Searching for a fighter who is going to become heavyweight champion of the world is one of the more fruitless endeavors optimistic man can engage in. There have been 82 champions since James Figg in 1720, an average of one every three years but, curiously, the depressing odds seem to spur rather than discourage would-be owners of heavyweight titleholders. Now there are five men who believe that they have the heavyweight in hand to defeat Muhammad Ali. Four of the five are wealthy young sportsmen; the fifth is Cus D'Amato, the savant and former manager of Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, who at least has had some experience with champions. The object of their hopes is a giant, chocolate-brown Negro named Buster Mathis, who was until a couple of years ago 300 pounds of punch-less blubber. Now 22, Mathis has slimmed down to 235, and he and his backers have found muscles and a punch no one had ever suspected. So far Mathis has had 16 fights, and won all, 12 by knockouts. The fights have been six-rounders, mainly because D'Amato has no wish to rush his charge. Within a couple of months D'Amato calculates that Buster will step up to 10-rounders and take on the likes of Joe Frazier, esteemed by many as at least as promising a contender as Mathis. By next fall, if all goes according to plan, Mathis will then knock Muhammad Ali flat and assume the championship of the world.
Promoters already have been after Buster to fight Frazier, but D'Amato has rejected the offers, explaining, "Only a fool puts on a match between two young fellows starting to move up. If we fight now we get $10,000. If we wait until spring we'll both go home with a minimum of $100,000." Mathis met and beat Frazier twice as an amateur, and D'Amato has no doubts Mathis will win the next time they meet. "Frazier is the same fighter that he was before," D'Amato says, "and he makes the same mistakes."
Buster Mathis first gained public notice two and a half years ago when he won the U.S. Olympic heavyweight trials. He won by beating Frazier, who went on to take the gold medal at Tokyo after Mathis injured his hand. In the time that has passed, Mathis has greatly improved. And, as of now, he has people, a fad diet, medicine and science going for him. Besides D'Amato, he has his backers—Jimmy Iselin, Mike Martin, Tom Packard and Leff Lefferts—all in their 20s, who have formed a company which they call Peers Management. Peers Management so far has laid out more than $50,000 to help advance Buster toward the championship. Nothing is being left to chance. Jimmy Jacobs, the fight-film tycoon and handball champ, has been retained to shoot Mathis' fights in color, and a dietitian looks after his calorie intake. Mathis consumes 10 pounds of steak a week and gulps down gallon after gallon of unsprayed unorganic apple juice and Tiger's Milk. He eats sprouted wheat bread, helps his circulation with Viobin wheat-germ oil and wards off colds with spoonfuls of rose hips, one of the most natural forms of vitamin C in the world. Peers Management, which not only aims to make Mathis champ but the most popular one of all time as well, has given away thousands of bumper stickers, photographs, ballpoint pens and balloons imprinted "Buster Mathis, Next Heavyweight Champ." Mathis' colors are red, white and blue, and his publicity pictures always show him posing with clenched fists in front of the American flag. "Buster has definite feelings of patriotism toward his country," says Jimmy Iselin, the Peers spokesman.
Mathis himself is a showman. Before each fight he dances a jig on his way to the corner, and in the ring he blows kisses to the crowd. During a fight he tries to frighten his opponent by growling. This is a trick D'Amato taught him, and he likes to growl because he feels it gives his punches added oomph. D'Amato has Mathis practice growling when throwing punches in the gym, and Mathis has now refined it to an intimidating "arrggh!" When not growling, Mathis is a likable person. "I got a heart as big as all outdoors," he says.
Mathis is fond of skipping rope and roller skating, offbeat sports that he has polished into fine arts. One of his proudest possessions is a $125 pair of precision skates. He also likes to fish and sing. Often he croons into a tape recorder so he can play it back and hear himself, and he thinks his voice is marvelous. It is not bad. Sometimes he uses the recorder to broadcast his version of his fight for the championship with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali gets the stuffing knocked out of him. Mathis, in fact, has Muhammad Ali on the brain. "I dream about him more than anybody in the world," he says. "Man, I just dream about that boy three or four times a week. He has never beaten me in my dreams. I guess that's the way I've planned it."
