield stopped Tyson in the eleventh round.
The two scheduled a rematch, in which Tyson bit a chunk of Holyfield’s ear off, but that’s a story for another post.