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Recounting Douglas' historic upset

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

"The worst misfortune that can happen to an ordinary man is to have an extraordinary father."
-- Austin O'Malley

The teenager watched with a mixture of terror and awe as his father teetered on the edge of disaster one moment and the threshold of victory the next. He'd seen his father box before. But this was something altogether different, a Rocky movie come to life -- the violence so surreal that both the fighters and the crowd were caught up in a trance-like frenzy that seemed to have a life of its own.

As fortunes fluctuated wildly from one extreme to another, the son was sure of only one thing: His father would not quit. How could he? He was Bill "Dynamite" Douglas, a stone-cold badass whose tough love had already set his son on a course that would lead to arguably the greatest upset in boxing history.

Bill Douglas was already 37 and past his prime by the time he fought Matthew Saad Muhammad (then Matthew Franklin) at the Philadelphia Spectrum the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1977. Their barbaric struggle easily upstaged Roberto Duran's defense of the lightweight title against Edwin Viruet, a humdrum affair broadcast on ABC.

Referees were not as quick to stop fights back then, which was one of the reasons Saad Muhammad was able to build a Hall of Fame career based on his Lazarus-like ability to rally from the brink of oblivion. Against Douglas, however, he needed a little help from an angel wearing a striped referee's jersey.

When Douglas floored Franklin in the fifth, referee Hank Cisco's count was painfully slow, but as soon as the Philly fighter staggered his antagonist in the sixth, Cisco abruptly stopped the fight. Under different circumstances there wouldn't have been such uproar. But considering how many times the ref had allowed Saad Muhammad to keep fighting when he was in trouble, Cisco's action seemed inappropriate at best. Even the most ardent Saad Muhammad supporters were demonstrably unhappy.

"They jumped to their feet yelling and started throwing their programs at the ring," recollected promoter J Russell Peltz, who was among Cisco's most outspoken critics.

"My dad was clean robbed," said Buster Douglas, recalling the day, more than 30 years ago, when he sat on the edge of his seat and watched his father trade punches with a legend in the making.

To fully comprehend how Buster Douglas became the unlikely conqueror of Mike Tyson 13 years later, you have to focus on his complicated relationship with his father. Bill was as uncompromising outside the ring as he was inside, a proud man who loved his sons and tried to instill in them the same hard-core values he lived by.

"He was an awesome man, my father, a true warrior," said Buster. "That man was freakin' tough. He was my hero."

Buster, however, was made of different stuff, a gentle soul who would curl up with his dog on the floor and go to sleep. A sensitive child who went to his room and turned up the stereo to hide the sounds of his parents arguing. He had not inherited his father's badass gene, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Not that his father didn't try.

"Boxing was just the only way he knew of feeling close to his daddy," said Sarah Jones, Buster's maternal grandmother, who raised him the first six years of his life and knew her grandson wasn't cut out to be a fighter.

Nonetheless, the family patriarch was delighted when his youngest son became a regular at the gym. Buster worked hard to please his daddy, but nobody can hide his true character in a boxing ring. There was no getting around it, he lacked the ruthless instincts and self-confidence that his father took for granted. To nobody's great surprise, the clash of personalities eventually caused a temporary rift between them.

The situation came to a head when Buster quit in the corner after just two rounds of his sixth professional fight, against David Bey. His father was so enraged he slapped him right there in the ring for all the world to see. Bill didn't understand that despite his athletic prowess, Buster was riddled with self-doubt, a character flaw he believes was responsible for all his losses.

Douglas' career continued without his father in his corner. The talent was plain to see, but after losses to Mike White, Jesse Ferguson and Tony Tucker (in a failed bid to win the IBF title), nobody would have guessed Buster would be undisputed heavyweight champion less than three years after Tucker stopped him.

Tyson's life could have probably been different if he'd been the son of a demanding but loving father like Bill Douglas. Tyson's birth certificate lists Jamaican-born Purecell Tyson as his birth father, but Mike grew up thinking his mother's boyfriend, Jimmy Kirkpatrick, was his father. Kirkpatrick was an entirely different kind of role model.

