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Age of the Unexpected

By Adam L. Berger

SOMETHING quite unusual happened very recently in the boxing establishment. Against all odds, a relatively unknown Buster Douglas overcame the reigning champion of heavyweights, a Goliath-like figure who had made a career of brutality.

The ex-prince of pugilism, Mike Tyson, was 23 years old and until that fateful night had enjoyed a stranglehold on his opposition. Soft-drink manufacturers coveted his endorsement and no right-minded sports fan would dare forecast an end to his reign. But after 10 rounds of padded combat, the Popeye of pop culture had fallen. The thud was heard round the world, or at least in that not-insignificant fraction which has heard of Mike Tyson.

So what does it all mean? Taken at face value, the victory was just one of the two possible outcomes when a pair of grown men descend to bestial combat and carniverous promotional dealings. But there's a higher significance to the sport, or at least to this particular match.

Laudably, Douglas tried to come to terms with this transcendent meaning. "Chalk one up for the small man," he said after the fight.

At first, this statement sounds simply absurd: The "small" Douglas is 6'4" and 231 pounds.

It would be dangerous, however, to dismiss the words of this self-proclaimed lightweight too quickly. He understands small not physically, but in the sense of an underdog, an unlikely victor. This he certainly was--the Las Vegas bookies considered him such a longshot that they wouldn't even set odds on the match.

So with a series of calculated jabs and uppercuts, Douglas earned himself the title of heavyweight champion. And with these well-chosen words after the match, he crowned himself Prince of the Unlikely.

UNLIKELY is a very 90s thing to be. Until recently, it was very declasse; the last decade was all about winners, not losers; it was about the sure bet and not the slim chance. The Mets were cool; the Pirates were not. Michael Milken was cool; New York City vagrants were (according to their mayor) definitely not. Defense spending was cool; fighting drugs seriously was not.

Even before Douglas terminated the self-assured domination of one 80s winner, other underdogs had already started the trend. They are the oppressed subjects of Soviet communism, and just like Douglas on that Saturday evening, they suddenly found themselves in a very unfamiliar and unlikely position. He was the unlikely champ; they were the surprise demonstrators.

But enough straining the metaphor; the fight was important in itself and needs no lofty comparisons to justify the media klieg lights trained on it. For the future, aficionados should keep an eye on Douglas, the new champion on the bloc. Just because a new face has replaced the old and interminable domination has ended doesn't mean we should hail the arrival of a boxing Era of Equity. Buster Douglas is champ, but the world is not necessarily a better place for his victory. Lots of things could happen from here, and many of them are rather forbidding prospects.

What if this Douglas character turns out to be just as dominating as his predecessor? What if he ruthlessly crushes all opposition with barely a swipe, nary a bead of sweat? For some reason, these questions sound rather familiar.

But it gets worse. Douglas's reign could turn out to be corrupt, full of devious back-door promotional dealings in New York and rigged fights in Vegas. Another prospect--frightening for the new victor, of course--is the return of the dethroned champ with a vengeance. The old guard is down, but not yet out.

It's too easy to be overwhelmed by the appearance of change. Sad to say, changing the name of the champ doesn't always change the way the game is played.

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