He was a kid from the Linden neighborhood of Windsor Terrace in Columbus, Ohio. He was a standout basketball player at Linden McKinley High School, the son of a local amateur boxing hero who packed up and went off to college with dreams of making it to the NBA. But as sons often do, he eventually followed in the footsteps made by his father’s boxing shoes. During his early professional career, he was dubbed a “local fighter.” After losing a tough fight against Tony Tucker for the vacant IBF Heavyweight Championship, he was written off as a journeyman. They said he lacked toughness, lacked experience, didn’t have what it takes to be a champion. But that was before Tokyo, before changing the course of boxing history forever.
The fight was scheduled for February 11th, 1990 and took place in the Tokyo Dome in Japan. The champion was boxing’s biggest star since Muhammad Ali, the undefeated/undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World – “Iron” Mike Tyson. It was supposed to be a tune-up for Tyson’s Mega-Fight with Evander Holyfield. The odds were 40-1 in Tyson’s favor. But, that was before today’s guest scored the biggest upset in the history of modern boxing. There are no words that can properly express the inspiration young fighters from Ohio (as well as my home state of West Virginia) drew from his underdog victory. He was truly the Cinderella Man of my lifetime. In anticipation for the release of “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym,” a story of Appalachian underdogs, we invite boxing’s greatest underdog to the blog. Please welcome the one and only James “Buster” Douglas.
I’m sure most reporters want to talk about your monumental upset over Mike Tyson. I’m more interested in hearing about your new gig, amateur boxing coach.
(Laughs) Okay. Let’s do it.
My father ran a boxing club in Cowen, West Virginia for a number of years. On a few occasions we boxed against the club from the Douglas Community Center in Columbus, Ohio. We’d always assumed that was your boxing club but that’s not the case. Correct?
It’s actually called the Lula Pearl Douglas Rec Center. It used to be the Windsor Rec Center. They rebuilt the facility in 1990 after my victory over Tyson. They wanted to name the center after me but I told them if they was going to do that I’d rather they name it after my mother. Vonzell Johnson is the coach over at the Douglas Rec Center. I work with the club here at the Thompson Rec Center in Columbus.
What’s it like seeing the sport from the other side of the ropes?
It’s been a blast. It’s like staring all over again, reliving the journey all over. It’s been great. I see myself in a lot of those kids.
Do the young fighters think of you as the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world or is simply “Coach Douglas”?
I’m just Coach Douglas to the kids. My legacy isn’t something I talk about. I’m just trying to share my experiences with the kids. Like I said, I see myself in a lot of them. When I was coming up, I started boxing in the Parks and Recreations Centers. I was just like them. I was reading Ring Magazine putting pictures up on my bedroom walls, looking at those pictures of all the great champions with those belts around their waste. I was dreaming just like these kids are dreaming.
I would imagine your success as a professional boxer serves as a great source of inspiration to those kids who are lucky enough to work with “Coach Douglas.”
There are some pictures up on the walls of our gym, pictures from my career, and a few from the fight with Tyson. I want them to know if I can do it they can do it. One day I brought one of my heavyweight championship belts to the gym. I let them hold it and take pictures with it. I only did that because I want them to dream. I want them to dream of becoming great. Doing better than I did.
Now that you are a boxing coach, how would you define a successful boxing gym?
It’s a place that helps kids find confidence. You help kids do things they never dreamed they could do. They come in with their shoulders slumped and leave with their head up, strutting around like they Sugar Ray Leonard. That’s a successful gym.
From what I hear, it sounds like you and former Light Heavyweight contender Vonzell Johnson (Douglas Rec Center) are both running very successful boxing clubs in the Columbus area. You guys are friends but I have to believe there is a little rivalry brewing between the squads.
Yeah. It’s awesome. We told them last time that we came to wreck Douglas Rec. I beat them once but they got me three times.
Buster Douglas came to wreck the Douglas Rec Center? That just doesn’t sound right.
(Laughs) I know. I know.
My upcoming book, “12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym,” is something of a testament to the importance of extracurricular activities in economically downtrodden communities. I would never argue that sports are for everybody but they can serve as a teaching tool for kids that are falling through the cracks. I’m sure you agree.
