The Fight of His Life

Buster Douglas, the heavyweight champion, has had a harder time dealing with his father, Bill, than with any of his ring opponents
Buster Douglas, the heavyweight champion, has had a harder time dealing with his father, Bill, than with any of his ring opponents
October 21, 1990

The 12-year-old kid

stands in front of his bathroom mirror. He's checking out his face, deciding who he is. His old man is out on the road with a wool cap tugged over his head and combat boots on his feet, pounding four miles to his job at an auto parts factory, snorting and growling and tearing up the dawn with punches as he goes.

The kid holds his fists low and bites his bottom lip, the way Ali does. He watches his reflection flit and feint, watches himself try to make violence something light-footed and lovely. His old man enters the factory bathroom. He glares at the mirror, begins to grunt and throw punches.

The kid stops juking and dancing. A year ago, his father had passed judgment in a newspaper: My oldest son, he said, is not violent enough to be a good fighter. The kid reaches for the Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet, sticks one above each eye. He cocks his fist, scowls into the mirror, punches harder.

Sweat trickles down the father's chin. In a few weeks he will have the biggest fight of his career, against Philadelphia middleweight Bennie Briscoe, for a title shot against Carlos Monzón. "I want it," he says, "like I want food." He steps closer to the factory bathroom mirror, exploding hooks and uppercuts.

The kid stops scowling and punching at the mirror—that's not him. He backs away from the glass, flinching as he rips the Band-Aids off. The father moves closer to the mirror and lets another punch fly.

Crack! For an instant he sees himself break into fragments, then there's a crash. The men in the factory come running through the bathroom door.

It is late

June 1990. James (Buster) Douglas is 6'4", 240 pounds and 30 years old. Heavyweight champ of the world. Bill (Dynamite) Douglas is 50. He hasn't fought in 10 years. Buster walks into the house in Columbus, Ohio, where he used to throw punches in front of the bathroom mirror. His father, now skull-shaved and still big-shouldered, looks up at him and nods. The tension is the kind that's in the air before a fight.

Word has just gotten out: Don King is going to fly Bill Douglas to New York next week, supposedly to testify against his own son as part of King's lawsuit to keep contractual control over Buster. Which of them, the father or son, is going to bring it up first? Which is going to duck, which is going to be a man?

Their eyes miss each other. Buster sits on a stool in the living room. A videotape is playing on the TV a few feet away. There's the son on the screen—the one they said would never have his father's heart, the kid not violent enough to be a fighter—doing what he wants with Mike Tyson, beating up the best prizefighter in the world.

Bill, in sweatpants and a T-shirt, sits on the sofa watching the fight. Buster's eyes flicker toward him. This man is why Buster sometimes reached the edge of greatness. This man is why Buster always shrank away. But look what's happening on the screen, listen:

"Douglas still landing the jab! Right hand by Douglas right on Tyson's chin!"

Everything has changed now. Everything has changed.

Buster starts thumbing through a magazine. Let the old man speak up. Let the old man squirm.

His father rises from his seat.

"Another right hand!"

His father walks into the kitchen.

"This is the most trouble Tyson has ever been in!"

His father starts talking about nothing much at all.

Maybe Buster

should write the old man off, right here, right now. That's what some people thought the new champ should do, carve his father right out of his life. Those who knew Buster well had this feeling: That at age 29, in a ring in Tokyo, he had finally begun to become a man. And the only way to finish the job, to make certain that what happened against Tyson in February had not been an aberration, was to somehow end this long, uneasy stalemate between father and son.

But no, he couldn't do it. People just didn't understand. "You sec, that boy didn't want to box," said his grandma Sarah Jones. "Boxing was just the only way he knew of feeling close to his daddy." None of the other psychic pangs that compel men to hit men for a living were Buster's. As a kid, he would drift out of the ring and grab a basketball if he was sparring in a gym with a hoop. At 15, he quit boxing altogether. Then one day in 1980, at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., he bumped into the truth. He wasn't going to be a pro basketball player. He wasn't going to study all night for a test. He couldn't think of anything else to do—so he did it. He called his dad and asked him to help him become a pro fighter.

