25 years ago today, Buster Douglas shocked the world and knocked out Mike Tyson, becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. This profile appeared in Sports Illustrated three years later, after Douglas had lost his title to Evander Holyfield. It has been reprinted here with the author's permission.
Yet another fine yellow noon on Marco Island, Fla., and, miracle of miracles, Buster Douglas is already out of bed.
He's wearing what he always seems to wear these days: white canvas boating shoes, loose-fitting gym trunks, a faded striped shirt that never stays tucked in. And he's looking big. Buster's looking like a helium balloon after the gas has been left on too long. About 320 lbs. of big, though you'd be hard-pressed to get him to admit that. "I never get on a scale now," he says. "I really don't know what I weigh. I don't care."
At his house by the sea, Buster squeezes into his Porsche 930S Turbo, a convertible, and starts north for Naples, about 16 miles away. Buster has his day planned. First, the tires beneath him need to be rotated. Second, he'll stop by his favorite deli and get something to eat, maybe a submarine, maybe soup. Third... well, there really isn't a third, not that he can remember.
Buster paid $125,000 for the car, and, a few restored clunkers notwithstanding, it's easily the sweetest thing on the road. "Do you take American Express?" he asked the car salesman that day in Beverly Hills, Calif., then promptly handed over a credit card. The Porsche is black except for the places on the doors where Buster had this painted, in purple script: JOKER. You can't miss him as he comes thundering down U.S. 41, the former heavyweight champion of the world hauling ass with the top down, his young dreadlocks looking like the prickly hide of a pineapple. On the stereo the rocker Prince sings in liquid falsetto, providing Buster with the perfect theme music to guide him through yet another day without much to do.
"Wait'll they get a load of me," Buster says as he weaves through traffic. "Wait'll they get a load of... me!"
That's a line from the movie Batman. It's something Jack Nicholson said after a mishap with a vat of toxic waste transformed him into a diabolical fiend. Buster's always quoting from the pictures now that at 33 he has retired from the fight game and movies have become so important to him. Day in and day out, he watches them on his big-screen Mitsubishi, imagining himself a movie star.
Along with Batman, Buster likes to quote from Raging Bull, the film about boxer Jake La Motta. Buster imitates Robert DeNiro imitating Jake La Motta imitating Marlon Brando in another movie, On the Waterfront. It gets pretty confusing sometimes. "I coulda been a contender," Buster says. And you don't laugh because it seems to mean something. Buster speaking that line. Also, Buster is giving it his best. His eyebrows dance like snails, and his mouth is a bitter scowl.
By his own estimate, Buster has seen Raging Bull 10 times. He especially likes the scene in which DeNiro deposits a bucket of ice down his pants to cool his stubborn passion. Buster's been in that situation himself, having a woman in his room before a big light and wanting to be with her, as they say. She's lying there with a come-hither look on her face, pleading, "Hey, Buzz, come on, baby. Come back to bed." In the movies, as in real life, the fighter does what he shouldn't. Then a few hours later some doctor's waving a penlight in his face, asking how many fingers he's holding up or whether the boxer remembers his name.
For those who have forgotten, James Buster Douglas is the man who beat Mike Tyson in February 1990—the only person on this planet, in fact, ever to have beaten Tyson as a professional. It happened in Tokyo, and people who were there said it resembled the kicker in another boxing film, Sylvester Stallone's Rocky.
There was the undefeated Tyson and his aura of invincibility, and there was Buster Douglas of Columbus, Ohio, and his hard-luck tale. Blister's mother, Lula Pearl, had died just a few weeks earlier; he and his wife, Bertha, were on the outs; and he was battling what felt like the flu. Much of Las Vegas had turned its back on the bout, the odds against an upset being so high. Buster's name might've been Bubba, for all anyone cared.
