The ninth round of the Tyson-Douglas heavyweight title fight was boxing reduced–or elevated–to its essence. It was one of the most exciting rounds I’ve ever seen, and, mind you, I saw it some few days after the fight had taken place. The champion, Mike Tyson, had floored the challenger, James “Buster” Douglas, at the end of the previous round, after being dominated by the challenger through the early stages of the match. Douglas had risen to his feet just before the referee completed his count to ten, and the bell rang for the end of the round before Tyson could attempt to finish a fight he desperately needed to finish right there. That was Tyson’s state of mind as he opened the ninth: finish the fight. Even with a minute to rest between rounds, Douglas was, in the words of HBO commentator Sugar Ray Leonard, trying to “clear the cobwebs.” Tyson came out and landed two left hooks to the head and followed them with a right to the body. It was here that the momentum of the fight swung for the last time. Douglas responded with a flurry, lashing out with a series of punches, not in a precise offensive attack but purely in an attempt to defend himself and–one could see it in his determination–to protect the good work he’d already done in the ring that night.
Douglas had to have felt, midway through the eighth round, that the fight was his, that he was in the process of humiliating a boxer considered–until two weeks ago today–one of the greatest champions of all time. Only a few minutes later, early in the ninth round, Douglas was in danger of seeing his hard work (not only 30 minutes’ worth in the ring, but–it should be emphasized–months of preparing for the fight and designing a perfect game plan), all of it, go up in smoke. That was what he defended with that rally. Tyson halted the flurry with a furious right cross, and–less than a minute into the round–they settled into a state of equilibrium with a lot of clinching. Both fighters were trying to gather their resources for an end–they both had to feel–would come soon. It was Douglas who seized the initiative. A minute after Tyson’s last significant punch, Douglas’s head was clear enough for him to go on the offensive. He battered a retreating Tyson into the ropes. Jim Lampley–the ringleader of a biased trio of HBO commentators–said Tyson would have gone down here without the ropes to hold him up. While this was not the case, the champ was, indeed, clearly reeling, but here–as he had in the previous round–he pulled an uppercut out of nowhere and landed it solidly (but without the strength behind it he’d had only minutes before) and then another as Douglas fired away. When the bell finally came after three minutes of drama in which the issue of who held the upper hand had shifted from instant to instant, I thought–forgetting that it was the following week, that I was watching a tape, that the conclusion of the fight was not merely foregone but fully achieved–that the fight would go to whichever boxer was able to summon more of his spent and scattered resources for the tenth round. This, it turns out, was not the case. Both fighters were on the verge, not of knocking the other out, but of being knocked out by the other. The distinction was critical, for it meant not picking the spot for a finishing rally–that was out of the question for both fighters, although probably neither knew it –but of marshaling forces for one punch. The next big punch ended the fight.
Unless the reader has been incommunicado the last two weeks and is consulting this column as a means of catching up with the world, it should come as no surprise that “Buster” Douglas won this fight with a tremendous uppercut in the tenth round and a coda in which punches rained down upon Tyson until he was almost horizontal. I should be careful, however, of razzing ignorant fans, because on the night of the fight I was no more in the know than anyone else until– while working–I received a call from Boom-Boom, who was entertaining a lady friend from out of town in his own inimitable fashion: watching the Tyson-Douglas fight.
“It’s the fifth and Tyson hasn’t won a round yet!” he said. “Oh, another punch from the challenger!”
“Yes, and another! He’s beating his ass.” High-pitched oohs and ahs came from the background. The Boomer talked me through the sixth round–which Tyson evidently won, giving signs of rallying–and then hung up, only to call back during the eighth.
“The champ’s in trouble. Oh, another punch, and another! Douglas is–oh, what a punch!” Squeal in the background. “He’s down, he’s down!”
“Douglas! Oh, what a punch by Tyson. He’s not going to make it! No, here he comes. It’s the end of the round. Saved by the bell!”
Boomer took us on through the rest of the fight from there, first describing the slow-motion instant replay of Tyson’s knockdown of Douglas (“Jesus, what a punch!”), then the exciting ninth, rendered with a bit more chaos than above:
“Oh, Douglas comes back! Tyson is stunned! Oh, what a punch!”
“Tyson, he landed one. They’re holding on, dancing now. Oh, a punch by Douglas. A flurry by Douglas! He’s got the champ against the ropes. Oh, what a punch!”
“Tyson! But Douglas is still punching. They’re whaling on each other! End of the round.”
Then the tenth, which Tyson again opened strong, only to lead, midway through the round, to:
“Oh, what a punch! And another, and another. He’s down!”
“The champ! The champ’s down! He ain’t gonna make it. Here he is, he’s getting up. No, it’s over! It’s over! Knockout Douglas!”
