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The Ali-Shavers Fight and the Ever-Present Open Scoring Debate

Bernard Fernandez

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Ali defended

Saturday, Sept. 29, marks the 41st anniversary of Muhammad Ali’s last successful title defense. The 35-year-old Ali defended his WBA and WBC belts against Earnie Shavers, a devastating puncher, but otherwise limited, in Madison Square Garden. Those tuning in to the Thursday night fight on NBC, an estimated 70 million, were able to track the round-by-round scoring. And therein lies an interesting tale.

A bit of background. Technically, the first instance of open scoring, at least as it pertained to television, was to have been implemented by Ted Nathanson, producer for NBC Sports, which televised the May 11, 1977, heavyweight bout pitting Ken Norton against Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Although on-site spectators would not have been privy to round-by-round scoring, the TV audience would have had such access. The grand experiment proved dead on arrival, however, when Norton needed only 58 seconds of the first round to blast out Bobick.

Nathanson was nothing if not determined, however, and he successfully lobbied for the same format to be used for the Ali-Shavers fight. As was the case for Norton-Bobick, spectators in the arena would not have the same access to the round-by-round scoring as would NBC viewers. The New York State Athletic Commission, then headed by former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, signed off on the arrangement with NBC with some hesitation.

John F.X. Condon, vice president of Garden Boxing, said he originally had planned to show the round-by-round scoring on the huge overhead screen to the 14,613 on-site spectators, but he decided against it. “We didn’t think it was wise,” Condon concluded. “Personally, I think it also detracts from the pleasure of watching at home. Fight fans like to get involved. They like the uncertainty of waiting for the final decision.”

Even more adamant in his opposition to open scoring, in any form, was legendary Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner, who said he would do everything in his power to ensure that the NBC experiment would be a one-and-done, at least if he had anything to say about it. “I am against it,” Brenner stressed. “We at the Garden plan to do something about it.”

Unlike Norton-Bobick, Ali-Shavers would go the 15-round distance, with scoring on a round basis instead of the 10-point-must system now in place. Ali won by 9-5-1 on the card submitted by referee Johnny LoBianco and by 9-6 on the cards turned in by judges Tony Castellano and Eva Shain, the latter of who made history as the first woman ever to work a big-time fight. It was Ali’s 19th victorious title defense.

Garden officials were embarrassed, however, when a question of fairness was raised. The NBC telecast was shown in Ali’s dressing room, and a runner was assigned to keep Ali trainer Angelo Dundee informed of the judges’ evolving scores. The Shavers dressing room did not have similar access, which led his manager, Frank Luca, to complain of preferential treatment being granted to Ali. He said the NYSAC even attempted to obligate the fighters to use 10-ounce gloves instead of eight-ouncers, a change which was not approved but would have been detrimental to the harder-hitting challenger.

When informed of a playing field seemingly tilted to favor Ali, Patterson said the NYSAC never again would consent to open scoring at any venue in the state, be it for on-site spectators or just TV. “That will be stopped,” Patterson said. “I understand Angelo Dundee had someone running back to get him information and the other corner didn’t. That’s not fair. It could influence a fight, affect gambling in the arena with cheaters. It was not a success and it will never happen again.”

Shavers, who went into the Ali fight with a 54-5-1 record that included 52 wins inside the distance, said he might have fought differently – yeah, right – had he been apprised of the round-by-round scoring. “My corner told me I was ahead,” he lamented. “I didn’t go for the knockout. I would have put more pressure on him, taken more chances.”

Promoter Don King pushed for open scoring on May 5, 1994, at a Las Vegas press conference to hype the pay-per-view card two nights later at the MGM Grand headlined by WBC super lightweight champion Frankie Randall’s rematch with Julio Cesar Chavez, whom he had controversially outpointed nearly four months earlier.

“Progress can’t be stopped,” King said with his trademark bluster and hyperventilation. “It’s time for a change. Bring boxing out of the dark and into the light. People who go to football and basketball games know what the score is at all times. Why should boxing be the only sport where judges pass little scraps of paper back and forth and nobody else knows who’s winning until the end?”

