Jimmy Vaccaro has been telling the story for 30 years.
It’s the story of a heavyweight title fight and the number associated with it, the night the seemingly invincible “Iron” Mike Tyson got knocked out by James “Buster” Douglas at odds of 42-1.
“Thirty years, it seems like it was yesterday,” said Vaccaro, 74, now an oddsmaker at the South Point. “My hair was black then. I did things a little quicker then. Now I’m sleeping by 7:30 at night.”
Vaccaro helmed the sportsbook at The Mirage when Tyson and Douglas fought on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo (Feb. 10 in the U.S. because
of the time difference), and he ended up in the media spotlight after being the only bookmaker in Las Vegas to post odds on the fight.
The number that Tyson eventually reached as a favorite — 42-1, or -4200 on the odds board (meaning a bettor had to bet $4,200 to win $100 on Tyson) — became part of the fight’s lore and was even the title of an ESPN documentary on the bout, considered one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports.
Tyson might be more famous now for biting Evander Holyfield in their 1997 rematch or, for younger people, for his cameo in “The Hangover,” but he was widely regarded as unbeatable when he stepped into the ring to face Douglas. Tyson was 37-0 with 33 knockouts, and two fights earlier he had dispatched undefeated former heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in 91 seconds.
“He fought everybody in front of him,” Vaccaro said. “He just beat their brains in.”
Douglas was 28-4-1 heading into the Tyson fight and wasn’t considered much of a threat.
Vaccaro said he opened the odds on the fight with Tyson as a 27-1 favorite.
Two hours later, the first of what you would consider a big bet came in. “The guy laid $54,000 to win $2,000 on Tyson at 27-1,” Vaccaro said.
The odds climbed, but bettors kept piling wagers in on Tyson.
“The biggest bet on the fight was when I hit the apex of 42-1,” Vaccaro said. “A guy I knew from California who loved to bet on the fights, he beat me every fight for the previous 10 years. He laid 42-1 for $4,000 (bet $168,000 on Tyson to win $4,000).”
“I can’t believe the amount of money that was bet on such a big favorite,” he added.
Vaccaro said the biggest bet he took on Douglas was $1,500 at 37-1 (a win of $55,500).
The fight was broadcast on HBO, so it wasn’t actually showing in the sportsbook, but a ticker gave round-by-round updates, Vaccaro said.
Douglas, fighting three weeks after the death of his mother, controlled most of the bout, survived a knockdown in the eighth round, then knocked Tyson out with a five-punch combination in the 10th.
“When it came down that Douglas won, I remember going to the kids that were in the control room posting everything,” Vaccaro said. “I said, ‘Don’t post this. It’s gotta be wrong.’ ”
Major media outlets soon confirmed the result, and Vaccaro said the book ended up winning more than $300,000 on the fight because of the size of all the Tyson wagers.
Vaccaro said he left The Mirage a little after midnight, but then started getting calls early the next morning from casino personnel as media requests came from all over the world to discuss the upset and the astronomical odds that Douglas had beaten.
Alan Feldman, then the head of public relations at The Mirage, said he remembers the flood of calls being “relatively instantaneous.”
“The angle at the time was: Did anyone even bet on ‘Buster’ Douglas?” said Feldman, now an adviser for MGM Resorts and a distinguished fellow at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute.
Vaccaro did rounds of interviews and even appeared on a network morning show.
“Jimmy was media-savvy in a very straight and clear way,” Feldman said. “He was a bookie. You’re talking to a bookie. He was fabulous that way.”
Vaccaro has spent more than 40 years in the sportsbook industry, but the Douglas-Tyson fight remains the No. 1 event he is asked about.
“It’s not even close. Everything else is a distant second,” he said. “And it’s only because the kid lost.”