March 21, 1988: Tyson vs Tubbs

Mike Tyson marries Robin Givens in February of 1988, then boards a plane to Tokyo, fulfilling a promise he made two years prior to defend his title for the people of Japan.

At Marita Airport, throngs of fans. “Tyson Fever” in Tokyo, a bigger deal there than on U.S. soil. The attention is startling to the champ; every move he makes is watched, followed, photographed. Little Japanese kids rush up to him on the street; to them he is the 8-bit monster from Nintendo’s “Punch-Out” made flesh. The women cover their mouths and giggle; the men, a mixture of disgust and respect. He is American power, brute force. Iron Mike, just 21-years-old, and already something of a living legend.


Of Tokyo, Tyson says, “It feels like I left home, went to another planet.” But this is still young Mike, polite Mike … see him sitting at the press conference, behind a ring of pink roses, smiling, doing his best to understand. Intimidated, tentative. “Does no one speak English?” he politely asks.

It is in Korakuen Stadium that Tyson finds comfort — the huge, white Tokyo Dome, The Big Egg. He’s come to do a job, to protect his championship, his undefeated record. “Wherever I fight is my home,” he says now.

The Japanese promoters selected Tony Tubbs as his opponent, a former champ himself, a big man. They decide he’s the most likely contender to extend the fight with Tyson, to take it deep into the late rounds. Big Tubbs, thirty years old, has always struggled with his weight. Weighed 212 in his first professional fight and just twenty fights later he’s thirty pounds heavier. Likes to eat, not fond of training. The promoters offer him a $50 000 bonus if he can come into the Tyson bout under 235. He weighs in at 238 ½.

Tony Tubbs
Tony Tubbs

But Tony is confident. Despite his size he has surprising hand speed. Says he’s going to work Tyson’s body, something Iron Mike’s previous opponents have failed to do. Tubbs wants a close, inside fight, short punches. Tyson’s big flaw is that he lunges in, and Tubbs is angling to catch him with the uppercut.

Under the big white dome, Tubbs comes to the ring in a shining white robe with red trim. Rap music playing, his entourage in flat-brimmed ball-caps, chains, sunglasses. He’s huge, bouncing around. Doesn’t even look like he’s from the same species as the tiny reserved men in the audience. Mike Tyson enters gladiator-style – no robe, no towel, bare-chested. Just boots, gloves and black trunks. The crowd roars as he paces the ring like a dog, like a dragon. He wipes his mouth with the back of his glove, salivating, ready.

Tyson vs Tubbs
Tyson in Tokyo with new bride Robin Givens.

Bell rings and the two fighters get in close. Tubbs hangs tough with Tyson, aims at the body like he said he would. Connects with a few effective shots, looks like he’s shocked the champ a couple times. The TV commentators give the round to Tubbs, everyone impressed with his grit, his lack of fear.

Back before all this, in the lead-up to the fight, Tyson met with Japan’s superstar Sumo wrester, Konishiki – a promotional thing, lots of pictures, playing around. But in the second round, you can see Tyson brings a bit of Konishiki to Tubbs — digging in with his heels, pushing, head grinding around, shoving him back, back …

With a minute left in the round, Tyson lands a huge left. Tubbs practically sits down on the ropes. Then it’s a right to Tubbs’ big gut, and straight up to the head with the right again. Lightning fast work, two hard shots. Just before round’s end and Tubbs is trying to hang on. Steps out, takes a bit of space from the champ now, but that only opens the door for one of Tyson’s classic lunges. And this one is brutal.

Tyson slams Tubbs in the side of the head with a massive left hook. It’s surprising, seems to come from nowhere. Tubbs’ hands are still up around his face, but he’s spinning around on his toes, his motor skills failing. Wobbling, he turns his back on the champ and falls, deflated, into the corner. His team throws in the towel, and soon puts another under Tony’s head to soak up the blood.

Tubbs going down.

Tubbs lies there, lost, staring up at the pure white curvature of the Tokyo Dome’s ceiling. His gaze seems to pierce through it, out to the sky beyond, out to where billions of stars hang in black pulsing space. Those alien suns orbited by invisible planets, unimaginable worlds …

But back under the shell of the Big Egg, Tyson grins, at home. The TV man sticks a microphone in his face.

“This is my world in here,” says the Champ.

— David Como

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2 thoughts on “March 21, 1988: Tyson vs Tubbs

  • March 23, 2018 at 9:50 am

    “Tyson enters gladiator-style – no robe, no towel, bare-chested. Just boots, gloves and black trunks. The crowd roars as he paces the ring like a dog, like a dragon. He wipes his mouth with the back of his glove, salivating, ready.”
    ^loved this paragraph and the piece on the whole.

  • July 1, 2019 at 2:01 am

    “Wherever I fight is my home. I’m only here to do a job.. .. Sometimes I feel like I left earth and went to another planet. I wanted to be heavyweight champion, but I never wanted to be a super, superstar. This is scary, to be a bigger star in another country than you are in your own country. It scares me. The Japanese all want to touch my hair all the time. But if they touch my hair, fair is fair. I touch their hair back.” – Mike Tyson on fighting in Japan. “I know, physically, I’m in shape. 230 is my weight. 229, 228 is a plus, but I’ll be 230 and hard. Physically, you’ll be seeing the new Tony Tubbs. When I step in the ring, they’re going to say, ‘Wow, look at that cat.’ And you know, the thing about it, once I start putting the moves down on Mike Tyson, I’m gonna change—you know what? This fight might not be as hard as y’all think it’s going to be, because Mike Tyson is only good for what he can hit. I know right now that I am one of the best heavyweights there is in the world. I can box better than any of them, and I ain’t taking no back seats to none of them. I’m not even taking a backseat to Mike Tyson.” – Tony Tubbs during a pre-fight interview with HBO.


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