King said he had been “excoriated and vilified” for having promoted two bouts during the previous eight months that ended in questionable decisions, and that open scoring could eliminate or reduce the problem.

“If anything controversial happens, people will be calling for (WBC president) Jose Sulaiman and me to be ridden out of town on a rail,” King continued. “One little controversy and these four great (rematches, the others being Simon Brown vs. Terry Norris, Gerald McClellan vs. Julian Jackson and Azumah Nelson vs. Jesse James Leija) suddenly become secondary. I don’t want that to happen.”

His Hairness indisputably was on target in noting that the two referenced bouts, in which Pernell Whitaker retained his WBC welterweight title on a majority draw against Chavez on Sept. 10, 1993, and Randall nipped Chavez on a split decision in large part because JCC had been docked two penalty points by referee Richard Steele, were controversial. Most ringside observers had Whitaker winning eight to 10 of the 12 rounds in San Antonio, Texas, and were it not for the two penalty points Chavez would have won a split decision instead of losing by the same margin.

Although King advocated for open scoring to be instituted immediately, he had to know that the wheels of change do not move that swiftly in Nevada or any other jurisdiction. But Marc Ratner, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, while expressing his own doubts as to the usefulness of open scoring, said such a proposal at least merited further scrutiny.

“For this particular card, there will be no open scoring,” Ratner said. “But we’re not ostriches. We don’t have our heads in the sand. This is an issue that should be studied.”

Studied and almost certainly likely to be rejected, as it later was by the NSAC, for reasons that to Ratner were even more glaringly obvious than those offered by King for the other course of action.

“What if two fighters accidentally butt heads in the fourth round and one of them suffers a cut?” hypothesized Ratner. “If the bleeding fighter is ahead on the scorecards, his corner might be tempted not to close the cut, thereby prompting the bout’s premature conclusion and a decision victory.”

An even more compelling reason to forever squash the notion of full-blown open scoring holds that a fighter, if he knows he is sufficiently ahead entering the late rounds to be uncatchable on the scorecards, would get on his bicycle and pedal around the ring to eliminate or at least reduce the risk of being knocked out. Such a safety-first approach would drain whatever measure of hope still existed for the losing fighter banking on a puncher’s-chance turnaround.

We haven’t heard the last of the open scoring debate. The subject came up again in the aftermath of the Golovkin-Alvarez rematch, a tightly contested bout which Alvarez won by majority decision, much to the displeasure of Golovkin and his supporters. But for now, fight fans must continue to live with the occasional scorecard that defies credulity. And while too much controversy is never a good thing, some of it helps sell the sport and keeps interest high up to and even beyond the final bell. The alternative is the elimination of uncertainty, and with it the magic that sometimes is produced when two fighters believe success hinges on giving maximum effort to the very last punch.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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How Oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro Became a Sidebar in the Buster Douglas Story

Arne K. Lang

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When Jimmy Vaccaro, a close friend of long standing, set odds on the Tyson-Douglas fight, he never imagined that he would become a central figure in the story about the greatest upset in boxing, arguably the most famous upset in all of sports. At some point during the course of the betting, the odds favoring Tyson hit 42 to 1 and that became the title of the newest ESPN “30 for 30” documentary which premiered on Tuesday, Dec. 11.

A little background. Vaccaro grew up in blue-collar Trafford, Pennsylvania, a small town about 20 miles from Pittsburgh. An older brother, John Paul “Sonny” Vaccaro, went on to become the most powerful man in basketball by virtue of his relationships with players, coaches, and shoe companies. He is credited with hatching Nike’s “Air Jordan” empire. (Sonny was the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary in 2016.)

In 1975, Jimmy Vaccaro arrived in Las Vegas and found work as a 21-dealer at the Royal Inn, a small casino that sat just off the Strip. The pay for a break-in dealer was $16.50 a shift.

Nevada had recently passed legislation that allowed sports betting to co-exist under the same roof with other forms of gambling. During the previous 25 years, sports betting was quarantined in little mom-and-pop bookie joints. When the Royal Inn put in a sports book, Vaccaro moved over to that department.

