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Friday, February 12, 2010
Buster Douglas: the upset's other side

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

Finally awake after a three-day diabetic coma, Buster Douglas had a raw moment of clarity.

"I almost lost my freaking life over this silly s---," Douglas thought. "I got to get out of this pity party."

Douglas' epiphany came just four years after he defeated Mike Tyson in what many still recognize as the greatest upset in sports history. Douglas lay in an Ohio hospital, diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He was severely overweight with a blood-sugar count that looked like a very smart person's SAT score. He also was battling depression and a relentless inner torment.

Buster Douglas
Buster Douglas stood up to Mike Tyson's reputation in an upset for the ages 20 years ago.
"I built a wall around me, and no one could get to me," Douglas said. "It was me, and my emotions -- they were running rampant. I had a lot of bitterness and disdain. I just didn't feel like I had [anyone] to trust."

Failure is easy.

Success, however, can be crippling.

It's been 20 years since Douglas crushed Tyson and became one of the most improbable heavyweight champions in boxing history. Throughout those years, much of the focus on the fight has been on Douglas' role as the catalyst to Tyson's downfall. Many have theorized that the loss to Douglas took away Tyson's mystique; and it's certainly true that once he lost that fight, Tyson never regained his ferocious reputation.

But there was another story begging to be told. Since 1990, few have stopped to wonder: Whatever happened to Buster Douglas, the man who humiliated Tyson as a 42-to-1 underdog?

"It went by pretty quick," Douglas said. "It's definitely been a journey."

Douglas learned, as many athletes do, that fame comes with a lot of fine print.

It turns out that beating Tyson didn't exactly put Douglas' life on an upward trajectory, either. As you might imagine, Douglas was on top of the world after pummeling Tyson, who was thought to be unbeatable at the time. Considering the turmoil in Douglas' personal life prior to the fight, it is amazing he performed against Tyson as well as he did. His mother, Lula Pearl, died three weeks before the Tyson bout; and he and his father, a former National Gold Gloves champion who taught him to box, were in the midst of a dispute.

Still, in the early aftermath of the upset, things were great for Douglas. What he wanted, he got -- and that included $24 million to fight Evander Holyfield eight months after stunning Tyson.

But here's what athletes rarely contemplate: What happens when the champagne corks stop popping?

"It was like achieving something you always wanted to do in your life; and once you achieved it, it was nothing like you thought it was going to be," Douglas said. "You think it's going to be all sunshine. You look down in your hands, and it's like, man, it's a bunch of snakes."

He perceived a lack of appreciation for his skills, which was, and still is, a thorny issue with Douglas. Initially, the Tyson camp accused referee Octavio Meyran of some funny business, saying he'd counted too quickly when Douglas knocked Tyson to the mat in the 10th round.

Had the Internet been a fabric in everyone's lives back then, most of us would have known that Douglas was a much better fighter than people thought. But Tyson was such an icon at the time that the overriding perception was that Douglas' victory was a referee-aided fluke.

"I felt I wasn't given the respect I felt I deserved," Douglas said. "It escalated as time went on. It got out of control."

Starting with his weight. Douglas was so out of shape when he fought Holyfield -- his only defense of the heavyweight title he'd taken from Tyson -- he checked in at 15 pounds overweight. And when Holyfield knocked him out in the third round, whatever respect Douglas had earned by beating Tyson was destroyed.

Buster Douglas
Two weeks before the fight, Douglas worked out on a sandbag in Tokyo Korakuen's special training gym.
The critics were merciless, and as a result, Douglas fled into obscurity. As far as his escalating weight, the Holyfield debacle was just the beginning. By the time Douglas was hospitalized for diabetes, he had ballooned to nearly 400 pounds.

There also was in-fighting in Douglas' camp, along with reports that those who were supposed to be keeping Douglas on track were just enabling him because they were far too concerned with keeping their own pockets padded.

Douglas had stopped caring about boxing. He was still coping with his mother's death. In many ways, he had given up.

"The fight in me was gone," he said. "I was distraught. I was just in a shell. No one could understand my plight. I lost my best friend, my mother. I had really no one to turn to."

The coma woke Douglas up, so to speak. He lost nearly 200 pounds in the two years after he was hospitalized; and during his comeback attempt, he won six consecutive fights.

Hearing Douglas recount his experiences after all these years, it's clear that not everyone is built for fame. When Tyson and Douglas met in Tokyo, it profoundly changed two lives -- and neither in a way anyone would have expected.

In the years since their epic meeting, Douglas has not spoken with Tyson, but the two always will share a special kinship. Douglas understands why Tyson at times seems to have been at war with himself over the past 20 years.

Douglas was fighting that same war.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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