- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

For one memorable evening in Tokyo, the undistinguished pug looked like one of the all-time great heavyweights — stealing that distinction from his unbeaten and supposedly unbeatable opponent.

A 42-1 underdog on whom almost nobody bet, he dominated the fight from the beginning. He connected with jabs and right hands while easily avoiding the thunder that lurked in the fists of his befuddled foe.

Then in the 10th round, the challenger unleashed a devastating combination that knocked down champion Mike Tyson for the first time in his career and separated him from his mouthpiece as well. When the heretofore Iron Mike failed to struggle upright before the count of 10, James “Buster” Douglas became — unbelievably — the heavyweight champion of the world on Feb.10, 1990.

Jim Jeffries. Jack Johnson. Jack Dempsey. Joe Louis. Rocky Marciano. Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier.

James “Buster” Douglas?

Sports Illustrated captured the moment best with a headline on its cover: “Rocky Lives.”

More than a decade later, an ESPN.com poll rated the fight as the fourth biggest upset in sports history behind the U.S. hockey victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics, the New York Jets’ triumph over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and Villanova’s win over Georgetown in the championship game of the 1985 NCAA basketball tournament.

It doesn’t matter that the result was a fluke. Douglas, who some thought had quit while losing a title fight to International Boxing Federation champion Tony Tucker three years earlier, did nothing after the Tyson bout except eat his way out of shape and out of the title. By the time he made his first defense against Evander Holyfield (presumably, Tyson was off somewhere sulking), Douglas’ nickname should have been “Blubber.” With his weight approaching 300 pounds, the 30-year-old journeyman was knocked out in the third round and retired soon after. He attempted a comeback a couple of years later, but that was as brief as his time in the sun.

For one magic night, though, Douglas was lord and master of all he surveyed in the heavyweight ranks. His successful game plan proved beautifully simple. Asked before the fight what his strategy would be, Buster replied, “I’ll just hit him, I guess.” And so he did.

The most lasting result of the bout was that it shredded Tyson’s cloak of invincibility and started the 24-year-old fighter down the path of self-destruction that has made him, 14 years later, a pitiable laughingstock in and out of the ring.

It seems likely that Tyson’s self-respect vanished along with his title when Douglas did his deed. A poor kid from New York who was raised to fistic manhood by his personal savior, famed boxing manager Cus D’Amato, Tyson fell in with avaricious promoter Don King after D’Amato’s death and soon found himself a pawn in King’s Machiavellian maneuvers. Then he was fair game not only for Douglas but for all the shady characters eager to take advantage of a naive millionaire who was his own worst enemy.

As you might expect, Tyson blamed the loss to Douglas on the referee. Although he obviously had not trained properly, Tyson summoned up his usual devastating form late in the eighth round with an uppercut that dumped Douglas on his derriere. Buster scrambled to his feet at the count of eight just before the bell rang, denying the enraged Tyson a chance to finish the job. Afterward, Tyson and his minions offered the traditional “we wuz robbed” alibi, claiming the ref had started his count too late.

It was as good an excuse as any.

Before that, it all had been so good for Tyson. He won his first 37 fights as a pro, including a 91-second KO of Michael Spinks and a batch of other first-rounders. At 20, he became the youngest heavyweight champion in history when he defeated Trevor Berbick in November 1986. By 1990, he had unified the various alphabet soup titles, married and divorced actress Robin Givens and allied himself with King, thus distancing himself from the ownership group that had guided his rapid success.

By winning four fights against mostly lackluster opposition after losing to Douglas, Tyson moved into position for a title shot at Holyfield. But then his life spun totally out of control when he was convicted of raping beauty contestant Desiree Washington in Indianapolis. Despite being sentenced to a 10-year prison term, he was released in the summer of 1995 and began trying to resurrect his boxing career at 29.

After just two fights, Tyson was matched against Frank Bruno, a journeyman who somehow won the World Boxing Council championship. Tyson disposed of Bruno in three rounds in March 1996, but the new crown didn’t adorn his gleaming dome for long. Six months later, he was dethroned by the earnest, workmanlike Holyfield. When they met again in May 1997, Tyson made boxing and culinary history of a sort by chomping on Holyfield’s ears, getting disqualified and then being banned from boxing for a year.

Even as late as 2002, Tyson was seeking to regain the title from British heavyweight Lennox Lewis. Several jurisdictions, including the District, refused to license Tyson, who had logged further jail time for assaulting two motorists in Montgomery County after a car accident. Against the skilled Lewis, however, it was apparent Tyson’s skills were gone. He took a stiff beating in Memphis, Tenn., and was knocked out in the eighth round — apparently ending his career as a significant fighter at age 36.

Regardless of whether one feels sympathy or disdain for Tyson and his crude, incomprehensible behavior, there’s no question that his downfall shifted into high gear the night Buster Douglas busted him one in Japan.

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