On February 11, 1990, Evander Holyfield sat ringside, seemingly in disbelief as he watched the events unfolding right in front of his very eyes. Also in a state of shock were the thousands in attendance who watched in stony silence and the millions watching at home on HBO.
James “Buster” Douglas, a 42-1 underdog, had just knocked out the man most saw as invincible, “Iron” Mike Tyson. Their fight was seen as so one-sided that some casinos in Vegas wouldn’t even put up odds on the fight.
As Jim Lampley said just seconds after Douglas’ amazing upset win, “Say it now gentleman, James Buster Douglas, undisputed Heavyweight champion of the world.”
Tyson suffered the first loss of his professional career and was dominated by his unheralded challenger who was ranked number two by the IBF. It was like something out of a movie. Douglas had lost his mother prior to the fight and then learned that the mother of his son had been stricken with a severe kidney ailment. Yet, he managed to summon all of his courage, strength and determination and did what very few believed he could.
Holyfield had flown to Tokyo, Japan, to see the fight and then kick off the build-up to his mega fight against Tyson. The two had just agreed to meet each other in the Fall in what many believed would be an epic showdown between the two undefeated warriors.
As Larry Merchant pointed out after the Douglas victory, Holyfield was still the number on contender. But what would Douglas do? Would there be an immediate rematch against Tyson? Would he turn and fight Holyfield? “Big” George Foreman was out there stomping opponents in his second career as well.
As those questions swirled, the drama in the ring was quickly matched by the drama outside of it. Immediately after the Douglas victory, Don King launched a protest claiming that when Tyson knocked down Douglas in the eighth round, the count was long and Tyson should be declared the victor.
Although the IBF immediately recognized Douglas as the winner and new champion, the WBA and WBC initially withheld recognizing Douglas as the winner. The backlash and outcry from boxing fans and the public alike ended the King strategy quickly. The WBA and WBC soon joined the IBF in recognizing Douglas as the winner.
Over the coming months, the Heavyweight division would see the kind of shake up it hadn’t seen in years.
While waiting for a title shot, his plans and big payday against Tyson derailed, Holyfield stayed active by battering Seamus McDonagh in June. The fourth-round knockout more than solidified his No. 1 ranking.
Later that month, Tyson was on the comeback trail making quick work of his former amateur nemesis, Henry Tillman, winning via a first-round knockout.
Douglas (30-4-1, 20 KOs), from Columbus, Ohio, now the recognized Undisputed Heavyweight Champion, had made his decision. He and his team had decided to put his titles on the line against the undefeated Holyfield.
From Atlanta, GA, the “Real Deal” (24-0, 20 KO’s) had moved up in weight and entered the Heavyweight division in July 1988. Holyfield, the former undisputed Cruiserweight Champion, had knocked out James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Adilson Rodriguez, Alex Stewart, and most recently McDonagh, on his way to a title opportunity.
Fighting Douglas would be his seventh fight as a Heavyweight.
The fight was scheduled for October 25, 1990 at the outdoor arena at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Promotional posters told us “Judgment Day is Coming” and the matchup was being billed as “The Moment of Truth.”
The bout was carried on both closed-circuit television and Showtime PPV.
The 30-year-old Douglas was riding high after thumping “the baddest man on the planet.” Prior to that monumental victory, many questioned Douglas’ heart and desire having earned the reputation as often being ill-prepared and as a quitter. Against Tyson, Douglas had obliterated that line of thinking.
Or had he? Vegas odds makers still appeared leery of Douglas making the undefeated Holyfield a 7-5 favorite. Many boxing experts, however, were picking Douglas based on his size, power and his mesmerizing performance against Tyson.
Then, incredibly, the apple cart would be upset yet again. The boxing world was hit with tremors outside of the ring at the weigh in.
Holyfield climbed on the scale first. He was in supreme condition and weighed in at a sculpted 208 pounds. He looked primed and ready and furnished his now well-known confident smirk.
