Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas and the Fall of the American Heavyweight Champ

Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas and the Fall of the American Heavyweight Champ

Boxing

Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas and the Fall of the American Heavyweight Champ

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Mike Tyson exploded onto the boxing scene in the mid-1980s. He was built like a tank and had ferocious fists. He won his first 19 fights by knockouts, 12 in the first round before fans had finished taking their seats. He became the youngest, undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World at age 20. Being plucked from a troubled upbringing – mother addicted to crack, father a pimp – by Hall of Famer trainer Cus D’Amato, Tyson was a classic, American success story.

Inside the ring, Tyson was an intimidating phenom. “There were numerous fights guys would lose on their way to the ring, they were just totally in awe and intimidated by the mystique of Mike Tyson,” former HBO president Ross Greenburg told us.

Outside the ring, Tyson was the natural heir to showmen such as Ali, Frazier and Foreman. He transcended boxing. Iron Mike was featured on Sports Illustrated’s cover six times during a two-year span. He starred in his own Nintendo video game, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. He married a TV star, actress Robin Givens. In 1988, he was given the Time Magazine cover, tag-lined with the word “Terror.” Time is not the cultural bellwether it once was, but no American boxer has graced its cover since.

mike tyson's punchoutTyson was an incredible television draw. According to Greenburg, when Tyson fought on the cable network, 42 percent of all viewers that had HBO tuned in. “When he was on the network, it was almost like you were broadcasting the Super Bowl.”

Tyson’s opponent in Tokyo on February 11, 1990 was Buster Douglas, a real-life Little Mac. Douglas was a journeyman and the son of a former boxer. He was a 42-1 long shot and a perfunctory tune up before Tyson’s anticipated epic date with Evander Holyfield. Douglas’ mother had passed away weeks before the fight. Many doubted he was in the right frame of mind, to step into the ring with Tyson.

Many were wrong. Douglas fought the fight of his career. He beat the champ. He knocked out the man and the myth of Mike Tyson and, one could argue, the legend of the American heavyweight champion. Tyson, in many ways, never got back up. Neither, in many ways, did the sport of boxing.

“I’ve done everything from Leonard-Hearns, to Hagler-Leonard, and to this day I’ve never been more shocked and more mesmerized by a fight in the control room than that event,” Greenburg said. “When you marry what happened in the ring to the size of the event I don’t think anything approaches that.  Super Bowl III, The  Miracle on Ice, Tyson-Douglas.  Those three are the biggest upsets in sports history.”

FACES OF DEATH

As a 33-year old senior feature producer at HBO, Rick Bernstein produced all the profile pieces on Tyson and flew with him to Tokyo. “When we got to Tokyo, I’ve never seen as much media and as many flashing light bulbs as there were when we arrived. I was the only person that had any access to Mike and the press soon realized that wherever I was there was a good chance that was where Mike would be, so they would camp out at the elevators, and whenever I got off the elevator they’d follow me thinking I was going to lead them to Tyson. But, because he was swarmed by the media whenever he left the room, he basically stayed in his suite the entire week.”

The scene surrounding Douglas was the polar opposite, according to Greenburg.

“When we got to his hotel room, he was grabbing for Kleenex, and we were all sitting with him and basically his head was completely stuffed. It was one of the worst colds I’d ever witnessed by a human being, never mind a boxer who was going in the next day against Mike Tyson, and he couldn’t have been nicer and he ran through how committed he was to this fight and how he was doing this for his mom, how important this day was,” he said.

“After witnessing this massive head cold, I remember walking out of the meeting and turning to Larry [Merchant] and Jim [Lampley] and saying ‘I hope he doesn’t get killed.’ We really feared for his life.”

As Greenburg and the announcers returned to The New Otani Hotel where they, along with Tyson, were staying, boxing politics – and the power that fighters can hold over a telecast – were in full effect. Only Greenburg and Sugar Ray Leonard visited with Tyson in his hotel room to discuss the upcoming fight.

