As champion, Douglas still must contend with underdog status

October 22, 1990|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

LAS VEGAS -- Heavyweight champion James "Buster" Douglas has just finished six strenuous rounds of sparring in the main ballroom of The Mirage, where he will earn $24 million Thursday night for his dance number with undefeated challenger Evander Holyfield.

His sweat-drenched T-shirt clings to his torso, as if he were trying to hide the extra suet around his waistline. But it is the message spread across his broad back that he wants the world to see. It reads: 'Contend, O' Lord, with those who contend with me."

It is Douglas' best defense against skeptics who have made "Buster-bashing" the most popular game in this gambling capital.

Even after achieving his victory as a 42-1 underdog against Mike Tyson in Tokyo last February, Douglas gets no respect. The cynical fight crowd acts as though Douglas performed some black magic against Tyson the same way magicians Siegfried & Roy cause elephants and tigers to disappear nightly in the Mirage showroom.

His doubters dredge up his checkered ring past -- when he managed to be knocked out by the likes of David Bey and Mike White and surrendered to Tony Tucker in 1987 when the then-vacant International Boxing Federation title seemed well within his grasp.

"He quit before, and I'll make him quite again," said Holyfield, supported by the bettors who have made him an 8-5 favorite.

The cynics find it easier believing Tyson was greatly disinterested that night in Tokyo than that Douglas had overpowered him.

"He had a good night against a bum," Tyson told The New York Post last week. "I was a bum because of my mood and conditioning. Buster had a luck-out night. He's not a thoroughbred. He's a fluke champion, like a guy who won the lottery.

"I took my beating like a man. Buster has never taken a beating because he's always quit first, and once a quitter, always a quitter. Against Tucker, he went against the ropes and didn't want to get hit again. What's even worse is that he quit when he was ahead."

Tyson's remarks could be dismissed as those of a sore loser. But boxing figures who don't have a grudge also have questioned Douglas' authenticity and heart.

Philadelphia promoter Russell Peltz took a gamble in a three-fight deal with the Columbus, Ohio, heavyweight in 1987 after Douglas had been fighting for small purses in places like Niles, Ohio, McConnelsville, Pa., and Kalamazoo, Mich.

"In the '60s, I'd booked Buster's father, Billy, a hard-punching middleweight," Peltz said. "Billy said that Buster needed a promoter, so I guaranteed him $27,000 for three fights in Atlantic City.

"He struggled for 10 rounds to beat Dave Johnson, and then he knocked out Eugene Cato in one round. I thought I might have something good on my hands.

"I matched him against Mike 'The Giant' White. Buster toyed with White for seven rounds, and then he just ran out of gas. In the eighth, he's staggering around the ring. I look up in the ninth, and he's stretched out on the floor. I couldn't believe it. Just no dedication. I was going to sign Buster for three more fights, but I'd seen enough of him."

Douglas has a ready explanation for every blot on his ring resume.

The loss to Bey in 1981 was attributed to an amorous affair the eve of the fight, his knockout by White on a crash diet and his surrender to Tucker on managerial problems.

"Everyone was pulling at me," he said, recalling the in-fighting between his father and his manager, John Johnson. "I walked to the ring against Tucker that night, and it didn't feel like I was there. I had a twinge of doubt, and it cost me when it came to crunch time. I had nothing to fall back on."

Promoter Don King, who once said, "Buster can't draw flies in a dump," kept propping up Douglas, using him repeatedly on Tyson championship under cards, the last time in July 1989, when he struggled to win a 10-round decision over unheralded Oliver McCall.

"I didn't even want to fight that night," Douglas said. "I'd been going through rough times with my wife, Bertha. I just couldn't focus on the fight."

But King still managed to pass off Douglas as a title challenger to Tyson, who regarded Buster as a willing punching bag while preparing for more lucrative matches against Holyfield and George Foreman.

"People thought I had as much of chance against Tyson as some guy off the street," said Douglas. "No one believed in me, not even my own family. They kept telling me to quit fighting and find another job. Now these same people are reaping the benefits because I didn't listen to them."

There were legitimate reasons for Douglas to pack it in against Tyson. His wife had left him, his father had lost faith after the Tucker loss and his mother, Lula, died a month before the fight.

"That was the first time I turned negatives into positives," Douglas said. "My mother became my inspiration. It gave me the willpower to pick myself off the floor and to knock out Tyson."

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