Hell, Buster wasn't a fighter; he hated it when people called him that. "I'm an athlete," he would insist. He was a big, sweet, passive kid, the kind who slept with his dogs and opened the door for you and told you to have a nice weekend. "The most honest, most likable, most Christian, most trustworthy heavyweight champion there has ever been," said Dan O'Malley, who used to train with Buster.

Even arguments, because they carried the faint musk of violence, undid him. As a kid, when his dad came home from a prowl on the streets and his mom screamed and his dad snarled back, Buster would disappear. As a man, when people yelled at him, he would turn up the stereo. He would walk out of the room or out of his skin; he would blank out. He signed his autograph "Love & Peace, James Buster Douglas," then drew a happy face.

But that reflection in the glass—it flitted and feinted and flicked that jab so nice. He was big and quick, and if his dad was with him in the mirror, beside him in the foxhole, Buster could bust you in the face and then bust you again. Hell, it was only every three or four months, just for a few minutes.

Carve the old man out of his life? How could he? No one else knew what it was to sit in the passenger seat when his dad was driving him to one of Buster's early fights, to hear him tell stories in the dashboard's glow, in a voice more gentle than Buster had ever heard it, about the old wars with the middle-weights and light heavyweights in Philly. Telling how the crowd went nuts when he laid out Billy Lloyd in the first round in '72 and did a rain dance backward. How he stood flat-footed, round-hearted, trading bombs with Matthew Franklin in '77.

Those were the real wars, in smoky arenas against chiseled fighters for a few thousand dollars—not these made-for-TV bouts in front of salon-tanned men taking a breather from blackjack. Buster wrapped his father's fights in romance, rolled them in daydream. The ones he hadn't seen, the ones he knew only from radio broadcasts or photos, were the best of all. Even when Buster found himself in some casino's ring, his belly jiggling because he hadn't really trained, all of that honesty could be his—he could borrow it—if his old man were in his corner. Buster could walk into a strange city, a strange arena, enter the locker room and feel at ease—Bill was there in the mirror, still throwing punches, right behind him.

Yet for years Buster's uncle and current trainer, J.D. McCauley, and his manager, John Johnson, told the kid that to be a boxer, he needed to get rid of his daddy. Figure out that riddle, Buster: To get your daddy's love, you need to be a fighter. To be a fighter, you need to get rid of your daddy. Go on, Buster, ride around all night in your '70 Cadillac and unscramble that one. So Buster got rid of the old man three times. And brought him back three times. Tried having him as manager and trainer the first three years of his career, 1981 to '83, and then tried twice more having him as cotrainer with Uncle J.D. But each time they parted, Buster never really had it out with Bill, never quite confronted him. And each time he saw his dad, Buster hated himself for pretending everything was swell.

The Jesse Ferguson fight, Atlantic City, 1985, was the second time Buster stepped into the ring without his father. A few seconds into each round, he began waiting like a schoolboy to hear the bell. "What's wrong with you?" cried Uncle J.D. after Buster had lost the decision. "You should a killed that guy."

"I don't know."

"Would you have fought harder if your dad were here?"

"Probably."

"You want him back?"

"Maybe."

"Why?"

Why? He could hardly find words for why. It wasn't thought—it was feeling. Only his dad knew what it was to find yourself standing in a locker room three minutes before a fight with your bladder full and your crotch in a cup and your hands tied up inside a pair of eight-ounce gloves. Only his dad could reach down without hesitating and take care of it, the way he had done for Buster before another bout in '85. Only his dad could tell him what to do when he was tired and hurt and some two-fisted fiend was throwing four-punch combinations at his head. Only his dad had lived these things.

"Hit him, honey!" Bill would shout to his son during fights. There was a sweetness in that. "Take him out, little baby!"

But no, this is the last straw—sidling up to King, consorting with the enemy—something has to be done. Buster closes the magazine. He looks at his image on the TV screen.