In November of 1989, after stops at several other books, Steve Wynn hired Vaccaro to open a sportsbook inside his newest property, the Mirage. Situated in the center of the Las Vegas Strip, the Mirage, with its artificial volcano outside the front entrance, was instantly the most “must-see” attraction in town.

At the Mirage, Vaccaro was the only department head among those that interacted with hotel guests who wasn’t made to wear a suit and tie. Sometimes he showed up for work in jeans. He was a “suit” by virtue of being a department head (a derogatory term in Las Vegas, similar in some respects to bean counter), but by all accounts he didn’t own an actual suit. Concordantly, his style of bookmaking, unrestrained by Wynn, could be described as freewheeling.

In bookmaking, unlike pari-mutuel horse racing, odds are posted on an event and then adjusted, if necessary, to stimulate more betting on the side that is under-bet. A perfectly balanced book — where there is an identical amount of money on each side — is an ideal construct, an abstraction, but bookmakers strive to achieve this by adjusting the odds to where they get two-way action and thereby stand to make roughly the same profit regardless of the outcome.

At the Mirage, Vaccaro often didn’t wait for the money to show to adjust a betting line. If he had a “dead number” – for example, a pointspread on a football game that wasn’t attracting any good-sized wagers – he would adjust it in hopes of stimulating activity. He did this on slow days, or during slow periods of a day, simply as an antidote to boredom.

On one particularly slow day, basically just for the fun of it, Vaccaro decided to post a line on the Tyson-Douglas fight. Tyson would obviously be such a heavy favorite that the proposition would attract little betting, likely just a few peanuts from the suckers in the “bet a toothpick to win a lumberyard” crowd, but, what the heck, there was nothing wrong with a little window dressing. None of the other books in Nevada had it and most hadn’t even bothered to offer odds on how long the fight would last. The wise-guys figured that Tyson would blow Douglas away within the first three rounds.

Then something incredible happened. The seemingly invincible Iron Mike Tyson lost. Buster knocked out in the 10th round. In short order, Vaccaro was summoned to appear on “Good Morning America.”

Window dressing at the Mirage wasn’t like window dressing at other properties. At other properties, a proposition designed as a conversation piece would be attached to a very low limit. The primary intent was free publicity. But the Mirage attracted a fair number of so-called whales, men (mostly from Asia) who would bet more in a short fling at baccarat than an average workingman would earn in an entire year. If inclined to bet on a sporting event, a whale could get down pretty much whatever he wanted. The sky was the limit.

Vaccaro has said that he took a $160,000 wager on Mike Tyson at 40/1 odds, a wager that would have won $4,000. That’s plausible given the clientele of the Mirage, but it’s a figure that I have always taken with a grain of salt. I say this because my friend Jimmy Vaccaro has tossed out different numbers over the years when asked about the betting.

According to various newspaper reports and what appears in certain books, the betting line opened at 27/1 (the consensus) or 35/1. It crested at 42/1 (the consensus) or 48/1.

Many years ago, Vaccaro told me for a book that I was writing that he accepted a $56,000 wager on Tyson at 28/1, a $64,000 wager at 32/1, and a $143,000 wager at 39/1. He would subsequently provide different figures (close, but different) to Las Vegas Review-Journal sportswriter Stephen Nover and others.

What is almost certainly true is that the odds hit 42/1 as they bounced around and that’s as good a number as any to illuminate the magnitude of Buster’s upset.

Nowadays, when so much betting is done online, one often sees fights where the odds are higher than 42/1. But usually these lines are just for show. Getting down a serious wager on the underdog is out of the question, although an exception would likely be made for a valued client who spreads his action around. In the old days, there were so-called newspaper lines, lines provided to newspapers for information purposes. If one wanted to bet into this line, he would likely be told, and gruffly, to go down to the newspaper office and talk to the sports editor. Good luck with that.

Odds play an important role in sports because they cut to the chase, knifing through the ballyhoo to inform us whether a match is likely to be competitive. And, as mentioned, they serve the purpose of quantifying the bigness of an upset. Before the Tyson-Douglas fight, the biggest upset in heavyweight boxing in recent times came when Leon Spinks upset Muhammad Ali in their first meeting. Ali was widely quoted as a 9/1 favorite.