From the outset Buster controlled the fight, keeping Tyson off balance with practically every piece of action he'd ever learned in the gym. Buster was well ahead when, in the eighth, Tyson unloaded a nasty right uppercut and dropped him to the canvas. A long count ensued—a long, long count—but Buster managed to rise to his feet and continue. He continued to the 10th, when he himself unloaded on Tyson and knocked him flat on his back. Buster retreated to a neutral corner, doubting that Tyson would stay down for long. But then Buster found his arms being lifted up over his head, saw his friends storming the ring, heard the roar of the crowd rising to a hysterical pitch.
"Just Like in the Movies," the Time magazine headline read.
It was a short reign, Buster's. Having earned his 15 minutes of fame, he was widely feted and given the key to at least one city, and he made the circuit of late-night TV talk shows. He flew around in a private jet. In Vegas, he stayed in a penthouse at the Mirage and watched incredulously as a man-made volcano erupted every 15 minutes or so just outside his window. He met movie stars and was surprised by how short, how puny most of them were. And he trained little and indulged much. By fall Buster weighed 260 lbs, some 30 more than he'd carried into the ring against Tyson.
Then the end came, in October of that same year, right there in Las Vegas. Evander Holyfield beat him in three rounds of the most uninspired fisticuffs ever witnessed. Buster hardly put up a fight. After falling to the canvas, he sat there pawing his face with his glove, checking for blood, seeming to make no effort to return to his feet. He was still checking when referee Mills Lane counted him out." I don't know if he could have got up," Lane said afterward. "But he sure never tried."
"I thought Buster Douglas was disgraceful tonight," another observer was heard to say. That happened to be Eddie Futch, one of the most respected trainers around. "In my opinion," Futch continued, "he could have got up in time. But he chose not to do so.... Maybe he had his own reasons."
Buster left the ring as clear-eyed as when he'd entered it. And then, almost as quickly as he'd been thrust upon the scene, Buster disappeared. "Fade to black," a script about his life might've read at this point. That or "The end."
No one spoke Buster Douglas's name anymore—except perhaps to use it as an example of how far and how quickly an athlete could fall. And when his victory over Tyson came up, it was no longer called the biggest upset in boxing history. Time had turned it into something else: a fluke. Rather than being credited with beating the best heavyweight since Muhammad Ali, Buster was said to have fought a psychologically impaired man in Tyson, hardly the monster of his previous fights. Tyson's personal problems had beaten him, not Buster Douglas. Or so people said when they could remember his name. Bubba Douglas? Buster Douglas?
Well, it really didn't matter anymore, did it?
Warm days and nights. Strip malls rising from the mangroves. Pretty, suntanned young women in Spandex and on rollerblades, cruising along the sidewalks. It's paradise, all right, and just a few more reasons why Buster spends the fall and winter months in southwestern Florida, safe from the rain and snow that hammer his other home, Columbus.
Buster pulls up at a car dealership and tells the service adviser what he wants done. He just remembered the third thing on his list of chores for today: Go to a boating supply store and buy a map, a tackle box and some artificial lures.
Weather permitting, Buster will be in the Atlantic Ocean a few days from now with Larry Nallie and a couple of other guys, fishing for marlin down near the Keys, along the edge of the Gulf Stream. He and Nallie became friends back in junior high school, and now they're partners—Nallie is Buster's business manager as well as his closest confidant. He oversees the nearly $30 million Buster made as champ. Although this fishing trip will be one of mindless recreation, it's not unusual for Nallie to get in his car and drive all the way down from Columbus to discuss financial matters with Buster.
"Need counseling?" Buster likes to say with a snort of laughter. "Call 1-800-WHEELS. Larry Nallie: the only accountant in America who drives cross-country to give out advice."
In the waiting room of the autohaus, Buster lowers himself onto a short leather couch and faces a television tuned to Headline News. Riddick Bowe appears on the screen, looking nifty in a double-breasted suit. Bowe won the heavyweight title in November by beating Holyfield, and lately he has been traveling around the globe, presenting himself as either the Goodwill Ambassador, the People's Champ or the Second Coming of Ali. Which identity Bowe will finally settle on is anybody's guess, but already he's succeeded in being Everything Buster Douglas Was Not. Yesterday, Bowe met Pope John Paul II, and today the news is all over the airwaves. Bowe gave the pontiff a pair of boxing gloves, as if an old man in a long white robe—and wearing a crucifix around his neck, for heaven's sake!—could possibly use such a gift. But Buster says he likes Bowe just the same. He likes Bowe's style inside as well as outside the ring. It's boxing Buster never liked.
