He barely did. In Mexico, food poisoning practically killed him. Then, severely weakened, in his first match he faced Shamseddin Abassy of Iran, who tore cartilage in Douglas's ribs and partly severed his Achilles tendon. Douglas was out of the Games.
In 1970 Douglas was named the outstanding wrestler in America and retired with a lifetime record of 303-17-7. In 1973 he became the first African-American head wrestling coach at a major college, UC Santa Barbara, then, the following year, he took over at Arizona State. He has been there ever since, coaching both the varsity and the Sunkist Kids club, which has won the national freestyle championship seven times in eight years.
Douglas has gradually made Arizona State a sanctuary for wrestling culture. "I have nothing to go home for," says 167-pound All-America G.T. Taylor, who comes from Lorain, Ohio, west of Cleveland. "My peers have all gone to drugs. When I went back to Cleveland recently, I sort of savored it in a way, knowing I was growing away from it so fast."
"The struggle is always to keep the spirit of wrestling alive," says Douglas, "so dynamic, combative, disciplined people can find a safe haven. We can't compete with football or basketball in sponsorship money, but we do in the men we produce. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were wrestlers. Genghis Khan, Ulysses S. Grant and Norman Schwarzkopf wrestled. Plato was a wrestler. The throne of Japan was decided at one time by a wrestling match."
Researching wrestling's history, Douglas was drawn inevitably to his own roots. "In 1970 I got my grandmother to talk about the Davis family for the first time," he says. He learned that the name came from a John Davis, a Georgia sheriff who had purchased a slave referred to as the man of the ash. Seeking confirmation, Douglas was frustrated by William Tecumseh Sherman's having burned so many plantation and courthouse records on his march through Georgia toward the end of the Civil War. A further complication arose because a Nuba male was apt to be so extraordinary a physical specimen that a slave owner would take such a man from plantation to plantation, essentially standing him at stud. The man might leave many children, though few would carry his name.
Douglas studied old diaries and family Bibles and discovered that John, the slave also known as Ash, had a son named Tom, who had married the daughter of a white doctor. She was traceable, and Douglas established that Tom was father to his grandmother Maggie Davis. The tree was complete. The man of the ash was Douglas's great-great-grandfather. But how much of what Anthony Davis had said about the Nuba could possibly be true? "Imagine how I felt," says Douglas, "when I came across the work of Leni Riefenstahl."
Riefenstahl was the actress and filmmaker who had powerfully documented the Nazi rallies at Nuremberg and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. After the war she turned to still photography and lived with isolated tribes in the Kordofan region of the Sudan. She produced two books in the mid-1970s, The People of the Kau and The Last of the Nuba.
Douglas slides over a copy of the latter and opens it to spectacular photographs. Beside a village of sharp-pointed mud huts, thousands of tall tribespeople bearing spears surround an area from which dust is rising. Here dozens of pairs of massive men wrestle. Their heads are shaved, their shoulders are curiously whitened.
"That's the ash," says Douglas, with barely suppressed excitement. "It was all real. It was all real."
"The complex symbolism of ash sums up for the Nuba," wrote Riefenstahl, "a wide range of philosophical beliefs." Depending less on animal husbandry than on agriculture, the Nuba were a settled people and had split into isolated villages where more than 100 separate languages were spoken. At the center of their life lay wrestling. Children practiced it before they could walk properly. Interaction between villages was largely limited to ceremonial wrestling tournaments like those Riefenstahl had photographed. "Wrestling provides, for the Nuba, much of what the search for wealth, power and status does for the individual in the West," she wrote.