It was three days before Mike Tyson's title defense in Tokyo. A group of reporters clustered around the champion just before a news conference. Another group was around leading contender Evander Holyfield.
Virtually ignored was James "Buster" Douglas, although it was he and not Holyfield who was to be the opponent for Tyson's second championship appearance in Japan."Opponent," not challenger, was the word most associated with Douglas, who was supposed to be just a lucrative minute waltz for Iron Mike - a tuneup for his fight against the unbeaten Holyfield June 18.
As the fight unfolded in the Tokyo Dome on Sunday afternoon Feb. 11, it was Douglas calling the tune.
During the eighth round, Jim Lampley, who called the fight on HBO, said, "Can you imagine Buster Douglas the heavyweight champion of the world? It boggles the mind."
Douglas was knocked down late in the eighth, but in the 10th round it was Tyson's mind that was boggled. James "Buster" Douglas was champion.
"This makes Cinderella look like a sad story, what Buster Douglas has done here tonight," HBO analyst Larry Merchant said.
It was arguably the greatest upset in boxing history, and it was voted sports story of the year by member newspapers of The Associated Press, edging out the jailing of Pete Rose.
Both Douglas-Tyson and the Rose story received 23 first-place votes, but the Tyson defeat totaled 647 points to 599 for Rose. The shocking World Series sweep by the Cincinnati Reds was third with eight first-place votes and 527 points, and the San Francisco 49ers' fourth Super Bowl victory was No. 4 with nine first place votes and 520 points. The ouster of George Steinbrenner from baseball finished fifth with eight first-place votes and 484 points.
Douglas, who had quit against Tony Tucker in a bid for a piece of the title in 1988, was a man on a mission, his determination fueled by personal problems. His mother had died in mid-January, the mother of his son was seriously ill with a kidney ailment and at the time he was separated from his wife.
The controversy occurred when Douglas was knocked down by a right uppercut with three seconds left in the eighth round. Referee Octavio Meyran did not pick up the knockdown timekeeper's count at three but began his count at one. Douglas got up as Meyran tolled nine, and the referee's 10-count is the only one a fighter has to beat.
Douglas had Tyson in serious trouble in the ninth, then knocked him out in the 10th with a right uppercut, followed by a right, left, grazing right and another left.
Asked to explain his performance, Douglas said, "I just did what I did."
Later in 1990, an out-of-shape Douglas carried 246 pounds into the ring against Holyfield and was knocked out in the third round.
The rest of the top 10 stories of the year, in order, are:
- Pete Rose, already banned from baseball for gambling, was sentenced to five months in prison for income tax evasion.
- The Cincinnati Reds, heavy underdogs, swept Oakland's defending champions to capture the World Series.
- MVP Joe Montana threw a record five touchdown passes as San Francisco won its fourth Super Bowl, walloping Denver 55-10.
- George Steinbrenner, iron-fisted owner of the New York Yankees for 17 years, was ordered to surrender control of the team after his involvement with a gambler.
- At age 43, in the same season as he won his 300th game, Nolan Ryan pitched the sixth no-hitter of his career.
- Hank Gathers, who helped Loyola Marymount's basketball program to national prominence, collapsed and died on the court.
- Controversy over discriminatory membership policies at Shoal Creek, site of the 1990 PGA Championship, led to new site selection standards for future tournaments and the first black members at Shoal Creek and Augusta National.
- UNLV, long at odds with the NCAA, won college basketball's national championship and the chance to defend it when the NCAA reversed a ruling that originally barred the Runnin' Rebels from the 1991 tournament.
- Baseball spring training was cut in half when the owners locked players out of camps in a contract dispute.