Hell, Buster wasn't a fighter; he hated it when people called him that. "I'm an athlete," he would insist. He was a big, sweet, passive kid, the kind who slept with his dogs and opened the door for you and told you to have a nice weekend. "The most honest, most likable, most Christian, most trustworthy heavyweight champion there has ever been," said Dan O'Malley, who used to train with Buster.
Even arguments, because they carried the faint musk of violence, undid him. As a kid, when his dad came home from a prowl on the streets and his mom screamed and his dad snarled back, Buster would disappear. As a man, when people yelled at him, he would turn up the stereo. He would walk out of the room or out of his skin; he would blank out. He signed his autograph "Love & Peace, James Buster Douglas," then drew a happy face.
But that reflection in the glass—it flitted and feinted and flicked that jab so nice. He was big and quick, and if his dad was with him in the mirror, beside him in the foxhole, Buster could bust you in the face and then bust you again. Hell, it was only every three or four months, just for a few minutes.
Carve the old man out of his life? How could he? No one else knew what it was to sit in the passenger seat when his dad was driving him to one of Buster's early fights, to hear him tell stories in the dashboard's glow, in a voice more gentle than Buster had ever heard it, about the old wars with the middle-weights and light heavyweights in Philly. Telling how the crowd went nuts when he laid out Billy Lloyd in the first round in '72 and did a rain dance backward. How he stood flat-footed, round-hearted, trading bombs with Matthew Franklin in '77.
Those were the real wars, in smoky arenas against chiseled fighters for a few thousand dollars—not these made-for-TV bouts in front of salon-tanned men taking a breather from blackjack. Buster wrapped his father's fights in romance, rolled them in daydream. The ones he hadn't seen, the ones he knew only from radio broadcasts or photos, were the best of all. Even when Buster found himself in some casino's ring, his belly jiggling because he hadn't really trained, all of that honesty could be his—he could borrow it—if his old man were in his corner. Buster could walk into a strange city, a strange arena, enter the locker room and feel at ease—Bill was there in the mirror, still throwing punches, right behind him.
Yet for years Buster's uncle and current trainer, J.D. McCauley, and his manager, John Johnson, told the kid that to be a boxer, he needed to get rid of his daddy. Figure out that riddle, Buster: To get your daddy's love, you need to be a fighter. To be a fighter, you need to get rid of your daddy. Go on, Buster, ride around all night in your '70 Cadillac and unscramble that one. So Buster got rid of the old man three times. And brought him back three times. Tried having him as manager and trainer the first three years of his career, 1981 to '83, and then tried twice more having him as cotrainer with Uncle J.D. But each time they parted, Buster never really had it out with Bill, never quite confronted him. And each time he saw his dad, Buster hated himself for pretending everything was swell.
The Jesse Ferguson fight, Atlantic City, 1985, was the second time Buster stepped into the ring without his father. A few seconds into each round, he began waiting like a schoolboy to hear the bell. "What's wrong with you?" cried Uncle J.D. after Buster had lost the decision. "You should a killed that guy."
"I don't know."
"Would you have fought harder if your dad were here?"