The Last Great Fight

The Extraordinary Tale of Two Men and How One Fight Changed
Their Lives Forever

By Joe Layden

St. Martin's, 320 pp. $24.95


Reviewed by Allen Barra


In Tokyo on Feb. 11, 1990, to the mute astonishment of Japanese boxing fans, an unheralded challenger from Ohio named James "Buster" Douglas scored perhaps the biggest upset in heavyweight boxing history when he knocked out the seemingly invincible champion Mike Tyson in the 10th round. Douglas was a 42-1 underdog - if you could find anyone who would take the bet. To put that in perspective, consider that the famed "Cinderella Man," James J. Braddock, was only a 10-1 underdog when he beat Max Baer for the title in 1935.

The fight should have made Douglas into a national hero and given boxing a much-needed shot in the arm. Instead, it led to the swift unraveling of the careers of both Douglas and Tyson, who were never the same again. Boxing began, Joe Layden writes in prose as crisp as a Sugar Ray Robinson jab, "a long and precipitous slide toward the margins of mainstream sport."

Tyson is credited by Layden - perhaps a tad too generously, as at least one prominent boxing commentator regarded him as "a cancer on boxing" - with resurrecting the fight game. He was, though, undeniably the biggest draw in the heavyweight division since Muhammad Ali at his peak. It was his "menace and bloodlust that brought people to the arena, that compelled otherwise frugal and sensible consumers to spring for a Home Box Office subscription." Not since since Joe Louis demolished his "Bum of the Month Club" in the late 1930s had any heavyweight seemed so devastating.

Douglas, the son of a veteran fighter, was "a thoughtful, introspective boy" who "loved boxing, which is not to say that he enjoyed fighting." For just one time in his life, he was able to focus his energy and attention on training, and he beat Tyson so decisively that many thought he would rule the heavyweight ranks for years. For a year, at least, Douglas was the highest-paid athlete in the world, but in his first title defense, against Evander Holyfield, he was so listless and overweight that many thought his defeat by a fourth-round knockout was a disgrace. Tyson, meanwhile, demoralized by the loss of his crown, descended further into a pattern of violence and self-indulgence, including a rape conviction in 1992 that kept him in prison for most of his prime years. Their much-anticipated rematch never happened.

Layden doesn't belabor the obvious - there's no need to. The villain in the story is promoter Don King, who, with Tyson as his meal ticket, tried to have the result overthrown on a technicality. Failing that, King actually moved to Douglas' hometown of Columbus and coaxed Buster's father, as well as NAACP director Benjamin Hooks, into convincing Buster to leave his white manager and throw his fortunes in with King. "I was harassed every day I was heavyweight champion of the world," Douglas recalled for Layden. "By the time the Holyfield fight came around, it was total chaos in our camp."

Later, after Douglas lost his title, King hooked up again with Tyson, who eventually sued him for $100 million for stealing from his purses; Tyson was awarded $14 million but spent most of it settling numerous lawsuits, ranging from assault to past-due trainer's fees. Douglas, meanwhile, made one failed attempt at a comeback and was then diagnosed with diabetes. As Tyson's former publicist Mike Marley crassly put it, his man went to prison while "the other guy becomes a happy fat man with a terrible illness. I don't think you can find a better soap opera than that." If Douglas wasn't exactly happy, he at least walked away from boxing contented, having invested his money wisely, something as rare in the sport as a white heavyweight champion.

It's likely that boxing, if not dead, is unlikely to ever produce a fight of such widespread significance as the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas match. Boxing fans will want to add

The Last Great Fight

to the vast collection of great books on the sweet science, from Hemingway to A.J. Liebling to Norman Mailer. Just file it at the end of the shelf; it's the last book you'll ever need.

Allen Barra is contributing writer to the Village Voice and Salon.com.