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James 'Buster' Douglas recounts the biggest upset in boxing history

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The road to Tyson-Douglas (1:10)

The ESPN Films 30 for 30 presentation of "42 to 1" maps out the events leading up to Buster Douglas' historic upset of Mike Tyson in 1990. (1:10)

Normally, James "Buster" Douglas, the former heavyweight champion of the world, is among the most good-natured and nice individuals you'll ever come across.

That is, except when you call him a one-hit wonder for his exploits on Feb. 11, 1990, when Douglas pulled off what is considered the most shocking upset in boxing history -- and maybe in all of sports -- by defeating the heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson.

"That one-hit wonder bull---- doesn't relate," said Douglas, who pointed out sternly to a reporter that he actually fought twice for the heavyweight title in his career (a 1987 loss to Tony Tucker being his first attempt to win a belt).

When asked how that perception made him feel, the 58-year-old Douglas lightened the mood by joking, "It pisses me off. It makes me want to come out of retirement."

But whether he likes it or not, Douglas will always be indelibly linked with that one magical moment in time in Tokyo. Which is why ESPN's latest edition of 30 for 30 focuses on this historic upset through his eyes. "42-1," co-directed by Jeremy Schaap and Ben Houser, premieres Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

When you ask him what it was like to relive this moment, Douglas reverts back to his friendly demeanor.

"It was great, especially going back over to Tokyo, we went back to the Tokyo Dome, walked around downtown Tokyo, it was really rewarding," he said last week while in Los Angeles for the heavyweight title fight between WBC titlist Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury.

In a city where Douglas has to stand out, did anyone in Tokyo recognize him?

"I don't think so," said Douglas, perhaps being a bit too modest here.

The great irony is that back in 1990, as he landed in Japan, he was an anonymous figure, imported to play another defenseless victim to the rampaging Tyson, much in the way Tony Tubbs was in March of 1988. Tubbs was drilled in two short rounds at the same venue this bout would be held. Tyson's dominance in those days became problematic for his promoter, Don King, who had increasing difficulty persuading the casinos in America to dole out millions of dollars in site fees for bouts that sometimes didn't last as long as the national anthem.

Which is why Tyson-Douglas took place in Japan.

"I knew I was here with no chance at all," said Douglas, who was installed as a 42-1 underdog by the one betting parlor that took action on this fight. "I knew that going into the fight no one was giving me a chance, but I believed, my people believed. That was the motivation. I could care less about what people thought because if that was the case, I would have never turned pro."

While there were many reports of Tyson being unfocused, Douglas trained with razor-sharp focus and tranquility.

"My training sessions were nice, calm and quiet," Douglas recalled, adding that the two camps shared the same gym. "Just me and my trainers in the gym. We would come in the gym after Mike, and chairs could be turned over and everything as if somebody had a big to-do. And when my camp came in, it was just us. So it was motivation."

There was some foreshadowing of what was to come when former heavyweight champion Greg Page knocked down Tyson during a sparring session. But at the time, it was dismissed as nothing more than a freak occurrence. Coming into the fight, Tyson had a record of 37-0 and was seemingly headed for a multimillion-dollar showdown with Evander Holyfield (who would be ringside for this event). Douglas was seen as nothing more than a speed bump on the way to more lucrative and important assignments.

Back then, most of Tyson's opponents walked into the ring as if they were getting marched into an execution -- the only things missing were a blindfold and a cigarette in their mouths. Douglas, however, bounded into the ring with a certain zeal that was noted on the telecast by HBO color commentator Larry Merchant.

And there was collective disbelief at Korakuen Stadium (as it was called then) on this Sunday morning as Douglas didn't just survive against the most feared fighter on the planet but handled him with ease from the onset. Douglas' size and length troubled the champion, who had great difficulty getting past his sharp left jab and accurate right hands.

Godzilla was getting beaten up in Tokyo.

Ironically, Douglas says it wasn't until the eventful eighth round -- when he was sent to the canvas by a Tyson uppercut -- that he felt he had really begun to master him.

"I got knocked down because I wanted to have a moment to reflect. I stopped fighting and I was looking at Mike," explained Douglas of his momentary lapse in concentration that nearly cost him the fight. But in the very next round, he shellacked Tyson to regain full control. Douglas says that in his own mind, he said to Tyson, "Yeah, what do you think about me now?"

He put the finishing touches on his startling performance by knocking out Tyson in Round 10. For anyone who watched this live, it was surreal. It's been said that every boxing fan recalls exactly where he or she was when this happened, much like the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As a joyful Douglas was being mobbed by his cornermen, Merchant told the HBO audience, "This makes Cinderella ... look like a sad story."

And a few minutes later, he engaged in one of the most memorable postfight interviews in boxing history with Merchant. While there was jubilation, Douglas became emotional as he remembered his beloved mother, Lula Pearl, who had passed away just a few weeks before the fight.

"It was good, it was motivating, the energy was flowing -- until he asked me about my mom and it just broke it all down. That's when it really hit home," Douglas told ESPN.com.

"What was special was that part of the narrative of the fight, how Douglas performed. He had performed up to his ultimate on this day," said Merchant, who pointed out that the heavyweight from Columbus, Ohio, was known for being athletically gifted but an underachiever inside the ring, despite his boxing bloodlines.

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0:29

30 for 30: 42 to 1 - Simply Confident

John Johnson Jr. shares an intimate moment with his friend Buster Douglas before his fight against Mike Tyson.

