The day Douglas shook the world

Editor's note: This story was originally published to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Mike Tyson-James "Buster" Douglas fight.

Although 25 years have passed since James "Buster" Douglas' absolutely shocking, 10th-round knockout of heretofore indestructible Mike Tyson on Feb. 11, 1990 at the Tokyo Dome, it still resonates all these years later with those who remember it.

It's a good bet that those who watched it can tell you exactly where they were and what their reaction was when the unimaginable happened.

"I have worked more than 500 boxing telecasts in my HBO career and to this day I don't recall any moment when those of us producing a fight were for one brief second caught up in this moment of disbelief," said HBO Sports executive producer Rick Bernstein, who was in Tokyo working in the production truck as an associate director on the telecast. "As producers, we're taught to stay focused and not get caught up in the moment.

"For those of us who had covered Tyson for several years, this was a shock. I remember hearing over my headset and through the walls of our production unit people yelling something like, 'Oh my god!'"

Not only was it a great fight, but it is widely hailed as the biggest upset in boxing history and one of the greatest upsets in sports history as the little-known Douglas, a good fighter with the reputation as a quitter, stood up to the bully to become a real-life Rocky, a 42-1 underdog who slayed Godzilla in front a quiet, Japanese crowd that expected a big Tyson knockout, which had become so routine but was still so exciting.

Don King, the high-haired promoter, handled both fighters but certainly had more interest in a Tyson victory than one by Douglas. He was as shocked as anyone, especially since he was the person who made the fight.

"Everybody was shocked. So was I," King said, sounding as though he still had a hard time believing the upset actually happened. "It always kept me humble to know this can happen. It was like a soul-searching thing. It was unbelievable, but this is something that can happen. It is one of the biggest upsets in sports history.

"It falls into the pantheon of the great upsets, right up there near the top. I also did 'The Rumble In The Jungle.' You had Muhammad Ali beating George Foreman in another big upset with a billion people watching. You have fights like that, you have Tyson and Douglas. This great sport of boxing can deliver that magic."

The Boston Herald's Ron Borges, a longtime boxing writer, was with the Boston Globe at the time when he was one of six American journalists who made the trip to Tokyo to cover the fight, which took place on Sunday morning in Tokyo to accommodate the live Saturday night HBO broadcast in the United States. Borges will never forget what he witnessed.

"It was a stunning event -- not simply the victory, but the way Tyson went down, with his mouthpiece shooting up like Mount Vesuvius," said Borges, who had an inkling of what might eventually happen midway through the fight.

"I remember calling my desk around the fifth round to tell them, 'Not sure how this will end, but right now Tyson is getting his ass kicked, so you may want to keep the front [page] available,'" Borges said. "Amazing week and amazing morning."

Tyson was just 23 at the time and the most feared fighter in the world. He was a knockout machine who didn't look like he could be stopped, and certainly not by Douglas, a decent-enough contender with a record of 29-4-1 with 19 KOs. But Douglas' heart and work ethic were in serious question, especially after a 1987 bout against Tony Tucker, whom he had faced for a vacant belt.

Although Douglas was winning on the scorecards after nine rounds, he quit in the 10th round. So there was no chance he would be able to deal with Tyson's relentless pressure, right?

Oh, so wrong.

"That's a good fight. I don't take it personal. I've watched it," Tyson told ESPN.com in a 2011 interview. "I missed him with some bombs, but Buster was hurting me and he was moving pretty good. He did an awesome job. He did a great job. That was my bravest fight, one of my best fights. I took that beating like a man."

Said King, "I didn't think Buster would beat Tyson. If I said that I'd be telling a lie. But did he have a chance because he got the opportunity? In boxing, yesterday's nobody can become tomorrow's somebody. The man who wants it the most is going to come home with it. He had the will to win."

Coming into the fight, Tyson was 37-0 with 33 KOs and had made nine title defenses. Many thought he was on his way to becoming the greatest heavyweight champion ever.

