Anatomy of an Upset:
A look back at TYSON DOUGLAS as told by the HBO Boxing Production Team
To say they hit the ground running would be inaccurate. Traveling from The United States to Tokyo is never an easy haul, even though they had made the trip before. The Baddest Man on the Planet, the Undefeated, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World, Iron Mike Tyson had knocked out Tony Tubbs in Tokyo a year and a half earlier, and the fight had aired live on their network. Now they were back. Tyson again. This time, it was to be a precursor to a highly anticipated match with Evander Holyfield. It was going to be a walkthrough. His opponent, a journeyman named James “Buster” Douglas, from Columbus, Ohio.
For HBO’s production team; producer Ross Greenburg, director Marc Payton, feature producer Rick Bernstein, stage manager Dave Harmon, and broadcasters Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard, they’d arrived in Tokyo a week early, would battle jet-lag all the way thru, and hoped to feel good by the morning of the fight. That’s right, morning. In order for the bout to air in primetime in the United States the fight would go off shortly after noon in Tokyo, on Sunday, February 11, 1990. Crew call was 4 am.
The lens of the live production team is most unique, as it is truly their lenses, Camera 1 (High Wide Shot), Camera 2 (High Tight Shot), and the handheld Cameras 3 and 4 (the close ups) that live in opposite corners
of the ring that create that indelible memory for all of us, and the people working while we are all watching are in the most unique place and closest proximity to all elements of the fight. They are at training camps, in the press conferences, are quite often on the same planes, in the same hotels, and come the fight ,have the best seats in the house. In the case of Tyson vs. Douglas, the seemingly unremarkable opponent, along with the worldwide feeling that Mike was an unstoppable force, in effect clouded their judgement, and everyone thought the fight would be another easy and devastating Tyson victory. To further punctuate the perceived level of mismatch, Vegas odds were famously set at 42–1.
Ross Greenburg, Logan Hobson peaking out behind Ross, Rick Bernstein, Bob Canobbio from Compubox with the moustache, Mike Whelan in the center low, Mark Payton behind Bob, Dave Harmon all the way in back.
James “Buster”Douglas was by all accounts a somewhat reluctant boxer with 4 losses and a draw on his record, a good athlete they said; his father had been a hard prizefighter.
Larry Merchant, HBO’s boxing analyst since 1978 remembered Douglas’ father , Billy Douglas, vividly. “I saw his father fight at Madison Square Garden and beat a good young fighter. He was brought to the Garden by the matchmaker Teddy Brenner because Brenner was having a problem with this good young fighter’s manager, and he was going to teach him a lesson by putting him in the ring with a hard nosed guy that nobody knew about, Billy Douglas. And Billy Douglas winds up beating him.” The general consensus was that Buster was not the tough guy his father was, that he boxed because he was good at it, not because he loved it.
In addition to his duties as stage manager, Dave Harmon, now Senior Producer at HBO Sports, was a 28-year-old junior feature producer, assigned to produce the profile pieces on Tyson’s opponents. His visit to the Douglas camp was inauspicious. “ Buster just had a very poor day in camp the day we were shooting and it didn’t give me any hope that from a technical standpoint Douglas was ready.”
In sports, upsets often occur when something unexpected happens during the lead up to the event that changes the challenger’s focus and determination. Movies seem to capture it well. First comes the grief, the moment the athlete wants to quit, then the training montage, then the performance of a lifetime, then victory. The Mr. Miyagi moment that gives Danny LaRussa that extra resolve to beat the Cobra Kai. Mickey dying before Rocky’s fight with Clubber Lang.
Something needed to change in Douglas camp, namely Douglas’ work ethic and focus, or he’d be just another victim. The turning point came tragically 23 days before the fight, as Douglas’ mother died of a stroke at age 47. Believing that his mother would have wanted him to fight, Douglas stayed on schedule, didn’t cancel or move the date, and got himself into the best shape of his life. By the time he arrived in Tokyo he was a completely different fighter than the one that Harmon had seen that day in training camp.
