To Shock the World: The Greatest Upset in Sports History

Buster Douglas raises his hand in victory while embracing his trainers in the ring after his victory 
| courtesy of The Daily News.

At the end of a bloody and gruesome 8th round, James “Buster” Douglas sat up from the canvas; dazed and disoriented, he rose to his feet to keep slugging it out with the undefeated Mike Tyson. Douglas, a man viewed as little more than a helpless underdog by the world, had already defied all odds with his demonstration of courage when he made it back to his feet after nearly getting knocked out by the champion. But little did the world know that the biggest upset in sports history was still yet to come. What gave Buster Douglas the strength to fight on that day of all days? After all, Douglas had previously been knocked out by weaker opponents before this fight, and he was generally viewed as a relatively weak fighter. Was it courage, rage, or just an act of fate?1

James Douglas was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1960, to one former pro-boxing William “Dynamite” Douglas. Despite what that might entail about Douglas’ boxing influence, the thing that most people do not know about Douglas is that boxing was not his first love in the realm of sports. During his high school days, he played and enjoyed football and basketball. In 1977, Douglas led his Linden McKinley High School to a state championship. Douglas continued to pursue basketball long after high school, and ended up playing for Coffeyville Community College, where he proved himself good enough to attend Mercyhurst University on a basketball scholarship. Douglas had already proven himself to be an outstanding athlete since high school, with his plethora of achievements, and his recent performance in community college simply tipped the scales in his favor.2

Once college was over for Douglas, he moved back to his home town of Columbus, Ohio, where he found himself wanting to pursue the footsteps of his father in boxing. After a few minor incidents, Douglas eventually made his professional Boxing Debut in 1981 against Dan O’Malley. Douglas turned out to be just as good a boxer as he was a basketball player, and, with a few losses along the way, his career was still good enough to earn him his first ever chance at the Heavyweight title against Tony Tucker in 1987. Douglas started the fight off good and was ahead for the most part, but he quickly became too gassed to maintain the upper hand and was stopped in the tenth round. This failure proved to be a major setback for Douglas, as he was forced to start from nearly the bottom of the ranks in order to get another chance at the title fight. On top of the already heightened odds, his fumble in the ring had totally soiled his overall public reputation.3

In the moment of Douglas’ defeat and doubt, it was ultimately his tight-knit family that encouraged him to keep going and pressing forward, and for the next three years Douglas quickly moved back up the rankings, going through many notable fighters like Jerry Halstead and Trevor Berbick in a desperate attempt to once again be in a position to get a shot at a title fight again. But this time around the person who he would have to defeat was seen as unbeatable, not only for his flawless record, but for the way he brutally treated his opponents without seeming to ever get so much as a scratch on him throughout the entire fight. His name was Mike Tyson, the man made of iron, and he was standing directly between Douglas and everything he had ever wanted. In order to finally realize his dreams, Douglas would have to fight with a fire within him that he had not yet felt. Unlike the public, Douglas was not phased by the monstrous reputation Tyson had created for himself. Douglas was not one to pay attention to things like that, so he just put his head down and got to work with the training he would need if he wanted to become the heavyweight champion of the world.4

The fight was one month away and the hype was not nearly what it had been for other Tyson fights, because this was considered a tune up match to get Tyson ready for his next big fight following Douglas, against Evander Holyfield.  The odds of the fight were released at 42 to 1 in favor of Mike Tyson. There was so little chance of him winning that the fight was set in Tokyo, Japan to keep people from making free money off of the game by betting money on Tyson. Any other person would have taken it as an insult or been discouraged, but Douglas once again turned away from what he saw and returned to hard training. Through the preparation of it all, everyone said that Douglas looked good in his training and preparation. As the fight grew nearer, Douglas claimed that he felt confident and focused on the fight, but, in the midst of his journey to the top of the boxing charts, his path took a devastating sharp turn when his mother suddenly died two weeks before the fight, after suffering from a stroke.5

