Inside the Greatest Upset in Sports History

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. The Ring Magazine/Getty

For four years, Mike Tyson had been terrorizing boxing’s heavyweight division, beating opponents so quickly and brutally that many fighters seemed afraid to get in the ring with him. Considered by many the greatest of all time, Tyson seemed assured of a place among the sports immortals. But the champion was as destructive outside the ring as he was inside it, and he was losing his edge with binges of drinking, sex and car-shopping. In October of 1989, he was so out of shape that he backed out of a match with Razor Ruddock by getting a doctor to say he had pleurisy. Looking for an even easier opponent, Tyson’s promoter, Don King, booked him to fight Buster Douglas, who King “thought would be a pushover.” In this excerpt from his autobiography, Undisputed Truth, Tyson talks about his part in what many sportwriters consider the biggest upset in sports history.

On January 8, 1990, I got aboard a plane to fly to Tokyo. Kicking and screaming. I didn’t want to fight; all I was interested in then was partying and women. By the time we left, I had put on 30 pounds. Don King was so worried about my weight that he offered me a bonus if I would make my usual weight when we fought in a month.

I didn’t consider Buster Douglas much of a challenge. I didn’t even bother watching any of his fights on video. I had easily beaten everybody who had knocked him out. I felt like my heroes Mickey Walker and Harry Greb. I read that Greb was so arrogant he’d tell his opponents that he hadn’t trained because “you are not worth me sweating for.” So I followed his lead. I didn’t train at all for the fight. My trainer, Anthony Pitts, would get up early in the morning and run with my sparring partner, Greg Page. But I didn’t feel like it. Anthony would tell me that he’d see Buster out there, digging in with his army boots on, snotsicles hanging off his nose, getting in his run.

I couldn’t eat since I was overweight and I wanted to lose the weight and win the bonus from Don, so I drank soup that was supposed to burn off fat. And then I had the cleaning ladies for the main course. It was ironic because you go to Japan and the women seem so shy and introverted but as soon as they’re behind closed doors, ba-boom, it was on. People would ask me if I learned any sexual tips from the Japanese women, but I didn’t have time to learn. This was no sex education course; this was a guy trying to get his rocks off.

I didn’t even have to pay the maids. But I did tip them heavily because I had a lot of that Monopoly-looking money they had over there. They must have been appreciative because they’d come back and sometimes bring friends.

“My friend would like to meet you, Mr. Tyson, sir. She would like to accompany us, sir.”

Besides having sex with the maids, I was seeing this young Japanese girl who I had had sex with the last time I was in Japan. My wife would go out shopping and I would go downstairs to the back of the hotel where this young girl had a room. She was only seventeen then and her father was very wealthy.

I had her do the same thing this time. There were too many people on my floor and I didn’t want Don or Rory or John or Anthony to know my business. They might have scared her; she was very shy around people. In the two years since I had seen her, she had matured a great deal.

So that was my training for Douglas. Every once in a while, I did show up to work out and spar. I was sparring with Greg Page ten days before the fight and I walked right into a right hook and went down.

A few days later, Don opened up one of my sparring sessions to the public for $60 a head. I never saw any of that money, of course. We were supposed to spar for two rounds but I looked so bad that we stopped it after one and closed the session. Don was pissed off. He wanted to make a buck. He had no idea I was so out of shape. Don knew nothing about fighting. He couldn’t tell the difference between a guy in shape or out of shape. He didn’t even know how to tie a boxing glove.

The day before the fight I weighed in at 220½ pounds, so I got my bonus. The day before the fight I also had two maids at the same time. And then two more girls, one at a time, the night before the fight.

I wasn’t following the story but apparently Douglas had a lot of motivation to do well in this fight. In July of 1989, he had been born-again. And then his wife left him, his baby momma got a terminal disease and early in January, while he was in camp his mother died. I didn’t know any of that and I didn’t care. HBO was making a big deal about Douglas fighting for his mother but my arrogance at the time was such that I would have said that he was going to join her that night.

We fought at nine a.m. because of the time difference back in the United States. Half of the arena’s 63,000 seats were empty. Don was a lousy promoter. As soon as I got with him, everything just sunk. He was a dark cloud.