"He's asking questions of Tyson that Tyson hasn't been asked!"

He opens the magazine again.

"See how easily Douglas is dominating the action!"

He starts reading once more about nothing much at all.

It's hard

to believe. This hard-muscled sonofabitch who used to take Buster down to the rag-stuffed Navy duffel bag hanging from the cellar rafters and show him how to make it moan, this nail-hungry old hammer who used to shriek and leap onto moving trains when he was running the railroad tracks before a fight—someday he'll die. That's why Buster can't just carve his dad out of his life. He needs to do the opposite, his friend Rodney Rogers urges him. He needs to throw his arms around his father and tell him, "I love you," before it's too late, before the old man dies and maroons Buster with all that. . . .

Guilt? What guilt? Let the old man say it first. Buster didn't need this man. Buster resented him. Resented everyone's assumption that he had been belched from the same volcano as his old man, resented everyone's disappointment when he fought and they all saw it wasn't so.

Five or six times a year he would watch his father pack up the big red Samsonite suitcase and black gym bag, put on the wide-brimmed derby and the dark shades and walk out the door alone. Bill would return a few days later with a swollen, purpled head that made it hard to know whether he had won or lost, and Buster's mother, Lula Pearl, would mmm-mmm that same mmm-mmm, and the house would fill with a silence. Buster would get the wintergreen to rub on his father's body, and his younger brother Robert would run the bathwater and get the ice. For a few hours their dad would soak in the tub, and then, for a day or two, he would just lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. Buster would catch a glimpse of him when he walked by the open bedroom door and vow never to become like that—then flush with shame for his thoughts.

Hug this man? The one pacing right now, nervously picking up and putting down the keys, the plastic cup and sunglasses on the bar in the kitchen? Hell, what for? Buster didn't need him. Tension made Buster shrivel up; this man breathed tension. Biggest fight of Buster's life to that point, the 1987 IBF title bout with Tony Tucker, and how had Buster spent the weeks before it? Looking over his shoulder to see if his father and uncle and manager were at one another's throats again. Walking out of the room and out of his skin, blanking out. Dinnertime, the fight four hours away, and what was his dad doing? Screaming at a sparring partner over a few bucks.

Say "I love you" to this man? Who just five years ago, when the clock struck 12 at a New Year's party and the fellas went around kissing the ladies, decked a 28-year-old for kissing Lula Pearl? God, Buster loathed being Bill Douglas's son, and yet, any minute now on that TV screen, Tyson was going to catch Buster with an uppercut, and Buster was going to drop . . . and would he have gotten up if he were the son of another man?

Ever since he was nine or 10, the first thing he would think when he was scared or hurt was, No, this can't be, I'm Bill Douglas's son. He would see a rope that dangled from a tree above a ravine and hear a voice inside him say the strangest thing: The championship of the world is on the line—will you swing across?

It made no sense; his childhood had been too soft around the edges to live life on a dare. He was born while his mother was still in high school, spent his first six years as Grandma Sarah's little pet. Cribs, high chairs, they weren't good enough, not for her Buster. The child slept in Sarah's bed, ate on Sarah's knee, and at the age of seven months he could be found sitting like a little lord each morning at the White Castle, gumming coffee-soaked biscuit from Sarah's hand.

"The first grandchild," remembers Uncle J.D., Sarah's son. "Never scolded, never punished. Every obstacle in that boy's path, my family took out of his way." Then Buster turned six, and Sarah's heart broke: Bill and Lula Pearl showed her their marriage certificate and set up house with little James.

It became so confusing, the road to manhood, so cobbled with contradictions. Even in his 20's, Buster would run to his mom with every problem, every bruise. Lula Pearl was Sarah's daughter. She would hug him and stroke him and fix his dinner. She would go to his apartment to scrub his kitchen. His dad. . . .