Mike Tyson was the most popular athlete in the world. We all knew the story… the baddest of the bad, the meanest of the mean, son to a crackhead mother, and a father who was a pimp. The worst kid in all of Brooklyn, in and out of Juvenile Hall, until his savior arrived, and he is adopted by the old time trainer, Cus D’Amato. He moves to upstate New York and becomes a fighting machine, under the tutelage of Cus and two tough New York guys, Teddy Atlas and Kevin Rooney. The managers are highly respected boxing people Bill Cayton and Jimmy Jacobs. He enters the ring with no robe and no socks, and wipes out everyone in his path. He fights often and the word spreads. He’s 5’9 with a lisp and he is built like a Mack truck . Producer Ross Greenburg was reminded of the shear terror opponents felt before the bouts commenced. “ There were numerous fights guys would lose on their way to the ring, they were just totally in awe and intimidated by the mystique of Mike Tyson.”
He is somehow charming — a beloved wrecking ball. He becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world. He is 20 years old. It was 1986.
He pulled in astronomical ratings. According to Greenburg, when Tyson fought on HBO, 42 % of all viewers that had HBO tuned in. “ When he was on the network it was almost like you were broadcasting the Superbowl.”
In the 4 years that Tyson would remain undefeated, he’d run thru a personal and professional gauntlet that would feature, in a rapid fire staccato, the following : D’Amato’s passing, his dismissal of Kevin Rooney, in effect shutting down the team that worked so hard to make him champion, a disastrous marriage to actress Robin Givens that barely lasted a year, run ins with the police, and following the death of Jimmy Jacobs, a move to promoter Don King.
Lampley recalls, “ from the moment Don King gained control after Jimmy Jacobs died Don was the one who was avidly encouraging Mike to go his own way and not behave within the rules and procedures that had been set up for him by the white leaders of his inner circle prior to King. And part of what King was selling was ‘I’m a black man you’re a black man this is a black thing, you’re 21 years old you should be able to do whatever it is you want to do, chase the women you want to chase buy the cars you want to buy go to the clubs you want to go to have the fun you want to have, And that’s far different then what he was spoon fed for years by Jimmy and Bill and Cus.”
Ross Greenburg, “ His personal life had disintegrated. The mayhem with Robin Givens, the cars being driven off the road…he’d had a really tough patch. His life was spinning out of control. “ There were rumors of him partying for weeks before (the fight), rumors of woman visiting him nightly in his hotel.”
Lampley maintains that there were clues as to who Mike was becoming inside the ring as well. “ If you had looked very carefully, and I don’t think many people did, you could have seen that he was changing as a fighter too, but that was obscured by all of the fanfare and all of the adulation. In ’86 He won an unremarkable decision against Mitch Blood Green, he was never close to knocking Mitch Blood Green out, and that was an eye opener. He went the distance with Tony Tucker, he want the distance with Bonecrusher Smith he went to the last 10 seconds with Jose Ribalta, he had a 10 round decision against James Quick Tillis and some people ringside thought Tillis deserved a draw. What all of those fighters had in common was that they were taller than Mike they could move a little bit, some of them had a pretty good jab and if you were watching carefully you could see that Mike was not a nonstop undeniable knockout threat against fighters with those kinds of qualities. Douglas happened to combine all of those qualities in a better, more athletic package that Mike had seen up to that point. “
As a 33 year old senior feature producer, Rick Bernstein produced all the profile pieces on Tyson and flew with Mike to Tokyo.“ When we got to Tokyo I’ve never seen as much media and as many flashing light bulbs as there were when we arrived. I was the only person that had any access to Mike and the press soon realized that wherever I was there was a good chance that was where Mike would be, so they would camp out at the elevators, and whenever I got off the elevator they’d follow me thinking I was going to lead them to Tyson. But because he was swarmed by the media whenever he left the room, he basically stayed in his suite the entire week.”
By 1990, in an effort to enhance their telecasts, the producers and broadcasters had begun to do off camera interviews with the fighters the day before the fights. Greenburg, who went on to become president of HBO Sports, and is credited as the creator of the acclaimed 24/7 series, remembered a extremely underwhelming scene in Douglas’ hotel room. “When we got to his hotel room he was grabbing for Kleenex, and we were all sitting with him and basically his head was completely stuffed, it was one of the worst colds I’d ever witnessed by a human being, never mind a boxer who was going in the next day against Mike Tyson, and he couldn’t have been nicer and he ran thru how committed he was to this fight and how he was doing this for his mom, how important this day was. After witnessing this massive head cold I remember walking out of the meeting and turning to Larry and Jim and saying, “I hope he doesn’t get killed”. We really feared for his life.”