But all was not well. Tyson had gone through messy splits with wife Robin Givens and manager Bill Cayton. He had split with longtime trainer Kevin Rooney in favor of less experienced Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright. Tyson also was becoming increasingly difficult to handle and was slacking off in training. In a sign of what was to come, Tyson was knocked down by former heavyweight titlist Greg Page in sparring before the fight.

"Nobody could beat Tyson but himself, and he beat himself," King said. "He was so unbeatable, and everyone believed that and supported that theory that he strayed away from what had made him champion. He fell short there because he began to believe his own headlines. He took this guy lightly."

Still, Tyson was expected to blow through Douglas, like most opponents, including Tony Tubbs, whom he squashed in two rounds in 1988 on his first trip to Tokyo.

The Douglas fight was simply meant to be a quick way to pocket an easy $6 million payday on the way to the really big money, as Tyson already had signed to face Evander Holyfield that summer in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

What Tyson and the rest of the world didn't know was that this was not the same Douglas who had underachieved for so long and who had quit against Tucker.

This was a 29-year-old Douglas who was motivated and focused because of three serious personal struggles he was facing. First, Douglas was heartbroken over the death of his mother, who passed away less than a month before the fight. Also, the mother of Douglas' then-11-year-old son, Lamar, was seriously ill. Douglas had also recently separated from his wife.

"The man's mother died, and he turned that into the focus of his dedication and commitment," King said. "You prepare to succeed or you prepare to fail. Buster Douglas prepared to succeed, Tyson failed to prepare to succeed."

Instead of allowing the problems to cloud his mind, Douglas channeled that energy into the fight.

"Nothing compares to these last few months in the life of James Douglas," he told reporters in the days leading to the fight. "It [the problems] is a motivation, not a distraction."

Douglas looked good from the outset as he pushed Tyson back and took his best shots. However, Tyson was still giving it his all despite badly swelling eyes, which his rookie corner had no idea how to handle.

In the eighth round, Tyson finally found the power and dropped Douglas. But Douglas was more mad than hurt, slapping the canvas because he was disgusted with himself for getting nailed.

Referee Octavio Meyran picked up the count from the timekeeper and began counting as a clear-eyed Douglas paid close attention before calmly rising at nine, moments before the end of the round.

After the fight, Meyran's count would become the focal point of a major controversy. Tyson and King asserted that his count was too long -- at least 12 seconds -- and that Tyson should have been declared the winner. To this day, King still blames Meyran for a supposed long count he believes cost Tyson the fight.

"That was heck of a fight, but Tyson won that fight, and I had both fighters," King said. "When that man made the long count, that hadn't happened since [Jack] Dempsey-[Gene] Tunney [in 1926]. The ref was in shock and he lost the count. It was the referee's fault, but it was one of those things that happened. But Mike would have won without the long count."

The WBC and WBA initially withheld recognition of Douglas as champion pending an "investigation." Only the IBF immediately recognized the new champion. The American press contingent made a stink about the so-called controversy.

"I think it's fair to say had there not been six American boxing writers there, [King] would have got away with it, as Japanese press were all but mute as he ranted," Borges said. "'First knockout totally obliterated the second knockout,' King hollered. To which I said, 'Don, there was no first knockout.' I also told the WBA official in charge that only a few months [earlier] they'd ruled Marlon Starling lost his [welterweight] title despite being hit with a punch four to five seconds after the bell because 'the referee is the final arbiter in the ring.' I asked him, 'Do the WBA rules apply in Japan or only in American casinos?'"

The bogus long-count argument was vilified around the world, and eventually the sanctioning organizations relented a few days later. The reason they did so came in the 10th round, when Douglas finally floored a fading, swollen Tyson with a brutal, five-punch flurry.

The image is indelible: A badly disoriented Iron Mike Tyson on all fours, groping for his dislodged mouthpiece as Meyran counted him out at 1 minute, 23 seconds.

"I will never forget [director] Marc Payton's shot from the ringside handheld camera of Tyson crawling around the ring trying to pick up his mouthpiece," Bernstein said. "That moment will remain forever as an iconic image in the history of boxing."

And with that, the mystique of the untouchable, invincible "Baddest Man on the Planet" had been shattered, a moment in time that remains as shocking 25 years later as it was on that quiet Tokyo morning.