LAS VEGAS -- So where has he been, James "Buster" Douglas? One thing he loves is to kick back on his grandpa's porch in Columbus, Ohio, and talk boxing with the old man. But how can that account for the obscurity cloaking old William's grandson, who scored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history when he knocked out Mike Tyson in February?

In the darkness on the porch they've talked about their time in Tokyo, that glorious time when old William made it across the Pacific to ringside, where shortly "there lay Mike Tyson right in front of me. My boy, you brought him to me, just like I asked. Knocked him right into my lap." A darkness dropped on Tyson and the grandson had fooled the world. The older man and the young one laughed at that shocker many a long, hot summer night made for storytelling.

Mainly, though, Buster Douglas has been on a strange, twisting road to his heavyweight title defense here Thursday night against unbeaten Evander Holyfield. It has been a road filled with legal potholes and cries of warning, anger, supplication, remorse and encouragement from all those who wanted into the car Douglas, as champion, was finally driving, or from those Douglas wanted out of the car because he just longed for the quiet of the sweet night air.

Old William was the one man Buster always stopped for and took along. But now Don King jumped into the front seat and started giving directions and threatening a court suit, while John Johnson, Douglas's longtime manager, was in the back sounding like his coaching hero Woody Hayes, barking orders like the late Columbus general. Billy Douglas, the fighter's father, several times estranged from his son, had hopped in again for a ride, sorry that he'd ever suggested his son's stomach was larger than his heart. J.D. McCauley, Buster's uncle and trainer, hung on as the car took the sharp curves. Wasn't that Butch Lewis, Michael Spinks's manager, by the side of the road, with his thumb out and his shirtless tux on, ready to go? Shall we pick him up? Douglas wondered to himself.

With all those voices, and his own mixed thoughts, it was time for one of those stops that George Foreman made famous, at a fast food sign where Big George would order the whole menu as if he was ordering for a whole host of friends. Buster Douglas had to admit on Friday that, yes, he got discouraged as heavyweight champion, that at times it was not at all the way he thought it was supposed to be, and, yes, he ate too much.

"I may have put on a few more pounds than I should have," he said, lifting his white baseball cap so you could see his eyes and know he was telling the truth. "I may have gotten down because of the court {case} and stuff. That might have had something to do with it. It was not as smooth a transition as I expected."

He'd been fat for Tyson at 231 pounds. His body jiggled. "He was only 80 percent of Buster," Johnson said at his house in Columbus. "You haven't seen the best of Buster."

Will Thursday night bring out the best? The promoter, who has guaranteed Douglas $24 million and Holyfield $8 million and would like to cover his expenses, never asks in those increasing television commercials, "Which Buster will show up?" -- Tyson's tormentor or a man who embarrassed himself in the ring four times. Nor do the commercials explain what makes this the "moment of truth" if one fighter is so much bigger than the other.

This fight has needed some salesmanship, and so Steve Wynn, owner of The Mirage where the fight will be staged, brought in Mike Trainer, of Sugar Ray Leonard fame, to consult on the promotion. Wynn has an awful lot of expenses to cover, between $36 and $37 million, but he figures if anyone can get him close it could be Trainer, who struck some rich deals for Leonard, including one with Wynn for Leonard's last fight, with Roberto Duran.

Trainer's presence explains Leonard's presence, which will be in the ring Thursday night. Leonard, who refuses to be kept out of the ring, will be the ring announcer. "I look upon this as another new challenge," Leonard said. Douglas looked on Leonard's venture into a spotlight that wasn't his with amusement. Douglas said, "He's a comedian, that Ray Leonard is."

Douglas might have sounded funny when he spoke of gaining weight except that he made clear it was the sadness in his summer that caused him do it. "I have a hearty appetite. If I don't work out as hard as I eat . . . But after a fight I tend to go to Grandma's house, just relax, kick the heels up, sit out on the back porch or something."

He could laugh about Tyson with old William, but thoughts of King made the nights seem so black and filled him with anger followed by food. "When was this picture taken?" a reporter asked, holding up a full-length portrait of Douglas in his boxing trunks, stomach protruding.

Douglas looked at the picture. "About three weeks ago," he said.

He looked down at his stomach and put a hand to it, and it seemed for a moment as if he might pull up his shirt to reveal the paunch as it might be -- but he didn't. He didn't have to work out in public until Saturday; he had one more day to firm up in a closed workout.

Some weeks ago, Douglas came to Las Vegas and continued to dodge the snares of man as he shed some pounds. On the way in from the airport, he kept on going past the MGM lion in his yellow tent on the corner of the broad avenue, and closed his eyes to the "all-you-can-eat" buffet signs. He made it around the phony volcano, skirted the tropical rain forest and took a left turn at the white tigers, where opposite them is a glass panel and, if you look carefully, a doorknob. Turn it and take the stairs, at the top of which if not darkness is the privacy Douglas likes. That's where he's been.

When he'd have rather been on the porch in Columbus, he was in New York during the summer as King's case against him and The Mirage, where the fight will be staged, went to surprising lengths in court and which had its startling moments, not all of which were favorable to Douglas. King, who claimed he controlled Douglas, took the witness stand for two days, admitting among other things that he told little fibs now and then to reporters, in his line of promotional work.

Douglas, on a mission of truth, was just about to get in his words -- which was hard to do with everybody talking -- when the parties heeded the judge's message and settled things themselves. And Douglas thought he was driving! Douglas was advised to pay King a reported $2 million to stay out of the way of this fight. King departed to the bank with a cackle.

But he wouldn't be gone long enough to suit Douglas. King still would have right of first refusal to promote future Douglas fights as agreed on before Douglas beat Tyson. "My rights are restored," said King after the settlement was announced by U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet. While Douglas said, "I got what I wanted," it wasn't as sweet as what he actually wanted. King was out of the car but, wily operator that he is, would be waiting when Douglas had to pull in for gas, ready to offer full service.

For now, Douglas had the passengers he wanted. He insisted Saturday that Johnson was still wanted, that his decision on Butch Lewis was "up in the air," that there's no "trouble" between them, that their relationship is "closer than ever" and that they'd had larger disagreements in the past.

"The separation between John and me drew us even closer," Douglas said, "and we never once came to where we tore up the contract -- even though a few years ago he threatened to walk away because of the skirmishes we were having. That's just the 'coach' in him."

Billy "Dynamite" Douglas, onetime middleweight and light heavyweight brawler, was back with his son, and that was the way it should be, Buster said.

Bertha's back too -- that's Buster's wife, and the two are expecting a child in January.

It's been a year. He found Christ, knocked out Tyson and began to remake his life with Billy, who couldn't make Buster mean. His mother fell dead just days before the Tyson fight, the mother of his son lay desperately ill before and after. Later, he argued with Johnson.

William was around today when Buster did his workout and though Buster kept his shirt on, he looked much as he did for Tyson. A sculpted body he hasn't. Sparring in a ballroom at The Mirage, he showed speed for a big man who had some fat, an odd-bodied finesse as well as power. What mattered more was his heart, which only William ever claimed to know. And while the old man said today his grandson had plenty of it, those who looked up into the bright hot ring, searching for the truth, could only take his word.