As Ross and the announcers returned to The New Otani Hotel where they, along with Tyson, were staying, boxing politics, and the power that fighters can hold over a telecast were in full effect, as only Ross and Sugar Ray Leonard were welcome to Tyson’s hotel room. Greenburg recalled, “only Sugar Ray and I were allowed up to his room because he had soured on Merchant in such a big way at that point. You know he had a running feud with Larry Merchant; I guess Mike started to get irritated by the questions Larry had been asking him after fights and I think Don King frankly was prompting him to start hating Merchant in order to free him from Bill Cayton and HBO.” Merchant explained the feud with a matter of fact look that matched his answer to the question. “ By that time Mike was a character who was on the front pages as often as he was on the back pages of newspapers, for getting into little problems with the law, fights outside of the ring, he was a huge personality and a front page tabloid guy….and these are questions that have to be asked before a fight.“
As Leonard and Greenburg made their way into Mike’s room, Mike was glued to the television, but the seemingly normal scene was anything but normal. “When we got up to his room we interrupted him because he was watching FACES OF DEATH. Videos that were of dead people, people that had drowned, people that had gotten shot… and I remember him going, “ hey you guys come here, check this out, check this out. Ray, Ross come here,’ and we had to sit with him and watch death videos for 5 or 10 minutes before we could talk to him. Ray and I just sat there in shock, and we discussed a little about the fight. I’m thinking oh my god what are we getting into? “
On the morning of the fight, the first shuttle bus for the crew left the Grand Otani Hotel at 4 am. The technical personnel arrive first, checking and tweaking cameras, colors, audio, and lighting. There are graphics to build. Hair and makeup arrive, then the talent. Everyone gets set, bugs are ironed out, there is a full rehearsal of an undercard fight, then there are promos to record ringside with Lampley, “Coming up, Undisputed Heavyweight Champ Iron Mike Tyson takes on top ranked contender Buster Douglas, from the Tokyodome. Live on HBO!” Break for the crew meal and then it’s basically time for the main event, except this morning in Tokyo would be different, and what transpired in the control room an hour before the fight would be an ominous sign for what was to come that afternoon.
Ross Greenburg, “ About 45 minutes to air we were in our control room in the bowels of the Tokyo Dome and our monitors started flickering and one by one they started going out, and low and behold just outside of the control room there was a generator that had caught fire, and we lost complete power. The entire broadcast was in jeopardy of never getting on live to be broadcast across the network. Little by little, cameras and tape machines and monitors started to come to life. We actually went to air with 2 cameras less then we had in attendance at the Tokyo Dome. That was the most historic night in boxing that was almost never broadcast”.
Douglas, the challenger entered first in a white satin robe, with PONY, the athletic shoe company, embroidered in red on each side of the chest. He will wear long white satin trunks in the ring. Merchant described an unusual observation he had when Douglas made his way to the ring. “Douglas was jogging. Now, I never saw anyone jog to the ring, much less to a ring where you’re supposed to be executed. And it was noticeable right away. In some way it was kind of giving us a notice. When this guy jogged to the ring he was telling us he was going thru the fire.”
Tyson, the champion, would stalk to the ring in his customary short black trunks, wearing a white towel with a hole cut out of the center that he put his head thru. A sort of terrycloth parka.
Good vs. Evil. 5’10 vs. 6’4”. It was all about to go down, in the Japanese equivalent of Toronto’s Skydome; the biggest arena in the world. And there are roughly 35,000 people not making a sound.
Greenburg, “ It was a very surreal location. And it became more surreal when people came to the arena because the Japanese basically are not the most hardcore boxing fans in the world. They looked at Mike Tyson more as Godzilla or King Kong the they did an athlete. So they were unfamiliar with the nuances of the sport.” Lampley remembered the quietest arena he’d ever been for a prizefight of this magnitude, or any magnitude for that matter. “ The entire event had an utterly surreal atmosphere. First you are calling a boxing match in an arena so quiet that you could actually hear their shoe soles shuffling against the canvas. I cannot remember ever hearing that.”
