A New Era Dawned sweetly last Saturday, with hundreds of children waving pink carnations at James (Buster) Douglas. They were in his old neighborhood, in Columbus, Ohio, at the Windsor Terrace Recreation Center. Gusts of wind scattered some snowflakes; it was bitterly cold, under hard gray skies. But as a caravan of white stretch limos pulled up, the people streamed from low apartment buildings to crowd around a small platform and view the new and finally undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Flowers were distributed to the crowd, and when Douglas looked out at his old turf, he suddenly saw an unlikely landscape. Carnations and large bouquets of red roses were held aloft; the whole wintry place was a bloom.
This is, in at least one particular, how different things have become since Douglas's shocking 10th-round knockout of Mike Tyson on Feb. 11 in Tokyo. The most valuable franchise in sports—the heavyweight boxing championship—has been returned to the heartland, where it is possible to schedule a parade on a few days' notice and have 25,000 people show up in a new and unknown champion's behalf. Did neighbors decorate Tyson's house after he unified the title? Did anyone dare pin a corsage on him? Rather, promoter Don King made him sit foolishly on a throne, holding a scepter and wearing a crown.
Everything is different now. King's position as the promoter of heavyweight champions is as wobbly as Tyson was in Tokyo. Two of boxing's three major sanctioning bodies, the WBC and the WBA, may have been damaged beyond repair. A onetime assistant to former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes who otherwise had trouble holding a job is entertaining $50 million offers. And this new champion....
February 26, 1990
For his part, the new champion does not bluster. He is nonthreatening to a fault. And even though he elicited no attention before he knocked Tyson silly—not even in Columbus, where he was almost entirely neglected—he does not gloat. With unimaginable financial prospects, Douglas has few plans for extravagance. He may buy a boat, he says, and some suits, perhaps a Mercedes-Benz. Instead he goes about fulfilling a new champ's traditional obligations—visiting the David Letterman show, scheduling appearances on the Johnny Carson show, and taping messages for his own 900 phone number—with agreeable aplomb. He is thrilled, in boxing's sudden new age of innocence and naivetè, to have his own parade.
How different things are for him. Douglas remembers when light welterweight Jerry Page, a fellow Columbus native, won an Olympic gold medal in 1984, and the city organized a homecoming parade. Douglas watched that parade from the corner of Broad and High, not so much out of curiosity as out of business interest. Douglas was passing out flyers for his fight with Dave Jaco at the Sheraton Center Ballroom. Ringside was $10. "That fight never came off, now that I think about it," he says. "Just canceled."
The idea of having his own parade did not occur to him at the time. What has happened to him, to boxing, in just one week, could not have occurred to anybody. In fact, there is still some resistance to the reality of it.
The past week has not been entirely satisfying in every respect for Douglas or for boxing. It has seemed to the Douglas camp that the new champion's title is considered temporary, that everybody expects Tyson to reclaim it in a rematch and return heavyweight boxing to its previous noncompetitive status. Douglas, who is 29, says he intends to fight only twice more—against top-ranked contender Evander Holyfield and Tyson—before retiring. Yet despite Douglas's thorough beating of Tyson, few boxing observers seem to believe that he will realize even this limited agenda. Last Friday, Douglas returned to his Columbus gym, a corner of the Fitness Trend health club that can only be reached by walking through an aerobics class and across a basketball court. A fan there told him he was now only a 10-to-1 underdog to beat Tyson. Said Douglas, "That's up from 100 to 1." Actually, the few sports books that accepted bets on Douglas had him at 42 to 1.
Douglas has created interest, if not confidence. Much has been made of his lackluster career—before defeating Tyson he was 29-4-1 and known principally for having quit in the 10th round of a 1987 bout with Tony Tucker—and the series of personal misfortunes that piled on him as he neared the biggest day of his life. His wife left him last year, the mother of his 11-year-old son is gravely ill with leukemia, and a week before he left for Tokyo his mother died of a stroke. Douglas gave his feat added resonance when, still in the ring, he tearfully dedicated the victory to his mother. He wasn't back in Columbus long before a representative of Sylvester Stallone notified him of movie interest. Stallone is working on his fourth sequel to Rocky. Perhaps he means to get back to the source material.
For all the charm of Douglas's story, nobody expects it to play long. That was made clear to him when he flew to New York City on Feb. 14 to tape an HBO interview that would air in conjunction with the rebroadcast of the bout. Douglas arrived on time. Tyson and King, his adviser, were an hour late, having gone to the wrong HBO building, and then having been delayed by a crowd that had gathered for his appearance. Douglas took Tyson and King's tardiness as another example of a lack of respect for him, and at the outset of the interview it became clear that King and HBO still regarded him as an accidental champion. HBO's Larry Merchant was mostly interested in Tyson's reactions to defeat, rather than Douglas's to victory. When Merchant began the taping by asking Tyson three questions in a row, producer Ross Greenburg walked onto the set to interrupt. "We can't do five minutes on just Mike," he told Merchant. "You gotta mix it up." King fawned desperately over the former champion. Afterward, Douglas, for once bitter, said, "I might as well not have been there."
