Mathis faced the best during Golden Era

By Mike Dunn - He wasn't quite powerful enough to be a slugger or speedy enough to be a ring tactician, but he was a legitimately good heavyweight. He is another one of those fighters who is remembered more for his losses than his achievements, however, and probably doesn't get the credit he deserves.

Buster Mathis was a combatant during what is considered to be a golden era of heavyweights. In March of 1968, he fought unbeaten Joe Frazier for a limited version of the heavyweight title in the first boxing card staged at the "new" Madison Square Garden. In November of 1971, he squared off against former champ Muhammad Ali in the Astrodome during Ali's comeback. Buster lost each time, by KO in 11 rounds to Frazier and by a lopsided decision to Ali, but there is certainly no disgrace in that. The ugly loss to Ali left a lingering aftertaste, though, and Mathis's merit as a fighter is often measured through the filter of that one sad performance..

Mathis met many of the top names of his day, including George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry and Ron Lyle aside from Frazier and Ali. His impressive 12-round decision win over the rugged Canadian Chuvalo in Madison Square Garden in February of 1969 was the high point of Buster's career.

Mathis was born during World War II in Sledge, Miss. After Buster's arrival in June of 1943, his family relocated to Grand Rapids, Mich. and Buster always called Grand Rapids home.

He had surprising speed and nimbleness for a big man. His illustrious amateur career reached its climax when Mathis earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 1964. Mathis was quite a sight: a 6-foot-3, 300-pound fighter who could actually move and punch. Buster's mobility belied his size and he could punch a bit for good measure.

Before he could fly to Tokyo to represent his country, however, Buster broke his thumb and the man he had beaten in the finals of the Olympic Trials took his place. That man was Joe Frazier and Frazier famously went on to win the Olympic gold medal.

Mathis and Frazier seemed to be on a collision course in the pro ranks as both built impressive unbeaten records. Mathis, still tipping the scales at 300 pounds, began his pro career with a 2-round stoppage of Bob Maynard in Montreal on June 28, 1965. Frazier's foray into the fight-for-pay ranks started in August of 1965 with a 1-round KO of Woody Goss in Frazier's adopted hometown of Philadelphia.

The careers of the two erstwhile Olympians paralleled for three years. Mathis bopped and socked his way to 23 straight wins and 17 knockouts, including 10 in a row. Frazier, meanwhile, pushed and pounded his way to 19 straight wins with 17 KOs. The unbeaten gladiators were signed to open the new Madison Square Garden in March of '68 with a share of the heavyweight title on the line.

Frazier's credentials were much impressive at that point. His ring record was littered with names of pretty good fighters. In his 12th fight, he got off the deck twice to earn a split decision over hard-hitting Oscar Bonavena. He went on to beat veteran Eddie Machen, slippery Doug Jones, Chuvalo and Tony Doyle, all by KO, before the bout with Mathis.

Buster's record didn't show the same quality of opponent, but it did reveal something else. Mathis was slowly and steadily losing weight. For his sixth fight, a 3-round TKO over Chuck Wepner in January of '66, Mathis weighed 267 . A month later he scaled in at 257 for a decision win over Charlie Polite. In the summer of '66, he weighed 240 pounds for KO wins over Everett Copeland and Mert Brownfield.

For the fight with Frazier, Buster came in with 245 pounds covering his 6-foot-3 frame. He was still a bit fleshy but he said later it was a weight that was comfortable for him.

Mathis did a good job using his jab to keep Frazier off stride through the first five rounds of their bout. After seven rounds, Mathis had the lead on two of the scorecards. A volley of punches by Frazier near the end of the seventh round, including a terrific right uppercut, changed the complexion of the fight, however. Frazier began to wear down the big man after that.

Buster gamely hung in but the twin battle with Frazier's relentless assaults and exhaustion was too much. He finally fell late in the 11th round, victim of a left hook that sent him sprawling across the ring, his head and shoulders finally landing on the ring apron.

Mathis rebounded from the convincing defeat. He won six in a row, climaxed by the nationally televised decision win over Chuvalo. Mathis, under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato, had noticeably lost more weight and added muscle tone during this post-Frazier phase of his career. For his decision over Amos "Big Train" Lincoln in Los Angeles in November of '68, Mathis was a svelte 220 pounds. It would be the lowest weight of his career. For the win over Chuvalo, in which he went 12 hard rounds, he weighed 232 and seemed to be in good physical condition.

The victory over Chuvalo set up an elimination about with Quarry at Madison Square Garden in March of '69. A little more than a year after suffering his first defeat to Frazier in the same ring, Buster lost again. A stiff countering right by Quarry caught Mathis flush on the chin in the second round and the big man went down slowly against the ropes. He fought on gamely but never seemed to recover. Quarry dominated the action and went on to win an easy decision and earn a shot at Frazier's crown.

Mathis was idle for two years before foolishly agreeing to return and meet the comebacking Ali in November of '71. Mathis trained hard for the fight but the combination of ring rust and having to lose a considerable amount of weight took a toll. Mathis weighed 256 for the bout and just didn't look good. Ali came in 227, which was also heavy for him. The fight was a dull, one-sided affair in which many people, apparently including Ali, felt sorry for Mathis as the fight went on. Buster was knocked twice in the 11th and twice in the 12th but gamely got back up each time and lasted the distance.

It was apparent that Ali was not trying too hard to knock Buster out when the final bell mercifully sounded.

Mathis did a number of notable things in his amateur and professional career; unfortunately, the underwhelming showing against Ali is what many casual boxing fans remember him for.

Mathis retired from the ring again for nearly a year. He made another ill-fated and ill-advised comeback in September of 1971. He weighed 280 pounds for a slow-moving slugfest against Oklahoman Humphrey McBride, who tipped the scales at 260. Buster secured a 3-round KO win but was pounded by the heavy fists of unbeaten Ron Lyle a few weeks later and suffered an inglorious 2-round KO in Denver. Buster hung up the gloves for good after that. His final ring record was a respectable 30-4 with 21 KOs.

Buster's namesake, Buster Mathis Jr., came along and made a name for himself in the 1990s as a heavyweight. Ironically, he looked and fought more like his Dad's nemesis, Frazier, than like his Dad. Buster Jr. had some big wins over some pretty good names, including Tyrell Biggs and Alex Garcia in USBA heavyweight title bouts. Buster was like his Dad in one respect, though; he couldn't quite gain entry into the upper echelon. Setbacks to Mike Tyson and Lou Savarese put an end to the younger Buster's career.

By the time young Buster hung up his gloves, his Dad had passed away. Buster Mathis, Sr. departed from the world on Sept. 6, 1995, the victim of a heart attack. Actually, he was the victim of his inability to control his eating habits. When he died, the elder Mathis weighed more than 500 pounds. He was just 52 years old.

Mike Dunn is a writer and boxing historian living in Lake City, Mich.

Article posted on 11.07.2010

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