Two months later, the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world found himself on the undercard in Atlantic City and, as is so often the case in boxing, it was nearly impossible to separate substance from schlock. The evening's main event was a showdown for something called the International Boxing Council middleweight title. Roberto Durán, 45, whose hands of stone have long since given way to the hands of time, lost a unanimous decision to Hector (Macho) Camacho, who at 34 is looking increasingly silly dressed as one of the Village People. (The fight was billed as Legend to Legend. In golf they call it the Senior tour.
Remaining reticent in the midst of all this was Douglas, seeing no reason to sell himself, because he doesn't need the money. He was launching this boxing comeback for a meager $100,000 paycheck—about $24 million less than he collected for the Holyfield fight. Douglas looked across the ring to see LaRosa, a 5'9" Chicago club fighter in only his second bout as a heavyweight after 28 as a light heavy and cruiserweight. One of LaRosa's cornermen was Robert Pastorelli, the guy who played Eldin the housepainter on Murphy Brown. Even so, as Douglas took in a scene from which he had been away so long, he thought, "Oh s—, what have I gotten myself into?"
Remarkably, for this fight Douglas weighed in at 244 pounds, two pounds less than he did for the Holyfield bout, after having dropped nearly 150 pounds in 18 months. He quickly broke down LaRosa with a snapping jab and exhibited the power, footwork and poise that made him a champion in the first place. In the third round he unleashed a brutal flurry that forced his opponent to take a knee. With LaRosa's face in ruins, referee Wayne Hedgepeth stopped the fight before the fourth round on the advice of the ring doctor. "To be honest, I'm relieved that this is over, that I'm a boxer again," Douglas said afterward. "This is the first fight of my new career, and it will take some time, but I believe the champion is still in me, just struggling to get out."
As Buster applied an ice pack to a mouse over his left eye, Russell found an empty corner and cried over his fighter's miraculous journey. Buster's father, Bill, patted his son on the shoulder over and over. "Back in 1981 I told people I had a champ, and everybody laughed at me," Bill said. "Now I've heard the laughter again. Look out."
At age 36, Buster Douglas has come full circle. After three or four warmup fights, the next probably in August, he would like to avenge his embarrassing loss to Holyfield. Then perhaps a rematch with Tyson.
"I'm already a champion in life, and nobody can take that title away," says Douglas. "Now I want to become a hero again."
For this one moment, at least, there is no doubt in his mind.