It wasn’t the usual Tyson going into the ring. It was obvious to anyone who was watching that I really didn’t want to be there. The fight started and I fought horribly. I was punching as hard as shit because I knew if I caught him right he wasn’t going to get up, I didn’t care how big he was. But I was hardly throwing. It was the least amount of punches I’d ever thrown in a fight. He used his jab and his reach to throw me off my game and then when I tried to throw body shots, he just held me. He fought very well that night. But I was an easy target for him. I wasn’t moving my head at all.

He wasn’t intimidated by me. In fact, he was the one punching after the bell and on breaks. He was fighting dirty but that’s just part of boxing, everyone did that. After the third round, I went back to my corner and it was obvious that my cornermen, Aaron and Jay, were in over their heads.

“You’re not closing the gap,” Aaron said. “You’ve got to get inside, you’re flat-footed in there.”

No fucking shit. “Why don’t you try to get inside?” The guy had a twelve-inch reach advantage on me.

“Get back to what you know,” Jay said. “Do it. Let it go.”

Easy to say when you’re not getting punched. I kept staring at the floor.

Douglas rocked me in the fourth and the fifth. During the fifth round, my eye began to swell, but when I went back to the corner, they didn’t even have the End-Swell to keep my eye open. I couldn’t believe it when they filled what looked like an extra-large condom with ice water and held it to my eye.

I was exhausted by the sixth round. My left eye was totally shut. But Buster looked tired too, especially when the seventh round began. But I couldn’t get to him. In the eighth he wobbled me and had me against the ropes in the last 20 seconds. I was looking for one punch by then. I was still rocked by his punches, I couldn’t focus, but I saw an opening. For the whole fight he had eluded me whenever I saw openings and I couldn’t bridge the gap, but by then he was tired too and he couldn’t move. So I threw my trademark right uppercut and down he went.

Then I got screwed. The timekeeper was Japanese and the referee was Mexican and they spoke different languages and couldn’t coordinate the count. When the ref was saying “five,” Douglas had actually been on the canvas for eight seconds. So he got a long count. That’s just part of boxing but I think I was really screwed. Usually, I knew I was going to win because the guys I fought were fighting me and the officials too, basically. Don always paid off the officials. That’s what he told me. Maybe he forgot to pay off the ref that night.

But I don’t want to take anything away from Buster. He had so much courage and guts that night. I had hit him with an awesome shot. Anybody else’s head would have been sent to the space shuttle. I was so spent that I couldn’t follow up on the knockdown the next round. He came back strong. When the tenth began, I hit him with a straight right to the jaw but then he unleashed a barrage of punches at my head, starting with a right uppercut. I was so numb that I didn’t even feel the punches, but I could hear them. My equilibrium was shot. Then I went down.

When I hit the canvas, my mouthpiece came out and as the ref was counting, I was trying to stumble to my feet and grab the mouthpiece at the same time. I was operating on pure instinct. I was totally out of it. The ref hugged me after he counted to ten. I walked back to my corner totally dazed. I was chewing on my mouthpiece but I didn’t even know what it was.

“What happened?” I asked my corner.

“The ref counted you out, champ,” Aaron said.

I didn’t do the post-fight interview with HBO, my head was still ringing. I must have had at least one concussion.

Within minutes Don had organized a meeting with the WBC and WBA officials. Then he called his own press conference.

“The first knockout obliterated the second knockout,” he ranted. Jose Sulaiman, the president of the WBC, suspended recognition of anyone as champion because the ref had failed to take the count from the timekeeper. The referee admitted that he had made a mistake. Sulaiman immediately called for a rematch. By then, I was conscious enough to join the press conference. I was wearing sunglasses to hide my mangled eye and holding a white compress to my swollen face.

“You guys know me for years, I never gripe or bitch. I knocked him out before he had me knocked out. I want to be champ of the world. That’s what all young boys want,” I said.

I went back to my hotel room. There was no maid there. It was weird not being the heavyweight champion of the world any longer. But in my mind it was a fluke. I knew that God didn’t pick on any small animals, that lightning only struck the biggest animals, that those are the only ones that vex God. Minor animals don’t get God upset. God has to keep the big animals in check so they won’t get lofty on their thrones. I just lay on my bed and thought that I had become so big that God was jealous of me.

Reprinted from Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson with Larry Sloman by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, Copyright © 2013 by Tyrannic Literary Company LLC.