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THE FIGHT OF HIS LIFE
Gary Smith
October 22, 1990
Buster Douglas, the heavyweight champion, has had a harder time dealing with his father, Bill, than with any of his ring opponents.
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October 22, 1990

The Fight Of His Life

Buster Douglas, the heavyweight champion, has had a harder time dealing with his father, Bill, than with any of his ring opponents.

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It got bad. Bill slapped J.D. in the face. J.D. went after him with a chair. J.D. went after him with a golf club. J.D. went after him at a family picnic, waving a gun. The family ripped. In the middle of it all, wringing her hands, her health deteriorating, was Lula Pearl, who loved her brother J.D. and loved her husband, Bill. Buster couldn't bear it anymore. Buster broke. In the ninth round of the title fight with Tucker, ahead in points, he did it. He lashed out at his father the only way he could. He went to the ropes.

"Solid right cross by Tyson!"
He bowed his head.
"Douglas wobbled again!"
He quit fighting.

But what are they doing, the father and son, sitting and staring at this videotape as if they haven't watched it a dozen times before, as if they don't know what's going to happen, as if there isn't so much to be said? "Whippin' on that suckah," Bill mumbles. "Whippin' on him."

There was no more Bill in Buster's corner after the Tucker defeat, ever again. There was only Bill in Buster's head. Buster would lie alone in his hotel room before a bout, daydreaming footage from his father's wars, conjuring snapshots. Hoping that the idea of his dad would be enough, that he wouldn't need the flesh. He would see Bill charging back into the locker room in 1970 after the Don Fullmer fight, his shiny body snorting and winging punches as if it didn't know the match was over, boxing one more round, two more rounds, three. He would see his dad's trainer, Ed Williams, telling little Buster to stand back, to let this man work out whatever it was that had hold of him. Suddenly, Buster would find himself up off his hotel bed, winging and snorting, feeling the strength rush over him.

So sharply would he envision his father's fights that they were almost like films. Dad throwing that right at Carlos Marks's bloodied mouth in '72, perfect form, right shoulder just where it should be. Dad throwing that missile at Tom (the Bomb) Bethea at Madison Square Garden in '76, sending the Bomb's mouthpiece flying into the third row. Dad on the scales in his underwear before the Matthew Franklin fight in '77 in Philly, his shoulders rolling up and down as if filled with some electrical current. Dad waking him up in the hotel room the morning of that bout, smiling at him and asking, "How do you feel, Buster?"

How do you feel, how do you feel, how do you feel? Sometimes the film in his mind would snag on some shard of memory. "Yeah, he asked me that morning," recalls Buster. "He lost that day, a brutal fight—they stopped it when they shouldn't have. But I didn't ask him, 'How do you feel?' when it was over. I should've asked him."

It all backed up on Buster in the summer of 1989. All the remorse, the resentment, the ripples. His two-year-old marriage began falling apart—death by silence. He had let little conflicts with his wife, Bertha, build and build; he had never seen his dad open up and talk to Lula Pearl. His mom—the person he telephoned first thing every morning when he woke up—began having seizures and talking about dying. Buster's bank account was drying up; nobody wanted to promise an erratic fighter a big payday. The previous Christmas he had had to borrow to buy gifts, and now he didn't know if he could make the next mortgage payment. His aunts were telling him to forget this boxing nonsense, to get a job. The mother of Lamar, the little boy Buster had fathered in high school, had suffered kidney failure and now needed Buster to take more responsibility for his son. The films in his head didn't help; the projector had suddenly stopped working. All Buster had to do was take care of Oliver McCall on July 21 in Atlantic City, he was told, and he would likely get his dream, a title shot at Tyson. But he just didn't give a damn. He was a couple of dozen pounds overweight and wanted to quit boxing, and it scared him to death knowing that he would have to drag that kind of body and heart into a ring against a heavyweight.

He was lying in his darkened hotel room the morning of the fight when it came out of nowhere. Rogers and two other friends who had recently turned to God walked into his room. "He loves you, Buster," Rogers said softly. "He has great things in store for you. If you say that you'll accept God into your heart, He'll take all the burdens off your shoulders."

Tears started streaming down Buster's cheeks. A father who would understand. A father who would take away his troubles. "I accept Him," said Buster.

"Mike Tyson's hurt!"

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