As an amateur, Mathis won the Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union heavyweight titles. When he was the subnovice Gloves champ, he beat the more experienced open-class champ, Jim Beatty. "Man, I beat everybody," Mathis says. After breaking his right hand before the 1964 Olympics, he ballooned up to his record weight of all time, 360 pounds.
It is just as well for Mathis that that happened after he had attracted the eye of Jimmy Iselin. About three years ago Iselin and his friend, Mike Martin, decided that they wanted to back a fighter who could win the heavyweight championship. "We wanted to find someone who would be deserving of the heavyweight championship," Iselin says with emphasis. "The heavyweight champion of the world, we remembered, was always someone we idolized as kids. Liston was the champion at the time, and we didn't like him, because we thought he was a selfish guy and not the type a heavyweight champion should be. Even though he had won the title, he felt no obligation toward the public. He irked us, to say the least."
Iselin and Martin grew up near each other on the Jersey shore. Iselin's father, Philip, is president of Monmouth Park Race Track and a part owner of the New York Jets with Sonny Werblin. Martin's father, Townsend, also has interests in the track and the Jets. While Iselin was at Lawrenceville and Martin at Choate, two fashionable eastern prep schools, they read everything they could about boxing. They pursued the sport with undiminished fanaticism after they graduated and went on together to Rutgers.
When Martin enlisted in the Navy for four years, he and Iselin kept up their interest and agreed to try to find a fighter they could back for the heavyweight title. Iselin spent months visiting fight clubs all over the East. He attended amateur tournaments as well and saw Mathis win the Olympic trials. In scouting boxers, Iselin rated them the way pro football scouts do college players, modeling his reports on the scouting form the Jets use. He judged each prospect on desire, coordination, background, character and intelligence. He interviewed Jim Beatty. He talked to athletes in other sports, such as Cookie Gilchrist and Ernie Ladd. "They talked a lot," Iselin says, "but I could see they weren't interested." He considered Wilt Chamberlain, who was making noises about fighting for D'Amato, but he rejected this as too gimmicky.
Of all the prospects whom Iselin saw, interviewed or dreamed about, none impressed him as much as Buster Mathis is. "Buster Mathis rated out the highest in every category," says Iselin. He checked into Mathis' background and found that Buster had been born in Sledge, Miss., the youngest of eight children. When he was a couple of months old, the family moved north to Grand Rapids, Mich., where the father skipped home. Mathis' mother worked as a cook in a restaurant, and she always told him to "go the right way." Mathis grew up dreaming of making something of himself as a boxer or a football player. His mother died when he was 15, and he went to live with a married brother. The brother turned Mathis out of the house, and he then went to live with friends, Paul Collins and his wife. Collins, who is only seven years older than Mathis, looked after him as he would a son and took him into his sign-painting business.
Meanwhile Mathis, who had dropped out of school, was playing defensive tackle on the Grand Rapids Blazers, a semipro team, "for fun" and boxing at a police youth center. In spite of his weight—when 16 he weighed 275—he was extremely fast. He began to do very well in amateur tournaments, and a New York fight manager, Al Bachman, got in touch with him. Once, when Mathis was still an amateur, Bachman sent him off to Montreal as a sparring partner for Zora Folley. Mathis knocked Folley to his knees with a left hook and was politely excused from his labors.
Iselin informed Martin that Buster Mathis was far and away the most likely prospect. The two then persuaded a friend, Leffert Lefferts, who comes from an old New York Dutch family, to join in backing Mathis. Leffert Lefferts, in turn, got a stockbroker friend, Tom Packard, to come in on the venture. Lefferts and Packard had been members of St. Anthony Hall, a fraternity at Columbia. Of the four, Packard knows the least about boxing, but he is tremendously enthusiastic about Mathis, because, he says, "The only thing that Buster eats, sleeps and drinks is to be a heavyweight champion of the world. I think that's fantastic!"
Iselin, Martin, Lefferts and Packard, after forming Peers Management, signed Mathis to a four-year contract in August of 1965. Bachman came along on the deal. To give Mathis a proper launching as a professional, they introduced him to the press with a coming-out party at "21."
Difficulties soon arose with Bachman. For one thing, the boys in Peers did not think Mathis showed progress. He won, but he did not seem to be gaining any mastery of his trade. After eight months and nine fights, Bachman was bought out, and Iselin went to see Cus D'Amato, for whom he had great regard. "There is nothing this man doesn't know about the sport," Iselin says, "and he never has used any of his fighters as moneymaking machines."
