How Buster Douglas changed the history of pro wrestling

Do you know where Mike Tyson was supposed to be two weeks after his 1990 bout with James “Buster” Douglas?

tyson 1990He was supposed to be at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, refereeing the WWF Title match between Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage live in primetime on NBC.

Tyson never made it to Detroit. He was knocked out by Douglas in Tokyo and disappeared from public view. He would return in the summer of 1990, having four fights before going to jail as a convicted rapist.

Taking his place at the WWF special was Douglas, the definition of a one-hit wonder as he quickly lost the Heavyweight Title to Evander Holyfield in October. His appearance with the WWF is lost to the vestiges of time.

However, Buster Douglas nearly ruined the WWF.

The Prologue

In 1989, Mike Tyson was the most famous athlete in the world.

In 1989, Hulk Hogan was as hot as any pro wrestler has ever been.

For Tyson, his reign as heavyweight champion was the most financially successful ever. Tyson was a household name and the world stopped when he fought. He had leapt from the sports page to the front page. It is literally impossible to understate how big of a phenomenon that Mike Tyson was in the late 1980’s.

Not only was Tyson ruling the sports world, his rise to fame coincided with the rise of hip-hop, and artists found an idol in Tyson, with his black trunks and no-nonsense approach. We would learn later that Tyson’s fame was living on borrowed time by time the 1990’s arrived but leading up to the Tokyo fight with Buster Douglas, the general public was blissfully unaware.

For Hogan, 1989 proved to be a year of redemption. While 1988 was the year of Randy Savage, Hogan regained the WWF Title at WrestleMania V in a match that drew one of the largest buyrates in history. This is especially notable since pay-per-view was available in far fewer homes in 1989, yet the power of that match was enough to outdraw every wrestling show for the next eight years.

As the 1990’s arrived, Vince McMahon sensed that the time was ticking on Hulkamania. He had been the #1 star for the WWF since 1984. Though a span of six years seems short to today’s fan, which has seen John Cena rule for a decade, there was the notion that Hogan’s drawing power may eventually reach a saturation point. As we have seen with the now-failing WWE Network, Vince McMahon is someone who swings for the fences.

In early 1990, WrestleMania VI was announced to take place at the then-new Skydome in Toronto. The spectacle, without a main event set, was dubbed, “The Ultimate Challenge.”

The Rumors

According to the Wrestling Observer, rumors of a Hulk Hogan/Mike Tyson match started percolating in 1988. At that point, there did not seem to be anything substantial to the rumors other than everyone agreeing it would be the biggest money-maker in the history of pro wrestling, boxing, pay-per-view and potentially live entertainment.

By 1990, these rumors picked up serious steam and Don King – never one to back down from a microphone – did nothing to quell those rumors. Whether a Hulk Hogan/Mike Tyson match was ever actually in the works is something known only by a select few. We do know it was floated in the mainstream media by Don King.

As King told the Daily News in early 1990, “If Vince came up with the money - and I'm talking between $100 and $200 million - I might be able to convince Mike to do it.”

These rumors gained steamed as it was announced the WWF would be paying Mike Tyson nearly $1 million to be the special guest referee at The Main Event on Feb. 23, 1990, during the live, primetime NBC special.

In the world of the WWF, there was another superstar who was on the brink of mainstream acceptance – the Ultimate Warrior. As Vince McMahon ruminated on the eventual end of Hulkamania, everyone knew that the Ultimate Warrior was being groomed to replace Hogan as the top star.

With everything swirling, there was little doubt that something big was going to happen in Detroit. In fact, in the weeks leading up to the Buster Douglas fight, Don King had a special guest in Tokyo – Vince McMahon. The two reportedly discussed creating a partnership to promote wrestling supercards, Mike Tyson fights, movies and even a cartoon featuring Tyson.

The Possibilities

In existence for only two years, The Main Event had become the most important television show on the WWF calendar.

In 1988, the first Main Event featured Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan in a rematch from WrestleMania III. It drew 33 million viewers to NBC and remains the most-watched pro wrestling match in American history.

In 1989, the second Main Event featured the breakup of the Mega Powers as Randy Savage turned on Hulk Hogan. The breakup included Savage producing arguably the best heel promo in pro wrestling history – see above about the WrestleMania V buyrate.

