LAS VEGAS -- Boxing is the champion of dishonesty, Las Vegas the capital of despair. But Buster Douglas's methods were stark even for here. He took the money without bothering to run. He didn't quit on himself in an emergency, surrender to an instant of doubt. He did it cynically, over a period of months. Douglas was heavyweight champion of the world once, but it would be a kindness now to forget him.

His handlers say they never weighed Douglas during training. They are liars or lunatics. Evander Holyfield's people tabulated their man's slightest fluctuations daily. Even horse trainers keep vital statistics. Heaped on a scale, would every ounce of honor in the Douglas camp so much as cause the needle to flicker?

In the weeks before Thursday night's theatrics at The Mirage hotel -- that understated domicile of white tigers and lemon sharks -- the proprietors were panicked enough by Buster's appearance to unlock the sauna for him late at night. "We were tracking his room service bills," confided Mike Trainer, overseer of the pay-per-view department. "He had a $98 room service charge in the sauna."

Douglas cannot be a coward, as referee Mills Lane seemed to suggest following the third-round knockout. "He didn't try to get up," Lane said. "I'm not saying he could have gotten up, but he didn't try."

He got up against Mike Tyson eight months ago. In any case, this question was settled forever the moment Douglas arrived at his first gym. No boy who makes that awful journey upstairs from that loud street to that sour loft in that hideous neighborhood has to answer to a charge of cowardice. Douglas's sin was greater than that.

They should have sent him home in a taxicab with Rod Steiger and told the driver "Palookaville." Figuratively, Douglas took the price on himself: $24 million. It wasn't his night. He had already been somebody. He stopped contending.

Fittingly, the champion entered the ring in a black robe. The robe didn't fit, but the anonymity did. His bulk at the weigh-in -- 246 pounds -- had increased spectacularly overnight. Without a brassiere, Douglas looked obscene. He was introduced by Sugar Ray Leonard, who for some reason had been cast as Joel Grey, the master of ceremonies at the cabaret.

It was a dull start for both contestants, but Buster turned breathless within 20 seconds. He flapped his arms for oxygen like a billowing ostrich. In the second round, Lane twice had to warn him for holding and hitting; that is, holding and trying to hit. Even with Holyfield's 208 pounds tucked into the folds of an armpit, Douglas could not locate his opponent's head.

When he tried a wild uppercut in the third, he leaned into Holyfield's right hand, the only clean punch of the fight. In such an event, trainer George Benton had recommended Holyfield step back and shoot for the chest. He did. The chin just got in the way.

On his back, Douglas brought both gloves up to his forehead, showing impressive reflexes under the circumstances. He looked like he was taking the nose-touching test for drunk drivers, and passing it. As Lane counted to 10, Douglas counted to 24 million. Clambering through the ropes, Holyfield's most picturesque cornerman, Lou Duva, broad-jumped Douglas's carcass with millimeters to spare. That was the photograph.

"I was very patient," Holyfield said. "I thank the Lord for giving me the strength to be patient. If you're patient, you'll be rewarded." For a while, he will specialize in fat men. George Foreman is next, in March or April.

The heavyweight championship of the world is as big as Jess Willard, as simple as Primo Carnera and as sad as Buster Douglas. "I don't need to be the champion," Joe Frazier once said, "but I do need to be a boxer. I don't need to be a star. I don't need to shine. But a fighter is what I am, and you have to be what you are."

Douglas has to be what he is, and whatever that may be, he was never really a fighter, and he certainly is not a champion. "Look at this, this is good," Frazier said, pointing out a poem he had framed and hung on the wall of his Philadelphia gym, right next to the peanut bag. "I can read it as I rat-tat-tat," he said. "Didn't you know how poetical I am?"

It read:

Fight one more round.

When your feet are so tired

that you have to shuffle

back to the center of the

ring, fight one more round.

When your nose is

bleeding and your eyes are

black and you are so tired

you wish your opponent

would crack you on the

jaw and put you to sleep,

fight one more round.

. . . Remembering that the man

who fights one more round

is never whipped.

"That's from my favorite poet," Frazier said.

"Muhammad Ali?" a man teased.

"Close," he replied. "James J. Corbett. Gentleman Jim. You know, the ex-champ."