BUSTER DOUGLAS'S REIGN as heavyweight champion came to a crushing conclusion last night in a bout for the wages. Never has one man done so little for so much. When Douglas called in sick seven minutes into the fight, he'd already made his record $24 million. He doesn't figure to make any more in subsequent video sales, but you can't win them all.

Douglas managed to hang onto the belt he took off Mike Tyson last February in Tokyo for a little over eight months. Chiefly this was because he didn't fight anybody in the meantime. Except Don King, the promoter, who he battled in court over management rights, and lost to - to the amount of $4 million.He made enough to pay off King in the first minute of last night's bout, staged, appropriately enough, at The Mirage.

A lot of people thought there was going to be an honest-to-goodness confrontation. Even Holyfield. But it wasn't there. Like your kindergarten teacher used to say, "Hey, it takes two to fight."

Holyfield was obviously ready. He'd been trained by aerobics experts, nutritionists and weight trainers. At 208 pounds, he looked hungry. He looked like he was ready to do a Schwarzenegger movie. The 246-pound Douglas, on the other hand, looked like he was on loan from Glacier National Park. His undoing was an uppercut he threw in the third round that moved as fast as people who work for the city street department. When the uppercut got to where Holyfield's chin had been, Holyfield was in an entirely different location, with a terrific view of Douglas's chin.

He hit him with a right and then with a left that the announcer said was "for the road," and presto, just like that, the real life Rocky was out of business.

At the Salt Palace, where I watched the bout on closed circuit in the Assembly Hall, there were better, and longer, fights in the audience, over seating disputes.

At hundreds of similar arenas around the world, people were doing their bit to produce the largest fight purse in history. Tickets at the Salt Palace were $25 - or roughly $4 per minute. The Assembly Hall was nearly full. There were maybe 4,000 or more fans - a clear demonstration that Douglas had caught the attention of the paying public after he left Tyson in a heap on the ring in Tokyo last February. His first title defense was eagerly anticipated.

That an unknown fighter whose fight with Tyson was considered so lop-sided most Las Vegas casinos didn't even post odds could now be fighting in Las Vegas for $24 million eight months later proves forevermore that life is stranger than fiction.

Prosperity was apparently more than Buster Douglas could take. He weighed 14 pounds heavier for Holyfield than he did for Tyson. And the 14 pounds weren't muscle. Boxing's hard enough without trying to do it with a hundred Big Macs and frosty shakes strapped to your back.

The best Douglas looked all night was walking to the ring, looking champion-esque, with a meancing game face. Then came the hard part. He took off his robe.

From the start, Holyfield didn't fight fair. He wouldn't stand still.

The majority of the fight fans at the Salt Palace cheered when Holyfield won - either because they were rooting for the contender, or because they had bet on him.

There was the usual grumbling after a fight that ended before a lot of people had made it back from the concession stands. But not as much grumbling as the last Salt Palace closed circuit heavyweight fight, when Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds.

Mostly, people were merely stunned; as stunned as Douglas, who laid on the canvas after Holyfield's punch and hit himself in the nose, twice, presumably to see if it was still there.

Then again, maybe Douglas wasn't stunned. Of all people, he had to know that he had very little business being in a ring in the condition he was in.

That's the problem with championship boxing. You get paid before your performance. Buster Douglas had his $24 million no matter how he trained or how he fought last night - or how long he fought.

He proved the same thing Tyson proved last February: nobody gives you credit for what you did in the past. It's what you've done lately that counts. Rest on your laurels and you'll soon be doing just that.