Odds bedevil sportswriters, however, because they are not static and often vary from place to place. When a sportswriter weaves odds into his story, he is taking a snapshot of something that is fluid. It’s sort of like citing the distance from the shoreline to the lifeguard station at a beach. (As an aside, I would advise readers to be cautious of recycling odds that appear in old books. Most boxing historians have treated the odds very loosely and some have invented odds to imbue a storied fight with a higher shock quotient for dramatic effect.)

During my lifetime, there have been at least four instances where a baseball team available at 100/1 in April went on to win the World Series. The Leicester City soccer club overcame considerably higher odds to win the 2016 Premier League title. So, from a numbers standpoint, Buster Douglas’s upset was hardly the biggest upset in sports.

But there are upsets and then there are quantifiably lesser upsets that register much higher on the shock meter. I once met a person who told me that when he read in his Sunday morning newspaper that Mike Tyson had lost, the world stood still, as it did when JFK was assassinated and when OJ was acquitted. For some people, talk about the Tyson-Douglas fight brings back a flood of memories even if they never saw the fight.

By the way, Jimmy Vaccaro, who is prominently featured in “42 to 1,” is currently on the payroll at the South Point, a locals-oriented casino that is a good drive from the Strip, although it sits on the same boulevard. His main responsibility, so far as anyone can tell, is to hang around the sports book, one of the busiest in the city. His boss, South Point owner Michael Gaughan, once famously said, “I don’t know exactly what it is that Jimmy does around here.”

He’s still the most quotable sports betting personality in town, and as down-to-earth as ever, about what one would expect from a fellow whose father spent 42 years working in a Pennsylvania steel mill.

There are rumors that Vaccaro will be heading back to Pennsylvania before the Super Bowl and the odds of that happening, unfortunately, are a lot lower than 42/1. He’s the last of an era and the town would miss him.

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The Avila Perspective: Canelo in Manhattan and other Boxing Notes

David A. Avila

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Canelo

Amber alert. If you spot a muscular redhead walking through the streets of New York City don’t be surprised. It’s probably Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.

Once upon a time it was strange to see Mexicans in Manhattan, but today in the 21st century, plenty of Mexicans live in the city in areas like Hell’s Kitchen.

It figures that’s where the Mexicans would live.

Alvarez (50-1-2, 34 KOs) moves up a weight division to challenge England’s Rocky Fielding (27-1, 15 KOs) for the WBA super middleweight title at Madison Square Garden. DAZN will stream the world title fight and entire card free for new users.

The great experiment begins.

Fresh off his $300 million signed contract Alvarez makes his DAZN debut in New York City, an area famous for its ability to attract boxing connoisseurs. Few areas in the USA have boxing fans like those crowds attending big fights at the Garden.

“It fills me with a lot of pride because I know great fighters have fought there, like Muhammad Ali,” said Alvarez. “But to be the main event there at MSG, and if I’m not mistaken, the first Mexican there in a long time, it fills me with pride.”

Also filling up the boxing ring will be the much taller WBA champion Fielding who has a distinct height advantage. When they stood next to each other, the British fighter towered over Alvarez like the Chrysler Building overlooking the tallest tree in Central Park.

“It’s a massive fight for me at Madison Square Garden and a big challenge in Canelo Alvarez,” said Fielding, 31, who sports a five-inch height asset over Mexico’s Alvarez.

Fielding won the super middleweight title this past July when he knocked out undefeated Tyrone Zeuge in Offenburg, Germany. Knockouts have been a best friend for the Englishman in half of his last six fights.

Canelo will be carrying the load for the boxing card that features several other notable Golden Boy Promotions fighters. DAZN hopes that his star power can transfer from television to streaming.

Star power. It’s a crazy asset that can’t always be measured but in the case of Canelo he was able to attract around 1 million pay-per-views on several occasions.

From Morongo to MSG

Ten years ago an 18-year-old Canelo made his American debut at Morongo Casino, a venue that holds about 400 people. Max. I remember it well.