Don King elbowed out Bill Cayton to take over as Tyson’s manager in 1988, and jettisoned longtime trainer Kevin Rooney. Additionally, Tyson’s personal life began to fracture, and he only fought twice in 1989. King walled off the media from his cash cow. He began feuding with the few media members who did have access to him.

“Only Sugar Ray and I were allowed up to his room because he had soured on Merchant in such a big way at that point,” Greenburg said. “You know he had a running feud with Larry Merchant; I guess Mike started to get irritated by the questions Larry had been asking him after fights and I think Don King frankly was prompting him to start hating Merchant in order to free him from Bill Cayton and HBO.”

Merchant recalled and explained the feud with a matter-of-fact look that matched his answer to the question. “By that time, Mike was a character who was on the front pages as often as he was on the back pages of newspapers, for getting into little problems with the law, fights outside of the ring. He was a huge personality and a front page tabloid guy, and these are questions that have to be asked before a fight.”

Mike Tyson quote on Faces of Death

As Leonard and Greenburg made their way into Tyson’s room, they found him glued to the television. “He was watching ‘Faces of Death.’ Videos that were of dead people, people that had drowned, people that had gotten shot, and I remember him saying, ‘hey you guys come here, check this out, check this out. Ray, Ross, come here,’ and we had to sit with him and watch death videos for 5-10 minutes before we could talk to him. Ray and I just sat there in shock, and we discussed a little about the fight. I’m thinking ‘oh my God, what are we getting into?'”

Here’s the side of Tyson that hadn’t yet been made fully public in the pre-social media, pre-internet winter of 1990: Yes, the tumultuous relationship with Givens was falling apart, and yes, he was adapting to a new style with a new trainer, but behind the scenes, Tyson started to live the life of a do-what-I-want, when-I-want celebrity, and his razor-sharp focus on boxing appeared to wane.

“From the moment Don King gained control after Jimmy Jacobs died, Don was the one who was avidly encouraging Mike to go his own way and not behave within the rules and procedures that had been set up for him by the white leaders of his inner circle prior to King,” fight broadcaster Jim Lampley told us. “Part of what King was selling was ‘I’m a black man, you’re a black man, this is a black thing, you’re 21-years-old, you should be able to do whatever it is you want to do, chase the women you want to chase, buy the cars you want to buy, go to the clubs you want to go to, have the fun you want to have,’ and that’s far different then what he was spoon-fed for years by Jimmy and Bill and Cus.”

mike tyson robin givensAdded Greenburg: “His personal life had disintegrated. The mayhem with Robin Givens, the cars being driven off the road … he’d had a really tough patch. His life was spinning out of control. There were rumors of him partying for weeks before (the fight), rumors of women visiting him nightly in his hotel.”

That lack of discipline, focus and positive influences would play out in 10 rounds in Tokyo.

DOWN GOES TYSON

Douglas knew his only shot was to use the strategy employed by previous fighters with a height and reach advantage against the 5-foot-10 fire hydrant. Use the left jab to keep the champ at a distance, and lock him up as frequently as possible. Extend the fight, slow the freight train down. Sounds easy enough on paper; much more difficult to pull off when the bell rings and you’re toe-to-toe with one of the most menacing fighters the sport has ever produced. As Larry Merchant added, “Tyson said it himself – ‘everyone has a plan until you get hit.’”

In the first round, the strategy successfully translated to the ring. Jab. Jab. Tie him up. Overhand right. Left jab. Right hand lead. Get off first. The announcers were impressed with Douglas early, while Tyson looked flat and uninspired.

“When the fight started, for the first 30 seconds, Douglas started sticking the left jab through Tyson’s guard and I remember hitting the IFB and telling the announcers, ‘oh my God, we’ve got a fight’. No one had ever taken it to Tyson with the left jab like that,” said Greenburg.

By the end of the Round 2, Douglas had surprisingly out-landed Tyson in punches by a margin of 52 to 16.

Lampley: “As you got into rounds 2 and 3, you saw [Douglas] was totally in control with the left jab, that Tyson wasn’t himself, he was much more stationary he didn’t bob and weave the way he’d been taught by Cus D’Amato and he was a stationary target.”

