Sometime on Sunday night, Buster Douglas' name made a sudden return to the landscape. Strangely enough, his name was back in the news because a Swedish tennis player won a tennis match in Paris. Robin Soderling's upset of Rafael Nadal had people reaching way back in history to find a sports shocker of heft to use in comparison, and there isn't one bigger than Douglas' knockout of Mike Tyson in 1990.
Is it justified, though? You have to use an individual sport, because the difference between tennis or boxing and team sports is too great to really make a fair comparison. Tyson was more dominant than Nadal overall, but Rafa's unbeaten career record in the French Open certainly put him in the same rarefied air. Soderling and Douglas have their similarities as well. Both are competent professionals who were completely unknown entering their triumphant moment.
That makes for a pretty good comparison, but there's a point where the fit gets a little worse. The shock isn't that Nadal lost at the French Open (check out Marv Salter of the New York Times from last Friday where he calls Nadal's loss and invokes Douglas), it is that he didn't lose to Roger Federer or Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic. If Nadal had fallen in a five-setter to one of those guys in the semis or the finals, people would have been mildly surprised but not shocked. Nadal lost to Federer in Madrid on clay the week before, after all, and had lost three other matches this season.
With Tyson, the shock was that he lost at all. Forget about people not giving Douglas a shot at beating Tyson, there wasn't anyone who was given a chance against Iron Mike in 1990. You had a stronger chance of arguing that a low-rated show about a standup comic in New York City would become the most popular show on television than you did that Tyson would lose a fight.
That's a significant difference, as is the fact that Nadal's loss is likely to have much less impact on his career than Tyson's loss. He'll play many more French Opens and will likely win some of them. The loss to Soderling will be a blip, like Pete Sampras' loss to Richard Krajicek at Wimbledon, while Tyson's whole narrative was changed forever on that night in Tokyo.
It also bears mentioning that the whole image of the upset will change if Soderling, who won again on Tuesday, wins the French and another major or two in his career. It becomes an upset of perception, rather than an upset of proportion, just as Douglas' win would be viewed differently today if he'd won another significant boxing match in his lifetime.
That doesn't mean it wasn't a massive upset, just that the context of the two upsets are radically different. Some of that is the nature of the sport and some of that is the nature of the men involved, but, at this moment, it doesn't appear that Nadal's loss was at quite the same level as Tyson's.