"Doubt is always ringing my doorbell," James (Buster) Douglas,
the former heavyweight champ, was saying last week. "I just open
the door and say, 'Hey, how you doin', Doubt? Look everybody,
it's my old friend, Doubt.' It seems like every time I think
I've kicked Doubt out, somebody always invites him back in, and
damn if he isn't the life of the party. I've come to realize
that Doubt will always be there."
If Douglas was ever going to escape doubt, it should have been
after that night in February 1990 when he knocked out Mike
Tyson, the most stunning upset in the history of boxing. But
doubt lingered. Critics said Douglas would never have won if his
mother, Lula Pearl, hadn't died just 23 days earlier, leaving
Buster to take his grief out on Tyson. They said the victory was
a fluke. Then eight months later Douglas was knocked out in his
first title defense by Evander Holyfield and everybody,
including Douglas himself, appeared to have been expecting it.
Doubt had beaten Douglas that night, knocked him flat on his
back before the opening bell, and he would stay down for much
longer than just the count of 10.
Finally, last Saturday night in Atlantic City, after more than
five years away from the ring, Douglas returned and overwhelmed
Tony LaRosa in three rounds at the Taj Mahal. Considering the
circumstances, it may well have been Douglas's greatest triumph.
"I've come back from the dead, literally," Douglas says. "I was
at the gate, and I refused to go in. The demons couldn't take me
because I was too strong. It's a huge victory just being here."
Nearly two years ago, on the Fourth of July, Douglas had been
confined to his bed for almost a week when his wife, Bertha,
insisted he go to the hospital. Ever since the night he was
knocked down by Holyfield and made no attempt to get up, Douglas
had been punishing himself, living a reclusive existence, cut
off from most of his relatives and friends, who he believed
would never be satisfied with their share of his good fortune.
He would eat junk food at all hours, rarely sleep and drink as
much as two fifths of cognac in a day. His body ballooned to
roughly 400 pounds, his gut so enormous that Buster couldn't see
where his championship belt used to be. "When you reach your
dream, it's tough to find out it wasn't exactly what you
expected," Douglas says. "I was at a crossroads. Mad at the
world. Didn't know what to do. Some people do drugs. I just
stopped caring about myself."
June 30, 1996
On that fateful Independence Day, Douglas could barely muster
the energy to pull on his socks for his trip to the hospital. He
thought his sinuses were acting up, but he says his wife smelled
a strange fruity odor on him. Turns out it was the scent of
diabetes. Douglas's blood-sugar count, which should have been
around 100, had shot up to 800. He didn't want to ride in an
ambulance to nearby Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, so
Bertha drove him. He passed out in the car and didn't emerge
from a diabetic coma for four days. "I remember having this
dream that was like a cartoon, like Scooby Doo," Douglas
recalls. "This nurse and this orderly were driving me around in
a 1964 Falcon. I was in the back seat in a stretcher, it was
dark outside and they were taking me to this evil, haunted
place." Doctors later told Douglas he was well on his way to
Judgment Day, the one that doesn't have a 10-point must system.
Douglas spent a week in the hospital, after which he was given a
frightening edict: Lose weight or die. "It was like being born
again," Douglas says. "It was a wake-up call. I couldn't believe
that I had fallen that far, and it pissed me off, but I had an
opportunity to make a lot of wrongs into a right."
Within six months he was back in the gym. At first Douglas
wasn't thinking about boxing. He was training to save his life.
But once he began working out in the ring with other fighters,
his desire for competition returned, even if his zest for the
necessary preparation lagged a bit behind.
After Douglas signed to fight LaRosa in March, he and his
trainer, John Russell, traveled to Wolf Laurel ski resort in the
mountains of North Carolina to get Buster into fighting shape.
During their first day at 4,700 feet of elevation they went for
a run that soon turned into a walk. At one point Russell looked
back and saw Douglas doubled over with his hands on his knees,
staring at the ground. "What are you looking for?" Russell asked.
"Oxygen," Buster said. "You see any?"
Still, in a span of six weeks in North Carolina, Douglas got
himself into some semblance of shape. "At first, I wasn't even
considering the boxing, I just wanted to get James healthy
again," Russell says. "But after a while I started seeing his
face again. Then I began seeing the boxing skills again. Now I
see greatness in him again."
Two months later, the former undisputed heavyweight champion of
the world found himself on the undercard in Atlantic City and,
as is so often the case in boxing, it was nearly impossible to
separate substance from schlock. The evening's main event was a
showdown for something called the International Boxing Council
middleweight title. Roberto Duran, 45, whose hands of stone have
long since given way to the hands of time, lost a unanimous
decision to Hector (Macho) Camacho, who at 34 is looking
increasingly silly dressed as one of the Village People. The
fight was billed as Legend to Legend. In golf they call it the
Remaining reticent in the midst of all this was Douglas, seeing
no reason to sell himself, because he doesn't need the money. He
was launching this boxing comeback for a meager $100,000
paycheck--about $24 million less than he collected for the
Holyfield fight. Douglas looked across the ring to see LaRosa, a
5'9" Chicago club fighter in only his second bout as a
heavyweight after 28 as a light heavy and cruiserweight. One of
LaRosa's cornermen was Robert Pastorelli, the guy who played
Eldin the housepainter on Murphy Brown. Even so, as Douglas took
in a scene from which he had been away so long, he thought, "Oh
s---, what have I gotten myself into?"
Remarkably, for this fight Douglas weighed in at 244 pounds, two
pounds less than he did for the Holyfield bout, after having
dropped nearly 150 pounds in 18 months. He quickly broke down
LaRosa with a snapping jab and exhibited the power, footwork and
poise that made him a champion in the first place. In the third
round he unleashed a brutal flurry that forced his opponent to
take a knee. With LaRosa's face in ruins, referee Wayne
Hedgepeth stopped the fight before the fourth round on the
advice of the ring doctor. "To be honest, I'm relieved that this
is over, that I'm a boxer again," Douglas said afterward. "This
is the first fight of my new career, and it will take some time,
but I believe the champion is still in me, just struggling to
As Buster applied an ice pack to a mouse over his left eye,
Russell found an empty corner and cried over his fighter's
miraculous journey. Buster's father, Bill, patted his son on the
shoulder over and over. "Back in 1981 I told people I had a
champ, and everybody laughed at me," Bill said. "Now I've heard
the laughter again. Look out."
At age 36, Buster Douglas has come full circle. After three or
four warmup fights, the next probably in August, he would like
to avenge his embarrassing loss to Holyfield. Then perhaps a
rematch with Tyson.
"I'm already a champion in life, and nobody can take that title
away," says Douglas. "Now I want to become a hero again."
For this one moment, at least, there is no doubt in his mind.