The bell rings. Douglas fires first. Jab. Jab. Ties him up. Overhand right. Jab, move to the right. Right hand lead. Get off first. Douglas is moving around the ring well. The announcers are impressed with Buster, and Tyson looks flat.
Greenburg, “ When the fight started for the first 30 seconds Douglas started sticking the left jab thru Tyson’s guard and I remember hitting the IFB and telling the announcers, “oh my god we’ve got a fight”. Cuz no one had ever taken it to Tyson with the left jab like that. “
Merchant, “ Douglas was executing a blueprint that people in the fight game knew was there for people to fight a guy like Tyson. You use your size against him because he’s a short heavyweight. You tie him up. You use distance you try to punch him from the outside. But it’s one thing to have a blueprint, it’s another thing to execute it. As Tyson himself said, ‘everyone has a plan until you get hit’. ”
By the end of the 2nd rd Douglas had out-landed Tyson 52–16.
Lampley, “As you got into Rds 2 and 3 you saw he (Douglas) was totally in control with the left jab, that Tyson wasn’t himself, he was much more stationary he didn’t bob and weave the way he’d been taught by Cus D’Amato and he was a stationary target. Round after Round. “
Jab. Jab. Overhand right . Right cross . Jab, jab, overhand right. They kept coming. Over and over. Sugar Ray Leonard remarks that Tyson looks like he just doesn’t have it. By end of the 5th round Tyson’s left eye was swelling shut. It was at that moment that it became clear that there was no cut man in Mike’s corner, and more to the point there was no Enswell, the cold iron press that is used to keep swelling eyes at bay, that is a standard tool in all fighters’ corners. Mike’s trainers were icing Mike’s eye with a rubber glove filled with cold water. To Jim Lampley , this scene meant much more. “To me, all of that, the dissolution of his world, the removal of controls, the destruction of the inner circle that had brought him to where he was, the opening up of the floodgates to all the forces around him, the things that king preferred, and presumably Mike preferred all comes to fruition in one image, and that image is the image of Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright wrestling to try to stop the swelling around Mike’s eye with what looks to be a rubber glove filled with water. Once you see that you realize everything has exploded. No longer is he surrounded by a boxing competent structure of people that are focused on one thing, which is youngest heavyweight champion of all time. “
Jab, jab , overhand right. Jab, jab. Double it up. Left hook right hook. Jab. Jab. Uppercut. Tie him up.
The crowd remains silent, the only place there is pandemonium is in the control room, which simply by name, cannot be rowdy — the key word being control. Greenburg, “ I remember in the 6th rd I had to scream at everybody to calm down because everyone was out of control, the production crew were the only ones making a lot of noise thru the headsets, I had to tell everyone to stay in control and focus because everyone was losing their focus. It wasn’t about Tyson getting beat it was about knowing you were watching history. “
Jab, Jab. Overhand right. Left hook. Mike looks small. When he comes inside Buster fires more uppercuts.
As the 8th Rd began and Douglas was taking Mike into the deep water of the fight, it was clear that Mike was looking for the knockout. As Douglas kept piling up the points inflicting damage, he grew more confident, and took more risks, fighting on the inside, the one place he didn’t need to be. Boom. With an uppercut right on the chin Tyson drops Douglas. It never should have happened. Flat footed on the inside. Douglas gets to his knee and shakes his head because he knows he has made a big mistake. Lampley, “ Mike kept searching for the one big explosion. The one big moment, the sudden burst where he’d get inside on Buster, get inside those long arms and hit him with something explosive close up and change the fight, and he did it at the end of the 8th rd.” Douglas gets up, and then the bell rings. There’s no question it’s a timely bell, Tyson does not have the opportunity to attack and put him away, and Douglas now has the minute in the corner to gather himself.
Merchant, “ I remember saying something to the effect of, ‘ this is what a champion does’, that he (Mike) had overcome a lot up to that point and he was still in the fight. “
In true Tyson fashion, Mike came out of the corner for the 9th round looking for the kill , but 20 seconds into the round Douglas fired a 6 punch combination. jab jab left right left right. All to Mike’s face. It doesn’t stop. Too much punishment. Too many jabs to the face. Too many hooks to the body. Too hard of a fight . Douglas picked up right where he had left off. Jab, jab, uppercut, hook. Double it up. With a minute left in the round Douglas connects with two more huge punches. Mike is hurt and his left eye is closed.
