JAMES ‘BUSTER’ DOUGLAS: RELUCTANT FIGHTER WHO REACHED THE STARS

By Dean Berks – In the cycle of life, a son will generally look to emulate his father. They watch with love and admiration as the father provides for his family whilst being a strong and protective presence. Influenced by this, many attempt to follow in the footsteps that have been laid out before them. However, when your father is a professional prizefighter, and one with a hard and fearsome reputation, the pressure to carry the family “name” can sometimes raise expectations to an unrealistic level. James ‘Buster’ Douglas heard this plenty throughout his career. His father Bill ‘Dynamite’ Douglas was a world rated middleweight and light-heavyweight, known for his toughness and willingness to go in to battle. But the young Douglas was more reserved and didn’t appear to have the drive and intensity that consumed his father. But to the surprise of virtually everyone, he reached a level that only few could ever dream of, causing arguably the biggest sensation in boxing history along the way. In the beginning however, things couldn’t have been more different.

Born 7 April 1960 in Columbus, Ohio, Douglas played football and basketball, his first love, throughout his younger years, and in 1977 he captained his high school to a Class AAA state basketball championship. He had boxed up to the age of fifteen, trained by his father who used to drive him to tournaments. But despite showing talent and winning the Golden Gloves, he just didn’t have the same desire his father had displayed. Truth be told, young James just enjoyed spending the time on those journeys listening to his father recall some of the highlights of his own career. So he stepped away from boxing to concentrate on basketball. After high school he played for the Coffeyville Community College Red Ravens from ’77-’78 as a power forward, a position that saw him enter the college’s Hall of Fame. He then played at the Sinclair Community College from ’79-’80, before taking a basketball scholarship at Mercyhurst university. But the call of boxing was proving too great. Returning to Colombus, he reunited with his father and prepared to punch for pay.

He made his debut on 31 May 1981 against the unbeaten Dan O’Malley, stopping his opponent in three rounds. He won his next four, three inside schedule, before running in to David Bey, a touted amateur who would go on to unsuccessfully challenge Larry Holmes for the IBF heavyweight title. Bey was making his debut, but Douglas was already showing signs of his lack of discipline, coming in at twenty pounds heavier than he had in his previous fights. This certainly didn’t help his cause as he suffered his first loss, being stopped in two.

He got back to winning ways, winning his next six, before drawing with future European champion Steffen Tangstad over eight. Seven more wins followed before he was stopped in nine by Mike ‘The Giant’ White, a 7 feet tall fringe contender. Despite being ahead on points, he simply ran out of gas because of less than stellar conditioning. It was becoming frustrating for his team around him. Standing 6 feet 3 1/2 inches tall and with smooth, athletic movement, Douglas possessed a fast, sharp, dominating jab that would set up quick combinations, punctuated by a powerful right hand. But his attitude to training and nutrition were stunting his development. He wasn’t in love with boxing and it was showing.

He returned seven months later, a no-contest against David Starkey after both corners had an altercation in the ring, before meeting former world title challenger Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, a late replacement for future WBC titlist Trevor Berbick. Douglas boxed well, earning a ten round decision over the teak-tough Cobb. But two fights later, he dropped a close decision to the up and coming, unbeaten Jesse Ferguson. Three fights later though, including up to then his biggest win, a points win over former WBA champion Greg Page, boxing politics and a stroke of luck put Douglas in with an unlikely shot at heavyweight glory.

Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory

Michael Spinks was the reigning IBF heavyweight champion. He had created history when, two years before, he became the first light-heavyweight champion to capture the heavyweight crown when he had outpointed division leader Larry Holmes. The following year, Don King put together a tournament to crown one undisputed champion. ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson had emerged thus far as the WBC and WBA champion, destroying Trevor Berbick in two and outpointing a highly reluctant James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith to grasp both belts. Spinks had made two defences of his title, but he then decided that he didn’t want to stay as part of the tournament and defend against King promoted number one contender Tony ‘TNT’ Tucker. He promptly relinquished his championship, leaving Tucker to fight against the next available contender: Number two ranked James ‘Buster’ Douglas.

Tucker was unbeaten in thirty three fights, twenty eight stoppages and one no-contest. A member of the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted the Moscow games, he was a tall (6 feet 5 inches), quick, powerful boxer with a solid chin. He would have given Spinks a tough time and came in to this fight as favourite to move on to the final unification with Tyson.