"To me," he says, staring at the TV with his sunglasses on, "it was like playing the lottery. I remember once in Columbus when the lottery was up to 15, 20 million, my mother says, 'You playing the lottery?' And I laughed and said, 'I'm playing the lottery right now. This boxing is the lottery.' And that's really how I saw it—as a way out."
But a way out of what? That is the question. It wasn't as if Buster had to struggle when he was growing up. He lived with his grandmother until he was six, then his parents took charge. His mother was a great lady, a real presence in the home. She worked as a cook at a restaurant, and you could bet there was always a good, hot meal on the table when Buster and his three younger brothers came crashing home at the end of the day. Buster's father, Bill Douglas, had been a professional fighter, and he held steady employment as a boxing instructor for the parks department. True, Bill could be a bit domineering, but he was a father, and he was always there. At least his intentions were good. Some of Buster's friends hadn't enjoyed the privilege of ever being introduced to their dads. Buster didn't grow up in a slum, and he didn't attend troubled inner-city schools, and he didn't run with gangsters.
So a way out of what?
Well, for Buster, a way out of doing anything but what he feels like doing. A way out—to put it exactly right—of having to live his life like everybody else.
"Mr. Douglas. The Porsche is ready."
"Your car is ready."
Buster gets up off the couch just as a piece about Mike Tyson is coming on TV. At the Indiana Youth Center, where he is serving a six-year sentence for a rape conviction, Tyson is inmate number 922335. He makes 65 cents a day handing out equipment in the prison gym. The news report is about lawyer Alan Dershowitz and his appeal to obtain a new trial for Tyson. Dershowitz's red mustache has the mesmerizing effect of a pocket watch swinging at the end of a chain, but Buster manages to ignore the lawyer and leaves the room, his shoes squeaking musically as he heads outside. The young women in the business office stand up and watch him on his way. It's hard for some people to believe that a man Buster's size was ever anything but big and fat. They have to strain to imagine the streamlined creature lost in that wealth of flesh, the champ hiding inside this terrifically outsized human.
Situated once again behind the wheel of his Porsche, Buster starts for the nearest deli, the hungry ache in his gut serving as a compass. He has decided: He will have the cream of broccoli soup, the turkey sandwich, the chocolate chip cookies. The cookies are high in fat content, but Buster will order the sandwich on wheat bread to compensate for the extra calories.
"Wait'll they get a load of me," he says again, whipping the car into traffic, laughing with his head rocked back.
When Buster goes to a video store, he doesn't rent movies; he buys them brand-new. He takes them home "by the case," as he puts it, and stacks them on top of the television in the den. There must be about 20 stacks on the Mitsubishi now, each about 10, 15 cassettes deep. From a distance the top of the set looks like the Manhattan skyline. The tapes are high-rise buildings reaching for the stratosphere, a jumbled mess on a small piece of ground. People tell Buster he should build some shelves for his collection. He tells them he likes it the way it is.
Every now and then Buster will disappear into the bedroom and watch a tape of one of his old fights. He likes to be alone during these moments and to let his mind drift to the time depicted on the screen. He doesn't watch the fights he lost, such as his title bid against Tony Tucker, in 1987. Just those against people he beat. When he watches he remembers things he thought he'd forgotten, and sometimes even the old smells return. But invariably, Bertha comes in to check on him, pushing a crack in the bedroom door: "You okay, baby?" And that breaks the spell. He's no longer 225 lbs., feeling the heat of lights overhead, hearing the cheers. "You okay, baby?" And, just like that, Buster Douglas turns back into just another guy with more life behind him than in front. He has never watched the Holyfield fight, mainly because he doesn't have to. "It's all right here." he says, pointing to his head.
