Besides carrying too much weight, what do Buster Douglas and John Williams have in common?
Neither one is comfortable with the demands of greatness.
Buster Douglas did not want to be heavyweight champion. John Williams does not want to be a great basketball player.
This is a reasonable conclusion after watching Douglas come into the ring unprepared to defend his title, and monitoring Williams's petulant dispute with the Washington Bullets.
Why would a man who won the heavyweight championship at 231 pounds allow himself to make his first title defense at 246? He couldn't possibly imagine he was fit at that weight.
Why would a man who has played his best basketball at 245 pounds, and faces the task of rehabilitating a knee, allow himself to balloon up to 300, and still be around 290 after months of cajoling?
The extra weight is symptomatic of their discomfort with the burden that natural talent and potential has placed on them.
Like the tide rolling back out to sea, Buster Douglas and John Williams are receding from greatness, giving it up. They don't want any part of it.
Douglas was overwhelmed by being champion. Clearly, he didn't expect to get there in the first place. He had promise, but never worked particularly hard in the gym or in the ring; a boxer who, apparently, didn't like boxing. He pursued it to earn his father's regard.
Bill "Dynamite" Douglas was a mean, relentless fighter who thought his son was too passive for the ring. As sons often do, Buster decided to prove the old man wrong. "That boy didn't want to box," Buster's grandmother told Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated. "Boxing was just the only way he knew of feeling close to his daddy."
Douglas was never driven to be champion. He never had that lean and hungry look -- the hungry look, yes; that lean and hungry look, never. There was nothing in Douglas's record to frighten Mike Tyson -- indeed, in an IBF title bout against Tony Tucker, Douglas quit in the ninth round -- so Tyson chose him for an opponent the way Apollo Creed picked the sacrificial Rocky Balboa. Buster's one shot was a gift of hubris from Tyson.
He couldn't have expected to win. To beat Mike Tyson? Buster was propped up to be knocked down, like in a carnival game. But all conditions were right. He had nothing to lose -- not even the old man could be critical of him falling before Tyson -- so he could be relaxed. Tyson came in lead-footed and overconfident. Sometime around the fourth round it began to dawn on everybody, including Buster, that he could win. And Buster rose to an unprecedented level of strength and courage, knocking out Tyson after getting up, incredibly, from an uppercut that almost tore his head off.
Bill Douglas's son became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, the most famous title in sport. Almost immediately he realized it didn't fit him. Maybe he didn't feel deserving. Maybe the invasion of privacy that accompanies celebrity uneased him. Maybe he felt that he'd finally squared the deck with his dad. In any event, Buster Douglas, who had never seen himself as a champion, did not seem happy in the role. It intimidated him. He trained poorly. He came into the ring at 246. He didn't throw a decent punch all night, and when he went down, he didn't even try to get up. He lay there, thinking of who knows what. If you looked closely at his face while he was down, he seemed to have reached a blissful peace.
John Williams has even more natural talent than Douglas, and perhaps less drive. As a high school player, he was already on an NBA level. His recruitment sparked a brushfire of rumors -- always unproven -- about illegal inducements. Even now the notion persists that Williams was steered to college, then quickly to the pros by entrepreneurs. His college coach insists Williams didn't want to leave, and did it out of obligation to shadowy others. The prevailing read on Williams is, he's walking someone else's walk.
The Bullets had trouble with Williams's behavior from the start. As a rookie he reported to camp overweight, and groused about efforts to make him slim down. Trying to get him in shape has become an annual rite. Williams has been so immature and irresponsible about his work habits -- not just the extra weight, but his lack of purpose and his apparent disinterest in improving his game -- it has occurred to people within the organization that Williams doesn't like basketball.
Invariably, if you are to become a great NBA player -- the kind Williams is capable of -- you do it by the end of your third year. Williams is entering his fifth season. For all the potential he has, on the court his career has been more sizzle than steak. Off the court it has been: more potatoes, please. It's hard to believe Williams isn't deliberately sabotaging his career. The only one standing between him and the achievement of greatness is him.
Someone who saw Williams last week in Las Vegas said he looked "bigger than the Hoover Dam; enormous, simply enormous." You'd think Williams would've gone to a weight reducing spa by now. Instead, he is bunkered in L.A., demanding the return of his fines and blaming everyone but himself for his situation. The money is a bogus issue, because the Bullets don't want to keep it -- they're using it as a carrot to get Williams here, where he can be supervised. The Bullets all know who John Williams is. When he got injured, the first thing the coaches and players told him -- begged him -- was to take his rehabilitation seriously, obviously fearing he wouldn't.
Greatness isn't merely about talent. It's about desire, diligence and responsibility. Not everybody wants to shoulder the load. Not everybody wants to be The Man. By all the drifting he does, John Williams is evidently saying that he, for one, doesn't.