Sports were always important to my life. Basketball was actually my first love. I had dreams of making it to the NBA. My team won the state Championship in 1977, my junior year of high school. We were the number 2 ranked team in the nation. That was with the great coach Gene Davis. I also played football in high school. I was an offensive tackle and a defensive end. Extracurricular sports were big for me.
How’d you make the transition to boxing?
I’d been boxing since I was 10-years-old. My father was the one who introduced me to the game. He was the first National Golden Gloves Champion from the city of Columbus, Billy “Dynamite” Douglas. I started out boxing at the Blackburn Rec Center because of him. Boxing was always a part of my life. I was actively competing from age 10 to 15. I stopped boxing when I got serious about basketball in high school.
Still remember that first time climbing through the ropes?
Yes I do. It was against a guy named Steve Harris. We are friends still to this day. He likes to joke that he was robbed. I won the fight.
I once read that you were a very talented college basketball player. Tell me about the experience of playing at the collegiate level.
I went to college because of basketball, played on a few great teams. My freshmen year at Coffeyville Community College (Coffeyville, Kansas) we were very good. My sophomore year I transferred to Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. That experience kind of drew me back to boxing. The team I played on at was a little more individualized. We were a decent team but the whole experience brought me back to the sport of boxing. I also went to Mercyhurst [University]. After my junior year was over, I was over basketball and ready to get back to boxing. I called my father that summer and said I want to be a boxer.
Okay, I lied. I do want to talk about your monumental upset over Mike Tyson. I can remember that fight like it was yesterday. My father had to work a double-shift in the coal mines and he’d asked my mother to tape the fight on our VCR. He kept called the house and asking for updates. He didn’t believe what we were telling him. I bet that I’ve watched that fight 100 times. How often do you watch the video?
(Laughs). I used to pop the DVD in and watch it. It would take me right back to everything. I don’t do that as much anymore. I still have a few photographs from the fight up in the gym. They take you back too.
Because of that all-time-great performance you’ll always be known as a boxing hero in Columbus but have you given much thought about the inspiration that victory gave to young people not only from Ohio but also neighboring states such as West Virginia?
My thing is keeping kids off the streets. I don’t care about them becoming world champions. I want to inspire them to do something positive with their lives. I want to see that all of them are doing very well. I want them to have successful careers in anything, I want to see them married with families, whatever makes them happy, as long as it’s positive.
Speaking of West Virginia, did you ever fight in my home state?
Yes, I did. I fought in Danville, West Virginia. I remember it well. I rode down there with my uncle. I just came along for the ride. I was 15 at the time. My buddy’s father was a police officer and boxing coach, his name James Ward. Me and my uncle went down their with him for a Police Athletic League event. We crossed over into West Virginia and he smiled back and me in the back seat and said, “you’re fighting tonight.” And, that wasn’t the only surprise. I won my fight and then I found out that it was a tournament. I was kind of freaked out because I’d never fought twice in one day. I made it to the semi-finals before losing. I rode down there with no intentions of fighting. The guy who beat me eventually became a sheriff down in West Virginia. We connected and talked about it years later.
That seems like a proper introduction to West Virginia boxing. Half of the time you thought you had a fight but didn’t or showed up to a fight to watch and ended up in boxing gloves.
Let me tell you, those West Virginia boys were tough. Some of them had limited skills but they were tough and determined. Hard punchers.
Let’s end by talking about your home city. Do you see a bright future for boxing in Columbus?
The situation has gotten a lot better. It used to all Cincy and Youngstown and Cleveland and even Dayton. But we are the capital of Ohio. We are putting out good fighters and have been since back in the day. The first world champion from the Kronk Gym, Hilmer Kenty, was from Columbus. I’m not the only boxer from Columbus.
I’d imagine Kenty was a big inspiration to you as a young fighter.
I was playing college ball when he won the championship. It was definitely inspirational.
Do you have any parting advice to other boxing trainers from the Ohio/West Virginia region?
Keep working those kids. Travel is how you get it. Keep them working hard and keep them active in those tournaments. That’s how you do it.
No. Thank you.
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