SHOWCASE FOR CRISIS

The future of a bedeviled sport hangs in the balance as the promoters of Madison Square Garden stage their highly attractive but phony heavyweight title bout between Joe Frazier and Buster Mathis
March 04, 1968

Already, on this sad-sick street of smeared windows filled with old school rings and dusty old Army overcoats, of saloons with long, stained bars and strange lighting, the feel is gone. Just the building, a big-hipped slattern of design, remains. The old Garden echoes only the sounds of a night watchman's clock and chain and the snores of bums sleeping in the cold dark of the outer lobby. The wind whips at the empty marquee, the images form in the mind, of dance kings and sluggers, of a thousand tableaus that no longer hang here anymore.

Yet, for all the braying politicians and flaying evangelists, all the nonsense and drama, dazzle and dullness, Madison Square Garden meant boxing, come lean times or fat times. Kids doing road-work in the half-light of a Buenos Aires or London morning, or kids listening by a radio to announcers long dead, knew it only as a dreamlike palace of pain and special majesty, a place of certain sounds: a stillness, a bell, a fight-crowd hum. No bells ring here anymore.

Now the offices have been moved 16 blocks down the street to an impersonal high-rise above Penn Station, where Garden boxing will present its first show next Monday night, matching Buster Mathis and Joe Frazier for the "heavyweight title" and Emile Griffith defending his middleweight crown against Nino Benvenuti. Small wars and undercurrents surround every fight, but much warrants notice in this show at which ringside will cost $100, ringside terminating (knowing the Garden, old or new) in or near the men's room.

Shadows hover over this show: the old metaphysician Cus D'Amato, who is still a factor after being crudely exiled by Mathis and his camp; the shrieking invasion and style of Rover Boy Babbits who use terms like "socio-eco" and paint their gym with "subliminal" advertising that is hardly subliminal; and, finally, the future of Garden boxing itself, now quivering in the balance amid the intrusive pigeons and rain and all the other Mack Sennett accidents that have attended the opening of the new Garden.

The Mathis-Frazier fight is unquestionably attractive, perhaps the most interesting match-up since the first meeting between Ali and Sonny Liston. Interesting, also—and repugnant—is the title designation given the fight. A creation by N.Y. State Athletic Commissioner Edwin Dooley and the Garden, the "title" caper is unbecoming to the history of careful subterfuge in boxing. Desperation, though, dictated the clumsy maneuver. Dooley needs the revenue from a healthy boxing situation on Eighth Avenue. The Garden, in turn, has to control the heavyweight champion to be relatively healthy.

Cornered, after blatant attempts and failures to wreck the WBA's elimination tournament and thus secure two or more heavyweights, the Garden pressured Dooley. His acceptance of Mathis as a contender was indigestible even to boxing, a sport always rife with anarchy and Balkan politics. The quality of Buster's opponents, you see, has been absurdly inferior. He once fought one fighter twice in the same week, and who can ever forget Big Buster in against Waban Thomas, that pitiful figure wearing short, green dress socks, waiting for Buster on shaky legs lined with varicose veins.

No one did forget Buster's Waban, but Garden boxing reacted to complaints with customary callousness, just one of the many attitudes it has manifested since the IBC was toppled and the Garden itself became active in boxing promotion. As a promoter it had weapons, political strength, money, a building of its own and knowledge, but still it followed the line of destruction rather than construction. The arrogance and double-talk in the Garden's matchmaking, inspired by self-interest, are staggering. Its disinterest, too, in talent development is ridiculously impractical.

The Madison Square Garden Corporation is concerned. Questions are being asked. Does the boxing department carry itself, or does the corporation carry boxing (unlikely for any extended period)? Does the "image" of boxing, the management hypocritically wonders, fit in with the new Garden at Penn Station? The future of Garden boxing hangs heavily on Monday night's show, a show that will cost well in excess of $600.000. Even if the show is a success, which it should be, there are still two major problems: fights can be made, but will the management allot more dates to boxing? Can the Garden control the winner of its manufactured heavyweight title?

