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Buster's the heavy now

When Buster Douglas thrashed Mike Tyson in Tokyo eight months ago and took his title away, onlookers were aghast at his superior conditioning, his determination, his aggression. The quick hands, the graceful movement and the stiff punch had always been there, people who knew Douglas insisted. But And that is what the first defense of his undisputed heavyweight championship tonight is all about: that but(t).

Did Douglas wait too long to get in shape, as shown by the 246 pounds he carried at Wednesday's weigh-in? His highly trained opponent, Evander Holyfield, weighed in at 208.

That's one of the things about the fight game these days. No longer is it strictly a guy and his trainer with a manager off somewhere working the deals. The beak-busters have weight and strength coaches, agility instructors, psychologists and, in some cases, people who make decisions on appropriate theme music for entering the ring.

"I think I'm in better condition now because I've worked harder," said the champ. "And I'm more focused."

If this is true and Douglas approximates the performance he threw at Tyson, the consensus is he'll just be too big and too skilled for the challenger: He's 1{ inches taller, and his reach dwarfs Holyfield's by 5{ inches.

Then there's the second part of the equation concerning Douglas. It's an area he has been asked about so often it doesn't faze him or listeners anymore.

Putting it as politely as possible, Douglas somehow came by the reputation of being a dog, a quitter, a guy who would head south as soon as the first stiff punch to the solar plexus showed up.

He shows four losses and a draw on his 35-fight record and those setbacks, it's pretty well agreed, did not come against guys who stick in the mind as hotshot pugilists.

"I look at those losses," said Douglas, "as trials I had to go through. They were a learning experience, hurdles I had to go across. But a couple of setbacks weren't going to deter me from my long-term goal of becoming champion. I was confident with my determination."

He might have been the only one who was. His father, former middleweight tough guy Billy Douglas, quit his corner after Buster ran up the white flag against Tony Tucker. He was leading on the cards of the officials after nine rounds that night in 1987 and the IBF title was on the line.

"Thing is," said promoter Butch Lewis, "it was never a question of heart on Buster's part. He can fight and is willing, but he's had conditioning problems." Translation: lazy, unmotivated.

Lewis told of the time, while still on speaking terms with Don King, he suggested that King pay Douglas more attention: "You can't just let him go off and expect him to do it on his own.

"In fact, I suggested he put him in against Tyson on the undercard of (Larry) Holmes-(Michael) Spinks II, and the problems he was having with Mike would have cleared up."

Lewis, who is being mentioned as a guy who might soon be enlarging the Douglas camp even further in a consultant's role, has good reason to think Douglas is ready to go.

"He's been down on the lower rung so long, you know he likes where he's at, being the champ. He's not about to take any challenge lightly."

And helping out as a motivational factor is Tyson chiding, "Once a quitter, always a quitter," and Holyfield walking around saying, "When it comes down to the crunch, deep down inside I think I can make Buster quit."

Actually, Douglas appears to view talk of psychological advantages and motivation as so much hogwash. He seems extremely self-assured when he says softly, "I would say I am a lot more determined now because I am more at ease and able to do the things that I am skilled to do in the ring. All I ever wanted to be is the best."

"The long layoff will have no bearing. I have a tendency to put on weight after fights. Before I was champ, no one cared. Now more is said about it, but it doesn't matter.

"I think I'm as fast as any heavyweight today. And I think I have the ability to take on anything that Evander has to offer. It will be a challenging affair."

Lots of straight talk, not the kind that makes headlines and might cause someone to rush out and purchase a ticket for the live fight or the closed-circuit or pay-per-view version.

In the fighter's stead, Douglas' manager, John Johnson, took over.

"He's going to beat Evander, then some other people. And you (media) are going to end up saying he's the best ever."


Douglas Holyfield

Age 30 28

Weight 246 208

Height 6-4 6-2{

Reach 83 77{

Chest (normal) 45 43

(expanded) 47 45

Biceps 17 16

Forearm 14 12{

Waist 35 32

Thigh 26 22

Calf 17 13

Neck 18 19{

Wrist 8 7{

Fist 13{ 12{

Ankle 11 10

Where to see the fight

The newly opened Tampa Convention Center, 333 S Franklin St.: $30 through Ticketmaster. Doors will open at 7 p.m. Information: 223-8511.

The Press Box, 222 S Dale Mabry Highway, and Press Box II, 4802 Gunn Highway: $50, which includes a shrimp or prime rib dinner. Doors open at 9 p.m. Information: 876-3528 and 265-3262.

Champions Sports Bar, Marriott Hotel, 1001 N West Shore Blvd.: $40 for a reserved seat and two cocktails. Information: 287-2555.

Bogie's, 16411 N Florida Ave., Lutz: $35 in advance, $45 at the door; includes a buffet. Doors open at 6 p.m. Information: 961-7888.

A.J.'s, 1252 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill: $40 general admission; includes a steak dinner. Information: (904) 688-1371.

Sarasota Brewing Company, 6607 Gateway Ave.: $30; VIP seat, including a prime rib dinner, $75. Information: 925-2337.

Manatee Civic and Convention Center, 1 Hayben Way, Bradenton: $30 through TicketMaster, plus a $3.25 fee.