Douglas had to bury his mother 23 days before the biggest day of his life, and flew out to Tokyo the same night for upcoming press conferences. The two weeks leading up to the fight were very melancholy, and, according to his trainer, Douglas’ training sessions were quiet and relaxed, and showed no real difference from any other fight. When asked a question in an interview about how Douglas felt about the upcoming fight, however, the soft spoken man only said “I’m going to shock the world.”6

Douglas and Tyson fight in the center of the ring at the opening bell | Courtesy of Wikipedia

On November 2, 1990, the two fighters met each other in the ring for the first time. One man stands a champion that seems invincible trying to put away just another ordinary contender, and the other stands with a vicious glare of excitement, one who feels like he doesn’t have much to lose. The ring announcer calls them to the center ring, briefly explains the rules, makes them bump fists and clears out of the ring. Finally, the bell sounds and the fight is on.7

Douglas falls at the hands of Mike Tyson in the 8th round | Courtesy of Wikipedia

From the very get go, the fight was a shock to the world. Buster Douglas, a nobody, found himself toe to toe with the world champion of heavyweight boxing, and it looked like Douglas had the upper hand too, until the eighth round when Tyson landed a lucky hit to Douglas, sending him straight to the canvas. Douglas, who laid on the floor, stunned, had allowed what everyone thought was going to happen to come true. He was knocked down by the champion. But nobody expected him to get back up. At the count of eight, Buster Douglas wobbled to his feet and was saved by the bell at the end of the round. Douglas took time to gather himself in between rounds, and came back out swinging like he had never swung before. The two men went back and forth the entire round. Mike Tyson seemed to be wearing out and appeared to clearly be losing, which was a first for the unstoppable juggernaut. At the end of the ninth round, it was Tyson who had found himself backed up against the ropes.8

Buster Douglas knocks Mike Tyson to the floor in the 10th round | Courtesy of Wikipedia

When the bell signaled the start of the tenth round, the two titans quickly collided. Toe to toe they stood, but this was Douglas’ moment for glory. With a deadly combination, Tyson was sent reeling to the ground. Disoriented, he struggled to put his mouth piece back in, but did not make it to his feet in time to beat the ten second count. James “Buster” Douglas was world heavyweight champion. A man seen by all boxing experts as having a 42 to 1 chance of beating Mike Tyson, a man who had every reason to quit and feel discouraged by what was going on around him, refused to give up and ultimately beat a man who seemed invincible, finally fulfilling his dream of becoming the heavyweight champion of boxing.9

Even though Douglas lost the title in his next fight to Evander Holyfield, he still held an accomplishment that nobody else possessed, and that was his beating of Mike Tyson in his prime. According to the odds and experts, the knockout was never even supposed to happen. It was something that was unquestionably impossible to reproduce, something that could only ever happen once. It’s the story of a man driven by the death of his mother and who refused to lose in honor of her.10

Sports has always been an important part of human culture. We are a competitive species and have been since the time of the Greeks. This lust for competition is especially apparent in our enjoyment of sports, because every game played is a game of chance for the competitors; nothing is certain and this uncertainty spawns interest. We like to see the people and teams we have connections with take their chances and emerge victorious because that makes us, the common people, believe that our team or our athlete is a physical metaphor to overcoming adversities and taking on the chances of every little battle throughout our lives, whether it be seen from a TV screen or in the stands. We are inspired to see other people defy odds and win at the game of chance. James Douglas took his small chance and ran with it, only to create a story that is nothing short of being Cinderella-like. This is why we glorify stories like David and Goliath. It’s us, accomplishing things we were not supposed to be able to accomplish. This is why sports is so important to us as humans, and this is exactly what makes James “Buster” Douglas beating Mike Tyson the greatest upset in sports history.11