Next on the scale was Douglas. Moans and groans filled the room as his official weight was announced at 246 pounds. Clearly out of shape, he was 15 pounds heavier than when winning the titles against Tyson. Rumors then began to swirl about room service orders, some going so far as to say they were made while in the sauna.
Holyfield’s co-trainer, Lou Duva, reacted to the 246 pounds saying, “Roll him in and carry him out.”
Odds makers at the The Mirage were on record saying that money poured in after the official weigh in, much of it coming in on Holyfield. The 7-5 odds had quickly moved to 9-5.
On the night of the fight, the challenger exited his dressing room first. Holyfield, at 28 years of age, was accompanied by co-trainers Duva and George Benton. Dressed in red with black trim, he already had a heavy sweat built up on his face. He appeared zoned in and ready.
Next came the champion who was wearing white trimmed with red. Led by trainer John Russell and manager John Johnson, Douglas made the long walk to his destiny.
Steve Albert and Al Bernstein were ringside to call the action. Guest ring-announcer Sugar Ray Leonard introduced the fighters and Mills Lane gave us his colorful “Let’s get it on!”
From the opening bell, Holyfield began firing combinations and working his jab. Douglas appeared stuck in the mud, lethargic in trying to let his jab go. Albert summarized the action, “Evander Holyfield dictating the tempo out of the gate.”
Round 2 got underway with Holyfield bouncing on his toes as he continued pumping his jab. He was effectively negating the Douglas jab as Bernstein pointed out, “Right now the Douglas jab is not effective.” Holyfield was easily out boxing the champion.
As the second round came to a close, Douglas used his left arm to hold Holyfield while hitting him with his right hand. Lane halted the action and issued his second warning to Douglas. As Albert explained to the viewers at home that Lane was in fact a District Attorney in Reno, Bernstein added his own humor. Commenting on what Lane may do next should the holding and hitting continue, Bernstein quipped, “He might arrest him.”
With two rounds in the books, Holyfield was ahead 20-18 on all three of the judges’ scorecards. In the corner, Russell told Douglas that he was just getting warmed up. Holyfield’s corner implored him to continue to box and pound the body.
As Round 3 began, Douglas started fast and began launching his own jab at Holyfield. He looked looser and more fluid. Less than a minute into the round he landed his first good right hand. The crowd applauded as Douglas looked to get back into the fight.
Just seconds later, the top tier of the Heavyweight division was again shaken up. As Douglas stepped forward, he launched a huge right uppercut from way outside, missing Holyfield badly. Holyfield easily leaned back, avoiding the punch, and launched an over hand right counter punch that landed flush on the face of Douglas.
The crowd reverberated as Douglas went down in a heap and lay flat on his back. Looking up at the lights, Douglas raised his head and checked his nose for blood. He wiped his nose with the thumb of his glove, looked at it, and laid his head back on the canvas.
As Lane stood over him and began counting, he went to one knee next to Douglas to continue the count. As he reached the count of ten, he waved off the action and signaled the fight was over. Albert announced that history has just been made, “There’s a new Heavyweight champion of the world and his name is Evander Holyfield!”
While Lane attempted to remove the Douglas mouthpiece, Holyfield was being swarmed and congratulated at mid ring by his team.
In a cruel turn of events, it was Douglas’ turn to be knocked out.
In the years to come, Douglas would initially fade away from the boxing scene. Poor heath was ensured by a diabetic coma. His life depending upon improving his health, he returned to the gym and shed over 150 pounds. Nearly six years after losing his titles, he made a brief comeback winning eight of his nine fights. He last fought in February 1999.
Holyfield would later battle his own health issues. After being diagnosed with a heart condition and after a brief retirement, he would go on to a Hall of Fame career winning the Heavyweight title an unprecedented four times. Known for his warrior spirit, Holyfield would fight another twenty years. His last fight would be in May 2011.