D'Amato himself had been interested in signing Mathis as a pro. He agreed to manage him on two conditions: that he was to have complete charge of Mathis' boxing, and that he would accept no money for his services until after Iselin and his associates in Peers had recouped the $50,000 they had already expended. When they break even, they will then split their share of Mathis' earnings annually with D'Amato. In essence, D'Amato now has Mathis on consignment.
Last April Cus took Bus, as Mathis is sometimes called, to a farm in Dutchess County, 100 miles north of New York City. Torres was training there at the time. "When I first met Cus, I didn't get along," Mathis says. "I didn't know-how to hang up my clothes and clean my room. I'm not A-1 yet. He's hard to get along with, and sometimes he's miserable, but he wants to make me champion. This is the only man I met who didn't lie, and he doesn't bite his tongue for anything. There are times I get so mad at Cus I cry. But he's a heck of a man. I have learned more from him than I have from anyone."
D'Amato worked with Mathis as Professor Higgins did with Eliza Doolittle. Every detail was studied. "I wanted to plumb this guy emotionally and mentally," D'Amato says. "I wanted to know what situation I was being confronted with. If I say so myself, there has been a tremendous improvement, emotionally and psychologically."
It was D'Amato who put Mathis on the diet that has shrunk him from 290 to 235. D'Amato himself went on a diet, losing 25 pounds. "If the body is soft and flabby, perhaps the mind is getting that way," says D'Amato. "Dieting is an act of discipline. I gave him a program to build up his discipline and thereby make him a better boxer, which, after all, is fundamental to the problem. I feel that the differences between individual boxers are not so great but that character makes the difference. I try to get a fighter to learn discipline, to learn how to accept pressure, to perform under pressure, in fact to be able to make pressure work for him. The training process builds up the strength of character which the professional fighter needs to achieve success. I say a professional is that person who, through self-discipline, can set out and accomplish an objective no matter how he feels within."
Before losing weight, Mathis had been a retreating counterpuncher. As he trimmed down, he became more aggressive. D'Amato found Mathis had a savage left hook and, with schooling, a right hand that could do damage. He started teaching Mathis how to throw combination punches, which D'Amato defines as "a series of blows to predetermined areas," and had him throwing punches at a contraption called "Willie," so named because D'Amato devised it to help train Torres before he took the light-heavyweight title away from Willie Pastrano.
Willie is five mattresses strapped onto a frame. The front mattress has an outline sketch of a man on it, and various parts of the outline are numbered as targets. No. 1 is a left hook to the jaw, 2 a right hook to the jaw, 3 a left uppercut, 4 a right uppercut, 5 a left hook to the body and 6 a right hook to the left kidney. Mathis punches each target as D'Amato's voice, on a tape recorder, calls out numbers. D'Amato himself stands to the side, arms folded, carefully watching and occasionally admonishing Mathis to get down lower, move back faster or growl more fiercely.
When Mathis began punching Willie, D'Amato had him throw only one punch every five seconds. Then he gradually speeded up the process, and Mathis can now deliver a five-punch combination in as little as three-fifths of a second. "Frazier couldn't do this," D'Amato says. "He wouldn't have the power, speed, coordination or stamina. Clay couldn't do it either. You have to have done this over a period of months and months."
Every day Mathis goes at least five rounds against Willie. Once, when he complained, D'Amato kept him at it extra hard, and when Mathis was through he had thrown, by D'Amato's count, 12,000 punches. D'Amato says, "I told him Clay had thrown only 1,760 punches in the Chuvalo fight and not to complain again." To which Mathis adds, "When I walk into the ring, I figure I gotta win. No one trains as hard as me, runs as hard as me or has had Cus on his back."
In the ring Mathis now uses a modification of the so-called peekaboo style. D'Amato denies that peekaboo is an apt description of the way he taught Patterson and Torres to hold their hands—both held forward, in front of the face. The style, he says, got its nickname from International Boxing Club stooges who were trying to downgrade him. "They downgraded it in contempt," D'Amato says, "but fighters who use it have respect for it—they don't get hit. When they do get hit, like Floyd against Liston, they aren't using it, or aren't using it right. You watch, more fighters now keep their hands up. Fighters who keep their hands down are gambling. They are gambling that they can anticipate the blow and then coordinate to block it. If every blow then becomes a gamble and a fighter continues to gamble long enough, he will get hit. Combination punching has made boxing with the hands down obsolete."
