LAS VEGAS -- Buster Douglas personifies the rags-to-riches, rug-cutter-to-champ, only-in-America story that those in the fight game love to sell but in which no one -- I mean, no one -- actually believes.
In real life, and especially in heavyweight boxing, Buster Douglases do not happen. Yo, they live only in movies, and in movie sequels.
I'm not saying boxers don't grow up poor. Of course, they do. You don't find too many pugs who spent their formative years sailing off the Cape. You decide to become a boxer when your other career opportunities tend to include a jail term or, at best, a job cutting carpet, which is what Douglas was doing to put food on the table only three years ago.
Those kids who grow up to be heavyweight champ are identified early, usually latched onto and often bled dry by your typical boxing entrepreneur. In any case, they are nurtured, trained, moved up and into position to challenge for a title. They generally fight in the Olympics and sometimes win gold medals. What they don't do is work out in meat lockers.
In almost every instance, they are people we have heard of before they become champion. When Buster's name was announced, people were asking, "Douglas who?" No one had ever heard of Buster Douglas. He was an opponent. In an earlier time, he might have been one of Joe Louis' bums of the month. He was a 47-1 underdog who knocked out Mike Tyson in Japan because Tyson figured it was one punch, Buster, and then back to the sushi bar. If Douglas had been any more obscure, he could have played for the Cincinnati Reds.
So, now that he's fighting Evander Holyfield, a built-up light heavyweight who was, however, primed to be a heavyweight champion, Douglas is the underdog. Heavyweight champions, like debutantes, are supposed to suggest a certain breeding. What Douglas suggests is a history of weight problems and a tendency for losing fights to people like Mike White.
"It doesn't matter to me who is favored," Douglas said.
And why should it? He's a guy who was advised even by his family to give up the game and get a real job, and who now, at age 30, when boxers are supposed to be retiring, is looking straight in the face of a $16 million payday, which would be a lot of hours of cutting up rugs.
But the questions persist, and they're perfectly legitimate. Part of the reason Douglas stayed so unknown for so long is that you never knew which version of the fighter might enter the ring. On too many nights, he lacked what the fight people like to call heart. Maybe, he just lacked conditioning. Whatever, there were times when he showed up in body only, and too much body at that.
Even now, when so much is at stake, he spent the long months, while his handlers and lawyers and Don King decided how to split up his money, on the banquet circuit. When he began training for Holyfield, he was about 20 pounds overweight. As late as Tuesday, he was working out wearing a T-shirt.
"I ate harder than I worked," he said. "I went to my grandma's house and kicked my feet back on the porch and ate good Southern stuff -- pinto beans and chicken necks."
I don't even want to think about how many chickens sacrificed their lives in this cause. But even if Douglas, who was in the fighting shape of his life against Tyson, comes to the ring as firm as a John Wayne handshake, there's still no guarantee.
"You never know with Douglas," said George Benton, the old fight man who is training Holyfield. "Which one will show up? I don't know. Even he don't know. He's a talented fighter, but he's Jekyll and Hyde."
Oh, Douglas can explain his failings, which span a decade. When he lost to David Bey, he said it was because he picked up his girlfriend that morning and left his, well, game back at the motel. He was at 251 pounds and coming off an injury when he fought to a draw against Steffen Tangstadt. He lost to White because he had to lose too much weight too fast, and it was after that loss that he fired (for the first of three times) his father, an ex-fighter himself, as manager/trainer. Of his loss to Jesse Ferguson, he said he was "just not there."
When Douglas got his big break, a $200,000 fight against Tony Tucker for the IBF title, he had the fight won until he was stopped in the 10th round. He blamed his collapse on the bickering between his father and his new manager, John Johnson.
Now, he does concede, if pushed on the subject, that he is "my own worst enemy."
There's still bickering -- come on, this is boxing -- and promoter Butch Lewis is said to be moving in on Johnson. Douglas' dad is here, too. There was the hearing to determine whether Douglas was actually champion and the court settlement in which he had to pay King $4 million. It was rumored that Douglas' father was prepared to testify for King against his son. And so it goes.
Holyfield, the favorite, looks the part, with a perfectly chiseled frame and an unblemished record. But Douglas (29-4-1) is huge and he's strong and he jabs well and he's got a terrific right hand. Against Tyson, he got up from the canvas to knock out a great, if misguided, fighter. I think Douglas is going to win this fight.
If Douglas loses to Holyfield tomorrow, he will be considered for all time a fluke, the most unlikely heavyweight champion since at least Ingemar Johansson. If he wins, he'll be in line for another shot at Tyson, the fighter he couldn't possibly beat before -- and did. That should be motivation enough for anyone.