To Shock the World: The Greatest Upset in Sports History

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.

53 Responses

  1. Hello Joshua, I wanted to start off by saying how well written your article was, you made it very interesting to read. I don’t watch these type of fights/sports but it was very interesting getting to know about the background story of this fighter, Douglas. All the dedication he put into this sport is outstanding and how he kept fighting although his mother passed away. That had to be so hard but very glad he pushed through.

  2. Boxing is a crazy sport, I usually find MMA fighting to be more entertaining but this article caught my eye. It had to be hard for Douglas to still have a fight after losing his mother that soon before a fight. It was an incredible article that was inspiring for everyone, not only athletes. Everyone has their struggles but hearing about an athlete that is seen as “perfect” is so interesting.

  3. Hi,
    First off Id like to say that I love how the writer had many details and was very descriptive because it really helps the reader create a mental image and picture of the scenario and helps for understanding what’s going on. Ive never heard about this match up until now but I’m glad I ran into this article educating me on what happened.

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