So the stakes were high going into 1990, as Savage and Hogan would face off in a rematch for the WWF title with the most famous athlete in the world as the special guest referee.

warrior hogan
While the Main Event for WrestleMania VI was officially announced as The Ultimate Warrior vs. Hulk Hogan, the pro wrestling rumor mill was in overdrive stating that it would not happen.

For one, the Hogan/Tyson match loomed as a possibility. Secondly, speculation soared that Vince was getting cold-feet on his plan of having the Ultimate Warrior defeat Hogan for the title – Hogan had never lost cleanly in the WWF. To avoid this, it was believed Savage would win the WWF Title on the Main Event, potentially with help from Tyson, to set up Savage vs. Warrior and Hogan vs. Tyson at WrestleMania VI.

“In the months before Douglas' stunning victory, King and McMahon were working on a three-part scheme designed to take hundreds of millions of dollars from foolish sports fans and the parents of impressionable children.

King owned Tyson, considered unbeatable at the time. And McMahon's WWF owned Hulk Hogan, the kind of cartoon character only pro wrestling can manufacture.

Together, these two super hustlers planned to combine their two super heroes into one of the grandest money-making schemes in sports history.

According to sources, the scenario was to unfold on Feb. 23 when Tyson received $1 million to serve as guest referee on a wrestling card pitting Hogan against Randy Savage, a designated bad guy.

Tyson was to somehow interfere, allow Savage to win, and Hogan and Tyson would then be matched in a pay-per-view extravaganza expected to generate at least $125 million.”

Then Mike Tyson lost.

The Event

All we know for sure is that the WWF had something planned for Mike Tyson at The Main Event in 1990. What that was is unknown. We do know, regardless of the plan, it would have been one of the biggest, most memorable shows in pro wrestling history.

Instead, what did happen was one of the most underwhelming shows in pro wrestling history. The Savage/Hogan match with Douglas as referee was a dud (watch here) and failed to boost any interest in the WWF, despite the show doing a better rating that the Main Event from 1989.

The buyrate for WrestleMania VI trailed the previous year’s show by more than 200,000 – a decline of millions upon millions of dollars

The Aftermath

The Main Event in 1990 marked the end of the WWF’s Golden Age.

With the Ultimate Warrior as the new #1 star, attendance for WWF shows dropped like a rock in the summer of 1990.

The WWF announced that WrestleMania VII would take place “in front of 100,000 screaming fans” at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Dwindling interest in The Ultimate Warrior and a tasteless Iraqi sympathizer angle with Sgt. Slaughter meant that never happened.

In fact, the WWF would not return to a legitimately sold-out dome after WrestleMania VI for more than a decade. The failure of the Ultimate Warrior and the end of Hulkamania started a painful, seven-year descent that led to WCW and its Monday Nitro becoming the #1 wrestling promotion in the United States.

Who knows how different it all would have played out if Mike Tyson had brought his star power to Detroit and lent it to the Ultimate Warrior? Actually…we do know…

The Epilogue

The Monday Night War turned in early 1998.

austin tysonStone Cold Steve Austin in 1997, like the Ultimate Warrior in 1989, was the hottest thing in professional wrestling. The only problem for Vince McMahon is that everyone in 1997 was watching WCW, which meant the awesomeness of Austin was going unnoticed.

Enter Mike Tyson.

Almost exactly 8 years after his first WWF appearance was scrapped, Mike Tyson showed up and got into a shoving match with Steve Austin on live television. The clip was played endlessly on news shows and SportsCenter for weeks to come. Tyson made his WrestleMania appearance that year as a “special enforcer” and the show’s buyrate was the best since, you guessed it, 1989.

Several weeks after that WrestleMania, Monday Night Raw would beat Monday Nitro in the ratings for the first time nearly 2 years.

By 2001, the WWF returned to a sold-out dome as Steve Austin faced the Rock at WrestleMania 17, mere weeks after Vince McMahon bought WCW and established a pro wrestling monopoly in this country.

Who knew that the history of pro wrestling would be so dramatically altered by a boxing match in Tokyo?

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  1. I had zero clue that Buster Douglas was in the WWF ever. Especially in such a huge spot.


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