Located in the desert, few would have predicted that freckled face welterweight would become one of boxing’s biggest draws. Well, here he is poised to make an entrance like one of those divas on Broadway. What’s the male equivalent?

Canelo looks to become a three-division world champ of Mexican heritage. It’s a list rife with hall of fame names like Juan Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales and of course Julio Cesar Chavez. That’s lofty company.

“Canelo is going to make history that night and be one on the shortlist of Mexicans to be a three-division world champion,” said Eric Gomez, president of Golden Boy Promotions.

“It’s very important to be in that list of about ten Mexicans to become three-division world champions, so very important to enter history. That’s why I’m here taking on this important fight, and it’s important that we win this title,” said Alvarez, 28, who lives in Guadalajara.

Facing someone as tall as Fielding does have its drawbacks, but the Mexican redhead has tangled with opponents equally as tall and heavy.

Does anyone remember Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

Back on June 2017, the battle of Mexicans saw Alvarez destroy Chavez Jr. over 12 one-sided rounds with his speed, skills and relentless attack. Can Fielding find a flaw in Canelo’s armor?

“I believe what we worked on and what I can do can cause a lot of damage and a lot of — a lot more than what people are thinking,” said Fielding.

It’s an intriguing matchup designed to entice New York area fans to watch the Mexican fighter perform just months after he toppled Gennady “GGG” Golovkin from the middleweight throne and handed him his first professional loss. In a nip and tuck display of trench warfare, Canelo traded hellacious blows with Triple G and emerged the victor by majority decision.

Golovkin’s team had dared the Mexican to fight Mexican style and he obliged and overcame the Kazakh assassin’s best blows.

Mexican style has its detriments too. Those who use the offensive go-for-broke fighting method can also be the victim. It’s a 50/50 style meant to display a kill or be killed attitude that goes back to the Mexican Revolution when Pancho Villa’s army would descend on machine gun nests on horseback or on foot and overrun them with brute force. It was kill or be killed. That’s Mexican style.

Will Canelo resort to Mexican style or will he utilize the boxing skills that have made him one of the top pound for pound fighters in the world?

On Saturday fans in New York will see firsthand and those watching on DAZN will too.

HBO Farewell

Last weekend the final boxing show by HBO featured top female fighters Cecilia Braekhus and Claressa Shields in separate world title fights at the StubHub Center on a cold night.

About 900 fans scattered around the outdoor arena to watch the event that pit Braekhus against Aleksandra Lopes in a welterweight match. It was not very interesting.

In the middleweight match Shields fought Belgium’s Femke Hermans in another very one-sided fight.

The challengers both looked to survive and were severely overmatched. Punches were seldom thrown by the challengers. It was pitiful.

HBO did not offer much money for the event and thus the opponents willing to fight for the agreed purses gave lukewarm performances.

Had a budget of at least $400,000 for each fight been offered, both title fights could have easily brought worthy opponents for Braekhus like Layla McCarter who was present for the boxing card or Kali Reis who fought the welterweight champion last May.

But HBO left the cupboard bare and offered crumbs on its final boxing show.

Shields and Braekhus would have been better off fighting each other. Perhaps that fight is in the future.

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The ESPN special ‘42 to 1’ Opened a Portal Back Into a Special Time For Me

Bernard Fernandez

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ESPN

There are moments in life when you feel as if you somehow have been transported back to an event or an occasion that always will hold special meaning to the time traveler.

Watching ESPN’s latest entry in its “30 for 30” documentary series, 42 to 1, was like that for me. Not that the 50-minute special, directed by Ben Houser and Jeremy Schaap, broke new ground or revealed much, if anything, I didn’t already know. In fact, there was much behind-the-scenes stuff that might have been included and maybe even should have been, had the documentarians had more time to tell the familiar story of James “Buster” Douglas’ epic upset of seemingly invincible heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on Feb. 11, 1990. But this particular stroll down memory lane is especially significant to me because, well, I was there. It wasn’t the best prizefight or sporting event I ever covered live and in person, but it was the most compelling because it was arguably the biggest upset not only in boxing history, but maybe ever in the sports world. Being courtside for Villanova’s shocker over Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in the 1985 NCAA championship basketball game pales by comparison.

