It was Tokyo, Japan. The evening of February 11, 1990. Another heart-stopping boxing performance expected from the angriest boxer to ever set foot inside the ring. They billed the fight: Tyson Is Back! The storyline seemed ripped from a horror movie. Walking into the arena, James Douglas was a 42-1 underdog.
A dead man walking.
He was about to meet the most brutal boxer of all time — “Iron Mike” Tyson. A man who had demolished every fighter put in front of him. All 37 in a row. Undefeated. Unstoppable.
The undefeated and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world — holding the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles.
At 5 foot, 10 inches tall, weighing in at 220 pounds, Mike Tyson wasn’t just the greatest heavyweight fighter in the world, he was the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world, according to Ring Magazine.
The best ever.
His last fight before tonight was a holy terror of anguish and punishment for Carl “The Truth” Williams. Tyson dropped him stone cold unconscious in just 93 seconds. Knocked out. The fight over.
Douglas was ranked the number 7 heavyweight boxer in his class. Barely. In truth, he was washed up. He hadn’t had a fight in 3 years. That was the night he got knocked out in the 10th round by Tony Tucker — who was the shortest-reigning heavyweight world champion in history. He would keep his belt just 64 days.
Perhaps it was Douglas’ 6 consecutive wins before that knockout by Tucker that put him in the ring with Tyson. Maybe it was that no one else wanted to trade him places. Regardless, he was about to be beaten badly by a man who was known for his punishing blows.
It was going to be brutal.
The punishment started long before he got to the edge of the ring that night. Just 3 weeks earlier his mother, Lula Pearl, had died unexpectedly — a deeply devastating emotional blow to Douglas who was close to his mother.
At the same time, his son’s mother was slowly dying with a severe kidney ailment. And after weeks of training and preparation, Douglas fell sick with a stomach virus the day before the fight — leaving his body weak and fatigued.
And there he was, stepping into the ring with the fiercest boxer in the world as an impossibly ridiculous underdog. The odds were 42-1 against him.
Quite simply, he had nothing to lose.
That put a bounce in his step. From the first round, it was clear that Douglas wasn’t afraid of Tyson. He danced just out of reach of Tyson’s trademark uppercut, delivering a quick and accurate jab. When Tyson tried to break inside his guard, Douglas would tie him up or move back out of range — clearly winning the round.
The second round was more of the same. Douglas, jabbing and moving. Tyson, being bested at each exchange. So was the third round. And the fourth.
Tyson’s corner was growing frantic. His cornerman, Jay Bright, was screaming at his fighter, “You can’t just sit there and look at him. You’ve gotta to to work!”
Tyson was off his game.
Even “Sugar” Ray Leonard, who was calling the fight live for HBO made the observation that Tyson was having one of those fights where “You just don’t have it. Things just don’t click”.
It wasn’t all one-sided. Tyson was able to connect with a few smashing blows, rocking Douglas. But it came at a cost. His right eye started to swell shut. Which enraged Tyson. He had always dominated his opponents. He wasn’t the fighter getting hurt. He was the guy delivering the hurt.
Round eight started with purpose. Tyson was focused. And angry. Angry at his corner for not having his back. Angry at the crowd for cheering on Douglas. Angry at swelling that was making it hard to see out of his right eye.
He was going to end the fight.
As the round counted down, Tyson pressed the action like a man possessed. Like the fighter who had dominated the last 37 opponents. With 10 seconds left in the roud, Tyson hit Douglas with a brutal uppercut, dropping him cold to the mat.
One… Two… Three… The referee was counting and Douglas was still on the mat… Four… Five… Six… Douglas started to move… Seven… Eight… Douglas struggled to his feet… Nine…
The round was over. Saved by the bell. Literally. Douglas limped back to his corner.
Sensing blood, Tyson started round nine like a maniac. Smashing. Pounding. Chasing Douglas around the ring. Trying to end in brutal fashion his 38th opponent.
But Douglas wouldn’t go down.
He wobbled. He staggered. He stayed away from his opponent. And then he didn’t. Something changed. He was still standing. And when that finally hit him, he found new life. New courage. New power.
Douglas hit Tyson with a four-punch combination that staggered Tyson. He fell into the ropes. Hurt. Wobbling on his feet like in none of his other fights before. But he made it out of the round.
By round ten Tyson wasn’t thinking straight. He had been battered by Douglas’ punishing jab, absorbing more damage than in any other fight. He walked right into a devastating uppercut from Douglas. The entire stadium fell to a hush as in slow motion, Tyson’s head snapped backward. Four smashing punches later he fell unconscious to the mat.
He had never been knocked down before.
Ten seconds later the referee, Octavio Meyran, counted him out. He had been knocked out.
James “Buster” Douglas became the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and the fight became the biggest upset in boxing history.
He hadn’t fought in three years. He was sick with the flu when he entered the ring. His mom had just died. His son’s mother was dying. The odds were against him in every way.
He had been doubted. Mocked by reporters. Beaten down. And knocked to the ground. But he got back up.
He got back up.
It was as simple as that. That’s what separated “Buster” Douglas from the 37 other fighters who came ahead of him. That is what made him a winner.
He was the one who got back up.
It’s the only thing that will make you a winner too.