Douglas's feisty manager, John Johnson, was equally suspicious of insult. He heard that King was in the HBO control room laughing at Douglas during the taping. Johnson stormed into the room and said, "Are you laughing at James Douglas? If you are, you're finished."
Johnson and Douglas are understandably wary of King, who screamed foul in Tokyo over a long count the referee had administered to Douglas after Douglas was knocked down in the eighth round. King's protests kept Douglas's title in abeyance for 48 hours, until public reaction caused King and the sanctioning bodies to acknowledge the obvious. Johnson now considers the prefight contract he signed with King, which gives King rights to five of Douglas's subsequent championship fights, to have been breached. "If we include Don King," says Johnson, "it will be out of the goodness of our hearts."
If King is not yet a convert, the public is certainly behind Douglas, the underdog even in victory. The attention he receives is astonishing. At New York's La Guardia Airport, businessmen tore sheets of paper out of notepads and rushed him for autographs. A woman with a child in her arms pushed through a crowd just to touch his arm. Johnson interprets this affection for Douglas partly as a backlash to the regime of Tyson the Terrible. "The hero of the world," says Johnson, fine-tuning a marketing strategy, "the super-nice young man who beat the big, bad bully."
Upon his return to Columbus, Douglas caused a work stoppage in an office building when he visited his lawyer, Steve Enz. "Man, I've been in this building 2,500 times and nobody noticed me," said Douglas. Minicams recorded his every move. "I see cameras in my sleep," he said. Douglas has not discouraged the attention. Reporters from both coasts convened at Enz's office, and Douglas chatted for three hours before leaving for a photo session and an appearance, with a standing ovation, at the normally staid Columbus Touchdown Club.
Some more things that have happened to Douglas since the fight: There is a biography in the works; he has appeared on two network morning shows plus CNN and ESPN and many radio shows; The Cosby Show has expressed interest; Diet Coke has called.
The Douglas and Johnson act, a couple of rubes gawking at skyscrapers in Manhattan, is a convincing one. Their airs are sufficiently low-rent that they might play Hee Haw a lot better than Cosby. Johnson, whose heroes are Jesus Christ and Woody Hayes, not necessarily in that order, arrived in Ohio as a 13-year-old from Red Jacket, W.Va., and hasn't yet bothered to exchange his cowboy boots for Gucci loafers. Fighter and manager went about their duties and travels last week like, well, like rubes gawking at skyscrapers.
In Manhattan, Douglas and his friend Sharon Banks wondered how he should pose for pictures, a new predicament for them. "He has to decide if he should smile or look tough," said Banks. Smile, she decided.
Before going on the Letterman show, he and Banks practiced how he would greet Letterman, shaking hands in different ways. In deference to the only sanctioning body that immediately recognized his victory, Douglas decided to wear his International Boxing Federation championship belt, a fashion accessory in the same way a dimpled hubcap might be. "You know, not everybody can wear a nicely tailored gray suit and a belt like that," said Letterman. Douglas grinned proudly.
For Johnson's wife, Susan, it was her first trip to New York, and on Valentine's Day at that. Johnson quickly pointed out that Feb. 14 was also Hayes's birthday. "We're still small people," said Susan.
She recalled a TV crew coming to their house in suburban Columbus last week and asking to use their other phone line. "I had to tell them we had only one," she said. "That was a real problem for them."
Their son, John Jr., handled most of the calls. "We don't even have those pink slips you put phone messages on," said Susan. "I mean, this wasn't even a mom and pop outfit."
But some promoter—King, perhaps—is likely to make the same mistake with these people that Tyson may have made with Douglas, and that's to underestimate them. Johnson, 45, has a master's in psychology from Ohio State and was a graduate assistant to Hayes from 1972 to '76 (though he never played for the Buckeyes). His devotion to the coach is total and, at times, comical. However, he has the same ability to motivate, the same stubbornness and the same disdain for authority.
Johnson has so much disdain that he has trouble holding a job. He parlayed his Hayes connection into two high school coaching positions, neither of which lasted more than a year. Partly, he admits, his liberal use of profanity did him in. Although he often quotes the Bible and Franklin Roosevelt, he's more likely to repeat Eddie Murphy's concert material. Mostly, though, that disdain gets the best of him. "The last job, I left with a police escort," he says. "Supposedly I had said I was going to kill the principal, which was a damned lie. I said I would like to kill the principal."
Since then, Johnson has been employed by Ohio's Department of Youth Services, where he maintains the same level of relations with his superiors. "Let's see, I've been written up six times for insubordination," he says. Johnson does not back down. Right after the fight King intimidated the presidents of the WBA and the WBC into suspending judgment on what had happened to Tyson, but Johnson paid King absolutely no mind and suffered no anxiety over the conspiracy.
