After a Rocky Climb, Gentle Buster Douglas Brings Iron Mike's Reign to a Brutal End

updated 02/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Every aeon or so, the fight game delivers up a fairy tale for the pure of heart. That's what happened last week in Tokyo when James "Buster" Douglas—a 29-year-old journeyman fighter who lives in a three-bedroom split-level in Columbus, Ohio—separated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson from his senses. There was enough emotion, enough adversity overcome, enough sheer, mind-boggling incredibility for a dozen Rocky movies, and it was real.

Douglas had fought brilliantly, brutally, and in the 10th round had KO'd the seemingly invincible Iron Mike to become champion of the world in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. Yet there in the ring stood the unknown, crying tears of sadness and jubilation, and paying tribute to his mother, Lula Pearl, who had died one month before. "I did it because of my mother," sobbed the David who felled Goliath, "God bless her heart." To his father, former middleweight Billy "Dynamite" Douglas, he said, "Dad, this one is for you." And then the champ took on all the savants who said he didn't have the heart, never mind the talent, to stand up to the punishing Tyson. "They know it now beyond a shadow of a doubt," the winner declared. "I have heart."

On his way to victory, Douglas has had to endure losses more crushing than any in his 29-4-1 career. Nine years ago he watched his brother Artie, 17, bleed to death after he accidentally shot himself. Last fall his wife, Bertha, walked out on him, and the mother of his 11-year-old son, Lamar, is terminally ill with leukemia. But for Douglas the most crushing blow was the death of his beloved mother on Jan. 18, two weeks before he left for Japan.

A restaurant cook by profession, Lula Pearl was Douglas's best friend, his mentor and the one who taught him his earliest lesson in self-defense. Growing up in a middle-class section of Columbus, Buster was the frequent target of a neighborhood bully and complained about it one day to Lula Pearl. "My mother grabbed me and put me down," he recalls, "She said, 'He ain't nothing but a lot of talk. You'd better fight him—because you don't want to fight me.' " Buster stood up to the bully, and naturally the bully backed down. "From that point on," says the new champ, "it was like, hmm, it works."

If Lula Pearl taught Buster the value of fighting, it was his father who taught him how. Before he went to work on an auto-body assembly line, Dynamite Douglas was the world's fifth-ranking middleweight. He began teaching Buster, the eldest of his four sons, how to fight when Buster was 10—and the boy gave it up at 15. "I thought it was brutal," he says. "Phew. I'd tell my dad, 'No, that ain't gonna be what I wanna do.' " Instead, he played basketball well enough to win a scholarship to Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., but dropped out after a year when his grades couldn't keep up with his jump shot.

Back home, he tried boxing again. Billy managed Buster, and Buster went nowhere—slowly. Lackadaisical in training, he once ballooned to a roundish 268 lbs. He had little heart to hurt—or to be hurt. It got so bad that Billy, who has a volcanic temper, once slapped his son while working his corner; at another fight, he turned his back and just walked away. Father and son parted pugilistic company in 1987. Buster first met his current manager, John Johnson, in 1984. "Early on," says Johnson, "I put an empty paper plate in front of Buster. I told him that it was empty, but if he would pay the price, someday there would be millions on it." Buster bore down and rose steadily through the rankings. But as much as Johnson helped, he realized that Lula Pearl was the key. "She had a way of inspiring him," he says. Sadly, her death may have been the greatest motivator of all. "Exactly," Buster's brother Billy, 20, said after the fight. "When she was gone, we knew it was time to grow up." Lula Pearl would be proud.

—Jack Friedman, Ken Myers in Columbus

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