LAS VEGAS, OCT. 24 -- James "Buster" Douglas stepped onto the scale. He sucked in his stomach. His fight with Evander Holyfield had been billed as the "Moment of Truth." The "moment of truth" arrived a day early.

An official called out Douglas's weight: 246 pounds!

A gasp went through the ballroom audience. The number reverberated: 246!

A sculpted Holyfield stepped up and weighed in: 208.

Questions flew: Had Buster just pushed away from an all-you-can-eat buffet? How could he last more than six rounds in his scheduled 12-round undisputed heavyweight title defense Thursday night?

Odds that opened at 2-1 in Holyfield's favor but had dropped to 7-5 and were headed for even money abruptly changed direction. Nobody could believe how heavy Douglas was. He almost was George Foreman.

"If he doesn't get Holyfield early," said Sugar Ray Leonard, "he's in for a long, grueling night."

"Six rounds -- that's about all he'll have in him," an observer added.

And so the period of waiting began amid jubilation from Holyfield's handlers and stunned looks by Douglas's followers. The next "moment of truth" is scheduled for about 10:45 p.m. EDT in the 16,000-seat outdoor stadium of The Mirage hotel-casino. The 38-pound weight difference in the two fighters will look startling.

If Douglas were fighting Foreman, the two could combine for 500 pounds. Douglas has been this big -- but never for a fight.

He weighed 231 1/2 when he dethroned Mike Tyson in February in Tokyo -- and he was only at 80 percent of top condition then.

He weighed only 227 when he wasn't in shape and quit in the 10th round against Tony Tucker in 1987 for the International Boxing Federation title.

Douglas's manager, John Johnson, and his trainer and uncle, J.D. McCauley, immediately rushed to defend the hulk they said was ready -- insisting, in spite of evidence, that he was.

"Never have I seen Buster more ready to fight," Johnson said.

"Never," McCauley echoed. "Buster wants this man. I'll guarantee you, Buster Douglas is ready to fight, I don't care what anybody says."

For a week, Douglas had said he would weigh close to what he did for Tyson. Hadn't McCauley weighed him?

"We don't care about his weight," the trainer pleaded. "I can look at my nephew and tell. He's put in the work. My days have begun at 6 a.m. I've watched him run, ride the bike.

"He's ready."

And so on a boulevard of illusion and unfulfilled promises, boxing's latest showpiece features a champion who turns out to be the biggest heavyweight this side of Foreman and a challenger smaller than Michael Spinks before he was hammered by Tyson.

The soft-spoken, gentlemanly Holyfield (24-0) really believes what he says, that the "relentless pressure" he plans to apply will wear out Douglas. Some say now that he needn't even be "relentless."

Few believed any longer the boast by the 6-foot-4 Douglas (30-4-1) that he has "the stamina to go 12 hard rounds."

For a night that may be short, Douglas will gross $24 million to Holyfield's $8 million.

Steve Wynn, The Mirage's owner, is hoping to cover his expenses mostly through pay-per-view television. The live gate, closed circuit, foreign rights and delayed television showings could bring him close. Perhaps the curiosity over Douglas's weight won't hurt.

Douglas let himself go from February to July, partly he says from being "depressed" by promoter Don King taking him to court. Douglas got King to drop his promotional rights for this fight by paying him $4 million of the $24 million.

Satisfied with that settlement, Douglas finally went into training. The result clearly fell short. As one in his entourage said a few days ago, "Well, we didn't expect him to out-train Holyfield anyway."

But 246 pounds?

"I saw Lou Duva {Holyfield's co-trainer} do a back flip," McCauley said. "But he's dead wrong. We're going to fire Buster up tomorrow night."

It will take some rocket booster. Holyfield may get hit often and hard, but he has been presented the opportunity of a lifetime.

"I'm in great shape," said the challenger, who obviously was, with his muscles rippling. "If I have to move I'll move, but if I can stand there and the fight is going my way inside, then I'll stay inside."

Should Douglas win despite the weight, it would give him two straight improbable victories.

"I feel just as good as I did going into the Tyson fight, even better, I believe," said Douglas before the weigh-in, words that didn't build confidence among his fans since he wasn't in top shape for Tyson -- a measure of how far Tyson had fallen from invincibility.

"I have a hearty appetite," he said this week when asked how he lets himself get so overweight. "After I fight I like to relax, you know, put up my heels. I like eating a whole bunch of Southern food. Pinto beans. Neck bones. Good stuff."

He now may have eaten his way out of another tremendous payday for defending his title against Tyson in the spring. Had he put in the work, he might easily have kept Holyfield at a distance with a 5 1/2-inch reach advantage. Then he could have been in "Fat City."

"He's going to prove a lot of people wrong," Johnson said. "It just means 10 more pounds of power behind his punches."

"It doesn't matter if he's 250 or 260," McCauley said. "Buster's ready -- and you can bet on that."

Few were anymore.

Family and friends have said that Douglas would "grow" as champion. But they meant his image, not his waistline.