Jab. Jab. Overhand right. Right cross. Jab, jab, overhand right. Douglas fought a patient fight, like a bullfighter evading for the horns, they never connected.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tyson absorb this many blows,” Merchant told a shellshocked HBO audience. Sugar Ray Leonard noted during the fight that Tyson “looks like he just doesn’t have it.”

At the end of the fifth round, with Tyson’s left eye in the process of swelling shut, the hubris of the champ and Don King, was painfully evident: Tyson didn’t even have a cut man in his corner. His corner didn’t even have the cold iron press to help reduce swelling, a basic tool in the corner of every boxer, dating back over two decades.

Jim Lampley saw it as a complete breakdown: “To me, all of that, the dissolution of his world, the removal of controls, the destruction of the inner circle that had brought him to where he was, the opening up of the floodgates to all the forces around him, the things that King preferred, and presumably Mike preferred, all come to fruition in one image, and that image is the image of Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright wrestling to try to stop the swelling around Mike’s eye with what looks to be a rubber glove filled with water. Once you see that you realize everything has exploded. No longer is he surrounded by a competent boxing structure of people that are focused on one thing.”

Jab, jab, overhand right. Jab, jab. Double it up. Left hook right hook. Jab. Jab. Uppercut. Tie him up.

The crowd was stunned silent. There was more noise in HBO’s control truck. “I remember in the sixth round, I had to scream at everybody to calm down because everyone was out of control, the production crew were the only ones making a lot of noise thru the headsets, I had to tell everyone to stay in control and focus because everyone was losing their focus,” Greenburg said. “It wasn’t about Tyson getting beat. It was about knowing you were watching history.”

And then, finally, Douglas made a mistake at the end of Round 8, dropping his guard momentarily and getting caught flat-footed in close, with just seconds remaining in the round. Like a shark exploding out of the water, Tyson got off one of his patented uppercuts, and the 6-foot-4 Douglas collapsed to the canvas.

Douglas was saved by an incredibly timely bell. Had the round gone on, Tyson could have pounced on his wounded prey and finished the job.

In true Tyson fashion, the Champ came out of the corner for Round 9 looking for the kill, but :20 in, Douglas fired a seven-punch combination – jab, jab, jab, left, right, left, right, all to Tyson’s face. The relentless onslaught – “the most action-filled, heavy-punching exchange round of Mike Tyson’s career” is how Lampley put it during the telecast – put Tyson on the edge, but he was able to push past the beating into the 10th round.

Douglas landing several punches on Tyson

Tyson entered the 10th with one eye virtually shut, and moments later it would be closed, along with the prime years of his career. A cross, then the right uppercut, prompted a solemn line from Lampley that belongs up there with the Al Michaels classic “Do You Believe in Miracles?”:

What an uppercut by Douglas, and down goes Tyson.”

Mike Tyson goes down

Sensing history, Lampley let the moment breathe, as TV viewers gasped, while Iron Mike feebly searched for his mouthpiece. He fell directly in front of one of HBO’s handheld cameras, and director Marc Payton cut to the shot instantly, providing a close-up of what the end of an era looks like: “When I saw Mike down and right in front of that camera and reaching for that mouthpiece I said ‘this is it.’ It’s one of those special shots that happens only a few times in your career. That’s as good as it got for me, and I directed boxing for HBO for 34 years.”

The words rushed to Larry Merchant’s mouth, but he couldn’t even string them together – “he’s … [inaudible] it’s … over!”

Jim Lampley: “Mike Tyson has been knocked out.”

Just 1:23 into the 10th round, Mike Tyson relinquished all four of his heavyweight championship titles. He would never be the same indomitable force. The mystique was gone. It’s been 25 years and counting since America has produced a legendary heavyweight champion of his ilk.