But Douglas had other ideas on the night. Having whipped himself in to reasonable condition, he controlled a lot of the action behind a strong jab and fast right. Tucker was struggling to assert himself as he was caught time and time again. Douglas displayed what he could be capable of, and in rounds five and six he shook Tucker with solid shots. After eight rounds it was close, but Douglas certainly seemed to have the edge. But in round ten he suddenly came apart. Tucker broke through with a succession of right hands, driving Douglas back across the ring. Whilst no doubt feeling the sting of Tucker’s punches, Douglas made no real attempt to defend himself, in fairness, almost like he had lost the will to continue. The referee jumped in awarding the championship to Tucker. Douglas trudged back to his corner, not appearing to upset by the outcome. But for his father, it was the end of the line. Frustrated at his son’s lack of desire, he decided enough was enough and walked away as trainer. If Douglas was going to continue, it was time to take a long hard look at his situation.

Comeback & An Unexpected Opportunity

Douglas manager John Johnson took to overseeing his training schedule, adapting his runs and diet, believing his charge still had what it took to become the heavyweight champion. And Douglas himself seemed to benefit without his father’s controlling hand over him, running off six straight victories, the last three on the undercards of Tyson title defences. He outpointed Berbick and Oliver McCall over ten rounds to set up a surprising second opportunity at sports biggest prize.

Tyson had signed to fight number one contender Evander Holyfield in one of the biggest and most hotly anticipated fights in the division’s history. But with ongoing personal problems becoming headline news, Tyson opted to take his show on the road for his tenth defence. Japan had shown him much affection when he had knocked out Tony Tubbs in two rounds there, so it was decided to return for a keep busy defence. Douglas profile was acceptable, especially with the recent exposure on Tyson’s cards. The general feeling was that he would give his best before being knocked out inside of four rounds, setting the scene for the big fight. The only problem being though, was that someone forgot to give Douglas the memo.

Heavyweight Champion Of The World

The contrast in approach to training for this fight by both participants was as opposite as night and day. Douglas, realising the size of opportunity he was being presented, trained like never before. Tyson however, found himself lacking focus, with rumours of drugs and Japanese “ladies of the night” being part of his daily routine. When he was dropped by a right hand from Greg Page in sparring, alarm bells should have rung. Instead, the challenger was deemed to have such little chance that the incident was shrugged off.

But tragedy struck for Douglas when, just twenty three days before the fight, his mother Lula passed away from a stroke. The option of pulling out was an obvious one, but he had trained hard and vowed to win the title in her memory.

Douglas entered the Tokyo Dome in superb shape, at 231 lbs he was his lightest in a very long time. Tyson entered at a solid 220 lbs, in shape, but as the fight unfolded, it was clear this wasn’t fighting shape. Douglas was decked out in all white, the complete contrast to the unbeaten champion, who wore his traditional all black. The challenger looked confident, bouncing on his toes and not at all showing any signs of the intimidation Tyson had put in to previous opponents. He had noted beforehand in the press conferences that he just couldn’t see what others had feared in Tyson. All he kept seeing was a short guy, not the destructive force with a highly impressive record of 37-0, 33 ko’s, seventeen in the first round alone, that had forced grown men in to rethinking their strategy as soon as they felt his power. That psychology would prove to be the first step in a fight that would turn boxing history on its head.

The only casino to offer odds on a Douglas win was The Mirage at 42-1, such was thought of his chances of victory.

Douglas came out sharply at the first bell. Slick movement set up his jab as Tyson looked strangely flat-footed, and right hands found their target with regularity. When Tyson tried his left hook, Douglas raised his right glove to the side of his head, catching the punch, a move that had been rehearsed umpteen times in the gym. He took the first round as the crowd sat watching, strangely subdued. Round two followed the same pattern. Tyson tried to work inside but Douglas tied him up, frustrating the champion again. Douglas became more confident as the round wound down, thumping in a right uppercut and three more crosses. While the challenger was looking impressive though, the conscious feeling was that Tyson would bring things to an end as soon as he broke through cleanly. Tyson tried to close the gap in the third but still couldn’t get through with a clean shot. The elusive and quick head movement that had become his trademark was nonexistent, a direct reflection on the departure of career trainer Kevin Rooney. In his place for this fight were Aaron Snowell and Jay Bright, both unfamiliar with working his corner and unable, it appeared, to be able to motivate and direct him. Douglas continued his control in rounds four and five, landing an eye-catching right left right that snapped Tyson’s head back, bringing gasps from the crowd as the smell of a gargantuan upset started to eminate around the boxing world. Tyson’s left eye was beginning to swell, testament to the continuous thud and accuracy of Douglas right hand. But, for whatever reason, his corner had forsaken the traditional enswell, a small metal iron kept cold to deal with swelling, and were using what can only be described as a rubber balloon filled with water. It appeared their complete overconfidence in what was expected to be an easy victory had completely backfired. The seventh was a continuation of what had previously transpired, but round eight was the beginning of the spectacular moments that would define this fight.