“Forty-two to one stands right at the top,” veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, who is an instrumental figure in the actual lead-up to Tyson-Douglas and throughout the documentary, said of the seemingly one-sided matchups he has made betting lines for during his long career and did not go as expected. “There’s nothing even close to it. I’m tired of hearing about the `Miracle on Ice’ (the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, loaded with college kids, shocking the veteran Soviet Union squad in the semifinals en route to the gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.). Yes, we understand it was a big upset . But you know what? (The U.S.) was only a 3 to 1 underdog as opposed to a 42 to 1 favorite (Tyson). I think it’s a little bit different.

“Forty-two to one? I’d lay 50 to one you’ll never see it again.”

Nobody with the possible exception of Douglas and a few fellow dreamers in his support crew thought that it might be possible for the often-unmotivated, frequently out-of-shape heavyweight from Columbus, Ohio, to cash the lottery ticket he had been given only because Tyson needed to fight somebody before he moved on to a scheduled June 1990 pairing with Evander Holyfield that both parties already had agreed to.

“Buster Douglas is a dog,” Tyson’s promoter, Don King, had dismissively said, not even attempting to throw a positive comment toward the designated victim who surely was about to become Iron Mike’s 38th victim. “He’s always been a quitter. Buster Douglas has a history of quitting. He quit with Tony Tucker in 1987. Really, that’s why I chose him.”

ESPN sports anchor Charley Steiner, on the evening the presumed massacre was to take place (which was actually the following day in Tokyo, 14 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time), advised viewers that “Tonight’s heavyweight championship fight might be best titled `30 seconds over Tokyo.’”

So why had I arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun eight full days before the first punch was thrown in earnest? Because my paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, was years away from having its travel budget slashed to the bone and because our then-executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, believed that there are certain athletes who were of such high interest that doing stories about them off TV simply would not suffice. Mike had dispatched another PDN writer, my colleague Elmer Smith, to Tokyo to report on Tyson’s perfunctory second-round TKO of pudgy challenger Tony Tubbs on March 21, 1988. I figured my trip to Japan would end on a similarly quick and emphatic note, but then the beauty of sports is that nothing is ever absolutely certain.

The day before I headed to the airport, I attended, but did not cover, a fight card in Atlantic City where other reporters, including Robert Seltzer, my counterpart at the Philadelphia Inquirer, asked why the PDN was spending so much money to send me halfway around the world to witness a fight that seemed a foregone conclusion. “Because Tyson is Tyson,” I replied, “and we want to be there if the mother of all upsets occurs.”

In retrospect, maybe the mother of all upsets wasn’t as long of a long shot as might have appeared at first glance. Tyson’s personal life was unraveling; his marriage to actress Robin Givens was on the rocks, he had fired capable trainer Kevin Rooney nearly two years earlier and instead would have the Bobbsey twins, Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, working his corner. He also, an inside source had advised several media members, was shuttling Japanese hookers in and out of his hotel suite at night as if they were a relay team passing the baton at an X-rated track meet. In a story authored by Eric Raskin for Playboy a couple of years ago, I was quoted as saying that, if sex really does sap a boxer’s strength in the weeks before a bout, it was amazing that Tyson had enough energy to crawl into the ring before the opening bell.

Meanwhile, Douglas – whose potential never had been questioned, only his commitment to push himself in training – was in the best condition of his career, and his mind was right, too, having dedicated the victory he dared to believe he could get to his late mother, Lula Pearl Douglas, who had passed away less than three weeks earlier.

It was a jumble of circumstances that would have stamped Douglas as far less likely to have his butt kicked, had all information been available to the public. In addition to his litany of personal woes, an arrogant Tyson had made the same mistake that often brings down the luminously gifted. He figured he could just show up and win because, well, hadn’t he always done that?

During a TV interview prior to squaring off against Douglas, a clearly bored Tyson dropped broad hints that he had not exactly punished himself into peak condition.

Q: Do you always go into the ring feeling like you’re invincible?

A: Yeah.

Q: Let’s get to Buster. What’s you biggest concern going into this fight?

