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ESPN’s 42 To 1 Explores Buster Douglas’s Moment Of Greatness

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ESPN’s latest 30 For 30, “42 to 1,” aims to remind us of what many consider to be the greatest upset in the history of sports, Buster Douglas’s defeat of Mike Tyson in Tokyo on Feb. 11, 1990.

Despite being a bit on the slight side at one hour with commercials, the documentary does do that. 

It also does another thing though. It makes it clear that Buster Douglas was no joke. In fact, he was a remarkable talent. A huge man with a big right hand, a massive reach, and a jab as stiff as a winter breeze in Brooklyn. James ‘Buster’ Douglas had all the gifts necessary to be a truly great fighter. All save one.

Desire.

In watching “42 to 1,” his skills, natural ability, and biology are shown to be formidable. It’s just that unlike his dad, Billy – a dynamic former fighter in his own right – he did not have the hunger. He struggled under the tutelage and shadow of his father. He was prone to getting out of shape and occasionally giving up in fights he not only should have won but dominated.

By the time he got his first title fight against Tony Tucker in 1987, he had already had losses on his record to David Bey, Mike White, and Jesse Ferguson. Journeyman all. Early on, he had Tucker just where he wanted him. Doing whatever he wanted to do. But Tucker did not go away, and mysteriously, in the 10th round, Douglas essentially quit. He stopped returning fire. Allowing himself to be hit continually, forcing a stoppage despite not being all that hurt. It all but ruined his reputation.

Surprisingly, Douglas pulled it together for his next six fights, taking them in mostly fine fashion. His last two victories came against future champion Oliver McCall, and former belt-holder Trevor Berbick.

Still, when Douglas signed on to fight Tyson, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone who took the bout seriously. For Tyson, it was merely a tune-up for a planned mega-fight against Evander Holyfield. For Douglas, it was his last shot. And he treated it that way.

Douglas got into magnificent shape. His mind was right, and his body was never better. Then, just three weeks before the fight, his mother died of a stroke. Instead of postponing the fight or going into a shell, the loss of his mother seemed to add even greater focus and motivation. When the two men entered the ring that night in Tokyo (held there because no American location wanted the fight), Tyson would not know what it him. Repeatedly. Buster Douglas’s merciless jab.

The latest ESPN 30 For 30 examined how Buster Douglas managed to pull off the sporting upset for the ages, over Mike Tyson.

“42 to 1” does not spend much time on Tyson’s lead up to the fight. The overconfidence is on display, but I wish the doc would have made more of the loss of Cus D’Amato and Kevin Rooney from his corner. That fateful evening, his team didn’t even have an enswell to deal with the bulging edema over Tyson’s left eye. The continuing negative influence of Don King is under-served by the film as well.

I was however grateful for the film to spend most of its time on the big man from Columbus, Ohio, as Tyson’s story has been covered many a time, and while more of his side would have provided more balance and made for a better – and deservedly longer – film, it’s the Douglas story that provides the revelations.

His difficult relationship with his father. His wavering attention to his profession. But most of all what is showcased is how good Buster Douglas could have been. Standing an imposing 6 foot 4 and possessing an 83-inch reach – a full foot(!) longer than Tyson’s – Douglas was a true specimen. He had quick hands, good footwork, real power, and genuine skill. 

On that night – and maybe only on that night – these gifts were in full bloom. Douglas was all but perfect against Tyson. Winning every round of the fight except for the 8th when Tyson landed a massive uppercut that floored Douglas, who barely beat the count. 

Remarkably, the man known as a “quitter” came back in the 9th and delivered a statement round, wobbling Tyson and landing at will. While what happened in the 10th should have seemed inevitable, when Douglas landed an uppercut that threatened to remove Tyson’s head from his shoulders, and then followed that blow with a one-two that jettisoned Tyson’s mouthpiece from his face and left him crawling on the canvas in a sad attempt to retrieve it, the world seemed to turn on its head.

I know. Because I was there in the middle of my parents’ floor at 19 years of age, picking my jaw from the carpet. It wasn’t just that Douglas had removed the veil of invincibility from the most dominant athlete of the moment, he had done so in completely convincing fashion.

The thing that many of us missed that night and even in looking back is just how good and capable Douglas could be. It wasn’t so much a fluke as it was untapped potential finally meeting the moment. 

And just like that, it was over. Eight months later Douglas met up with Tyson’s intended, Evander Holyfield. All the focus and discipline Douglas displayed against Tyson was gone–he went from 231 vs. Tyson to 246 pounds against Evander–and he was soundly beaten by The Real Deal. 

After the 3rd round KO at the hands of Holyfield, Douglas did not fight again for six years. He got one more title shot – a first round KO loss to Lou Savarese. He beat two more journeymen after that and retired for good in 1999.

While Tyson continued to fight after the Douglas loss, he was never the same. Before Douglas, Tyson won many a scrap before he stepped into the ring. The palpable state of fear his opponents were in made things easy for Tyson. Perhaps too easy. Then came the rape conviction, a four-year layoff due to incarceration, and a return to the ring, and finally to Holyfield, a man who could not be bullied or made to fear. 

Holyfield defeated Tyson twice in a row. The first time came by knockout in a shockingly easy fight. When their second bout threatened to go the same way, Tyson lost his ever-loving mind, and Holyfield lost a part of his ear.

A long slow decline followed, the roots of which were sown some 28 years ago in Tokyo. By a man no one expected to be there. A fighter with no chance according to the experts. As underestimated as they come. 42 to 1 were the odds. 

Oh, to have had a premonition leading into that night.

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