Douglas was moving less this round, allowing Tyson to get close but tying him up to restrict his work. In between he would measure the champion before once again sending the right in to the left side of Tyson’s head. As the round ticked down one such right sent Tyson back in to the ropes. As Douglas let his hands go, Tyson reminded us why he was one of the most explosive punchers in heavyweight history when a right uppercut out of nowhere sent Douglas down heavily on to his back. He punched the canvas in frustration and listened patiently to the referee’s count. Douglas rose on about nine and a half as the bell sounded to end a dramatic round. It appeared that Tyson had finally found the breakthrough that had eluded him all evening. But for Douglas this was his moment of truth. How he responded would define his place in history. Would he cave in, as he had previously, or would something stir inside of him, the warrior, the fighter that his father always hoped that he could be?

Tyson came out fast for round nine, looking to capitalize on his success, but a combination from Douglas backed up the champion. A solid right forced Douglas to hold as the pace of the fight started to catch up with both men. But as he got his jab working again, a powerful right left badly rocked Tyson, his legs completely disobeying him as he staggered in to the ropes. Douglas attacked, letting both his hands go as he snapped Tyson’s head back on his shoulders. He was in desperate trouble with just under a minute left on the clock. More hard jabs and crosses thudded in to Tyson’s head as he was backed up again. The bell went to signal the end of three fantastically absorbing minutes of boxing. His corner worked frantically trying to clear his head, but the clock was ticking loud and his grasp on the belts was becoming looser and looser. Douglas was caught with a solid right at the start of the tenth, but reestablished control immediately, sensing the title was now within sight. And then just over a minute in to the round it happened. A crunching right uppercut twisted Tyson’s head before a savage left right left sent him crashing to the canvas for the first time in his career. The crowd shrieked in astonishment at what they were witnessing. Tyson subconsciously rolled on to his hands and knees, grabbing his mouthpiece that had been knocked out, before drunkenly rising as the referee reached the count of ten. It was all over. James ‘Buster’ Douglas had defeated the unbeatable “baddest man on the planet”. Against unbelievable odds he stood, arms held aloft in victory, as the NEW Undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

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As he was interviewed in the ring by commentator Larry Merchant, all the suppressed emotions he had buried previously in the build up came flooding to the surface as he acknowledged his mother’s passing as his motivation, breaking down and sobbing as he was consoled by both his corner and Merchant. It was a touching moment. And as he composed himself, the WBC title was wrapped around his waist as the first sight of the new champion was beamed to millions watching around the world.

But in the dressing room Douglas manager was informed that both Don King and Tyson were lodging a protest with both the WBC and WBA over what they felt was a long count for Douglas in round eight when he was felled by Tyson. They claimed that Douglas was actually down for thirteen seconds due to the slow count of the referee and should have been counted out. It was a desperate attempt to keep Tyson’s titles and thankfully, due to public outcry, the appeal was dropped just four days later and both bodies joined the IBF, who recognised Douglas from the start, as champion. It was a low blow to try and deliver on Douglas who had followed all the instructions correctly in the ring. Nevertheless, with that issue resolved, he took to living life as heavyweight champion and enjoying all the spoils that came with the lofty position.

Chat shows, product endorsements, and an appearance at Wrestlemania as guest referee (originally booked for Tyson) all followed as Douglas basked in his hard earned glory. The Tyson camp were frantically trying to arrange an immediate rematch but Douglas decided against dealing with them after what they had tried to do with his titles and victory, so his maiden defence would be against the number one contender Evander Holyfield. Holyfield had been ringside in a commentary role when Douglas ripped his mega payday with Tyson apart, although Holyfield had always persisted that he just wanted the belts, regardless of who held them. Steve Wynn had won the bid to stage the fight at The Mirage Hotel & Casino guaranteeing Douglas $24 million dollars, a staggering amount at that time, and Holyfield $8 million dollars.