A: I got no concerns.

Q: What do you think Buster’s …

A: I don’t have any idea what he’s thinking. I don’t care. I’m a champion, you know what I mean?

So prohibitive a favorite was Tyson to continue his reign of terror that almost every sports book in Las Vegas didn’t bother to post a line. That’s where Vaccaro came in, unwittingly setting the stage and the now-legendary numbers for the title of the ESPN documentary.

“Well, almost none,” Vaccaro said after an unseen voice mentions that every other sports book was taking a pass on Tyson-Douglas. “I did. Let me set the stage for you. In 1990, the biggest star in sports was Mike Tyson. `Iron Mike’ was a knockout machine. In 37 fights he’d never been on the canvas. Never hurt, never challenged. Nobody thought James `Buster’ Douglas would be any different. No one thought Buster could win.

“Back then I was at The Mirage and I decided we would take action on the fight. The favorite? Tyson, of course. The underdog, Douglas. The odds? Forty-two to one.”

That where the steadily rising line stopped, in any case.

“Well, naturally everybody thought, including myself, that Tyson couldn’t lose the fight,” Vaccaro pointed out later in the program. “So the opening odds were set at 27 to 1. But I kept raising the odds to maybe get a bet  on James `Buster’ Douglas. From 32 to 1 to 37 to 1, but we still couldn’t get anyone to bet on the underdog until we got to the pinnacle – 42 to 1.”

Even then, most of the bets that did come in were from well-heeled types who figured they’d put up a lot to get a little on what seemed to be a sure thing.

“We got a thousand, $1,500 here and there on Douglas,” Vaccaro continued. “But, you know, we actually took about 10 bets on Mike Tyson at 42 to 1, meaning you’d have to bet $42,000 to win $1,000. One gentleman put up over $160,000 on one bet to win, like, $4,000. It was incredible.”

Here’s guessing that guy was looking for a tall building with a roof from which he could jump off after Douglas methodically beat up and finally stopped Tyson in the 10th round. The only time a window of opportunity opened for the soon-to-be former champ was when he connected with a ripping right uppercut that dropped Douglas for a nine count in round eight. Tyson supporters to this day insist that referee Octavio Meyran was slow with his count , but Douglas was looking straight at Meyran and knew he could get up before the toll reached 10. He then demonstrated he wasn’t as hurt as he might have appeared by again seizing the upper hand with a dominant ninth round.

Alas, the mountaintop Douglas had just scaled proved to be a slippery slope. He had slain the most fearsome beast in the heavyweight jungle, all right, a feat that would bring him a $24 million payday for his first title defense, which came on Oct. 25, 1990, at The Mirage, against Holyfield. But the determined, in-shape Douglas had again slipped back into the shadows by then, and when he weighed in at a jiggly 246 pounds against Holyfield, 14½ more than he had for Tyson, there was a mad rush toward the betting windows by attendees hoping to get a hefty wager down on Holyfield before the odds shifted. The race belonged to the swift as Holyfield delivered a beautiful counter right to win by knockout in the third round.

At 58, Buster Douglas appears to be fat and happy these days. You can live a pretty good life if you are intent on making a $24 million windfall last, and the fighter previously known for wasted potential still is riding the high surf generated by one magical performance. He now serves as a boxing instructor to young kids in the same Columbus gym where his late father, a tough middleweight named Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, first dreamed of making his son into the world titlist he never got to be himself. It is a success story with only one undeniably positive chapter, but that sometimes is more than other people ever get a whiff at when the book of their lives is written.

I came back from Tokyo with the kind of memories that aren’t easily erased. One of my sons received my souvenir program; he now lives out of state and I don’t see him as often as I would like. I hope he held onto it because I suspect it might be worth something now.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

Editor’s Note: ESPN’s “42 to 1” premiered Tuesday evening, Dec. 11, at 9:00 PM EST. The next showings are scheduled for 2:00 AM Wednesday morning, Dec. 12, on ESPN2, Sunday, Dec. 16, at 5 PM on ESPN2, and Sunday, Dec. 16, at 9:00 PM on ESPN. All times Eastern.

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