For boxing fans, it’s up there with John Lennon getting shot or Princess Diana’s death: where were you when James ‘Buster’ Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson on February 11, 1990?
Even the time and place were surreal: a Sunday morning at the Tokyo Dome, the muted Japanese crowd adding an otherworldy feel to something that was hitherto inconceivable.
To this day, the footage of Tyson, senses scrambled, trying to put his mouthpiece in backwards is probably the most defining image of his career.
I was just 11, and heard of the shock result via Channel 10 news that Sunday evening. They’d gone to commercial plugging ‘a boxing shock’ and I’d put in a blank tape and recorded the segment.
I watched it again and again, cross-legged in front of the television (I was an odd child) – that uppercut, the two left hands, and Tyson crashing to the canvas in a heap.
Boxing had seen upsets before – Cassius Clay beating Sonny Liston and later, named Muhammad Ali, knocking out George Foreman are two of the biggest. But surely none trumps Douglas-Tyson.
Tyson carried a similar air of invincibility to Liston and Foreman – he was a wrecking ball, unbeaten in 37 fights with 33 knockouts.
Douglas was a flake, soft in mind and body, who had failed all his sternest tests as a professional. He entered the fight with Tyson a 42-1 underdog.
The son of former middleweight and light-heavyweight contender Bill ‘Dynamite’ Douglas, ‘Buster’ was a perennial disappointment – to his pop, his fans and, most importantly, to himself.
(The Douglas-Tyson fight, and Buster’s troubled relationship with his father are chronicled brilliantly in Joe Layden’s book ‘The Last Great Fight’.)
Yet somehow, for Tyson, he trained hard, shrinking his 192cm frame into a fit, though still not firm, 231lbs.
By contrast, Tyson was in terrible condition – the extravagant lifestyle he’d been leading in the four years since he’d won the title had left him a shell of the hungry fighter he’d once been.
His handlers tried to get him to run. He refused, preferring to watch movies in his hotel room.
He was famously knocked down in sparring by Greg Page shortly before the fight, and the worried looks on the faces of his handlers (and most tellingly, his promoter Don King) say it all.
And yet, after being battered by Douglas for nearly eight rounds, Tyson was still dangerous enough to drop the challenger with a vicious uppercut.
After the fight King launched an investigation into that knockdown, trying to get Tyson’s title reinstated by claiming Douglas had been down for longer than 10 seconds. He failed.
Douglas did everything he was supposed to – he listened to the referee’s count, rose at nine, and battered Tyson throughout round nine before delivering the final blows in round 10.
For Douglas, the victory was his finest hour. He’d lost his mother to a stroke three weeks before the fight and his wife had left him (they later reconciled).
Training for Tyson had given him a purpose, a distraction from the turmoil.
Eight months later, bloated and bewildered, he was knocked out by Evander Holyfield and never fought for the title again.
The only good thing to come of the Holyfield fight was the fact Douglas parlayed it into a $24 million payday.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the entire story is that, unlike many fighters, he invested his money and lives a comfortable, quiet existence, last reported to be on a 54-acre ranch in Ohio.
Tyson and Holyfield – men who made more than 10 times what Douglas did in their careers – have both been forced to declare bankruptcy.