And the truth is, you'd need eight months of film for that one, because Buster's bout with Holyfield actually began the moment he flattened Tyson and earned the distinction of being called the best heavyweight fighter in the world. It began in Tokyo, if you have to know, before the sweat on Buster's back even had time to dry.
While Buster and friends were just beginning to celebrate inside the ring, promoter Don King was already at war outside, frantically trying to have the decision overturned. There, in the same arena, in a room nearby, King convened with officials from at least two sanctioning bodies and reviewed tapes of the bout, studying the eighth-round knockdown of Buster to determine whether, as King argued, the count of the referee had lagged behind that of the official scorekeeper. Upon emerging two hours later, King called a press conference and declared that "two knockouts took place," the first, by Tyson, naturally nullifying the second.
"Buster Douglas was knocked out," King said to the group, "and the referee did not do his job and panicked. As the promoter of both fighters, I'm only seeking fair play."
King was unsuccessful in reversing the outcome, but he did draw clouds over Buster's victory party. King later said he simply was trying to set the stage for a rematch—a claim he made, curiously enough, in a New York City courtroom some five months into Buster's reign. King and Buster had ended up suing each other. Buster and his manager, John Johnson, charged that King had breached his contract with them by trying to have the result of the Tyson fight overturned, and therefore King had forfeited his right to promote Buster's first title defense. King sued to uphold his promotional rights, and he named as defendants not only Douglas and Johnson, but also Mirage owner Steve Wynn, whom King accused of wrongfully interfering with the King-Douglas contract. The dispute was settled shortly after it went to trial. King agreed to assign his promotional rights to the Douglas-Holyfield fight to Wynn. In exchange, Buster's camp had to pay $4 million to King. Much to Buster's dismay, the person hit hardest by the settlement was the one who had made any future fight possible in the first place: James Buster Douglas. The money to settle would come off the top of his purse for the Holyfield fight, and it wasn't chump change, even if Buster was now the highest-paid athlete in the world.
Buster hated losing the money, but he figured he could live with the agreement. Boxing was a business, after all, and tough hits were to be expected. Had that been his only problem, he might've had an easy time preparing for his fight with Holyfield. But other matters kept getting in the way, and Buster found himself scrambling to resolve them all.
To begin, Buster now was forced to deal with the death of his mother, the person he'd cherished most in this world. He'd long dreamed about the kind of life he'd give Lula Pearl once he became champ. He'd buy her the greatest house around, fly her to exotic cities, dress her in silk and gold and pearls. He'd be the perfect son, since she had been the perfect mother.
In the weeks before he fought Tyson, Buster had been able to endure the pain of Lula's death by force of will alone, but now it struck him just how final the loss was. She wasn't coming back, no matter how hard he wished it weren't so. Some days he could hardly stand it; he wept, he missed her so bad.
And there was another woman whose absence was painful for Buster. He was tired of being separated from Bertha, and he wanted her back. It was easy for a millionaire athlete to get a woman, a beautiful woman, a woman so perfect as to stop your heart. But in Buster's case, none filled the void the way Bertha did. "A mannequin," he called one woman he had dated in the interim. And he gave a word to describe how she made him feel: empty.
Also, Buster was growing increasingly unhappy with John Johnson. Their professional relationship dated back to April 7, 1984, Buster's 24th birthday. Johnson was a former Ohio State football assistant who referred to himself as "a disciple of both Jesus Christ and Woody Hayes, though not necessarily in that order." All along, Johnson had accepted nothing less than complete control over Buster's career—just as the tyrant Hayes had ruled over his Buckeyes. But Buster was the champ now, he was the one who'd stepped in there with Tyson, and he was the one who wanted to make the lion's share of the decisions.
In March 1990, Nallie was hired to work as an accountant for James Buster Douglas Inc., and immediately he and Johnson found themselves disagreeing on how to handle the fighter. Money always seemed to be at issue, and rather than settle arguments peaceably, Johnson and Nallie took to name-calling. Johnson saw Nallie as "selfish, evil and greedy," and Nallie saw Johnson as a "dictator" who sought to control Buster. The bickering was intense and mean and personal, and the back and forth escalated to a point where it seemed Busier heard nothing else.