No, even when Dynamite lay there after a fight staring at the ceiling, his organs mush, his cheeks and eyebrows pulp—even then there was nothing soft about him. In the bathtub one day in '77, just home from another war in Philly, Dynamite learned that a kid had beaten up Robert with his fists and then had grabbed a baseball bat and scared off 17-year-old Buster.

Bill Douglas peered through his puffy eyes at Buster. "Why didn't you do something to that boy?" he said.

"Dad," said Buster, "he had a bat."

The bathwater moved. Bill's swollen head shook no. "That's no excuse," he said. "If he got a bat, boy, get you a brick."

Hug him? You almost had to hit a man like that to win his respect, to step out of his shadow. In Buster's early years as a pro, because it was hard to find anyone big enough to spar with him, his dad often climbed into the ring. They sparred hundreds of rounds, Bill would tell people. "And Buster hasn't hit me yet," he would say. "Buster never could hit his daddy."

But sometimes. . . .

Sometimes it came back to Buster, that day when he was 16 years old and he dusted off the stereo that was hardly ever used, took it from the cellar and set it up in his bedroom, only to hear his old man shout from below, "Bring it back!"

"In a minute," muttered Buster.

A minute passed, and suddenly his old man was all over him, moving like a boxer, smacking him with open-handed hooks and uppercuts, backing him to the wall with a pressure Buster had never felt from another man. But what he remembered most from that day wasn't the sting or the fear or the shame.

"I saw daylight," he would say, his eyes far off.

"Douglas comes back with a left and a right!"

"There was an opening," he would say.

"Three solid shots right on Tyson's face!"

"I can still see it. I could've hit him."

The son's confusion

stayed inside him. The son's confusion rippled everywhere. Into his career. Into his family life. Into the fat on the back of his neck. On the mornings in Franklin Park when Buster thought he really wanted to be heavyweight champ of the world—when his legs began to pump and his arms ripped the air and the sweat in his eyes made all the birds and trees he liked to gaze at go away—he would feel something come over him. His legs would stop. He didn't want to be his old man.

"Run, Buster!" Uncle-J.D. would scream.
"I've got a headache."
"Run, Buster!"
"I've got a cold."
"Run, Buster!"
"I've got an appointment to get my car fixed."
"Run, Buster!"
"I think I broke my leg."

Over six years there wasn't an excuse that J.D. didn't hear. Finally J.D. would shove him and scream, "You're going to run, goddammit, Buster!" Sometimes Buster would run a few hundred yards and slow down again. If the fat stayed on the back of his neck, if he didn't run and spar like a lunatic, the way his father had before fights, and Buster still won—wouldn't that make him something more than his father?

He would hoard his energy all through a fight because he wasn't in shape, lose in the late rounds or, more often, win in a way that made promoters wince. "If you had your father's heart with your ability," Uncle J.D. would snap, "you'd be champion in five minutes."

One day J.D. walked up behind Buster in the gym and squeezed the fat on his neck. "Leave him alone!" snarled Bill. "Do you want to fight me?"

Yes, here was an odd thing, another facet to the riddle: If Buster got rid of the fat, became hard and hungry and heavy-weight champion—wouldn't that make Bill something less than his son?

"Funny thing," J.D. would say, "but when it came to training, Bill Douglas was soft on his son. Buster would spar two rounds and start whining, and his dad would call the sparring off."

A week before the Tucker bout, as Buster skipped rope in front of the cameras, his dad grabbed another rope, jumped in beside his son and started skipping too. On fight night his dad appeared in the corner wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a boxer's name. The boxer was himself.

"I made that boy, I started him, I taught him everything he knows," Bill would snap at J.D. and Johnson when they yelled advice to Buster during bouts. "Don't open your traps again, or it's going to be bad."

It got bad. Bill slapped J.D. in the face. J.D. went after him with a chair. J.D. went after him with a golf club. J.D. went after him at a family picnic, waving a gun. The family ripped. In the middle of it all, wringing her hands, her health deteriorating, was Lula Pearl, who loved her brother J.D. and loved her husband, Bill. Buster couldn't bear it anymore. Buster broke. In the ninth round of the title fight with Tucker, ahead in points, he did it. He lashed out at his father the only way he could. He went to the ropes.