They come out for the 10th round and Mike can no longer see. Jab Jab . They are all connecting. It’s just a matter of time. Jab jab , left cross then the right uppercut. Mike falls to the canvas directly in front of Handheld Camera 3. Director Marc Payton cuts to Camera 3 and history unfolds in an extreme close up. “ At that point we hadn’t yet put our handheld cameras on the apron, our handheld cameras had to work on the floor so the ring apron was only a foot or so below his lens so the positioning of the camera could not have been better for us, and when I saw Mike down and right in front of that camera and reaching for that mouthpiece I said this is it. It’s one of those special shots that happens only a few times in your career. That’s as good as it got for me, and I directed boxing for HBO for 34 years. “
As Larry Merchant interviewed the victorious Douglas in the ring, Douglas’ entourage was trying to shuffle Douglas along, but Larry stayed with it, and Buster explained that he did it for his mom. To this day Merchant says it’s best interview he’s ever done. “ I don’t think there’s any doubt that the death of Buster Douglas’ mother galvanized all of his forces to reach beyond his potential on that night. And in some way, Douglas wanted to prove to his father that that he was tough. And to do it for his mother, those are the most primal kinds of motivations. And in this particular storyline Clark Kent became Superman. ”
Long after the fight was over, a panicked Don King would protest the result, with the participation of WBC president Jose Sulaiman , arguing that in the 10th rd there had been a long count, and Douglas had been knocked out by Mike. The TV crew had left town and were unaware of King’s play. Lampley, “It wasn’t until we got back to America that we heard about this supposed long count controversy and King’s official protest, and Sulaiman entertaining the protest…that all came as news to us, there was no instinct that I can recall, no response from any of us that I can recall, that that would have been built on a notion that that was a long count. To us that was just a count, and he got up and the fight went on.” Merchant, “ Jose Sulaiman, who was the head of the WBC and was as ruthless a businessman as Don King, knew where his interests lied, where his money could be made, which is how things are usually measured in boxing. They had an arbitration in Newark and I was there and I said at the time, “ this is a case of guys trying to win outside of the ring what they lost inside the ring.”
To this day there has not been a boxer that captivated the imaginations of a worldwide public than Iron Mike Tyson, and what happened on Feb 11. 1990 significantly changed the dynamic and to a certain degree, the interest in the heavyweight division.
Greenburg, “I’ve done everything from Leonard Hearns, to Hagler Leonard, and to this day I’ve never been more shocked and more mesmerized by a fight in the control room then that event. When you marry what happened in the ring to the size of the event I don’t think anything approaches that. Super Bowl 3, The Miracle on Ice, Tyson Douglas. Those three are the biggest upsets in sports history.”
Tyson would never be the same. Even though he basically got right back into the ring and resumed his winning ways, his mystique was gone, and the next big events that would mark his story would be a conviction for rape, prison time, the gnawing of Evander Holyfield’s ear, and a loss to Lenox Lewis.
With regards to the fight’s overall significance Merchant puts it best.,
“ When a young fighter personality comes our way everything he does is a headline, and in some way, like other champions, there are social and psychological forces about that turn them into markers of their time and Tyson was a relentless fighter in the ring and a reckless person out of the ring and his odyssey from Brooklyn to top of the world, he became a compelling figure, and he became a marker of the last great time of dominant American heavyweights.”
Did Mike write the playbook for disaster? For what not to do when you are on top. Maybe. Lampley , “Jimmy, Bill, and Cus had a vision. That vision was to make Mike the youngest heavyweight champion of all time, nothing was going to get in the way of it. Everything was devoted to that goal. Everything was devoted to all of the details of the foundation and that structure that was necessary to achieve that goal. And he achieved that goal, and then eventually the structure around him collapsed. And once that structure was gone, and that he was open to anything, radical forces of any kind could emerge into his universe.”
Or maybe it was never going to end the way.
In true one hit wonder fashion, in his next fight, Buster Douglas would be knocked out in the 3rd round by Evander Holyfield. A few days before the fight Sugar Ray Leonard saw the beginning of the downfall firsthand. “The next time I saw Buster, it was at the Mirage a couple days before his fight against Evander Holyfield and he was eating pizza in the sauna.”