But Douglas had been enjoying life a bit too much, returning to training at a much heavier weight than usual. His motivation seemed lax, the complete antithesis of the supremely conditioned Holyfield, who remained in outstanding shape between fights. The former Undisputed cruiserweight champion had earnt his number one status by reeling off six straight victories since moving up in weight two years previously, including a thrilling tenth round stoppage over former WBA champion Michael Dokes, in the best heavyweight fight of the eighties. A formidable boxer/puncher, Holyfield was unbeaten in twenty four fights, twenty by knockout, and would represent Douglas toughest fight outside of Tyson. But rumours were circulating that Douglas was having major issues with his weight and focus. Pizzas were being delivered after training, and stories were circulating that he was doing the same whilst IN THE SAUNA! Holyfield’s co-trainer Lou Duva mischievously got in on the act by sending food to Douglas hotel suite. And when he weighed in at a soft looking 246 lbs, 15 pounds heavier than his victory over Tyson and his heaviest since 1985, things were starting to not look so confident for the defending champion. With Holyfield weighing a rippling 208 lbs, all eyes would be on Douglas to see if he could upset the odds once again.

Losing It All

Both men entered the ring on 25 October 1990 wearing very different expressions. Holyfield looked determined and confident whilst Douglas wore the look of a man who would rather have been a million miles away. And for the first two rounds he fought like it too. Holyfield took control, outjabbing Douglas and following up with combinations. The jab that had dominated Tyson was dormant as he struggled to put anything together. At the start of the third he found the range with a long right hand, his only success of the night it would turn out to be. Then, with a minute gone in the round, Douglas attempted a long right uppercut. The punch had been successful against Tyson but Holyfield and his team had studied and planned for this. As Douglas right shoulder dipped, Holyfield would rock back on his right foot and as the punch sailed by he would transfer his weight on to his left leg, throwing the straight right with full power. Holyfield executed this to perfection, the right hand thudding against the left side of Douglas jaw. Douglas dropped heavily on to his back. Now how hurt he was has been a debate for many years, but as he lay listening to his reign as champion being counted away, he made no attempt to rise, dabbing at his nose as if checking for blood. Only he will ever know if he could have gotten up, but his time in the sun was now officially over.

Retirement, Near Death & Comeback

After the fight Douglas faded from the scene, but unhappy with how his career had ended, he sank into a deep depression, drinking heavily and eating anything he wanted. In just four years his weight had doubled, ballooning to 450 lbs. Cognac and beer became his tipples as he reflected on his life, particularly the deaths of his mother and youngest brother, who was shot in 1981. But it all nearly came at a terrible price when he fell in to a diabetic coma that almost cost him his life. Upon awakening, he realised how fortunate he had been and knew the only thing that could help him return to his former self was to once again lace up the gloves and return to the ring. On 22 June 1996, he stopped Tony LaRosa in three to begin his comeback. Five wins followed, but in one of those the signs that he was not the fighter of old surfaced when he was dropped heavily by Louis Monaco after the bell to end the first round of their fight. He was in bad shape and elected not to continue as Monaco was disqualified. It was not a good omen though.

And just two fights later, the comeback came to a shuddering halt. He met contender Lou Saverese in a fight designed to catapult him towards a shot at his old title. Instead it effectively ended his career. Entering the ring in reasonable shape, Douglas started well, firing off some fluid combinations. But with just over a minute gone, an overhand right sent him crashing to the canvas. He got up on shaky legs, but seemed to be gathering himself as the round continued. With a minute left though, the same punch put him over for a second time. The writing was on the wall now and it didn’t take long before an accumulation of punches sent him down for the third and final time. Douglas run had come to an end. He fought just twice twice more before, at age thirty eight, he walked away. His final record: 38-6-1, 25 ko’s.

In retirement he still faced more heartache as he lost his father to cancer in 1999, this coming a year after losing another brother to gunfire in ’98. But for the most part Douglas tries to remain upbeat. Married to wife Bertha and the father to four children, he is now on the other side of the ropes, coaching both amateurs and professionals from his gym in Columbus, including two of his sons who have their own aspirations of carrying on the family name.

Douglas own place in boxing folklore is secure. Against insurmountable odds he won boxing’s greatest prize whilst slaying one of the most fearsome fighters there has been in recent heavyweight history. And whilst most of the focus went on Tyson and what he didn’t do, for once Douglas got it right. Everything came together on that incredible night in Tokyo, and James Douglas became the most famous family member of all. No father could have been prouder.

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