"Solid right cross by Tyson!"

He bowed his head.

"Douglas wobbled again!"

He quit fighting.

But what

are they doing, the father and son, sitting and staring at this videotape as if they haven't watched it a dozen times before, as if they don't know what's going to happen, as if there isn't so much to be said? "Whippin' on that suckah," Bill mumbles. "Whippin' on him."

There was no more Bill in Buster's corner after the Tucker defeat, ever again. There was only Bill in Buster's head. Buster would lie alone in his hotel room before a bout, daydreaming footage from his father's wars, conjuring snapshots. Hoping that the idea of his dad would be enough, that he wouldn't need the flesh. He would see Bill charging back into the locker room in 1970 after the Don Fullmer fight, his shiny body snorting and winging punches as if it didn't know the match was over, boxing one more round, two more rounds, three. He would see his dad's trainer, Ed Williams, telling little Buster to stand back, to let this man work out whatever it was that had hold of him. Suddenly, Buster would find himself up off his hotel bed, winging and snorting, feeling the strength rush over him.

So sharply would he envision his father's fights that they were almost like films. Dad throwing that right at Carlos Marks's bloodied mouth in '72, perfect form, right shoulder just where it should be. Dad throwing that missile at Tom (the Bomb) Bethea at Madison Square Garden in '76, sending the Bomb's mouthpiece flying into the third row. Dad on the scales in his underwear before the Matthew Franklin fight in '77 in Philly, his shoulders rolling up and down as if filled with some electrical current. Dad waking him up in the hotel room the morning of that bout, smiling at him and asking, "How do you feel, Buster?"

Howdoyoufeel, howdoyoufeel, howdoyoufeel? Sometimes the film in his mind would snag on some shard of memory. "Yeah, he asked me that morning," recalls Buster. "He lost that day, a brutal fight—they stopped it when they shouldn't have. But I didn't ask him, 'How do you feel?' when it was over. I should've asked him."

It all backed up on Buster in the summer of 1989. All the remorse, the resentment, the ripples. His two-year-old marriage began falling apart—death by silence. He had let little conflicts with his wife, Bertha, build and build; he had never seen his dad open up and talk to Lula Pearl. His mom—the person he telephoned first thing every morning when he woke up—began having seizures and talking about dying. Buster's bank account was drying up; nobody wanted to promise an erratic fighter a big payday. The previous Christmas he had had to borrow to buy gifts, and now he didn't know if he could make the next mortgage payment. His aunts were telling him to forget this boxing nonsense, to get a job. The mother of Lamar, the little boy Buster had fathered in high school, had suffered kidney failure and now needed Buster to take more responsibility for his son. The films in his head didn't help; the projector had suddenly stopped working. All Buster had to do was take care of Oliver McCall on July 21 in Atlantic City, he was told, and he would likely get his dream, a title shot at Tyson. But he just didn't give a damn. He was a couple of dozen pounds overweight and wanted to quit boxing, and it scared him to death knowing that he would have to drag that kind of body and heart into a ring against a heavyweight.

He was lying in his darkened hotel room the morning of the fight when it came out of nowhere. Rogers and two other friends who had recently turned to God walked into his room. "He loves you, Buster," Rogers said softly. "He has great things in store for you. If you say that you'll accept God into your heart, He'll take all the burdens off your shoulders."

Tears started streaming down Buster's cheeks. A father who would understand. A father who would take away his troubles. "I accept Him," said Buster.

"Mike Tyson's hurt!"

A strange sweet feeling ran through him.

"His eye is closing!"

"Like cool air," Buster would say, "being blown into my chest through a straw."

No. It wouldn't

be that easy. Buster beat McCall and came home. Bertha packed up and left. Buster was arrested for drunken driving. The mother of his son was near death. He was told he would fight Tyson on Feb. 10. He stared at the posters of two of his dad's wars in Philly that he had recently framed and hung in his garage. He whispered for God in the night.