Nothing else except when certain members of his family complained about not having received their share of his earnings. Everybody, it seemed, wanted a free this or a free that—a free ride, to say it. True, Buster might've won the lottery by beating Tyson, but did that entitle everyone even distantly related to him to take a cut of the proceeds?
Sometimes Buster wished he were a kid again, without a worry—an innocent dreaming about the perfect, trouble-free life that would be his if he became champ. Why hadn't anyone told him that nightmares sometimes came disguised as dreams? A few weeks after the Tyson fight, Buster decided to escape it all, to just up and leave everything behind. Accompanied by his old friend Rodney Rogers, he rented a car and hit the highway. He drove from Ohio to Virginia, glancing back only to check for traffic in his rearview mirror. He and Rogers stopped at restaurants and ordered whatever looked good on the menu. They listened to Sir Mix-A-Lot on the stereo, giving that a break only when they felt like hearing a little Prince. And they talked about the old days until yesterday started to feel like new again.
Buster and Bertha had been separated for several months now, and she'd returned to her hometown of Chesapeake, Va., to be with her family. Besides escape, Buster determined that the mission of his trip would be to patch things up with her. He began by buying her a Mercedes-Benz that she didn't even want. She was perfectly content with her little Toyota. But it had made Buster feel good to buy the Mercedes, so she didn't protest much. At one point they went to look at the ocean, and Buster confessed that he wanted to live by the sea. He had this picture of himself with a Cuban cigar in his mouth, guiding a yacht out to where the big fish run. In the vision he was about the size of his father's father, whom everybody called Big Daddy. He was fat and happy, as people say. A real family man, a dedicated father, a committed husband.
It was the future, that picture. And Buster determined to make it come true. He would find his peace.
By the time October rolled around, people outside his camp were starting to see Buster Douglas's future as well, and it wasn't as king of the heavyweight division.
"Critics Question Champion's Desire," read a New York Times headline. Bookmakers made Buster the 8-to-5 underdog in the Holyfield fight, and sportswriters wrote that he was already a defeated man. It was clear to everyone that being on top had lost its luster for the champ; Buster was even heard to complain that he no longer cared for the taste of Dom Perignon.
"Kind of moldy," he confessed when asked about the pricey French champagne. "I don't drink it anymore."
Buster is starting to worry about the weather. The temperature is perfect, right at 70°. The sun is a warm, beautiful friend in the sky. But the wind won't stop. The wind blows and blows. The Jolly Roger on Buster's fishing boat stands at constant attention. This means the seas are rough; a small craft advisory has been issued. Buster's fishing trip is in jeopardy. If the wind doesn't stop—if God himself doesn't intervene—Buster won't be able to go out the day after tomorrow. And Buster, who's been counting on this trip, who really needs this trip... well, Buster will be heartbroken.
Fraught with worry, he journeys to his favorite video store and cruises the aisles, searching for the right movie to speak to where his head happens to be at the moment. He wants a film with a "star-studded cast," he says. And there's one in particular, a boxing story with Humphrey Bogart, that Buster's been anxious to see for a long time. Buster thinks Bette Davis is in it as well and maybe George C. Scott. He once thought the title was Kid Galahad, and he went so far as to have the store order a film by that name. For days Buster waited patiently for the movie to arrive, and finally the store called. He got in his car and drove over, but you wouldn't believe what was waiting for him. Elvis Presley! Kid Galahad was one of those sappy Elvis pictures! "Hell, no!" Buster told the clerk. "I want Bogart." He left feeling totally let down.
"I am not an animal," Buster says, after spotting a cassette of The Elephant Man, a movie about a hideously deformed English fellow who uttered those same words.
