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Ian Thomsen Recalls His Days with Buster Douglas Before Buster ‘Shocked the World'

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  • Ian Thomsen Recalls His Days with Buster Douglas Before Buster ‘Shocked the World'

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    By Rick Assad

    Mike Tyson's reign of terror in the heavyweight division began on March 6, 1985 at the Plaza Convention Center in Albany, New York, when he flattened Hector Mercedes in one round and it concluded for all intents and purposes on February 11, 1990 at the Tokyo Dome in Japan when James "Buster'' Douglas stunned the boxing world by knocking him out in the tenth round, scooping up the World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles in the process.

    Several weeks before the bout in which odds-makers had established "Iron Mike" as a 42-1 betting favorite, sportswriter Ian Thomsen spent time with Douglas in his hometown. The result was an insightful feature in the short-lived National Sports Daily that appeared in the February 9-10 issue and ran four pages.

    On the cover and at the bottom of the newspaper, this teaser appeared: “Buster: Big Talk, Little Chance” and the subhead said “Tyson's Saturday Opponent Confident Of Upset.”

    The headline above the story blared: “All Alone With Mike Tyson” and the subhead stated: “Alone, Except For Jesus Christ And Woody Hayes And Even They Might Not Be Able To Help.”

    "I was with The National Sports Daily [1989 through 1991] and they had four of us doing long stories. They called them the main event and they were take outs. They wanted me to go out to Columbus, Ohio, and spend a week up there and get to know him and let people know who he was before he submitted to what everybody figured would be a loss," explained Thomsen who came to “The National” from the Boston Globe. He subsequently worked for the International Herald Tribune (1992-1997) and was with Sports Illustrated from 1998 until 2014 where he covered the NBA and wrote the first story on Kobe Bryant for the magazine.

    Given Tyson had a 37-fight winning streak and had stopped 23 of his victims within the first two rounds, few gave Douglas any chance of coming away with a victory.

    "I didn't go to Japan for the fight, I just spent the time with Buster,'' Thomsen said. "There is a story that when [Associated Press boxing writer] Ed Schuyler was filling the form for security at the airport and he said it was a business appointment, they asked how long he was going to be there and he said about ninety seconds. That's what everybody thought."

    Thomsen, who currently works for news.northeastern.edu, a website that covers Northeastern University in Boston where he has been a multimedia reporter since 2018 writing on all subjects involving Northeastern happenings and interviewing university experts for their opinions on national and global events, said the set-up for Douglas wasn't filled with glitz and fanfare, but there was a sense of confidence within the camp.

    "When I went out there I didn't know a thing about Buster. I remember my first day there I went out that night and went to the training ground and he was at a health club in Columbus and they roped off a corner of the health club so all these people are there after work,'' he said. "Behind a curtain in the health club there was a ring set up for Buster and the only people I remember being there were his manager John Johnson, his uncle and trainer, J.D. McCauley and another trainer [John Russell], who helped him out."

    Johnson was a former assistant football coach at Ohio State University during the time head coach Woody Hayes patrolled the sideline. In many ways, Hayes, who passed away in March 1987 at 74, was a mentor and an inspiration to Johnson.

    Thomsen, a Northwestern University journalism graduate who penned the 2018 book "The Soul Of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, And Dirk That Saved The NBA," said the more time he spent at the camp, the more he could see Douglas feeling at ease.

    Still, there's always that bit of doubt because of what Tyson had accomplished.

    "And you're watching him work out and you're saying to yourself, ‘this guy is going to beat Mike Tyson?’ It was such a small production," Thomsen remembered.

    That aside, there was a real belief in the camp that Tyson was going to have his hands full.

    "He [Buster] thought he was going to win and John Johnson thought he was going to win but doesn't every fighter think he's going to win?" Thomsen said.

    Tyson seemed indestructible at this juncture of his career and it was almost inconceivable that he would lose.

    "You watch Tyson's fights and you see what happens to them [his opponents]. Buster was going to take on a great challenge and the more I got to know him, the more you had to admire him," Thomsen said of Douglas.

    Boxing was in his DNA, Thomsen pointed out.

    "His dad [William "Dynamite'' Douglas] was an ex-fighter and a really tough guy and was hard on Buster,'' he noted. “It was one of those troubled relationships that you're never good enough. It was an impossible standard to live up to."

    The elder Douglas, who posted a 42-16-1 professional ring record with 32 knockouts, was a contender in the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.

    Father and son were vastly different according to Thomsen.

    "Buster was a more gentle guy than his father. That was clear from spending time with both of them,'' he pointed out. "His mother [Lula Pearl] was a wonderful person and spoke highly of everybody. You could see how important she was in his life. After I left she died [at age 46 from a stroke] about a week before the fight. Obviously there were questions of whether Buster would fight.''

    Though Thomsen wasn't certain of the outcome, he felt Douglas was sincere and hard-working.
    "Maybe if I hadn't spent any time with him I would have dismissed him as another guy that's going to get killed by Mike Tyson, but when you spend a week there and you see what it's all about and everything he's overcome and the fact that he's put in this position, instead of writing a story dismissing him or making fun of him, you want to convey a sense of respect for him," he said.

    It seems Douglas and his handlers were impressed by Thomsen's feature because after the victory, he was asked to join them in Sin City.

    "It meant something to him. That's why I was invited to be part of the group after he beat Tyson,'' he said. "I flew out to Las Vegas in Steve Wynn's private jet.''

    Thomsen said Tyson's loss that night was the beginning of the end for the one-time Brooklyn bad boy.

    "Tyson was not as technically sound a fighter as he had been before,'' he said. "When Tyson lost he was a global figure. Everybody knew the heavyweight champion. No one came along to match the stature of Tyson. It was the end of boxing as we knew it."

    Like so many during the 1970s, Thomsen followed boxing and recalled some of the big names and bouts of that era.

    "I loved boxing as a kid growing up and watching it and the big fights that would be on ABC on the weekends, especially Friday nights,'' he said. "You knew all the heavyweights. It was a great honor to be heavyweight champion of the world.''

    Some of the names of that era are folk heroes.

    "I remember [Muhammad] Ali was making his comeback against Joe Frazier,'' Thomsen said. "I remember and was horrified to see what [George] Foreman did to Frazier and [Ken] Norton breaking Ali's jaw."

    "The one big fight I covered was the [Marvin] Hagler-[Ray] Leonard fight in Las Vegas,'' he said. "Steve Marantz [the boxing writer] and [columnists] Leigh Montville and Ron Borges were there. I was a young guy. I didn't talk to Hagler. I spent more time talking to Angelo Dundee. But you could see the energy there."

    When Thomsen worked at the International Herald Tribune and was based in Europe, he spent more time ringside.

    "I covered a few Lennox Lewis fights. I covered a fight in Cardiff, Wales, against Frank Bruno [1993]. It was like midnight and 2 or 3 in the morning,'' he said. "It was very strange. Frank Bruno was a limited fighter. He had a big punch but not much else."

    Thomsen recalled a prescient conversation he had more than two decades ago.

    "I used to work at the Boston Globe [1983 through 1989] and it was an honor to work with Will McDonough, who was one of the top newsmakers in sports writing,'' he said. "We were playing golf one day about 20 years ago and he said in the 1950s the big three sports in America were horse racing, boxing and baseball. He was pointing out just how quickly things change. Back then in the 1950s in the NBA, you couldn't make enough of a salary to do it full time. A lot of NBA players had off-season jobs to make ends meet. Boxing was the glamour sport. Now it's the opposite."

    It seems that no truer words were ever spoken.
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