His own family thought he was crazy to take on Tyson—he couldn't believe it, his own mom. He shouted at her. She started crying. "You're mean," she said.

"Damn right I am," said Buster. "I'm mean. I'm mean."

A few weeks later, eight days before he would fly to Tokyo for the bout, he got a call at 4 a.m. He rushed to his mom's house. She had been found dead on the floor, at age 47, of a stroke.

He gazed down at her face in the casket. In his grief, it came to him: Here was the perfect excuse. If he backed out of the Tyson fight or lost it, no one, not even his father, could shake his head. For the first time in his life, he was free of expectation, almost off the hook of being Bill Douglas's son.

He closed his eyes and said goodbye to her. There was no one in the world now for Mama's boy to lean on, no one. But that only made him stronger. He could feel it in his arms and legs. He wasn't going to use the perfect excuse.

Three days before the bout, he came down with a heavy cold. The next morning, he ran six miles. "Let's do it again," he said to J.D. when he finished. The morning of the fight, he spent another zillion yen and called Bill for the fourth time that week. Buster had to hear it in his old man's voice once more, he still had to.

"Hit him," Bill told him. "Fight that sissy. Attack him. Be first. Throw cross punches. Get your guns off. He's a psycho. Wish I could fight him. Just hit him."

Buster walked into the ring double-dosed on penicillin. It made no difference. He was relaxed. He was fighting a man who never stopped coming, a man who needed it like he needed food. "That same mentality as my dad," Buster would say. "And you know what?"

"What an uppercut by Douglas!"

"I stood up to it."

"Down goes Tyson!"

"I defeated it."

"It's over! Mike Tyson has been knocked out! Unbelievable!"

"In my own way."

Life happens

to fathers and sons; that's often how they come together. The father's body begins to sag or a grandchild is born or someone dies whom they both love. But this father has turned 50 and his body's still taut, and this son has long ago made a grandchild, and this father has seen his wife dead on the floor. And none of that has been enough to bring them together, none of it.

Maybe this would do it. Look, right there on the screen moments after the bout; listen, the son is saying it: "Dad, this one is for you! I love you!" In front of millions of people, replayable millions of times at the push of a button—doesn't that count?

And on the day after the fight, there was his father on NBC telling millions more, "James is one of the most outstanding. . . ." And he hesitated, his breath coming hard, his eyes filling with tears, and he waved his hand at the camera and shook his head no, no, no and said, "I can't say any more. . . . I don't know. . . ." Isn't that enough, doesn't that count?

The videotape of Buster's fight against Tyson ends. There's fuzz on the screen. The son puts the magazine down on the table and slowly rises. For the first time, he speaks.

"See you later," he says.

"See you later," says his dad.

Before his father

can be called to appear in a New York courtroom as a witness for King, an out-of-court settlement is reached. King is barred from promoting Buster's fight with Evander Holyfield, though he gets nearly $4 million and the right of first refusal on future Douglas fights. That night Bill is seen whooping it up at King's celebration party in Harlem. Buster reads about it the next day and bites his bottom lip.

But Buster says he is free now, at last. Free because he finally knows the hardness and hunger are inside of him, not just his father. Free because he finally understands the price he has to pay to dredge them up. He and Bertha are back together, and in January they expect a child. He seems happier and more focused, although one day a few months ago, in the middle of a five-mile jog, the shadow came over him again. "I'm in the snakepit of all snakepits," he mumbled, and stopped running.

Upon winning the title, Buster said he would stay in the snakepit for just two more fights—next week's bout in Las Vegas against Holyfield, for which he will earn a record-breaking $24 million, and a Tyson rematch. But now he's hedging. He says he'll fight George Foreman. His eyes widen a little. And yes, he'll fight Tyson as many times, in as many places, as he has to.

"I know that kind of man," the son says as he rises from the couch in his living room. "You have to kill him to keep him down." He starts throwing punches. "I'll fight that man forever," he says.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)