LAS VEGAS -- The shot stopped Buster Douglas in his tracks, something that not even Mike Tyson could do. Funny thing is, it was a verbal shot. Funny unless you know James "Buster" Douglas.
"Someone said I was good at this?" Douglas asked, his brown eyes growing wide at the thought. "Get the --- out of here. It's nice to hear that somebody thinks I'm good at this."
It was doubly nice to hear that the somebody who thought Douglas was good at this was his uncle and, perhaps more importantly this week, his co-trainer, J.D. McCauley. This, of course, refers to the art of legally clubbing other men into insensibility, Douglas' vocation of choice. It was McCauley's contention that Douglas, who gives the appearance of being a gentle and introspective soul everywhere but in boxing trunks, does not really like to fight but does it because he does it well.
"Did it because I'm good at it?" he asked. "Hmmm. That's a good conception, I guess. But I love boxing, I really do. I'm crazy about boxing. I enjoy it. It just took me a while to realize it."
Not nearly as long as it is taking the public -- or at least that portion of it that dares to risk its cash on the outcome of boxing matches -- to accept the dual premise that not only does Buster Douglas enjoy fighting, but that he does it well enough to beat Evander Holyfield Thursday night at the Mirage. And you really can't blame Douglas for feeling that the public still does not take him seriously. In the first defense of the undisputed title he won in February by knocking out Tyson in what is widely considered the biggest upset in boxing history, Douglas finds himself an 8-5 underdog to Holyfield, considered by many as a blown-up light-heavyweight.
"I wonder why?" Douglas said. "I say, why me? I think the real reason is all the things that have been written about trouble in the camp. It's good, too, in a sense . . . for me to be the underdog, it's only fitting. I can only do it like that. I can't do it unless I'm not supposed to do it."
Looking at the history, Buster Douglas was not supposed to do a lot of things. Blessed with hand speed and agility not often seen in men 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds, Douglas has been out-hustled in some fights and just plain quit in others. He has entered the ring weighing as much as 260 pounds. He has rarely put two solid efforts back-to-back, and indeed, preceded the Tyson KO with one of his worst performances, a struggling 10-round decision over former Tyson sparring partner Oliver McCall.
"That was the case once," Douglas said. "But now I think I got a handle on it. I always had a lot of outside distractions. Now I'm totally into what I'm doing and I feel good about it."
So good that now he shrugs off the beating he gave Tyson as just a sample of what is to come. "It came together well for me that night," he said. "But I've had tougher fights. Tex Cobb. Leroy Diggs."
Cobb? Diggs? Tougher than Tyson? This coming from a man lTC who was stopped in two rounds by David Bey and in nine by former basketball player Mike "The Giant" White, possibly the most harmless 6-10 man on earth. But that was a different Douglas, one who had yet to harness his talent or give it the proper amount of care.
"I used to sit around and think about how tough his dad was, and how I was always a craftsman," said McCauley, a former pro heavyweight. "I always thought if I had his dad's toughness and viciousness and punching power, what a hell of a fighter I would have been. And then, here comes this clown -- Buster -- standing right over my shoulder."
"I don't know whether James lacked confidence," said John Russell, another Douglas trainer. "But I don't think he was ever really prepared for fights. I'm from the old school that says once a guy becomes a world champion, he becomes a better fighter. And I can see it already. He seems more fiery, more determined."
Asked recently to describe himself in three words, Douglas chose "soft-spoken," "caring" and "determined." The first two are nice, but it's the third that can get Holyfield in trouble. Douglas is so soft-spoken that strangers tend to doubt his self-confidence and so caring that he can overlook slights such as his father taking money and gifts from promoter Don King at the same time King was trying to deprive Douglas of accepting the biggest single-event payday in the history of sports. Bill Douglas' name even turned up on King's list of witnesses against Buster in their lawsuit that was settled in July.
"I understand what happened with my dad," said Douglas, who three weeks ago flew his dad, a former pro middleweight and light-heavyweight, to Las Vegas and has added him to the camp as yet another adviser. "He came close in his career, but he was denied. Now, finally, the big guys were calling him. He told my brother, 'Let's just sit back and suck this up. We know it's all because of what [James] did, but let's enjoy it just the same.' He never intended to testify for King. We knew that all along."