"I desperately wanted to be the son of a pimp because that was a big status [symbol] in my neighborhood," said Tyson during the debut of his one-man confessional, "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth." "[Kirkpatrick] was a fast-talkin' and cool-dressin' [dude] who changed the path of my mother's life. Before long, she was caught up in the street life. She drank to kill the pain. My mother was an addict; that's why I have this addictive personality. When I drank, I drank like she did. I got caught in the gunfire ... collateral damage."

Although everybody knew Tyson was a party animal, the depth of his excess was not fully revealed until he retired from the ring. The ex-champ now earns his living fessing up to every kink in his rush to the bottom.

What made Douglas' knockout of Tyson so surprising to so many was their willingness to believe that "Iron Mike" was immune to the degrading effects of life in the fast lane. The apparent ease with which he dispatched his challengers camouflaged the rot that had set in and gradually drained him of his fighting spirit.

What made it even worse was that Tyson must have known that he was blowing it but didn't give a damn, as long as the party didn't end. Behind the scowling facade lurked a boy acting out his pimp fantasy, a fantasy that was about to be exposed to the merciless light of reality.

Douglas had put together a six-bout winning streak since losing to Tucker, but nobody was getting excited. The general consensus was that the fainthearted progeny of Bill Douglas would submit the first time Tyson administered the appropriate dose of ultra-violence. Some Vegas sports books listed Mike a 42-1 favorite in an attempt to stir up a little action. There were few takers.

Numbers alone seldom get to the heart of the matter. There's usually something else involved, something more personal than stats on a Vegas tote board. In this particular case it was the death of Douglas' mother, Lula Pearl, 23 days before the fight.

The tragedy was the catalyst for Douglas' transformation. His mother was his best friend and biggest fan, the person he called first thing every morning. She was also the buffer between him and his dad in trying times.

Lula Pearl's death galvanized Buster, who, a few days before she died, had assured her that he wasn't afraid of Tyson and would beat him. At her funeral, he looked down at the casket, vowed to keep his promise and headed straight to the gym afterward.

A promise alone, no matter how heartfelt, has never won a boxing match. There's always more to it than that. His father had not only given Buster the tools to do the job but also set an example of how a fighter should behave. Buster had never felt confident enough before to buy into his father's warrior code, but this time the fight stood for something bigger than victory, something even bigger than his father's approval.

Tyson, on the other hand, was uninspired, ill prepared and overconfident. His trainer was Jay Bright, a Cus D'Amato acolyte whose main claim to fame, when they all lived and trained together in Catskill, New York, was his ability to make a tasty soufflé.

The defending champion looked disinterested as he made his ring walk. It's doubtful he was worried about Douglas, a challenger with a spotty record and a reputation for bailing out when things got too serious for his liking. It's hard to imagine how mind-blowing it must have been when Mike realized -- probably as early as the first round -- that Douglas was in no way intimidated by his fearsome persona and had every intention of trying to rip his head off.

Hugh McIlvanney, the doyen of U.K. sports writers, wrote he had the "bemusing impression that the Tokyo Dome housed a contest between two ringers." In a way he was spot on.

Where was the pitiless destroyer who had left a trail of comatose fighters strewn in his wake? And who, for cripes sake, was the tall, fluid boxer blunting Tyson's attack with footwork and head-snapping punches?

People watched with incredulity as the fight unfolded, unaware that an unprecedented confluence of circumstances had conspired to turn Douglas into his father. The magic only lasted for one fight, but one fight was all Buster needed to keep his promise to his mother and prove he was a worthy son of a man called "Dynamite."

Tyson, on the other hand, fell victim of the lifestyle of Kirkpatrick, the man he thought was his father and wanted so badly to emulate.

Certain moments of Douglas-Tyson stand out like blood stains on the canvas, vivid reminders of what took place inside the ring the day Tyson lost his cloak of invincibility: Douglas struggling to his feet after being floored by a right upper in the eighth round, the final sledgehammer blows that drove Tyson to the canvas in the 10th and, perhaps most evocative of all -- the erstwhile Baddest Man on the Planet on his hands and knees groping for his mouthpiece.

These enduring images were the final act of a morality play about fathers and sons, defeat and redemption, which had an unforgettable one-night stand on boxing's grandest stage, 25 years ago today.