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It was halfway between performance art and barnstorming. A fighter who wears a torn towel for a robe and who cuts down opponents with a terrifying swiftness was embarking on a strange world tour, starting in Tokyo, that was likely to take him to Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Brunei—coming soon to a country near you. His primary appeal was no longer as a fighter, since it had become clear that nobody in this world was capable of defeating him, but rather as an expensive novelty act. "It ain't about if he knocks a guy out," promoter Don King insisted. "It's about how he knocks a guy out. It's the style, the improvisation." Even a minute-and-a-half's glimpse—the length of two of the fighter's recent shows—of his savagery was considered good enough value for promoters around the world to bid his price beyond $6 million per appearance. China was said to be interested. Representatives from Zaire and Indonesia were exchanging faxes with King.
The arrogance was absolute and, of course, an invitation to disaster. So it was that on Sunday, at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, Mike Tyson, the undisputed, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, provided real theater. Against a fighter whose principal qualification as a contender was his availability and pay scale, Tyson quickly found himself in trouble, was struck at will with right hands and had his left eye closed after nine rounds. Even with that, it was impossible to conceive what would happen at 1:23 of the 10th round. James (Buster) Douglas, so secure in boxing anonymity that he could not draw the attention of a single photographer as he waited for the weigh-in the day before, lifted Tyson upright with a right uppercut, hit the suddenly defenseless champion with two more punches and then floored the reeling Tyson, already more horizontal than perpendicular, with a chopping left hook.
Tyson, who had never before been knocked down in his professional career, skidded on his backside. As referee Octavio Meyran Sánchez began the 10 count, Tyson flipped himself over and began sweeping the canvas with his right arm. A boxer's reflex is a strange and revealing thing. Finally, Tyson found his mouthpiece, started to insert it backward into his mouth and then desperately climbed to his feet and into Meyran's protective embrace, his good eye fogged in a way you cannot imagine.
This is how the latest of sports' sure things, the Tyson dynasty, ended: far from home and entirely removed from expectation and possibility, well short of a $70 million pay-per-view bout this spring with Evander Holyfield and a subsequent program of purportedly easier assignments in other countries. It was probably the biggest upset in boxing history, and certainly the unlikeliest result of all recent sporting events.
In his five-year career—expressed as 37 victories and 33 knockouts—Tyson had done more than dominate his division. At 23 years of age, he had created an aura of invincibility that far transcended even his considerable boxing skills. In the ring he offered a chilling vision of menace; he was sockless and naked of the baubles and bangles borne by most modern boxers as they enter the ring. His actions were similarly stripped of artifice and pretense; he bored in with a wearing fusillade until his opponent simply crumpled. Until he was sidelined by a chest inflammation for five weeks last fall, the regularity and completeness of his ring destruction had become a fixture on the sports calendar. Few people were surprised when, in June 1988, he dispatched Michael Spinks in 91 seconds or, last July, Carl Williams in 93.
Douglas was not expected to survive much longer—much less reveal Tyson as mortal. Douglas, from Columbus, Ohio (profile, page 28), was 29-4-1 and had failed in a 1987 title bid against Tony Tucker. His manager, John Johnson, said Douglas may have been more suited to basketball than boxing. "He's too nice," said Johnson before the bout. "He can be kind of passive."
Nor did Douglas have much of a plan against Tyson. "I don't know what he's going to do," said Johnson. "I guess we'll see."
Douglas himself would be no more specific. "I'll just hit him, I guess," he said, without enormous conviction. "It seems as though nobody ever hit him hard enough to gain his respect."
Have fighters been afraid of Tyson?
"That seems to have been the case."