Neither Mathis nor Frazier, who are not easily controlled, wanted the fight, each preferring Floyd Patterson, who had one preference: neither of them. It is a stupid fight for the two, and one which the Garden tried to make on four different occasions some time ago, once for $4,000 and again for $20,000. Money—$175,000 for Frazier and $75,000 for Mathis—was hardly conclusive in the making of the match. Mathis, who has ability but meager credentials, took the fight because he is certain he can beat Frazier, whom he beat twice in Olympic bouts. Frazier's camp wisely ignored the money, it claims, but then hastily jumped at the title recognition. The jump could end in a long fall for Frazier.

Undefeated in 19 fights, 17 of them knockouts, Frazier has become valuable property to boxing and Cloverlay, the Philadelphia syndicate that sponsors him; original shares in Frazier were sold at $250 and are now worth at least $4.000. Frazier, at 24, is no longer an Olympic fighter. He has been moved with discretion, and he has responded moderately to tutoring. He is basically a stevedore with two hooks for hands, but he still retains poise and striking ring command. Essentially, he is not a combination puncher. He throws one punch at a time, many of them too wide, but he is always moving in, his body and head constantly in motion. He is easy to hit when coming out of a crouch—the head is right there—and he is especially vulnerable during momentary inactivity. Frazier will try to intimidate Buster, find out what he is made of from the start, directing his firepower in the beginning at Mathis' magnificent belly.

"Who do you want," Jimmy Iselin, Buster's manager, once asked Mathis, "Quarry or Frazier?"

"Frazier," Mathis said. "This is the guy I want."

Mathis will get more of Frazier than he desires this time out. Frazier generates pressure, and the relentless application of it is a major part of his armament—but can he contain his frustration if he is unable to hit Mathis? Buster, for an obesity case, is quick, and he has exquisite moves. He does slap when in retreat, but moving forward he is a powerful hitter, especially with a hook to the liver and right uppercut just under the diaphragm. The ultimate question is whether or not Mathis can handle the pressure, whether or not he has developed the "ring character" that so many believe he lacks.

One person interested in this question is D'Amato, who is now involved in an $8,000,000 suit against Peers Management, the owners of Mathis. D'Amato moved into the picture after Peers terminated the services of Al Bachman, a peddler who was a disruptive influence in Buster's early career. D'Amato's contribution to the creation of Mathis is not minor. A brilliant teacher, D'Amato labored long with Mathis. He exposed him to the Willie, a punching device that steadily increases a fighter's "throwing" speed to 1,800 punches a session and helps him deliver a five-blow volley in three-fifths of a second. He trimmed Buster down from over 300 pounds to 235, tried to teach him discipline and character in the ring, and rode him hard.

The result was calamitous for Cus. Bitter words and threats of violence were exchanged often between the two. "I'm a man," said Buster, "this guy takes away my pride." D'Amato had to be removed. Peers ordered him out of the house in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he had been staying with Mathis. Cus did not want to leave. Peers locked up the refrigerator in the house, and tried to get the electricity turned off. but Cus, rushing down the stairs like a mad monk, allegedly threatened the workmen with what turned out to be a water pistol, and state troopers were summoned eventually to insure Cus's orderly departure.

"I just couldn't communicate with D'Amato anymore," says Iselin. head of Peers. "He was impossible. He'd call up at 1:30 in the morning and say, 'Jimmy, the refrigerator's locked.' What the hell am I going to do about that all the way down here in the city? He was muttering about bombs being hid in his car. He wanted a pistol to protect himself from the sparring partners. God knows why. He was always feuding with the fighters and neighbors, and finally he tried to cause a split between my partner and myself. The guy belongs in another world."

D'Amato, who abhors air travel, would readily go to another world, say Mars, if he could be the first one there. "That would be nice," he says. Cus' eccentricities, of course, have always been visible. During the period when he was fighting Jim Norris and the IBC, he gave up riding subways, stopped drinking and never slept in the same bed two days straight. Often, he would sleep in front of Floyd Patterson's door, acting as a sort of watchdog in case of foul play; there is, you see, always a plot stalking D'Amato. Cus, constantly prattling about psychiatrists and psychodramatists, is always suddenly disappearing only to be found viewing the heavens from an observatory.

