COLUMBUS, OHIO -- If James "Buster" Douglas means what he says, he is six days into a comeback he believes will lead to his regaining the heavyweight championship. Of course, if he meant what he said when it really counted, he wouldn't have lost the title in the first place.

But then he always sounds as if he means what he says. The trick is to know when he means it. Before he fought Mike Tyson last Feb. 11 as a 42-1 underdog, he said he would win by a knockout. He did.

Before his first title defense against Evander Holyfield last October, he said he would improve on that gutsy, emotional performance. Instead, he was left lying in a blubbery heap after only 7:10, rubbing his nose with a glove as the referee counted out his short title reign.

Douglas is talented enough to win the heavyweight championship but was ill-equipped to hold it, and yet intelligent and pragmatic enough to understand the way the world embraced and abandoned him in the space of eight months.

Is he regretful? Yes. Embarrassed? He says no. Rich? Most assuredly.

So what went wrong? Not even he seems to know. He apparently did not fall into bad habits or any of the other traps that have ruined countless champions. He simply believes that an unusual set of circumstances robbed him of his title prematurely. He admits he wasn't ready to fight, but rather than blame lack of conditioning, he blames "circumstances" for his lack of conditioning. Take it or leave it, that's his story.

"Well, that's not what I wanted to do with the title," he said. "I wanted to defend it a few times and then retire, if nothing else. I wanted to be like . . . to go down as a great, great champion. I wanted it all."

Instead, he got a lot more and a lot less than he bargained for. The Holyfield right that abbreviated the Douglas era was only the final blow of a tempestuous title reign. "I think I had a very unusual regime as the champion," he said, in massive understatement. "I hadn't imagined being the champion as being like that."

Who could have imagined that only hours after perhaps the biggest upset in sports history, a promoter and two henchmen could conspire to have the title lifted on the bogus claim of a long-count controversy? Or that Douglas would get entangled in lawsuits that cost him $4 million of his guaranteed $24-million purse for the Holyfield fight? Or that the hiring of high school buddies Rodney Rogers and Larry Nallie as his camp coordinator and accountant, respectively, would cause a rift with longtime manager John Johnson? Or that all of this -- plus calls to room service from the hotel sauna -- could contribute to a general camp malaise that resulted in him weighing in for Holyfield at a 246 pounds, 15 more than he weighed for Tyson?

"Me and scales have never agreed," he said. "I still went out, you know, expecting to win."

But it took only the first seconds of the Holyfield bout for everyone in the Mirage hotel to see that the self-proclaimed "new sheriff in town" was firing blanks. The explanation for his non-performance does not come easily from Douglas, perhaps because there is no real explanation.

"Well . . . yeah, I knew I could have been better, but . . . I still thought I could do it. I think maybe I could have showed better . . . Oh, I know by far it wasn't my best effort, but . . . what I did was the best I could do on that night. I mean, there was just a hell of a lot more on the line than any other night. But again, any other night it wouldn't have mattered."

But could he, in fact, have gotten up from the knockout punch? "Well, to be honest with you, I was hurt," said Douglas, who rose from a seemingly harder punch in the eighth round of the Tyson fight. "But I, um . . . by the time I picked up the count, well, you know, he was right over me . . . it could have happened real fast. My corner said I tried to throw an uppercut . . . I don't know. I never looked at the tape."

At 31 he is unfulfilled. It is why he started running again last Friday, and returned to the gym Monday to see if the fire that roared one morning in Tokyo can be rekindled.