Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ranking the heavyweights: No. 32 James 'Buster' Douglas

In this series I am rating all of the lineal heavyweight champions across five categories, with the fighters then being ranked from 1 down to 37 depending on their final score out of 
50. Today I'm looking at the man who finished at No. 32 in my standings - James 'Buster' Douglas.

No. 33: JAMES 'BUSTER' DOUGLAS (champion 1990)
Whenever the history of sporting upsets is chronicled, the achievement of James 'Buster' Douglas demands a prominent position. In slaying Mike Tyson in the Tokyo Dome on 11 February 1990, he unforgettably punctured the aura of invincibility that had hovered menacingly over 'Iron Mike' as he cut a devastating swathe through the heavyweight division. In the lead-up to the Douglas fight, promoter Don King had commented of Tyson that: "It ain't about if he knocks a guy out, it's about how he knocks a guy out." In hindsight, this comment had hubris written all over it, but at the time it seemed a statement of cold, objective fact. To those who didn't grow up watching the young Tyson in action, it's impossible to explain just how unexpected Douglas' victory was. Famously only one Las Vegas bookmakers bothered to offer odds on the fight, and they rated Douglas as a 42-1 shot - quite ridiculous odds in a two-man contest. Statistically, as well as in every other way possible, Douglas' win remains the biggest shock in boxing history and as incredible a feat now, at a distance of 24 years, as it was at the time.

Achievement: 6
The momentous slaying of Tyson alone is enough for Douglas to rate fairly highly in this category. However it is also worth remembering that an overweight and undertrained Douglas lost the title meekly in just three rounds in his first defence against Evander Holyfield and the rest of his career was undistinguished. In short, Douglas was the boxing equivalent of a one-hit wonder, albeit a one-hit wonder who produced a song on a par with the greatest songs ever written.

Dominance: 2
Aside from the Tyson upset, when Douglas fought higher ranked heavyweights he usually came unstuck; Holyfield dismantled him, and he also lost to Tony Tucker, Jesse Ferguson and Lou Savarese, as well as anonymous trial-horses David Bey and Mike White. Douglas' best victories, apart from against Tyson, came against Randall Cobb, Greg Page and Oliver McCall. All in all, an extremely sketchy résumé.

Style: 5
When he was on-form, Douglas possessed a superb jab, as well as decent power in his right and impressively swift hand-speed. Unfortunately, we all too rarely saw such weapons employed consistently. As his manager John Johnson once said of Douglas: "He can be kind of passive." This passivity resurfaced against Holyfield to fatal effect; one of Holyfield's trainers, George Benton, correctly noted that it was Douglas' fatal stylistic flaw: "[He] only punches when nothing is coming at him. He has a tremendous jab. And the way you beat a jabber is by jabbing."

Fortitude: 5
The passivity alluded to above was Douglas' most infuriating quality along with, on occasion, a seeming lack of desire. Often when the going got tough, Douglas got going too; he appeared to quit against both Tucker and Holyfield, and his much-publicised weight issues and diabetes plagued his attempts at any sort of successful comeback after he lost the heavyweight crown in October 1990. And yet against Tyson, Douglas showed incredible bravery and fortitude; surviving an eighth-round knockdown, and some big Tyson haymakers, en route to stopping his man in the tenth. The only explanation is that a magical coalescence of circumstances, including the death of Douglas' mother just 23 days before the Tyson contest, somehow came together in perfect unity to create a real-life piece of poetry superior to anything Hollywood screenwriters could ever have dreamed up. Yet Douglas' own explanation for what happened remained marvellously prosaic: "why did it happen, James?" HBO's Larry Merchant asked him after the fight. His reply? "Because I wanted it."

Impact: 8
Douglas provided boxing fans with their very own 'JFK moment'; those of us old enough to have been alive in 1990 can all recall exactly where we were when we first heard Tyson had lost; it was a result which reverberated around the world on a tidal wave of shock, confusion and disbelief. Sports Illustrated's simple but brilliant cover that week said it all: a picture of a groggy Tyson on the canvas emblazoned with the abbreviation 'KO'd'. The following week, Douglas took his place on the cover with the headline "Rocky Lives!" They forgot one crucial fact though; if you remember the climax of the first Rocky film, Rocky didn't win - Douglas did.

Boxiana verdict:
Douglas once said he'd like to be remembered as "a man who had a dream, went after it and achieved it." However his victory against Tyson was so much more than that, for it was a contest that succeeded in re-framing the narrative and perception of heavyweight boxing for all time. As Tyson fumbled for his mouth-guard, like a helpless new-born baby, we were witnessing the impossible made real and, as a result, it is likely that never again will a heavyweight champion be elevated in the collective public consciousness to the status of 'unbeatable' as Tyson was. Douglas proved that in the sphere of human existence and sporting endeavour, everybody is beatable and nothing is impossible. He reminded us that human beings, no matter what physical virtues or qualities they possess, are eternally fallible. With that truth established, heavyweight boxing has never, and will never, be quite the same again.

Total marks (out of 50): 26

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N.B. For the purposes of consistency, this series of articles uses the fight records found on BoxRec. I'm aware that, particularly in the era of newspaper decisions, no contests etc there are possible different interpretations / statistics quoted in different sources. Any queries, check BoxRec and then contact me if you have a further query.

Luke G. Williams
Follow @boxianajournal

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