The Rocky Road of James (Buster) Douglas suddenly turned into pure Rocky on Sunday in Tokyo. Only Sylvester Stallone could have dreamed up a plot in which a journeyman boxer from Columbus, Ohio, abandoned by his wife, spurned by his father, grieving over the death of his mother and worried about the perilous health of the mother of his son, comes off the canvas to knock out the heavyweight champion of the world in—get this!—perhaps the greatest upset in the history of boxing.
Even Hollywood wouldn't have touched Stallone's script if he had made it that improbable, just as Las Vegas wouldn't touch the actual fight. But in the 10th round, Douglas floored the unfloorable Mike Tyson and sent the champion and the world of boxing reeling. "This is a dream, this is a dream," Douglas said in the ring afterward as he donned one of the championship belts he had won. "I've watched this on HBO a thousand times. I've said, 'One day it's going to be me wearing that belt,' and now, I thank God, it is me."
To realize his dream, though, Douglas has had to shake off a number of nightmares. Seven years ago, he watched his younger brother Artie bleed to death from an accidental gunshot wound. Nearly three years ago, his trainer and father, Billy, who was a pretty fair middleweight in his day, gave up on Buster after watching him quit in a title fight that he was clearly winning against Tony Tucker. Last summer, Douglas says, he found God, but shortly thereafter he lost his wife of two years, Bertha, who walked out on him without explanation, leaving him alone with Shakespeare and Aspen, his two dogs. Distressed by his wife's departure, Buster proceeded to drink his way into a DWI charge last fall in Ohio.
Then on Jan. 18, 23 days before the fight with Tyson, Buster's mother, Lula Pearl Douglas, died of a stroke. "She was his centerpiece," J.D. McCauley, Buster's trainer and Lula's brother, said at the time. "I think, if anything, James will turn this into a positive. I really believe that."
February 19, 1990
Indeed, those around Douglas sensed a new resolve when he went back into training after his mother's funeral. But he also had a further distraction: Doris Jefferson, the mother of his 11-year-old son, Lamar, was in and out of the hospital over a period of four months, ill with leukemia. "Something great must be about to happen to James Douglas," said James Douglas, "because something out there is definitely trying to deter me."
Even though his father was a boxer, Buster's mother taught the boy his first lesson in fighting. "I came home one day crying because some kid said he was going to get me," Douglas said. "She told me to quit crying and either stand up to that kid or fight her. I didn't want to fight her."
Basketball, not boxing, was his primary sport in high school, and the 6'4" Douglas went first to Coffeyville Community College in Kansas and then to Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., on hoops scholarships. "I could definitely shoot that J," he says. Unfortunately, he couldn't do much better than an F at Mercyhurst, and he flunked out before he ever played a game.
Under his father's tutelage, Douglas then took up boxing. He made his pro debut in 1981 and won his first five fights before suffering his first setback—a second-round knockout at the hands of David Bey. Douglas went 13-0-1 in his next 14 fights, then hit another obstacle: 6'10" Mike White, who KO'd him in the ninth round.
After the fight with White, Douglas nearly quit. Enter John Johnson, a protègè of Woody Hayes's, of all people. Johnson, who had been a student assistant to the legendary Ohio State football coach back in the mid-'70s, was working at the Department of Youth Services in Columbus when Douglas asked him to be his manager. Johnson got Buster some financial help, and Douglas earned enough credibility with wins over Tex Cobb and Greg Page to get a fight with Tucker for the TBF heavyweight crown in May '87.
In the meantime, though, Johnson became locked in a struggle with Billy Douglas for Buster's boxing soul. "He thought I was taking his boy away from him," says Johnson. There was also the problem of strategy—Billy wanted Buster to be a puncher, as he had been with his ring nickname "Dynamite"; Johnson and McCauley wanted him to be a boxer. According to a member of Buster's camp, Billy was trying to relive his "Dynamite days." At one workout for the Tucker fight, Buster drew a crowd with his rope-jumping, only to have Billy try to upstage him with his own jumping. And at that fight, the elder Douglas wore a T-shirt emblazoned BILL "DYNAMITE" DOUGLAS.
Buster got the better of Tucker for most of their fight, but in the 10th round of a scheduled 15-rounder, he ran out of gas, backed into the ropes and covered up until the fight was stopped on a TKO. His father walked away in disgust and, to this day, has never gone to another of his son's fights, although the two of them still talk.
Ironically, the loss to Tucker didn't hurt Douglas's standing in boxing all that much. If anything, he became a "safer" opponent. After six straight victories, including one over Trevor Berbick, Douglas was ready for Tyson's hit list.
Once Buster arrived in Tokyo, he impressed the Japanese with his politeness and devout manner—in stark contrast to Tyson's surliness and Nipponophobia. Still, hardly anybody gave this man of prayer much chance against the man of prey. David Letterman made jokes about Douglas. Seasoned boxing observers wrote that Buster would be Busted. Most oddsmakers in Las Vegas would not take any bets on who would win the fight, only on the round in which Douglas would fall.
One lone voice in the wilderness belonged to Tim May, the boxing writer for The Columbus Dispatch, Douglas's hometown paper. On the morning of the fight, May predicted that Douglas would win because 1) he loved his mother and 2) he hated Tyson and his bullying tactics. "Who knows where those combined forces will take James Douglas tonight?" wrote May. "To the boxing upset of all time, a win over undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson?"
On the morning of the fight, Buster and Dynamite, who stayed in Columbus, had a long talk on the phone. "He did exactly what we talked about," said his father on Sunday. "I just wanted him to be aggressive and beat Tyson to the punch. I knew that if he hit him, Tyson would clock out."
Billy says he wasn't worried when Tyson knocked Douglas down with an uppercut in the eighth round. "He got a little careless, and I'm glad that he had a minute to get himself together," said Billy. "Then he went back to what we talked about." In a similar situation nearly three years ago against Tucker, Buster had quit. But this time he didn't.
And when Douglas broke down in his postfight interview while talking about his mother with HBO's Larry Merchant, he could have walked away. Again, he recovered beautifully, explaining his fight strategy and concluding, "As you saw, he [Tyson] was flat on his ass."
While Douglas was training for Tyson, a song, Win It All, kept running through his head, courtesy of the stereo headset he wore. It was written especially for him by Johnson's daughter, Mary Cay; one of its verses goes, "You're on the road to glory / You found the street of dreams / All your pain and sacrifice / Is worth it now, it seems."
Sing it to the theme from Rocky.