In many ways, former heavyweight champion, James “Buster” Douglas, is the perfect Columbus icon. The night he beat Mike Tyson at the Tokyo Dome on February 11th, 1990—perhaps the biggest upset in all of sports history—Douglas, though a legit contender and No. 2 in the world at the time, was literally given odds from one singular casino at 42-1. Tyson was destined, given his current wave of quick, brutal, knockouts, to defeat the much bigger and traditional force that Douglas posed.
Therein lies the irony. Much like our constantly on-the-verge city, entirely capable of great things when given the chance, Douglas was still relegated to “underdog” status. (Tyson was such a sure thing his corner forgot to bring the ice packs). Even after the fight, there was little to no respect for Douglas’ victory, and a tragic malaise fogged his career forever after.
Sitting in his gym at the Thompson Recreation Center, where he trains anyone—from young to old, male and female—willing to learn the sport he loves, Douglas admits he rarely relives that pinnacle moment in his life. It was a night that Douglas refers to as the “ultimate dream,” but his championship reign was only an eight-month flash, barely enough time to enjoy what he had rightfully earned.
That could be partially because he became an instant star. In a late-night appearance on Johnny Carson, the soft-spoken humility of the new champ was a refreshing counter to Tyson’s blitzkrieg ego, and Douglas seemed poised to have a long career. With millions in his pocket, he was a jet-setter, battling Macho Man at Wrestlemania, rubbing elbows with greats like Ali, and co-signing his name to his own Sega Genesis game, but the legitimacy of his title was constantly in kahoots thanks to a legal battle at the behest of promoter Don King, who claimed a long count on Douglas.
The “no regrets” Douglas doesn’t much want to dwell on those eight months, his bouts with depression, physically checking out, or his unceremoniously loss to Evander Holyfield (which some contend was the last great heavyweight match of the modern era). It was a diabetic coma that ended his career and by default urged him to come back to life. True to form, the comeback kid did resurface professionally, going a respectable 6-0 before finally leaving the ring for good. Ideally, Douglas could have sailed into the sunset, lived on a beach, become a fisherman, but he chose to return to his roots and his home in Columbus.
Now hiding in plain sight, Douglas is the happiest he’s ever been playing the “game of life.” In Columbus he’s free to blend into the background—as he does training young hopefuls five days a week at his gym—or take the spotlight as the city’s most iconic athlete when the moment strikes (during our interview he was autographing gloves for Urban Meyer’s grandson). With two of his four sons taking on dad’s calling, he’s seeing another generation of contenders rise up in the city where he was born and raised. And though in conversation we spent time reminiscing about Douglas’ peak in the ‘90s, Buster was determined that his future was the focal point, not the past.
So what have you been doing since retirement?
Well, that’s been awhile. The most important thing is staying healthy and taking care of myself and my family. After retiring I kind of let myself go and let depression get the best of me. When I finally got over that, I started getting back into the game of life.
You’re in here five days a week now training others. How’s that going?
Really well. The younger kids who come in after-school, they’re my team. They are the ones who compete. Throughout the day the older kids come in and train whenever. And you’ve got some people who come in just to work out. And you’ve even got some ladies who come in just to work out. That was something that I had to get used to. Back in the day when I was coming up, they were just here to watch. Now, there’s every kind of person from 10 and up. It’s inspiring.
You were a star basketball player in high school and college. When exactly did you start boxing and what made you abandon basketball?
My dad was a boxing coach, so I was always boxing. When I was 15 I went foolhardily into basketball and abandoned boxing.
So there were high hopes for a basketball career? Oh yeah. I went to Linden-McKinley. State Champs. We were number two in the nation.
Was your dad disappointed?
He wanted me to box no doubt, but he didn’t bother me. He never pressured me and that was important. He was hoping one day I would snap out of it and get back in the ring because he saw a future.
Obviously then, when you start to compete professionally the ultimate goal is to become champion. A lot of people seem to remember that you were lucky to get a shot at Tyson, not that you were proven. What do you say to that?
I definitely worked hard to get that—it wasn’t given to me. That actually wasn’t my first shot at the title. My first shot was against Tony Tucker in 1987, it was for the IBF belt, but that didn’t go too well. I learned a lot. I kept hanging in there. I knew I had the ability, I just had to do it.
What was the reason then that you were the underdog against Tyson?
He was ridiculous. He beat all the former champions. He was the new wave of heavyweight. He looked good, he was fierce, he had speed. He had it all.
What was that night like after you had won?
Well, it was what I always call the ultimate dream. After the fight, I had I went up to my hotel room to relax and reflect. My son came up and talked to me for a while. He eventually left with everyone else and went upstairs to where it was getting wild. I sat up and talked to John Johnson (Douglas’ manager) and then I went to bed. The only part of the championship that I truly got to enjoy was when they called my name as the winner. To Tyson, I was just a fill-in fight on the way to fight Evander.
But it was you who got that fight with Holyfield. Did that fight come up too quickly? Were you not prepared?
You know, I could have done it differently, but I was as prepared as I could have been at that time. I didn’t have much time to get ready. The court case was tough. I was travelling everywhere, but it was either to a court in Columbus, or New York, or Vegas. That was a bummer; that was tough. I think it was always by design that I wouldn’t have time to prepare.
When you train, what’s that one piece of advice you give the kids?
It depends on the situation, as long as we have fun. But this is reliving it all over again. This is where it all started and I’m back to square one. A lot of times it feels like I’m 10 years old again, walking into Blackburn Recreation Center, not sure what I was going to amount to.
At 57 years old, another comeback is not in your future, right? You could wrestle?
I work with the kids now. Right now, I could do a couple rounds. A couple only. But if you gave me some time, I’ve always got one more fight left in me.
What do you want your legacy to be? Not just the guy who beat Tyson?
I just want to be the guy who made something out of his life. I want to be the guy who did something positive.
Do you want a statue in Columbus?
[laughs] I wouldn’t say no.
You too can train with the champ. Visitcolumbus.gov/recreationandparks/recreation-centers/Thompson-Community-Center for more info.