LAS VEGAS -- When Buster Douglas thrashed Mike Tyson in Tokyo eight months ago and took his title away, onlookers were aghast at his superior conditioning, his determination, his aggression.
The quick hands, the graceful movement and the stiff punch had always been there, people who knew Douglas insisted. But . . .
And that is what the first defense of his undisputed heavyweight championship against Evander Holyfield tomorrow night is all about: that but(t).
Did Buster wait too long to get in shape, as evidenced by the slight paunch he's carrying these days?
"I'll weigh just about the same as I did for the Tyson fight [230-232]. I'm comfortable with what I'm carrying and so is my coaching staff," Douglas said yesterday.
That's one of the things about the fight game these days. No longer is it strictly a guy and his trainer with a manager off somewhere working the deals. The beak-busters have weight and strength coaches, agility instructors, psychologists and, in some cases, people who make decisions on appropriate theme music for entering the ring.
"I think I'm in better condition now because I've worked harder," continued the champ. "And I'm more focused."
If this is true and Douglas approximates the performance he threw at Tyson, the consensus is he'll just be too big and too skilled for the challenger.
Then there's the second part of the equation concerning Douglas. And it's an area Buster has been asked to talk about so often it doesn't faze him or the listeners anymore.
Putting it as politely as possible, Douglas somehow came by the reputation of being a dog, a quitter, a guy who would head south as soon as the first stiff punch to the solar plexis showed up.
He shows four losses and a draw on his 35-fight record and those setbacks, it's pretty well agreed, did not come against guys who stick in the mind as hotshot pugilists.
"I look at those losses," said Buster, "as trials I had to go through. They were a learning experience, hurdles I had to go across. But a couple of setbacks weren't going to deter me from my long-term goal of becoming champion. I was confident with my determination."
He might have been the only one who was. His father, former middleweight tough guy Billy Douglas, quit his corner after Buster ran up the white flag against Tony Tucker. He was leading on the cards of the officials after nine rounds that night in 1987 and the IBF title was on the line.
"Thing is," said promoter Butch Lewis, "it was never a question of heart on Buster's part. He can fight and is willing, but he's had conditioning problems." Translation: lazy, unmotivated.
Lewis told of the time, while still on speaking terms with now arch-rival Don King, he suggested that King pay Douglas more attention: "You can just let him go off and expect him to do it on his own.
"In fact, I suggested he put him in against Tyson on the undercard of [Larry] Holmes-[Michael] Spinks II, and the problems he was having with Mike would have cleared up."
Lewis, who is being mentioned as a guy who might soon be enlarging the Douglas camp even further in a consultant's role, has good reason to think Buster is ready to go.
"He's been down on the lower rung so long, you know he likes where he's at, being the champ. He's not about to take any challenge lightly."
And helping out as a motivational factor is Tyson chiding, "once a quitter, always a quitter," and Holyfield walking around saying, "when it comes down to the crunch, deep down inside I think I can make Buster quit."
Actually, Buster appears to view talk of psychological advantages and motivation as so much hogwash. He seems extremely self-assured when he says softly, "I would say I am a lot more determined now because I am more at ease and able to do the things that I am skilled to do in the ring. All I ever wanted to be is the best.
"The long layoff will have no bearing. I have a tendency to put on weight after fights. Before I was champ, no one cared. Now more is said about it, but it doesn't matter.
"I think I'm as fast as any heavyweight today. And I think I have the ability to take on anything that Evander has to offer. It will be a challenging affair."
Lots of straight talk, not the kind that makes headlines and might cause someone to rush out and purchase a ticket for the live fight or the closed-circuit or pay-per-view version.
Holyfield, too, is extremely uncomfortable when it comes to being anything but completely respectful toward an opponent. In the fighter's stead, Buster's manager, John Johnson, took over.
"No one in boxing history has had the size, speed -- both hand and foot -- of James Douglas," he started. "I guess the guy you'd compare him to is Muhammad Ali. But James hit harder than he did and he throws a better variety of punches.
"He's going to beat Evander, then some other people. And you [media] are going to end up saying he's the best ever."
Even Buster Douglas rolled his eyes at that one.