  1. John Johnson and Bill Long, Tyson-Douglas: The inside story of the upset of the century (Washington D.C: Potomac, 2007), 176-178.
  2. Ben Houser, 42 to 1 (Dec 11, 2018; Bristol: ESPN), film.
  3. Ben Houser, 42 to 1 (Dec 11, 2018; Bristol: ESPN), film.
  4. Ed Odeven, “Seeing Douglas shock Tyson gave Lewis Confidence,” The Japan Times, Feb 5, 2015.
  5. Steve Kim, “James ‘Buster’ Douglas recounts the biggest upset in Boxing History,” ESPN, Dec 11, 2018.
  6. Steve Kim, “James ‘Buster’ Douglas recounts the biggest upset in Boxing History,” ESPN, Dec 11, 2018.
  7. John Johnson and Bill Long, Tyson-Douglas: The inside story of the upset of the century (Washington D.C: Potomac, 2007), 145-147
  8. Ed Odeven, “Seeing Douglas shock Tyson gave Lewis Confidence,” The Japan Times, Feb 5, 2015
  9. Ed Odeven, “Seeing Douglas shock Tyson gave Lewis Confidence,” The Japan Times, Feb 5, 2015.
  10. Ben Houser, 42 to 1 (Dec 11, 2018; Bristol: ESPN), film.
  11. John Johnson and Bill Long, Tyson-Douglas: The inside story of the upset of the century (Washington D.C: Potomac, 2007), 23-24.

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This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. I absolutely loved this article! My Dad used to tell me that his favorite boxer was James Douglas but I never knew anything about him or what he did until I read this article! Much like everyone else I really appreciate how everything in this article was kept in chronological order and detailed all of the moments that lead up to his highest peak.

  2. The only time I watch boxing is in the movies, but of course I know about Mike Tyson, that is a name that isn’t shy from the spotlight when it comes to talking about this sport. Now reading this article I now know another name of glory in the world of Boxing, the glory earned by defeating the famous Mike Tyson.

  3. This article was well-written and all the information you gathered together flowed really well together. I’ve heard of Douglas, but never really paid attention to what he did. This article is very inspirational because it shows how you can still be better than someone if you start working hard enough and believing that you can do it, even though you did worst in the past.

  4. This article is very well written. It is inspiring to read a story of someone rising to reach his goals through hard work and training, despite suffering hardships. He showed perseverance and determination when he rose to his feet after being knocked down. James Douglas showed his love for his family in his fight with Mike Tyson, and his strong will allowed him to defeat an undefeated champion.

  5. It is so cool that someone did this article, because recently a song had come out called Tyson vs. Douglas. The song was about a major defeat between the fighters. It was interesting to hear that Douglas had a shot at the heavyweight title against Tony Tucker in 1987. I never knew that, while reading the article it made me think of Rocky. Great article.

  6. Boxing is not a sport I watch often unless the fight is very special and for a championship title. However, hearing Douglas’ story was still very inspiring. He seems like someone who is extremely determined and confident. He had to deal with a lot of people discouraging him and betting without hesitation that he would come out as a loser but that did not happen at all. After dealing with the death of his mother to close to the day of the fight the odds were truly not in his fair and that seemed to keep Douglas going and pushed him to his eventual victory. Truly inspiring.

  7. I do not claim to be a boxing fan but I do think that it is a very interesting sport. This article was very interesting and I did not know anything about this event but the author did a really good job of researching this information for this article. I always enjoy a good underdog story because they always feel so rewarding when the story ends and that is how I felt when I finished this article. I loved that the story never seemed to stop and that this wasn’t just a rundown of events that happened but an actual story.

  8. I’ve never been interested in boxing, but everybody knows the name Mike Tyson. I liked the article because it wasn’t just boring facts or events that happened round by round, detail by detail. It was focused on certain events that occurred during the match that were suspenseful and it kept the article interesting. This is honestly the first match that I’ve actually heard about in boxing because I’ve never cared for it. And although I didn’t watch the fight, I can picture it in my head with this article. Well written.

  9. Even as a person who doesn’t watch boxing regularly, I was very intrigued and interested in the suspense the article provided. “Buster” Douglas is another shining example of overcoming all odds to achieve the seemingly impossible. Even though almost no one had believed that he would win against Mike Tyson, all he needed was to believe in himself. Overall, very well-written and impressive article.

  10. I loved the article, well researched, structured and flowed well. It reminds me of the American privateer during the revolutionary war article. I appreciate how the author kept a chronological order of event throughout the story and the time spans shorten and became more descriptive towards the end.(Just like a Rocky movie where the wrestler trains for several months and then we get a big fight scene for the end).

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