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BOXING NOTES : Douglas’ Comeback: Does He Mean It?

NEWSDAY

If James “Buster” Douglas means what he says, he is six days into a comeback he believes will lead to his regaining the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, if James “Buster” Douglas meant what he said when it really counted, he wouldn’t have lost the title in the first place.

But then, James “Buster” Douglas always sounds as if he means what he says. The trick is to know when he really means it.

Before he fought Mike Tyson last Feb. 11 as a 42-1 underdog, Douglas said he would win by a knockout. He did.

Before his first title defense against Evander Holyfield last October, Douglas said he would improve on that brilliant, gutsy, emotional performance. Wrong. Instead, he was left lying in a blubbery heap after only 7:10 of action, rubbing his nose with a glove as the referee counted out his short title reign.

Last week, Douglas granted Newsday an extensive interview, one of the first he has done since being knocked out by Holyfield. The picture that emerged is many-faceted: a man talented enough to win the heavyweight championship but ill-equipped to hold it, and yet intelligent and pragmatic enough to understand the way the world embraced and abandoned him in the space of eight months.

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Is Douglas regretful? Yes. Embarrassed? He says no. Rich? Most assuredly.

So what went wrong? Not even Douglas seems to know. He apparently did not fall into drug use or all-night partying or any of the other traps that have ruined countless other champions. He simply believes that an unusual set of circumstances combined to rob him of his title prematurely. He admits he wasn’t ready to fight, but rather than blame lack of conditioning for his loss, he blames “circumstances” for his lack of conditioning. Take it or leave it, that’s his story.

“Well, that’s not what I wanted to do with the title,” Douglas said. “I wanted to defend it a few times and then retire, if nothing else. I wanted to be like ... to go down as a great, great champion. I wanted it all.”

Instead, he got a lot more and a lot less than he bargained for. The Holyfield right hand that abbreviated the “Buster” Douglas Era was only the final blow of a tempestuous title reign that began with shining promise but steadily deteriorated. “I think I had a very unusual regime as the champion,” Douglas said, in massive understatement. “I hadn’t imagined being the champion as being like that.”

Who could have imagined that only hours after scoring perhaps the biggest upset in sports history, a promoter and two henchmen could conspire to have the title taken away on the bogus claim of a long-count controversy? Or that Douglas would get entangled in a protracted court battle that wound up costing him $4 million of his guaranteed $24-million purse for the Holyfield fight? Or that the hiring of high school buddies Rodney Rogers and Larry Nallie as his camp coordinator and accountant, respectively, would cause a rift with longtime manager John Johnson? Or that all of this -- plus calls to room service from the hotel sauna -- could contribute to a general camp malaise that resulted in Douglas’ weighing in for Holyfield at a preposterous 246 pounds, 15 more than he weighed for Tyson?

“Me and scales have never agreed,” he said. “I still went out, you know, expecting to win.”

But it took only the first seconds of the Holyfield bout for everyone in the Mirage hotel to see that the self-proclaimed “new sheriff in town” was firing blanks. The explanation for his non-performance does not come easily from Douglas, perhaps because there is no real explanation.

“Well ... yeah, I knew I could have been better, but ... I still thought I could do it,” he said. “I think maybe I could have showed better ... Oh, I know by far it wasn’t my best effort, but ... what I did was the best I could do on that night. I mean, there was just a hell of a lot more on the line than any other night. But again, any other night it wouldn’t have mattered.”

But with the world watching and a $35-million rematch with Tyson on the line, it did matter. Since the fight, Mirage owner Steve Wynn, whose private jet was in Columbus the day Douglas arrived home from Tokyo and who practically attached himself to Douglas during the promotional period for the Holyfield fight, has not spoken to or communicated with Douglas since his loss.

“Well, OK, so we have hard feelings now ... But I kept my end of the bargain,” Douglas said. “Every time I go into the ring, I keep my end of the bargain. There’s nobody saying I’m going to come out of that ring the way I went into the ring. Shoot, I’ve been a professional since 1981, and I’ve been through a hell of a lot, so you know ... I deserve everything I got.”

But could he, in fact, have gotten up from the Holyfield knockout punch? “Well, to be honest with you, I was hurt,” said Douglas, who rose from a seemingly harder punch in the eighth round of the Tyson fight. “But I, um ... by the time I picked up the count, well, you know, he was right over me ... it could have happened real fast. My corner said I tried to throw an uppercut ... I don’t know. I never looked at the tape.”

Instead, he spends most of his days in his office in Westerville, Ohio, surrounded by photos and mementos of the Tyson fight. The only leftover from the Holyfield fight is a poster headlined “JUDGMENT DAY: The Moment of Truth.” For Douglas, the judgment was harsh and the truth was painful.

He tries to avoid it by working on the planning of his proposed Lula Pearl Douglas Youth Recreation Center, named for his late mother, whose death, many believe, was his inspiration for beating Tyson. The center, if built, will be a two-story building providing athletic facilities and educational, drug and career counseling to the youth of Columbus. Now, however, the war in the Persian Gulf has stalled Douglas’ attempt to get government assistance in funding the project.

“This could be my legacy, even more than anything I do in the ring,” Douglas said. “My mother’s whole life was about helping people. She would be proud to be associated with this.”

He says he can live with his “other legacy,” the frittering away of the most lucrative and prestigious position in sports.

“No matter what anyone says, I’ve accomplished a lot more than anybody ever gave me a chance of achieving,” he said. “I did a great deal. I set out to become the heavyweight champion of the world, and I did it. I’m real excited and happy about that. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

And yet, it is clear that Douglas, at 31, is unfulfilled. It is why he started running again last Friday, and returned to the gym Monday to see if the fire that roared one morning in Tokyo can be rekindled.

“I know once I get back in the gym, start hitting that bag and sweating again, that fire will just start up,” Douglas said. “I truly don’t think anybody can beat me when I’m right. I’m hell when I’m well. I’m going to come back, and I’m going to be champion again.”

Who knows if this time Douglas really means what he says?


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