"His mother had died a few weeks before the fight," said Merchant. "I think on another layer, he had never lived up to his father's expectations. His father [Bill "Dynamite" Douglas] had been a tough journeyman fighter who had his own gym, where Buster grew up in.

"So that storyline seemed to be imbibed in his choking up after this fight because of what it meant to him. And to me, as he was choking up and couldn't respond, I was trying to be sensitive about the emotional issues by not approaching them, letting them unfold. He was so emotionally overwrought that he was having a hard time gathering himself to be interviewed, and he wanted to be interviewed."

Just as he did in the eighth round against Tyson, Douglas was able to gather himself and recover with aplomb. But he and his team weren't immediately able to fully enjoy their victory as Don King (who promoted both boxers) claimed that referee Octavio Meyran had administered a long count to Douglas when he was knocked down, therefore making anything else that occurred afterword -- namely, Tyson getting stopped a couple of rounds later -- null and void.

This set off a series of lawsuits and a fissure between the promoter and Douglas that was irreparable. Eventually the sanctioning bodies buckled under the public pressure and named Douglas the rightful heavyweight champion of the world.

Douglas was the talk of the town. But he himself had no comprehension of just what a big deal he became post-Tyson until he touched down in the States.

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0:29

30 for 30: 42 to 1 - Creatively Inspired

Former heavyweight champ Buster Douglas trains and inspires young boxers in Columbus, Ohio. "42 to 1" premieres December 11 at 9pm ET on ESPN.

"I didn't," he said, smiling broadly at the memory of his arriving to Columbus to a huge throng that was awaiting him. "Before that, we flew to Chicago and I was with my family, we're walking through the Jetway and I was like, 'Man, I wonder what's going on down there? A lot of people at the Jetway, who is that? Who are they waiting to talk to down there?' -- and it's me. They were waiting for me."

Then there was a parade in his hometown that was attended by thousands.

"That was at the airport when we came," recalled Douglas. "As I got off the plane, they were already in the parking lot, all through the airport, and that was before all the security -- they were at the gate waiting."

Soon, Douglas was on the talk-show circuit, and a myriad of speaking engagements and appearances were scheduled.

But there was one particular event that Douglas truly enjoyed, which was being the special guest referee for the wrestling match between Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage that was telecast to a national audience on the NBC series "The Main Event." Originally, Tyson was set to be here, but that little engagement in Tokyo changed a few plans.

"That was awesome because my oldest son, Lamar, he's a big [WWE] fan, and me participating on an event like that was really great," said Douglas, who ended up punching out Savage -- meaning he scored KOs of "Iron Mike" and the "Macho Man" in a span of less than two weeks.

The aftermath of the career-defining victory was followed by months of legal battles over his promotional rights, and soon he was even squabbling with his own manager, John Johnson. The realities of the boxing business erased what was a real-life Cinderella story.

And quickly it rang midnight, as he lost the title in his very first defense, against Evander Holyfield in three rounds that October, in what was a listless performance. Making the defeat so ignominious was that it seemed that Douglas was in no hurry to get up from the canvas as he was being counted out by referee Mills Lane at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

It's the one true regret that Douglas has about this period of time.

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0:54

30 for 30: 42 to 1 - Director's Cut

ESPN's Jeremy Schaap and Ben Houser discuss their film "42 to 1" and how it's about more than just the greatest upset in sports. The film premieres Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

"Out of the first six months I retained the title, four months of it was going through all of that madness with the court case, all that yahoo," said Douglas of that tumultuous stretch. "And then the last two months was trying to hurry up, get ready to defend the title."

As celebrated as he was for the victory over Tyson, he was lampooned and vilified for his (non)effort against Holyfield. Just as quickly as he burst onto the public's consciousness, he disappeared from the sport of boxing, off to live a rather gluttonous lifestyle, funded by the millions he earned for the Holyfield fight. After beating Tyson at the age of 29, by the time Douglas was 34, in 1994, he had fallen into a diabetic coma.

"When I woke up in the hospital coming out of that, it was, wow, I couldn't believe I allowed myself to fall off like that," Douglas said. "It got to me, really, to a point where I almost died. I was given a second chance at life and I made the most of it."

After ballooning to around 400 pounds, the man who had such a conflicted relationship with the sport returned to boxing, and in June of 1996, he faced Tony LaRosa -- weighing 244 pounds -- and scored a third-round knockout. He went on to win five more bouts and was actually gathering some momentum for another big fight before he was stopped in one round by Lou Savarese in June of 1998. He fought twice more (winning both bouts) before finally calling it quits in 1999. Boxing in many ways salvaged Douglas. It was quite a colorful career.

But he'll always be remembered for what took place in Tokyo. There have been books written about this fight. It still airs regularly on ESPN Classic, and HBO did an episode of its highly acclaimed 'Legendary Nights' series in 2003 on Tyson-Douglas. And the man who witnessed this fight ringside is curious about this upcoming 30 for 30.

"I think it's worthy of a 60 for 60, or a 120 for 120," quipped Merchant, who was the lead writer for the "Legendary Nights" series. "I mean, it was such a big event in its time. So I'm not surprised that it's being done. I'm surprised, if anything, that nothing was done before."

Douglas admits that going back brought emotions he hadn't felt in a while.

"Just speaking of my mom, that's about it, and then reliving it all, too, once we started walking around Tokyo," he said. "Actually just getting on the plane to Tokyo, it just came back."