Anthony Davis spoke of the sport to his grandson with great reverence. He taught the boy holds and sent him against older, bigger boys at picnics and saw that he almost never lost. When Davis told him that knowledge of wrestling would let him defend himself and protect others, he saw that the boy was wild to be strong. So the grandfather put the boy, at six and seven, through rugged exercises, all the while telling him magical stories.
"I remember him saying we were descended from a man named Ash," says Douglas. "He had been taken as a slave from a tribe in Africa called the Nuba, which means gold. Grandfather said the Nuba had been black pharaohs and magnificent warriors who coated themselves with sacred ashes and wrestled as a spiritual art. He said he shaved his head because that was the tradition that had been passed down. It sounded great to me, at seven, but of course it was a fantasy, a myth, because it was too good to be true."
Douglas was a quiet, distant boy, knowing as he did that horror could batter down any door without warning. So he grew up along the Ohio with an adult's balanced appreciation for life's riches and rigors. "'We lived in what seemed the country, near the Cumberland Trail," he says. "It was green and wooded, with muskrats and raccoons and rabbits to hunt, but it was dominated by the mines and mills. The creek changed from copper-gold to jet black when they washed the coal. And when the millworkers and miners came walking home, covered with soot and coal dust, you saw their drained and hollow faces, and you knew how hard they'd worked."
And for how little. "I remember in winter going on the railroad tracks and digging in the snow for coal to heat the house. I was embarrassed, but a lot of people had to do that. I remember the church. No matter what, even if you'd been out until 4 a.m., you still had to go to church on Sunday. I remember that toughness and devotion."
Douglas's voice has taken on some of the rhythms of that church, the cadences that held a people together through their bondage and that gave some solace to the eight-year-old Douglas when his grandfather, his rescuer, Anthony Davis, died in 1950.
Entering Bridgeport High eight years afterward, he came under the eye of George Kovalick, the wrestling coach. who saw speed, well-developed moves and tireless yearning. Douglas, in turn, heard this courtly, organized man tell him that he was a potential champion and seized upon him as a father figure. Douglas would consult him about every important decision until Kovalick died in 1984.
"He gave me both hope and standards," Douglas says. "Wrestling creates a family. It lets you find it, feel it." He brought elements of his own to the sport. "Ten years after my grandfather died, I was one of the first black wrestlers to shave my head."
In 1959 Douglas won the Ohio state 112-pound wrestling title. He then accompanied Kovalick to West Liberty (W.Va.) State, won the 1962 NAIA championships at 130 pounds and transferred to Oklahoma State, where he would earn his B.S. in health, physical education and recreation. A superb technician and a glutton for conditioning, Douglas wrestled with the iron confidence that he could finish stronger than anyone. "I never let my opponent hear me breathe or know I was in pain," he says. In 1964 he became the first African-American to wrestle in the Olympic Gaines, placing fourth in the featherweight (138.5-pound) class in Tokyo. He took a silver medal in the 1966 world championships and became a favorite to win in the Mexico City Olympics.
In 1966 he married Jackie Davidson, whom he can remember seeing around the neighborhood back in Ohio when he was nine and she six. Their first and only child, Bobby, was born prematurely in the summer of 1968. "For six weeks he fought for life in Bellaire Hospital while I trained with the U.S. team in Alamosa, Colorado," says Douglas. "I was terrified of every phone call." He had a right to be. Douglas's mother had died in 1966, and a year later his older stepbrother, Gary Polley, an Army paratrooper, had been killed on his first day in Vietnam. "His helicopter from the ship was shot out of the sky," says Douglas.
No sooner was his son out of danger than Douglas, who had been elected the U.S. wrestling team's captain, was plunged into the debate over whether American black athletes should boycott the games to dramatize racial injustice in the U.S. "I was torn," he says. "I got threats from both sides. I wasn't political. I wanted to go on to be a coach. I'm amazed I got through those days."