"Didn't even go to their silly press conference," he says of the session at which King claimed that Tyson had been jobbed. "I might have hit someone." Perhaps he would only have liked to hit someone.
[pullquote] [pullquote] But that was the night before the HBO taping, when relations soured again. "King stopped James Douglas from getting his just glory," says Johnson. "It was like Tyson was still champion and the fight had never taken place."[/quote][/pullquote]
Some of the people who have visited Johnson and Douglas are King, Bob Arum and Bob Halloran. Arum, King's rival promoter, was the first to see Johnson in New York. He spent 45 minutes with him, apparently explaining why he and not King should promote Douglas's next fight. King, after all, is tied to Tyson. "You have to realize the desperation," said Arum, of King's protest in Tokyo. "He knows he had better produce for the kid [Tyson] or he'll go back to Bill Cayton [who is still Tyson's manager of record]." Arum impressed Johnson with a figure of $50 million for a rematch with Tyson, or $30 million for a Douglas-Holyfield bout.
Then King arrived at Johnson's suite in the Parker Meridien Hotel, and the two spent 90 minutes over a $13 pizza. Again, Johnson liked what he heard, although King's offer of $10 million to $11 million for a rematch sounded laughably low. "We solved some things," said Johnson, meaning King might be willing to take a smaller, "consulting" role in future Douglas fights. King is now saying he had organized the protest to hype the rematch. Just quick thinking, was all, no hard feelings.
But that was the night before the HBO taping, when relations soured again. "King stopped James Douglas from getting his just glory," says Johnson. "It was like Tyson was still champion and the fight had never taken place."
As for the reason King gave for protesting the fight, Johnson remains unconvinced. "I know he's brilliant," says Johnson, "but I don't give him credit for coming up with something like that on the spur of the moment. We didn't get where we are by being that dumb."
Last Friday, Halloran, who arranges fights for the new Mirage casino-hotel in Las Vegas, went to Columbus, and promised Douglas a flight in Mirage owner Steve Wynn's jet on Sunday. Sure enough, Wynn himself flew to Columbus with Halloran, and even arranged to have his friend Julius Erving meet him there in order to join Johnson and Douglas, a one-time college basketball player, for the trip back to Las Vegas.
Johnson intended to meet with Rich Rose, the matchmaker for Caesars, and wanted to check out the Las Vegas Hilton. He also heard that promoters in Japan would top any offer. And, of course, there was always Donald Trump.
Then, on Sunday, Johnson said that he and Dan Duva, Holyfield's promoter, had agreed that their fighters should meet next, with promoter, site and date to be named later. While Johnson made it clear that King was not likely to be part of the picture, Duva conceded that King would probably be given some role, if only to avoid litigation. On Monday, Ken Sanders, Holyfield's manager, said, "Don King isn't out yet, just because Johnson says he's out." A rematch with Tyson would have to wait until February—a risky proposition. Should Douglas lose to Holyfield, a Tyson rematch would be meaningless.
The Douglas-Holyfield deal may also surprise those who know of the champion's fixation on Tyson. Long before he signed to fight him, Douglas threw a party. At one point he was discovered alone in the basement, studying a picture of Tyson. Strange tableau. On the other hand, says Douglas, "I personally want to fight Evander. He's a great fighter, crafty, a lot of skill and heart."
In any case, Holyfield and Tyson are the only two whom Douglas says he will fight. He wants to spend more time with his son, Lamar. It occurred to Douglas in Tokyo that Lamar was growing beyond his reach. For a school assignment Lamar kept a journal during his stay in Japan. "I peek in his journal, and it's all girls, girls, girls," says Douglas. "That trip put some hair on his chest."
The aftermath of the fight, the confusion orchestrated by King, turned out to be damaging to everybody but Douglas. When King suggested a protest was in order, WBC president Josè Sulaimàn quickly called for an immediate rematch, and he and WBA president Gilberto Mendoza agreed that they would convene their ruling bodies to decide who really was champion.
Dick Cole, ratings chairman for the WBC, says, "It was another one of those things Jose says that makes it look as if there's impropriety in boxing and that Don King runs the WBC."
Steve Crosson, who until last week was WBC treasurer, says, "Jose was confronted with the media of the world, and thought he'd take a strong position. Unfortunately for the WBC, he did."
By midweek, both leaders, and even King, had reversed stride. Douglas was the champion, they agreed. But for Crosson, if not the WBA and the WBC, it was too late. "I've been working hard for credibility over the years," he says. "In two or three days I saw that destroyed." He quit on Feb 13.
After the parade in Columbus, Douglas visited Brooks Brothers to buy more suits. The Carson and Arsenio Hall programs were coming up, and there was an NAACP dinner he wanted to attend. The talk shows were just eating his suits up. And he had to pack for Las Vegas. A new era continued to dawn.