LAS VEGAS -- When James "Buster" Douglas thought about it, in the heat of a summer night back home in Columbus, Ohio, he decided he wanted to be part of history, ranked with the great heavyweights of all time -- Jack Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Ali. Buster? It was a crazy thought, crazier even than thinking he could beat Mike Tyson.

Douglas had some decisions to make. Here he was out of training and fat; still not fully at peace with a loving, but dominant father who was once as tough a middleweight as there ever was; arguing every minute with his nagging manager; sunk into a deep valley of depression by his inability to dump the relentless promoter Don King, who claimed he had promotional rights to Douglas, which, in fact, he did and still does.

"You're a man now," Douglas's grandpop, William, told him. Big old William -- half a mountain, just like the kid he once sat on his lap and nicknamed "Buster."

William told Buster this summer: "You can solve your problems and be great. Your daddy was great. It's just that we didn't have anybody behind us. If we had somebody behind us, we could have done anything in the world."

Douglas's first decision was to do whatever it took to get rid of King, so he paid him millions -- $4 million -- to get lost for this one fight so he could have a clear mind for the defense of his heavyweight title Thursday night against Evander Holyfield. Douglas didn't think he could be "great" with King around. Look what had happened to Tyson.

"I don't know how many fights it would take to make me 'great,' " Douglas said, "but Evander Holyfield will be a step."

Douglas then decided he had to make peace with his manager, John Johnson, who, after all, had received the call from Steve Wynn, owner of The Mirage, leading to the $24 million offer to fight Holyfield.

"When Wynn called," said Johnson, eyes widening for effect, "I knew I had leverage against {Donald} Trump. I tell you the truth: King offered us $10 million to fight Tyson. So now we pay King and we're still way ahead."

Johnson looks as if he had just arrived from the state fair. Almost every day he wears jeans and boots, a black jacket, red cap. He has a little gold cross stuck into his left earlobe. This summer, said the Midwest cowboy, he wanted Douglas working. He badgered Douglas.

"I was on him. James resented the hell out of me," Johnson said. "I think he should have run every day. Not missed a day. Not a day. That's how I felt."

Talk about intense. And yet nowhere close to Douglas's father, Billy "Dynamite" Douglas. When they used to put him in the ring -- the "square," he calls it -- he'd blow up, positively terrorize opponents. You still don't want to strike a match around him.

Stand eye to eye with Billy Douglas and you know what it must be like to be in a ring with a fighter who isn't going to let you get away. When he speaks, his head bobs, like he's ducking punches. His wide face is hard, his jaw clenched, his body still lean. He wants to fight Bennie Briscoe one more time, right now.

"I won 50," Billy said, "drew one, and there were 14 they took away from me."

He said that and looked at several men who stood around him, looked at them hard, and not one said: "Ah, Billy, you were beaten some of those times."

How do you think Billy felt when Buster didn't answer the bell for Round 2 against David Bey, who is living proof that there is a fighter fatter than Buster? Billy said when you're in the square you do anything; you certainly don't do nothing, which is what Buster did. Buster looked across at the 273-pound Bey, who had weighed him down for one round, and stayed on his stool.

Billy held his head after Buster got careless with Mike "The Giant" White. It takes a big man to put Buster down. Tyson did it. And White is 6 feet 10.

"I was busting Mike White up," Douglas said. "He was just standing there and I was pounding on him. I went out there in the ninth and said: 'Come on,' and, wham, he caught me with a shot. Bam, I was down."

Billy really got mad one night in Columbus when Buster did what he was told and knocked down the never-celebrated Dave Starkey. What did Starkey do? He grabbed Buster by the leg and tried to flip him out of the ring. A bizarre no contest! Billy would have fixed Starkey if Billy were the fighter.

Buster world champ? What a crazy thought. He put on weight and lost to Jesse Ferguson and then, in an act of nonviolence that drove Billy Douglas almost to violence, a little session with Buster out back of Billy's little yellow house, Buster stopped fighting -- stopped fighting! -- against Tony Tucker. With a chance to win the International Boxing Federation title, Buster just sank back against the ropes as if they were a big easy chair.