THE AFTERMATH

As Merchant fought through the chaos to interview the new champion, Douglas’ entourage was trying to shuffle their weary champion out of the ring and to begin the celebration. Merchant persisted, and heartfelt words spilled out: This was for my mom. Merchant still calls it the best interview he’s ever done.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the death of Buster Douglas’ mother galvanized all of his forces to reach beyond his potential on that night,” Merchant recalled. “And in some way, Douglas wanted to prove to his father that that he was tough. And to do it for his mother, those are the most primal kinds of motivations. And in this particular storyline, Clark Kent became Superman.”

In the hours and days that followed the colossal upset, a panicked Don King would protest the result, with the participation of WBC president Jose Sulaiman, hopelessly arguing that after Tyson floored Douglas with the uppercut late in Round 8, the count by referee Octavio Meyran was “long” and Douglas had technically been knocked out.

It was futile, but King lobbied hard anyway because the Undefeated Baddest Man on the Planet is considerably more bankable than a 1-loss former champ who was last seen searching for his mouthpiece on the canvas after getting soundly whipped by a tomato can.

The HBO crew was returning to the US and unaware of King’s fruitless attempt. “It wasn’t until we got back to America that we heard about this supposed long count controversy and King’s official protest, and Sulaiman entertaining the protest,” said Lampley. “That all came as news to us, there was no instinct that I can recall, no response from any of us that I can recall, that would have been built on a notion that that was a long count. To us that was just a count, and he got up and the fight went on.”

Merchant scoffed at the weak business play by King. “Jose Sulaiman, who was the head of the WBC and was as ruthless a businessman as Don King, knew where his interests lay, where his money could be made, which is how things are usually measured in boxing. They had an arbitration in Newark and I was there and I said at the time, ‘this is a case of guys trying to win outside of the ring what they lost inside the ring.’”

King eventually withdrew the protest – but the damage was done: Douglas should have been celebrated in the days that followed his miraculous victory, instead, a King-manufactured controversy stole the spotlight.

Nine months later, Douglas was scheduled to fight Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas – every boxing fan on the planet wished it were an unbeaten Tyson in there instead – and as the bout approached, it became increasingly clear Douglas would prove a one-fight wonder.

As Sugar Ray Leonard tells it, the first time he saw Douglas after the Tokyo was “at the Mirage a couple days before his fight against Evander Holyfield and he was eating pizza in the sauna.”

Douglas checked in 14.5 pounds heavier than when he fought Tyson. He was flattened by Holyfield in the third round. Douglas later ballooned up to over 400 pounds, and, though he fought nine times after that, none of them had the same significance.

Tyson never recovered, professionally or personally. In the ring, he became a sideshow act, and many of his most famous fights after the Douglas loss were farcical. Outside the ring, Tyson spiraled even further out of control. He was arrested in July 1991 for rape and was sentenced to six years in prison. He served three.

Upon his release, Tyson banked millions for fights against an over-matched Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis, and set pay-per-view records in the process, but as a fighter, he was a shell of his former self.

evander-holyfield-ear-bittenFive years after Tyson and Holyfield were supposed to meet at the apex of their careers, both were past their prime. Holyfield defeated Tyson via TKO in the 11th round in 1996 (more sour grapes from Tyson’s camp afterward, alleging Holyfield’s headbutts) and then the sport faced humiliation in 1997 when Tyson took a bite out of Holyfield’s ear in the rematch.

A decade after rising to fame for punching out opponents, Tyson had become a punch line on late-night TV.

Years of frustration with the media erupted in this graphic, filthy, expletive-laced tirade ahead of a bout with Lennox Lewis in 2002 (which Tyson lost). He was officially a sideshow act.

The heavyweight division has seen American champions since Tyson’s loss to Douglas 25 years ago – Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, even George Foreman in his 40s – but the sport has not had a true American showman like Tyson in his prime.


Craig E. Shapiro has been producing and directing documentary content with a focus on sports since 2000. In 2006 his feature documentary Ice Kings, the story of one of the most successful high school sports programs in the country, won the Audience Award at The Rhode Island International Film Festival and aired on sports networks around the country, as well as PBS.

He can be reached via his website cedarstreetfilms.com at craig@cedarstreetfilms.com.

Art by Michael Shamburger.

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