"Wow. For the first time I feel like you can help me. Somebody understands." Buster has just strolled by the tape of a comedy starring Bill Murray and recalled those lines, which still make him laugh. They're the same lines Buster once gave an acquaintance who was asking too many personal questions. The man was rambling on about the pain and suffering fighters are made to endure, and Buster dropped that on him. For a long time the man sat there speechless, wondering if maybe he at last had cracked the enigma that was James Buster Douglas. Finally Buster was forced to say, " What About Bob? Happens to be a favorite of mine."
"What about... who?"
"It's a movie. You should check it out."
Buster comes to an area marked NEW RELEASES and picks up Diggstown, a picture starring James Woods and Lou Gossett Jr., whom Buster once happened to meet. Gossett is much bigger than most actors, and that impressed Buster. On the plastic jacket of the videotape, Gossett is shown leaning against a padded turnbuckle in the corner of a ring, his arms draped over the ropes. He looks a lot like Buster did after the Holyfield fight, what with the purple bruise under his eye. One more blow and Gossett will be down on his knees, rubbing his face with his glove to check for blood. Buster decides to buy it.
Up at the front of the store someone has located a Bogart fight film, The Harder They Fall. Buster runs up to look it over. He traces a finger over the list of players, disheartened to find that Bette Davis and George C. Scott aren't among them.
"The one I want has a star-studded cast," he says. "I don't think this is it."
"Rod Steiger's in it," he is told. "He's a star."
"Studded. The one I want is star-studded."
The movie goes for $9.99, and even a multimillionaire like Buster can't afford to pass up such a deal. He adds the tape to the six or seven others he plans to buy. Only his left hand is free now, and he uses it to flip through the movies in the bargain bin. He's seen most of them and has a comment for each one: "This is—, this is all right. Little Man Tate was good, and so was Mississippi Masala. Frankie and Johnny, good. But I found the humor in L.A. Story a little dry. Oh, this is—, total— Alien 3 I got, good. Real good. The Color Purple, that's Bertha's favorite. I ask her, 'What do you see in it? You think I'm like Mister, who's always beating everybody up?' She says it's better than The Godfather, but I don't know if I agree. You gotta like any picture with gangsters."
Buster is speaking from authority. Last year he played a gangster of sorts in the television crime drama Street Justice. It was his only professional acting role ever, and Buster starred as Daggett, an inmate at a maximum-security prison. Buster got so involved in the part that he took it home with him after the taping was finished. He'd walk around the house as if he were hot to pistol-whip someone. "All right, Daggett," Bertha had to tell him a couple of times. "Chill out now."
Funny thing was, Buster found that acting was a lot like boxing. During the shoot you stayed in your hotel room until they called you down, then you went to the set and waited for your cue. In boxing your cue was a bell; in acting it was a director pointing his finger at you and saying, "Action."
After he sheds about 100 lbs. and returns to fighting shape, Buster will give Hollywood another try. He'll get Nallie to call their contacts out there and see what he can line up. Or so Buster says as he walks out of the video store. "I want to be an act-tore!" he bellows into the wind. "I want to be an act-tore!"
The wind. It catches his clothes and whips them tight against him, and he seems to remember something. He gazes off as if at some enemy and murmurs quietly to himself, his words lost in the throes of something you can't even see.
About an hour before his fight with Holyfield, Buster fell asleep on a table in his dressing room. It wasn't a light sleep, either. They'd had to wake him up, for crying out loud! And then he had felt disoriented, displaced. What was he doing here? Why couldn't he just go home?
The walk to the ring—that, too, he remembers as odd. Buster had reached forward and rested his hands on his trainer's shoulders, which was something he had never done before. Always in the past he'd been throwing punches, stretching, trying to get loose. He'd thought it looked cool when a fighter entered the ring resting his gloves on his trainer's shoulders, but it had never worked for him. Why he was doing it now, just before his first title defense and after 35 professional fights, Buster couldn't begin to imagine.
It was a little like having an out-of-body experience. "Stop this," he wanted to say. "Hey, everybody, let's just stop this before it begins." He wished a big storm would suddenly blow through and cancel the thing. A hurricane right out there in the-Nevada desert would've suited Buster just fine.
