More than 26 years after he stunned the world by knocking out Mike Tyson to become the heavyweight champion of the world, James “Buster” Douglas sits quietly at a desk that faces a tattered boxing ring, which serves as the centerpiece to the colony of punching bags hanging around the room. To his left is a myriad of trophies and accolades that he has collected over the years. Photographs of Douglas with Muhammad Ali are scattered throughout the shelves that hold the trophies. Behind him, murals of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. have been painted on the walls, towering above him as he surveys the room.
This is the gym at Thompson Recreation Center, where Douglas has been training five days a week over the past two years. However, the 56-year-old hasn’t been going there in an attempt to resurrect his professional boxing career, which he retired from in 1999 with a record of 38-6-1. Instead, Douglas has turned the gym into his office by serving as the coach of the center’s boxing program. Douglas, who began boxing at Blackburn Recreation Center at the age of 10, said being part of the Columbus Recreation and Parks boxing program once again has been incredibly rewarding.
“I’m making a comeback, only now, I’m doing it through these babies,” Douglas says. “I started off my career the same way, at a Columbus Rec Center learning from my dad, and those were some of the best experiences of my life. I wanted to do something positive for the next generation, and I’m having a blast because these kids have been great. I can see pieces of myself in all of these kids.”
At Thompson, Douglas teaches the basics and finer points of boxing to anyone who is interested, from children as young as 8 years old to adults. Douglas and his staff also work with professional and high-level amateur boxers, and their team of boxers competes in tournaments in other cities and states.
Some of the students have aspirations of becoming professional boxers, while others use their time with Douglas as an enjoyable means of staying in shape. Two of Douglas’ four sons, 22-year-old Arthur and 10-year-old Kevin, are two of his most promising students.
“Working with these kids is so exciting because they all are showing potential, and you never know who the next champion will be,” Douglas says. “We’ve had a lot of ladies coming in, some as young as 12, and they’re working just as hard as the guys.”
Regardless of each student’s talent level and goals, Douglas hopes that all of the people he works with learn something valuable from the experience.
“Not all of them are going to become boxing champions, but I see potential in everyone and they’re improving so quickly,” he says. “We’re teaching these young boys and girls to do their best and follow their dreams, whether they are boxing or in school. Helping these kids grow and develop into productive citizens really warms my heart.”
Douglas hopes his students also will learn valuable lessons by taking a look at the high peaks and deep valleys within his own life. After graduating from Linden-McKinley High School in 1978, Douglas became a professional boxer at the age of 21, under the guidance of his father, Bill; Bill Douglas was the 1963 National Golden Gloves Middleweight champion.
Under the management of John Johnson, Douglas’ career took off, and a string of impressive victories led to his title fight against Tyson on Feb. 11, 1990, in Tokyo, Japan. Despite being a 42-to-1 underdog, Douglas became the first man to defeat Tyson that night, knocking him out with a flurry of punches in the 10th round.
“It was a dream come true,” Douglas admits. “The best part of the whole thing was hearing my name announced as the new heavyweight champion of the world. I wake up every day with a smile on my face, knowing I achieved the ultimate in boxing. The biggest lesson I want to teach these kids is to always go after your dreams. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from achieving your dreams, whatever they are.”
After winning the fight, Douglas returned to Columbus and chose Linden-McKinley as the site he would receive his championship belts.
I wake up every day with a smile on my face, knowing I achieved the ultimate in boxing.
“I may have been the world champ, but I’ll always represent Linden-McKinley,” says Douglas, who helped lead the Panthers’ boys basketball team to the Class AAA state title in 1977. “It was so sweet to be back in Columbus, holding those championship belts that I had seen in boxing magazines my entire life, and to know that I earned my own.”
In the immediate aftermath of his victory over Tyson, Douglas became wealthy and famous beyond his dreams. He was booked to appear on several talk shows, meeting legends such as Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and he also was a special guest referee for a professional wrestling match between Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage.
He was the star of the Sega video game “James ‘Buster Douglas’ Knockout Boxing,” and became one of the few non-students to get the opportunity to dot the “I” during a halftime performance of Script Ohio by The Ohio State University marching band.
“I had a lot of fun doing those things, especially dotting the “I,” because I grew up a huge Buckeye fan,” he says. “Doing the wrestling show was fun, too. The Macho Man is such a cool guy, but he was acting up, so I had to go into the ring and knock him out.”
Douglas hopes that people will learn from his mistakes as well. His mother, Lula Pearl, died less than a month before he defeated Tyson, and Douglas was devastated that she wasn’t alive to see him become champion.
“She was my heart,” Douglas says. “I had plans on doing such great things for her. She could have had anything she wanted.”
While still dealing with the depression of losing his mother, Douglas lost the first defense of his title to Evander Holyfield on Oct. 25, 1990. With his belt gone, he then gained more than 100 pounds and became plagued by diabetes to the point where he spent three days in a life-threatening coma in 1994.
“My life has had some gigantic highs and lows, and if I knew then what I know now, I’d have done things differently and I may still be champion,” Douglas says. “Losing the title was a horrible experience, and diabetes is a monster that’s given me the toughest fight of my life. But coming to the gym every day has helped me tremendously in keeping down my weight, and these kids are major therapy. I still have that urge to fight again. It never really leaves you. But these are some of the best times of my life and I’m living my dream all over again through these shorties.”