James “Buster” Douglas‘ victory over Mike Tyson on February 11, 1990, in Tokyo, to win the undisputed heavyweight title is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in sport history. The former professional boxer competed between 1981-1999 and although he stunned people with his feat, many were ignorant about him being a talented fighter who had been paying his dues for years.
The win was more significant because Tyson was like a wrecking ball, going through heavyweight contenders left and right. Fans feared Douglas who had never fought outside the United States was going to Japan for an execution.
But Douglas had fought on six of Tyson’s undercards and had scouted him closely. He knew his approach and what angles he needed to take and which combinations to throw and crucially when to win the fight. He also had another motivation. Just 23 days before the bout, his mother had died.
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Tyson was undefeated heading to the Tokyo Dome fight with a 37-0 record. He was the undefeated and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world who held the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles. Many industry people reckoned Tyson underrated his opponent and paid a heavy price.
Unlike most Tyson fights which ended in the first round seconds after the bell rang, the fight with Buster lasted longer and it almost ended when he knocked Douglas down with an explosive right hook in the eighth round.
Douglas said that after he got up in the eighth round he knew in his mind that he had the fight won. Tyson had given him his best, and Douglas cracked a subtle smile to let him know that he wasn’t fazed. He found the right angles, unleashed a flurry of punches including a devastating right-left-right combination and by the 10th round Tyson was on the canvas, disoriented. Douglas, who had a 29-4-1 record became the first to knock Tyson to the canvas as a professional.
“When I saw him reaching for that mouthpiece,” Douglas said, “I knew that it was over because it had to be late in the count.” Some argued that because Tyson knocks his opponents out in the first round of his bouts, this time he lacked the stamina to go the distance.
Douglas went down in sports lore as a prize fighter that defied the odds to accomplish one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Among the honors was a cover photo on an issue of Sports Illustrated with the title, “Rocky Lives!” after the popular film series about a similarly underestimated boxing hero.
Douglas lost his first title defense a little over eight months later in a third-round knockout to Holyfield, who had watched the Tyson-Douglas bout on the ringside. Douglas reportedly made $24.6 million for the Holyfield fight and retired afterward. Six years later, he returned for nine more bouts, and won eight.
Thirty years have passed since that fateful night on Feb. 11, 1990, but James “Buster” Douglas is still approached on the street by ordinary folks who express joy for taking down the man many call ‘Iron’ Mike.