"It was a nightmare," Billy Douglas said. He told his son: "If you ain't gonna fight, go on and get out and get another job, or whatever, or do something, whatever."

Buster didn't like those words. "He's sensitive, like his mother," Billy said.

Buster began delivering rugs for the Rite Rug Co. One day, a man drove down a street and saw the Rite Rug truck parked outside a house and Buster carrying a rug inside, and the man said to his friend, "There goes one of the great boxers in the world."

All the time, as he lugged the rugs, Buster was thinking about the things Billy had said. "You gotta change your attitude about boxing," the father told his son. "Fight or not. When you get into the square, you gotta change. You gotta be a killer."

Billy bobbed his head.

"He wasn't a killer."

Buster came back to the ring, but not with Billy in his corner. Still, Buster kept hearing Billy's words, echoing.

And Johnson was just as bad. "Well, James," he would say, slow and drawn out, "you can always go back to Rite Rug Co."

Certainly, J.D. McCauley was a stabilizing presence. McCauley is Douglas's trainer and also part of the family, Buster's uncle. He has watched Buster grow.

"When we got on that plane from Japan," McCauley said, "we no longer had Buster Douglas the boy, we had Buster Douglas the man."

Why? "He's taking control of everything," McCauley said.

It used to be that William or Billy or John Johnson or J.D. would be saying, Buster, do this, Buster do that, and Buster didn't do much of anything.

"We're talking about going hungry," McCauley said. "We're talking about riding around in cars that won't run, getting jumpers. Johnny mortgaged his house two, three times. We been through hell just to get here. Knocking on people's doors. Begging for drinking water, everything else. Nobody believed us. But I knew."

But Billy didn't know what he says he knows now -- that Buster is getting to be more like him.

"He knows what I like," Billy said. "He'll show more in this fight than he ever has before because he has the boxing knowledge -- and being champion will make him a little meaner.

"He knows what he wants. He's at the top of the mountain and he wants to stay at the top."

After he left Columbus and got out here, Douglas sparred away the days. But at nights he puzzled over Billy's fight proverbs, thought he saw the ghosts of David Bey and Mike "The Giant" White beyond the barren perimeter of the planted palms and felt very, very lonely. He decided to call Billy.

Billy was surprised and can only say: "We have a relationship of blood."

" 'C'mon out,' " Buster told him. "That was 30 days ago.

"I said, 'Ah, I'll just come out for the last couple days.' But he wanted me to see him. He wanted me to see what he was doing. He wants to be ready, and that's why I'm here.

"That's why I been in the desert for 30 days, and I want to get out of here."

It's almost time to get back to Columbus and celebrate one more time. There was no place like Columbus after Buster's victory over Tyson. Billy, of course, didn't make the trip, being still on the outs. But old William got off the plane from Tokyo and got up on a platform at the airport with his wife and thought he felt a crack in the planks and said, "C'mon, mama, let's get off this thing because this thing is going to break."

William is bigger than Buster. William has on a white T-shirt with a world globe so big it covers his entire back. Now his grandson is champion of that whole world, although the world isn't yet ready to believe. Holyfield is an 8-to-5 favorite.

"We done surprised the world in Tokyo," William said. "We'll do it again. My son done everything he could to try to do what he did. Then he taught Buster everything he knows. Understand what I mean -- taught him from a baby up. Now he's learning to be more aggressive. He's doing it, you can see that. He was under his daddy's command; but he had to get out from under that.

"I think he has and I think he's going to be okay. And I want him to whip Tyson again too. I want him to kick Tyson. Tyson's talkin' that stuff."

He will, Johnson said.

"I've been labeled as being crazy," he said. "But James Douglas is going to beat Evander Holyfield and then he's going to beat some others and before it's over you're going to say he's the best ever."

It sounded crazy. Crazy.