“I’m not going to Tyson dressing room. I can’t go near him. It might rub off. The same thing could happen to me.” Those were the reported words of Donald Trump moments after his friend and client Mike Tyson had been beaten by James ‘Buster’ Douglas in boxing’s greatest shock.
It was a day shaped by turmoil. It was a day where desperate corner men made icepacks out of rubber gloves, or condoms, depending on who you believe. It was a day where millions of dollars disappeared for those with skin in the game.
Decades later, The Killers wrote a song about the chaos.”When I saw him go down, it felt like somebody lied,” the lyrics read.
Thirty years have passed since the unthinkable occurred. Nobody lied, it really did happen.
In the UK, Tyson’s previous title fights had been shown on terrestrial television but the Douglas bout was only available via Sky, which had begun broadcasting a year earlier and then reached relatively small numbers. As a result, the stunning upset was largely unseen.
“I had a call the next day from someone who told me the result. Back then it was a case of how do you go away and prove it,” recalls BBC Sport boxing correspondent Mike Costello.
The front pages of newspapers on 11 February 1990 were occupied by Nelson Mandela’s imminent release from prison in South Africa. Their back pages would soon be bursting with upset and scandal fed back from Japan’s Tokyo Dome, where the fight took place at 9am local time.
Tyson, then 23, had shaken off the kind of fear that saw him cry before teenage bouts. Now he brought fear to others and, as the undisputed heavyweight champion, with 37 wins and no defeats, had most men beaten before the sound of the opening bell. His previous world-title defence had lasted 96 seconds.
“Opponents would look like they were walking to the gallows,” adds Costello.
Douglas was 42-1 in a two-horse race. In the build-up, punters in Las Vegas placed bets on Tyson of $93,000 to win $3,000 and $54,000 to win $2,000.
Douglas’ mother had died 23 days before the showdown. Lula Pearl was the first person to instruct her son to stand up to childhood bullies. She had told friends her son was in a good place mentally to cause an upset.
“My manager called me and asked if I still wanted to fight,” recalls Douglas. “I said, ‘Sure, I’m ready. We are going to make this happen’.”
If his mother’s passing was not enough, Douglas had also split from his wife. The turmoil in his life saw him describe his regime of three training sessions a day as “stress relief”.
At the time, Tyson’s life was chaotic. His trainer, mentor and father-figure Cus D’Amato had died five years earlier. He had parted with trainer Kevin Rooney, while his marriage to actress Robin Givens had ended in an ugly mix of public scrutiny, restraining orders and ultimately divorce.
His long-term manager Bill Cayton was engaged in a legal battle with promoter Don King, while Trump – an admirer of Tyson long before his presidency came to pass – acted as an adviser to the young fighter and was posturing to ensure the biggest fights were held at his hotel and casino resorts.
There were volatile relationships, trust in those around him was thin and big players were staking big money on his young and misguided shoulders.
But even word of him being floored in sparring did not dent belief he would walk through Douglas to face Evander Holyfield – who was ringside – in a lucrative bout next.
‘You’re going to get it’
Tyson had slept with two women the night before the Douglas fight. Asked if it was indicative of a lax attitude to boxing, he later told the BBC: “Not really. I’d done that before and I was successful against better fighters, so I thought I could do it against a lesser fighter.”
Douglas had a point to prove. In his only other world-title shot – a defeat by Tony Tucker three years earlier – his own father was disgusted with his son and walked out after a 10th-round stoppage.
And so began his act of defiance.
“I had so much built up inside of me, I was finally able to release it,” he says.
“It was like, ‘Man, you’re going to get it like you’ve never gotten it before in your life’.”
Once the bell rang, the underdog refused to stand in front of the champion, deploying lateral movement, a stinging jab and spiteful blows.
Tyson’s left eye grew increasingly swollen as a fighter known as ‘the baddest man on the planet’ faced true adversity for the first time as a champion.
He was earning $6m for the fight but in the corner, with no Enswell ‘eye iron’ or natural ice pack to hand, his team filled a rubber glove – or as legend has it a condom – with ice and pressed it against the injury.
Eight rounds in, he looked set to save himself as a punishing uppercut sent Douglas down. The Ohio fighter made his feet at nine. A second separated his dreams and disaster.
The speed of the referee’s count would dominate the post-fight mayhem. Years later Tyson would stand on stage and count 13 seconds while those in the audience watched a giant screen displaying Douglas getting to his feet.
“I wasn’t really hurt,” Douglas recalls. “That instant could have been a disaster for me. I saw a lot of things in Tyson in the chain reaction when I got up.”
Two rounds later – the 10th – a flurry of punches landed and the right-left combination that sent Tyson down for the first time in his career flowed beautifully.
The champion was left on all fours, fishing around with his right hand for his gum shield on the canvas like a man hunting a sewing pin in a darkened room.
There was panic, shock and the kind of unique sporting anticipation that materialises when something special is seconds from happening.
In the Sky TV studio afterwards, future world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis – then only seven fights into his professional career – simply remarked: “Holyfield just lost $11m.”
Douglas was mobbed. He was world heavyweight champion. Or was he?