SI Vault
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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The 12-year-old kid stands in front of his bathroom mirror. He's checking out his face, deciding who he is. His old man is out on the road with a wool cap tugged over his head and combat boots on his feet, pounding four miles to his job at an auto parts factory, snorting and growling and tearing up the dawn with punches as he goes.

The kid holds his fists low and bites his bottom lip, the way Ali does. He watches his reflection flit and feint, watches himself try to make violence something light-footed and lovely. His old man enters the factory bathroom. He glares at the mirror, begins to grunt and throw punches.

The kid stops juking and dancing. A year ago, his father had passed judgment in a newspaper: My oldest son, he said, is not violent enough to be a good fighter. The kid reaches for the Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet, sticks one above each eye. He cocks his fist, scowls into the mirror, punches harder.

Sweat trickles down the father's chin. In a few weeks he will have the biggest fight of his career, against Philadelphia middleweight Bennie Briscoe, for a title shot against Carlos Monzón. "I want it," he says, "like I want food." He steps closer to the factory bathroom mirror, exploding hooks and uppercuts.

The kid stops scowling and punching at the mirror—that's not him. He backs away from the glass, flinching as he rips the Band-Aids off. The father moves closer to the mirror and lets another punch fly.

Crack! For an instant he sees himself break into fragments, then there's a crash. The men in the factory come running through the bathroom door.

It is late June 1990. James (Buster) Douglas is 6'4", 240 pounds and 30 years old. Heavyweight champ of the world. Bill (Dynamite) Douglas is 50. He hasn't fought in 10 years. Buster walks into the house in Columbus, Ohio, where he used to throw punches in front of the bathroom mirror. His father, now skull-shaved and still big-shouldered, looks up at him and nods. The tension is the kind that's in the air before a fight.

Word has just gotten out: Don King is going to fly Bill Douglas to New York next week, supposedly to testify against his own son as part of King's lawsuit to keep contractual control over Buster. Which of them, the father or son, is going to bring it up first? Which is going to duck, which is going to be a man?

Their eyes miss each other. Buster sits on a stool in the living room. A videotape is playing on the TV a few feet away. There's the son on the screen—the one they said would never have his father's heart, the kid not violent enough to be a fighter—doing what he wants with Mike Tyson, beating up the best prizefighter in the world.

Bill, in sweatpants and a T-shirt, sits on the sofa watching the fight. Buster's eyes flicker toward him. This man is why Buster sometimes reached the edge of greatness. This man is why Buster always shrank away. But look what's happening on the screen, listen:

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