The HBO commentary for the fight was more composed, more precise, but considerably less balanced. The threesome–Leonard, Lampley, and Larry Merchant–were so preoccupied trying to make Douglas into a suitable opponent early on that, by the time the fight turned into a fight, they were solidly in Douglas’s corner. Merchant pointed out before the bout began that Douglas’s best fights have been against the better opponents he’s faced, “so perhaps we’ll get a few rounds.” The following quote is indicative of Merchant’s questionable judgment: “If he should upset Mike Tyson, it would make the shocks in Eastern Europe seem like local ward politics.” Likewise, he said the first round was the best he’d ever seen Douglas fight, and he scored it for Douglas, but the round was even at best for Douglas, and he was to fight at least five better rounds over the ten-round fight.
It’s a boxing adage that the challenger has to knock out the champ to win the title, and–unfair as that might seem to some people–it’s the correct way to score a title fight. A boxer can’t expect to pepper the champ now and then, otherwise staying out of his way, and then take the title belt home. Muhammad Ali once fought a boxer named Jimmy Young–in a bout considered such a mismatch it was broadcast on network television–and any objective judge would have given Young the fight. Yet he didn’t take the crown, and rightfully so. He humiliated Ali, but he didn’t whip him. The typical round of the Tyson-Douglas fight had Douglas outscoring Tyson, but Tyson always managed to land a punch or two that obviously had more impact than Douglas’s shots. Douglas clearly dominated in only two of the first eight rounds: the second and the fifth. Tyson also won two: the sixth and the eighth. Yet, Tyson’s knockdown aside, it was Douglas who did the damage. Where the HBO commentators were wrong was that Douglas wasn’t winning the fight on scoring; he was winning it overall.
Tyson was obviously not prepared for this fight; he expected to show up, let Douglas have a few rounds, and then end it with one punch, in much the same way he dismissed Frank Bruno last year. Yet if Tyson’s lack of concern set him up for what happened, it was his hubris that did him in. Tyson walked into Douglas’s reach in the manner of a great white hunter walking into the jungle without even bothering to brush away the tree branches. He walked into Douglas’s punches expecting to walk right through them–expecting that he was, as everyone said, invincible–but by the end of the fifth round, when Douglas again gave him a good thrashing, his left eye was closing under the punishment of Douglas’s right crosses, and he was in trouble. What’s amazing is how close Tyson came to winning this fight regardless. In the eighth round, Douglas had him against the ropes and was lashing him. Yet Tyson landed an uppercut–which the HBO commentators completely missed–and Douglas lurched forward. The referee separated them, and Tyson pushed Douglas off, and he must have felt how wobbly the challenger was, because he measured him like a demolitionist consulting his surveying charts, and he landed an awful right uppercut. If it had come ten seconds sooner in the fight, Tyson would have retained his title, because once Douglas rose at the count of ten he was defenseless, but there was no time left in the round.
Douglas, to his great credit, fought the fight Larry Holmes had hoped to fight against Tyson two years ago. Douglas resembles Holmes in his boxing style: erect, solidly placed on the canvas, not very mobile, but with a stinging left jab and a good following right hand. He kept Tyson at arm’s reach by following left jab with left jab–a tactic his corner kept pressing upon him, and which Leonard was quick to pick up on–and then looking for those openings for his right hand, which eventually closed Tyson’s left eye. He chose the fight of his career to fight the fight of his career, and he therefore deserves to be champion for a while. He will, however, lose his next fight.
Which is not necessarily against Tyson. The created controversy over the long count during Douglas’s eighth-round knockdown was dictated by an unfortunate rule of the World Boxing Council, which refuses to allow rematches unless the original fight was won in a controversial manner. Promoter Don King had to create a controversy if he was to claim the right to a rematch, but in doing so it appears he offended Douglas so that–at this point–Douglas will choose to fight number-one contender Evander Holyfield next. (A look at the tape confirms that, specious as King’s argument is, it has some merit. A white-gloved Japanese judge is sitting ringside, with the apparent chore of counting seconds. As Douglas goes down, and as the referee begins the count, he is at least two seconds behind the man in the gloves, who clearly counts off each second with a raised finger.)
Tyson’s career, at this point, is teetering between two possible outcomes. He may be inspired anew by his defeat; his determination to be the best may be redoubled–as was the case with Muhammad Ali after he lost to Joe Frazier. Or, like George Foreman, he could watch his skills decay amid bitterness as the new champ–whoever he is–refuses to fight him. In the greatest boxing upset before this one, Ali defeated Foreman in the famous “rope-a-dope” fight in Zaire. Ali never fought Foreman again, and by the time he lost the crown, four years later, Foreman was out of boxing. The careers of Foreman and Tyson are very similar up to the points where they lost their titles. Both were regarded as invincible punching machines of an amazing destructive power. Will Tyson follow Foreman’s path or regain the title?
To judge from the lowest point of his career, his knockdown by Douglas–rendered in dramatic fashion by an HBO ringside camera almost in his face–in which, all but unconscious, he rocks to his knees, grimaces, gathers in his mouth guard at the count of six, thrusts one end of it into his mouth, and rises–hands down, eyes dazed, but willing to take more punishment in the defense of what’s his as the referee wraps him in a hug–he’ll be back.