Like heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, Matthew Hilton knows only one direction to move in the ring: forward. And he practices only one strategy while he's at it: attack, with both fists, to the body and the head.
Just an hour before Tyson mauled Tyrell Biggs in Atlantic City last month, Hilton defeated one Iron Man Jack Callahan, who had been 24-0 with 12 KOs. This was the 21-year-old Canadian's first defense of the International Boxing Federation's junior middleweight title that he won from Buster Drayton in a 15-round decision last June; the evening had the scent of anticlimax.
"After the first round, I knew I could pretty well do what I wanted to do with him, hey?" Hilton said.
Hey, for sure. Hilton threw a left hook in the closing minute of the second round that dropped Callahan for a count of six. Hilton resumed the attack, and another hook put Callahan down again. The bell saved the challenger, who regained his legs long enough to stagger back to his corner.
November 16, 1987
"He didn't belong in the ring with me, I don't think," Hilton said.
Referee Rudy Battle stopped the bout with Callahan sitting slumped on his stool, blood streaming from his right eye. Hilton left the ring with a record of 28-0, 22 by knockout.
The brief match offered a glimpse of why Hilton is the man of the moment among the junior middleweights and why, given time to develop, he may well be the fighter of the future in a middleweight division thrown into turmoil by the absence of Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
"Hilton has all the qualities that make Mike Tyson so exhilarating," says Jimmy Jacobs, Tyson's comanager. "That is, when the bell rings, you don't dare blink or you might miss it. He brings to the prize ring that very cherished ethic, which is that he goes out there and tries to knock your head off."
Most notably, what he brings to the ring is what his father, Davey, taught him—a style not only relentlessly aggressive but one that aims at hammering the body for the purpose of revealing the chin. This and a blocky physique that runs north from the hips through powerful shoulders and into the thick bolt of a neck as wide as his boyish, farm-boy face. So far, no one has heard a tinkle from his chin.
Young Hilton is the country's first native-born world champion in 44 years, and all across the provinces these days English-speaking Canadians are calling him the Maple Leaf Mauler and the Canadian Express. Not to be outdone, a French-Canadian journalist dubbed him le Rouleau Compresseur—in English, the Steamroller.
Hilton knows no other style. "It's the way I am, the way I fight, the way I've always been," he says. "I know I'm strong, and I like to overpower people. I attack the body because it does not move. It's more devastating than hitting the head. I never take a step back. It's the way my father developed my style."
That is how Hilton learned to box, not so much rolling with the punches as rolling through them. Matthew was six years old the first time his father turned him loose, and he still prizes a photograph showing him sitting on a stool in the corner of the ring, his feet dangling above the floor. He recalls fighting a lad named Tony Marino. "I went jab, jab, jab, and he went down," Matthew says. "The kid was crying and they stopped it. I never did get the right hand off."
Eventually Matthew Hilton and his four brothers—Davey Jr., Alex, Stewart and Jimmy—came to be known in Canada as the Fighting Hiltons. Mother Jeannie figures that all her boys merely learned in the gym what was programmed in their genes. "Their father fought," she says, "and his father and grandfathers fought, on both sides of the family. They go back to the bare-knuckle days."
The boys all hit like mules, left hooks especially, and all of them dug into the body, just as their father had taught them. Sometimes they trained in gyms, sometimes in their mobile home outside Montreal after moving the furniture to make room for a ring.
"We didn't have a bag, so we hit a medicine ball that Dad held," Matthew says. "We took turns." And they went after each other as only brothers can. "It would be impossible to count how many times we boxed each other," Matthew says. "Every day, all the time. Dad refereed. We enjoyed it. I could never remember a time when I wasn't fighting."
When they weren't training, Davey and his boys traveled to fights as a family team. At first they entered tournaments in nearby Montreal, but they soon ran out of opponents. "Hardly anybody would fight us in Montreal," Matthew says. "We kept winning. We had a reputation. We'd enter a tournament and guys would change weights."
So they hit the road. "My father would take us in an old, beat-up car, and he would drive us all the way to Toronto," Matthew recalls. "To Cabbage Town and places like that. Four hundred, five hundred miles. We'd go three or four times a month."
On the road their father would teach. First: "Always keep the hands high. Protect yourself." And: "When you're in close, drop both hands and go to the body." Then: "Start everything with the jab."
And never, never stop fighting. They slept in one room at cheap motels, sharing blankets. "Five of us used to be in one bed," Matthew says, "heads one way, legs the other, Dad in the middle."