He didn't feel like the best heavyweight in the world, the one who'd done a number on Iron Mike. If anything, he felt average. Just another stiff with a pair of red cherries taped to hands with no place to go. Just another... corpse!
Something else about that night was peculiar. He could hear what people were saying at ringside—he could actually hear their conversations. Larry Nallie was there in the corner, holding one of Buster's championship belts over his head. "Hey, man, where's my belt?" somebody said. Buster turned around, and there was the president of one of the boxing organizations that had sanctioned the bout. The man was unhappy that Nallie was showing off somebody else's belt.
"You're holding up the wrong one," the man said.
Buster gazed out at the crowd, searching for his father. "Help me," he wanted to say. "Help me." A few weeks before, Bill Douglas had come in to work with him, to try to spark something. Bill had introduced Buster to the ring when Buster was just a kid in grade school, and he had worked with Buster during much of his professional career; but before the Holyfield fight Bill hadn't been able to get his son to respond. Buster figured that if anybody knew how he was feeling now, it was his old man. He kept looking out at the faces, whispering to himself, "Where are you, Dad? Where are you?"
He didn't feel like fighting, not Holyfield or anybody else. The bell rang, though, and in that instant there were only two people left in the world. Buster charged out to meet the other one, and unfortunately for him, that man had come to win.
A few days after the fight Buster was only too glad to leave Las Vegas. He had never really felt accepted there, mainly because the town, a Tyson stronghold, had seemed to resent Buster for toppling its hero. Buster hadn't been able to get a haircut without the barber going on about what a great guy Tyson was and what a great tipper. Why, Tyson shed $100 bills like trees shed leaves! Now, after such a poor showing against Holyfield, Buster felt like a pariah. It was too early to return to Columbus and all the well-meaning friends certain to offer their condolences and to make him feel even worse, so he flew to Los Angeles with Larry Nallie and Rodney Rogers.
They rented a car and took rooms at a swank hotel in Beverly Hills. They'd planned to stay only a night or two but ended up camping there a whole week. Since none of them had brought many clothes, they went to a giant shopping center and bought what they needed. Buster would later recognize the place in Scenes from a Mall, a Woody Allen-Bette Midler movie. Buster bought a double-breasted purple suit and later wore it to a Halloween party at the Roxy nightclub. He had the Joker's laugh down pat, and now he had the look. "Wait'll they get a load of me," he said time and again that night, apparently failing to register the irony in the statement.
Less than a week earlier, after all, Buster had found himself sitting on a canvas floor, swatting at invisible blood on his face. After his dismal showing, you would have expected to hear something else coming from his mouth. Mea culpa, mea culpa might have been more appropriate.
One afternoon he and his pals were driving through Beverly Hills and passed an exotic-car dealership. In the window a Lamborghini sat high on a display, and it seemed to beckon to Buster, inviting him to stop and give it a test drive. "Bo was just here," a salesman told Buster. He meant Bo Jackson. Buster could hardly fit in the car, and he felt disappointed. He probably would've bought the thing. As he was getting ready to leave, someone called his attention to a Porsche convertible. "I want to sell you this car really bad," the salesman said. "But if you go and kill yourself in it.... No, you've got to respect this car."
Buster took it out overnight. He couldn't get over the car's power, the brute force at his disposal. People gawked when he passed them by. He considered the Porsche a present to himself for all his hard work; he was flexing his muscles just this-once. Before paying for it, Buster negotiated to have the word JOKER painted on each door.
That was his first major purchase. Another was the five-acre tract of land in Columbus where Buster hopes to establish a multiuse community center for inner-city youth. The enterprise will be his way of giving back to the city that gave so much to him. According to a prospectus Nallie helped to prepare, the center will give Near East Side residents access to recreational sports facilities and health, medical and educational services "in a one-stop-shop setting." Buster plans to hang a portrait of himself in the lobby, on the frame of which will be engraved these words: JAMES BUSTER DOUGLAS, FOUNDING FATHER.