D'Amato is a rare creature, in some ways a boxing genius. He is also a man who is certain the world is bedlam, a world full of stupidity and talentless thieves. It was just a matter of time before he would have had to break with Mathis (whom he does not respect as a human being) and his group. He has never, despite his arguments, had much respect for money, especially young people with money who wish to intrude on his holy ground of boxing where he has camped and wasted a lifetime. Iselin, son of a self-made millionaire, and his major partner Mike Martin, heir to a steel fortune, knew what they were getting in D'Amato; he always comes with a full set of enemies and foibles.

"Sure," says Iselin, "I knew what D'Amato was. But could I exist with D'Amato if Jimmy Iselin is a nothing? He was just using me as a tool against his enemies."

Words like "recognition" and "image" inundate Iselin's conversations. Only fools smirk at his pursuit of identity, but his behavior and manner have alienated many people; he tries hard, but his socio-eco ideas are not easily quelled. He had to eliminate D'Amato as a factor, his ego demanded the move. With Cus in front, there was just not enough recognition to go around. The personality conflict between him and D'Amato was immense. Iselin wanted respect from D'Amato, but the old manager, with his convoluted thinking, could only view the "Boys Life" adventure of Iselin and Martin into boxing as some sort of threat to himself and boxing.

Why, the question lingers, why did Iselin and Martin choose boxing for their chase after acclaim? No one knows, but one guesses they were fascinated by this mysterious, storied realm of sport. One suspects also that they thought boxing was a perfect playground for their sharp minds. They respected the treachery and delicate trickery rampant in the sport, but they were sure businessmen, with smooth, impressive methods, could conquer boxing and leave an indelible mark.

The methods and atmosphere are impressive—and screaming. Peers has spent roughly $150,000 on Buster, who probably consumed a large percentage of the money in food alone. The training quarters have cost plenty, too. A video tape is used in the gym, planes have been used to fly the press to a number of Buster's many insignificant fights, and various clothing ensembles are worn by Buster and those around him. Advertising is not missing, either. Red, white and blue is splashed all over the gym and house, and there are similarly colored insignias—indicating a jack Armstrong aura—dotting the roads leading to Mathis' lair.

So, it seems, it is a strange fight scene. It is different, too, because this fight marks boxing's final break with another time. More than anything, boxing in the old Garden meant characters, people who followed a curious way of life, people whose daily lives made you think of pipe smoke curling and fading in the air: Dan McKetrick, the manager who had a chauffeur for his Rolls-Royce but who was seldom sufficiently "holding" to pay him; Billy McCarney, the Mr. Micawber of boxing; Al Weill, the most disliked figure, who concealed his cigars and never appeared with more than $7 in his pocket for fear of being asked for money; Commodore Dutch, who haunted weigh-ins and the outer lobby and threw a benefit for himself each year.

All of them and many others are gone now. So, too, are their legendary places of operation: Stillman's, Jacobs' Beach, anywhere a hand could be shook and a deal closed. D'Amato remembers those times, but he is just as contemptuous of the past as he is of the future, where his fate surely will be similar to what Kid Norfolk once told a friend he would discover on his return to Africa. Kid Norfolk rubbed fighters at Stillman's. His friend was a Congolese named Beezy Thomas. Beezy, who had jumped ship in New York, was the official shine boy at Stillman's and on Jacobs' Beach. The two were inseparable, until they quarreled. They never spoke to each other again until Beezy, finally caught by police and sent to Ellis Island for deportation, returned to Stillman's for a final farewell.

"You should go over and speak to Beezy and be nice to him," someone said, pointing to Beezy standing alone in a corner. "Just think, you'll never see him again." Norfolk balked, but finally he edged over to Beezy.

"Beezy," Norfolk said, "why you so sad?"

"Because they gonna deport me," said Beezy.

"Where they gonna deport you?"

"Back to the jungle," said Beezy.

"What ya gonna do there?" asked the Kid.

"I don't know," said Beezy.

"I know," Norfolk said calmly. "You ain't gonna do nuthin'. All them old monkeys in the jungle, they forgot you. All them new ones, they never heard of you at all."

PHOTOBasically a stevedore, with hooks for hands, Joe Frazier throws his punches one at a time, will try to intimidate Mathis early in the fight. PHOTOChief of Peers Management, owner of Mathis, Jimmy Iselin observes investment of a portion of the $150,000 spent getting Buster ready. PHOTOHis role expropriated, Cus D'Amato's influence remains strong. Today's Mathis is his creation.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)