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The Last Great Fight, by Joe Layden

Masterpiece on a bloodied canvas: Buster boxes clever to turn iron into gold

From bums of the month to champions of the world, boxing's limitless capacity to wreck the lives of its protagonists is well documented. In February 1990, arguably the greatest upset in the history of sport unfolded in front of a silent Japanese crowd who seemed not to realise what was happening. For one man, James "Buster" Douglas, it was his once-in-a-lifetime moment when everything coalesced; for the other, "Iron" Mike Tyson, it was a night from which he would never recover.

Inspiration of the kind that allows limits to be transcended sometimes strikes in unpromising circumstances. In the months preceding what looked like certain defeat, Douglas's life was in chaos: his marriage was in trouble, his mother had died.

But a journeyman who had become known as a quitter located within himself – and, crucially, those around him – the qualities necessary to take on and beat a man who had stated that his aim was to push opponents' nasal bones into their brains.

Tyson was the undefeated, undisputed world champion, a tyrannical and thunderous force who overwhelmed his opponents. Douglas was the 42-1 underdog. Tyson, physically and mentally unready, underestimated him. Douglas was calm and focused, and in the ring outmanoeuvred and out-fought the champion. Tyson would never again dominate his sport. A conviction for rape ensued as his life and career fell apart.

Joe Layden has plunged himself into a world whose golden rule is "screw the talent". He has unearthed a panoply of fascinating characters, the good, the bad and the truly appalling (step forward Don King, the promoter who always wins). Douglas, one of the good guys, defended his belts against Evander Holyfield, but lost abjectly. There were rumours that, having been clubbed to the canvas, he seized the chance to stay down. "Man, I was exhausted," he tells Layden.

Layden believes that Tyson's career came to an end that night in Tokyo. Tyson earned about $300m, but in 2003 was declared bankrupt, and now fights exhibition matches to pay his debts. "Smart too late and old too soon," he said. Happily, Douglas defies the stereotype. Financially secure and raising a family, at the end of the book he is working on an urban renewal project in his home town, Columbus, Ohio. Though his life has panned out better than Tyson's, Douglas found that dreams always end. "I had my moment," says history's biggest one-hit wonder. "It was a beautiful thing."

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