Buster made another major purchase last year when he bought the manse at Marco Island. He didn't want to raise his children in Vegas, so he and Bertha decided to give Florida a look. A chauffeur drove them down in a stretch limousine, another recent purchase of Buster's. The farther south they went, the warmer it got, and this suited Buster fine. As a kid, he loved the hard Midwestern winters, but as he got older he grew to despise them. He and Bertha stayed in a fancy rented house, and after only a couple of days they decided that the island suited them just right. Marco was developed 25 years ago, and if you get away from the giant hotels along the main beach, it still feels like the secluded fishing village it once was. After all he had been through. Buster welcomed the isolation. Although it looked as if his would be one of the few black families in the area, if not the only one, he thought he could escape there and find the peace that had long eluded him. He and Bertha decided to buy the second house the real estate agent showed them. At $775,000, the 6,400-square-foot mansion looked like a steal, as did the $150,000 boat Buster later bought to dock on the canal out back.
He christened the boat Lula Pearl and had an artist paint the name on the hull along with a picture of a shell with a sparkling pearl. Trimmed in teakwood, the boat sleeps six comfortably and is "perfectly seaworthy," as Buster likes to boast.
He seems to mean it wouldn't sink if you took it out in the ocean, and this means a lot to everyone who climbs aboard.
"Sometimes," Buster is saying to a visitor one day—the day, in fact, before his much-anticipated fishing trip—"I feel as if I'm bursting open with joy. My heart, it's so big, man, it wants to just come leaping right out of my chest."
He is standing on the bridge of his boat, gazing out toward the sea. He is a man who will tell you he has everything: a good, kind woman who loves him, two sons and another child on the way, friends galore, a house in Florida and several in Ohio, money in the bank, an honorable reputation. "And yet," he continues, "if you talk to certain people in Columbus they'll tell you I'm depressed. They'll say I've put on weight because I'm down over all that happened, that I'm hiding from the world here. But it isn't true. I'm happy.
He has no desire to ever fight again, he says. Not even $25 million for a Tyson rematch would bring him back. Not even $50 million! "Listen, baby," he says. "I'd love to see ya, but I can't be with ya. Sorry." He laughs, looking toward the water again. "Besides, there're just too many fish for me to catch."
Not long after he says this, the telephone rings, and Bertha calls him inside. A man named Scottie Dingwell is on the line—the same Scottie Dingwell whom Buster hires to captain his boat. "The wind," Dingwell tells him. "It isn't wise to go out. Better cancel and plan for later on."
If they made a movie about Buster Douglas's life, you wouldn't see this part: our hero slamming the phone down, cursing under his breath. "I knew it!" he says to Bertha.
She nods, seeming to agree.
That afternoon, Nallie finally arrives from Columbus. He's disappointed about the fishing trip being called off, but nowhere near as upset as Buster, who's taking it hard. To feel better, Buster makes a run to the deli for a couple of sandwiches, then comes back and piddles around the house. Everyone's in the living room watching I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, but Buster isn't up for a movie. It's difficult to watch a comedy when your life calls for a drama, a tragedy, so Buster keeps to himself. He can picture schools of big ones swimming in the ocean now—fish that weigh as much as he does, fish that can give him the most gratifying fight of his life.
Finally, when it's dark, he and Nallie and another friend go out and lounge on the Lula Pearl. All the fishing gear is there ready to go; if the outriggers could talk, they'd tell you they're anxious to pull up a record catch. Buster grabs a beer and puts on a CD. It's Bob Marley, singing his Rastafarian heart out.
At 3:00 in the morning Buster will still be here, stranded on a yacht that isn't going anywhere. He'll be thinking about his life past, present and future, and feeling slightly awed by a wind that never ceases to blow.
John Ed Bradley played college football for the LSU Tigers in the 1970's before becoming a reporter and novelist. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Esquire and Sports Illustrated, and he is the author ofIt Never Rains In Tiger Stadium.
The Stacks is Deadspin's living archive of great journalism, curated by Bronx Banter's Alex Belth. Check out some of our favorites so far. Follow us on Twitter, @DeadspinStacks, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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