As an example, D'Amato cites Torres' win over Pastrano, and he adds, "Pastrano and Clay have similar styles, the same thinking processes in principle. Pastrano's downfall came from his inability to change his style, and when Torres showed that he could immobilize him, Pastrano was just an ordinary fighter. This is what I think could happen to Clay. The man who beats Clay must be able to reduce Clay's mobility—and then he's just another boxer. I wouldn't say Clay's style is made to order, but it wouldn't present the same problem to Buster that it does to anyone else."
The only training drawback so far, D'Amato says, is that Mathis suffers from a lack of awkward sparring partners. "I have to get awkward guys," says D'Amato. "Awkward guys can make you look bad, and their awkwardness forces a fighter to think. I try to get Buster to use his imagination. But awkward guys who are still competent are hard to find. A guy who is awkward and not competent, you can handle him. But a guy who is competently awkward can hit you, and you have to learn how to cope with him."
In an effort to get Mathis a better grade of sparring partners, Iselin is now offering to let ranking heavyweights who have signed for a fight train at his camp. Facilities and food will be free, and Mathis will be available for sparring. If Clay wants to come, he will be welcome, Iselin claims.
"Most young fighters are not afforded the opportunity they deserve to develop and become proficient fighters," says Iselin. "We have been offered main events with many fighters—Chuvalo, Eddie Machen, James Woody, Joe Frazier. What we want to do with Buster is make sure that when we send him into the ring we have done everything we can to insure that his performance will be up to par.
"Buster has reacted to good handling and good care so fast and improved so much it's amazing. But he still is, in many ways, an amateur. He must be seasoned. This is the same in any sport. In racing, 2-year-olds that are run hard usually end up breaking down and never have a career as 3-year-olds.
"Buster still has things to improve upon. We could have had 25 knockouts in a row if we wanted him to fight stiffs, but each fight he goes into must mean something. In Cassius Clay's first fights he had a lot of luck. He fought Sonny Banks, and he got knocked down. He fought Henry Cooper, and he went down. When he fought Doug Jones, he won by the skin of his teeth. When he fought Billy Daniels, Daniels was ahead on every card when all of a sudden a cut opened up over his right eye and they stopped the fight. In the first Liston fight, Clay wanted to quit.
"Well, this is a lot of luck. I don't want to bring Buster Mathis along with luck. I want to make sure that when he goes in there to do the job, he can."
Recently Iselin took a spin in his Jaguar Mk X up to Dutchess County to see how Bus and Cus were doing. During the visit Mathis did one of his broadcasts of his fight with Cassius Clay.
"Ladies and gemmen," Mathis began, "We're here at Madison Square Garden for the heavyweight championship fight of the world between Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee and Buster Mathis. Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee is a five-four favorite. Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee weighs in at 207, Buster Mathis weighs 235. Here comes Buster Mathis! He looks at Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee like confident all over his face.
"Bong! Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee comes out, shoots a jab at Mathis. Mathis slips it. Mathis is just as fast as Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee. Mathis shoots a jab and hits Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee on the top of the head. Mathis hits Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee with a left! He drops him! Eight count! Bong! Round one is over.
"Bong. Mathis comes out, shoots a jab, a right, a left. Mathis is jabbin' all the time. Mathis is down!"
"Jesus!" exclaimed Iselin, genuinely alarmed.
"He takes an eight count!" Mathis goes on. "There's the bell for the end of the round!
"Bong! Round three. Mathis is not as strong, movin' back, movin' back. Mathis hits Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee. Mathis is jabbin', jabbin'. He hits Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee in the body. Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee looks like he's hurt! Mathis is forcin' the fight. Both have respect for one another tonight. Mathis hits Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee with a right! Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee is out! He can't get up. Buster Mathis is the new world's champion!"
When his preenactment was over, Mathis shook with laughter. It was no joke to Iselin. "Gee," he said to his fighter, "you got me upset when you had yourself going down."
Mathis smiled. "Don't worry," he said. "I just do that to make it exciting. A lot of times I even let Mo-hamm-id Ah-lee go to the 10th round."