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25 years ago, Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson and shocked the world

Mike Tyson lies flat on his back after being decked by challenger James “Buster” Douglas, standing in background, as referee Octavio Meyron keeps counting in the 10th round of the scheduled 12-round heavyweight championship bout at the Tokyo Dome. (AP Photo/Kyodo/Mitsuru Sakai)
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It has been a quarter-century since James “Buster” Douglas authored one of the biggest upsets in sports history, and it still seems hard to believe. A fighter who was installed as a 42-1 longshot not only defeated, but knocked out the intimidating, undefeated “Iron Mike” Tyson.

In retrospect, Tyson was never quite the same after that meeting on Feb. 11, 1990. But it’s important to remember that the man who climbed into that ring in Tokyo had more than earned a reputation as a terrifying, relentless force.

Tyson had won his first 19 fights by knockout, 12 in the first round, en route to becoming the youngest-ever undisputed heavyweight champion. He brought a 37-0 record, with 33 knockouts, to the Tokyo Dome, including a 91-second destruction of previously undefeated Michael Spinks a year and a half earlier.

By contrast, Douglas arrived in Tokyo with a good-but-not-great 29-4-1 record, and was considered a talented but inconsistent fighter who had trouble overcoming adversity in the ring. The 6-3 former basketball player from Columbus, Ohio, had earned his shot against Tyson with wins over a pair of well-regarded boxers, Trevor Berbick and Oliver McCall, but he wasn’t considered any kind of threat to Iron Mike.

In fact, one of the reasons the fight took place in Tokyo was because U.S. boxing fans had grown somewhat jaded about ponying up top dollar, just to see Tyson dispatch yet another hapless foe before the ring card girl could strut her stuff. During HBO’s telecast, host Jim Lampley’s introductory remarks included the comment that the event was being staged in Japan “to test the theory that ticket-buyers on foreign shores will purchase what Americans seem increasingly unwilling to shell out for: apparent mismatches for Mike Tyson in defense of his heavyweight crown.”

Tyson could well have been looking past his fight with Douglas and toward a lucrative matchup with Evander Holyfield. In addition, Tyson was likely not as focused as he had been against Spinks; he had recently divorced Robin Givens and fired trainer Kevin Rooney, and his personal life seemed to be in disarray.

But whatever Tyson was dealing with paled in comparison to Douglas’s heartbreak over losing his mother just three weeks before their fight. Douglas had been very close to her, noting later that she was the only one who really believed he could take the title from Tyson.

Perhaps inspired to honor the memory of his late mother, Douglas trained unusually hard for the fight, and he came into the ring in good shape and with an even better game plan. He had a major reach advantage over the 5-10 Tyson, and Douglas kept his hard-hitting opponent at bay with a series of well-timed jabs.

Tyson and his cornermen seemed unprepared to counter what Douglas was doing, but eventually the champ unloaded a trademark uppercut in the eighth round that sent Douglas to the canvas. Douglas used absolutely all of the allotted 10 seconds to get back on his feet — which later became a futile point of contention for the Tyson camp — and was helped when the bell rang moments later.

However, the ninth round swung back in Douglas’s favor, and he inflicted real damage on Tyson. In the tenth, Tyson swung wildly, hoping to end the fight quickly, but instead, it was Douglas who put a stop to things.

“I finished him up with a combination,” Douglas told the Associated Press. “I hit him with four terrific shots. He wasn’t able to get up.”

It was the first time Tyson had ever been knocked down, and it turned into his first loss, one that shocked the boxing world and beyond. “This makes Cinderella look like a sad story, what Buster Douglas has done here tonight!” HBO’s Larry Merchant exclaimed as the new heavyweight champ and his team whooped it up in the ring.

Sports Illustrated put Douglas on its cover, extolling him as the embodiment of Rocky, the ultimate fictional underdog pugilist. He was given a parade in his hometown of Columbus, and he made the talk-show rounds, with everyone wanting to know just how he had managed to topple the fearsome Tyson.

Whatever Douglas had done, the magic didn’t last long. He arrived at his first title defense, against Holyfield, out of shape and was summarily dispatched.

Douglas, having literally cashed in on his short-lived status as heavyweight champion, happily retired at that point. However, just a few years later, his weight ballooned and he nearly died of a diabetic episode.

Douglas got back into shape, at least enough to return to the ring, if not where he was in 1990, and fought nine more times before calling it quits for good in 1999. These days, the 54-year-old keeps busy training young boxers in Columbus.

“I love getting up every day and working with them,” Douglas told Columbus Monthly. “I find myself, on the weekends, thinking about what I’m gonna do with them next week. It’s good therapy all the way around, for me as well. As long as my health is good, I’m gonna stay here forever.”

It also feels like Douglas’s defeat of mighty Iron Mike is something that will stay forever, at least in the annals of legendary upsets. In the 25 years since the Tokyo shocker took place, little has come along to top it.

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