The boys knew well the force of their father's discipline. "A strict teacher," Matthew says. "Either you do it, or you don't. There were times when he would be giving us a boxing lesson and we wouldn't do something the way he told us, and he'd say, 'Take off your gloves and go get dressed.' Dad insisted on the dedication."
The four older boys eventually turned pro—Jimmy, 15, is still an amateur—but not before they tore up the amateur ranks in Canada, with the oldest three winning three Golden Gloves titles apiece. They had phenomenal amateur records: Davey Jr. was 130-2, Alex 103-1, Matthew 106-0, and Stewart 90-6. Jimmy is currently 11-1.
To be sure, Davey Sr. was living out the unfulfilled dreams of his own life through his sons. Not that Hilton wanted for chances as a fighter when he was young. His own father was an itinerant steeplejack from west Montreal. "A tough area, where the Forum is," Davey says. "I was a rough kid, a pretty good street fighter." In the winters of Davey Sr.'s youth, his father, looking for work, would take the family south across the border in a 35-foot house trailer. The boy learned to box in American gyms filled with young talent. One year he won a Golden Gloves title in Chattanooga, another year in Dallas and a third year in Louisville, where he worked out of the Columbia Gym and sparred with two future heavyweight champions.
One of them was a light heavyweight named Cassius Clay, who was still six years away from being Muhammad Ali, and the other was Clay's good pal Jimmy Ellis. "Davey was a good fighter, man," says Ellis, who now works Matthew's corner with Davey. "He was a hitter, a good banger."
Hilton was 72-1 as an amateur, with 59 KOs. At the close of his Louisville days the Hilton family packed up and went back to Canada. "The next thing I know," says Ellis, "Davey was the Canadian featherweight champion."
That was where the glory ended. Davey would make occasional forays to New York, but most of his bouts were in small Canadian venues, where he fought for everything from rubber checks to $500. He often faced larger men because Canadian featherweights ducked him and there was nowhere to go in weight but up.
So he languished in the clubs, and after a few years he started drinking. "I used the excuse—and I call it an excuse—that I was discouraged," Hilton says. "I was beating everybody at the time. I was fighting 10 rounds and ending up with $50." He sometimes fought when he was drunk. One of his earliest and most vivid memories of fighting under the influence was the night he whipped Hector Rodriguez in Saint John, New Brunswick, in July 1965.
Hilton had been on a binge, and he could barely walk when he got home the morning of the fight. Jeannie and Hilton's mother changed his clothes and put him on a flight to New Brunswick out of Montreal. They stuffed his pockets with notes, all of which said: "You're fighting Hector Rodriguez tonight in Saint John." They further directed him to his hotel.
Hilton woke up on the plane. Lord knows, he was surprised. "I thought it was a joke," he says. After all, one minute he was sitting in a bar outside Montreal, and the next thing he knew, he was wearing a different suit and sitting in an airplane heading east. Fumbling in his breast pocket, he found one of the notes, and immediately went back into training: "I ordered two double rye and ginger ales. Then I was ready to fight Rodriguez. I was ready to fight anyone."
He threw up in his corner after Round 2, but eventually won a 10-round decision, thereby establishing the legend—feisty ring scrapper and bar fighter extraordinaire, the little man with the big left hook that he unloaded in rings from Boston to Quebec and in bars from one end of Montreal to the other.
"A very, very lovable person," says Tim Clahane, a Montreal restaurateur, who knew Hilton in those early days. "Sober, he would never say boo to anyone. You couldn't talk him into a fight. Being very shy, when he had a drink in him he became outward. If someone ignored him or talked down to him, it hurt him."
And he hurt them back, usually with a left hook, and no one in Clahane's long memory ever did it more efficiently. "He was the best," says Clahane. "He would destroy you and love doing it. That left hand was a lethal weapon. Davey was a legend even then."
Jeannie Hilton saw little of the violent life her husband was leading, at least until the day he pulled over at a bar outside Montreal. A teetotaler, she waited in the car with the kids as a "quick beer" became several slow beers. Finally she walked inside to fetch her man. Davey argued with her to stay. At once this great mass of a man appeared behind Davey. He was wearing a tube hat, a plaid shirt and lumberjack boots.
"He looked like Sasquatch," Jeannie says. "The biggest man I ever saw." Sasquatch pounded on his chest and bellowed, in a thick foreign accent, "No argue with woman. Argue with man!" He then spun Hilton around in his chair. "He hurt my pride when he spun me around," says Davey. Hilton leaped from the chair, cracking his head on Sasquatch's nose, and then dropped him with a left hook. The lumberjack fell of a piece, thudding across the doorway of the saloon. Horrified, Jeannie only remembers Davey's cousin yelling, "You killed him, Davey!"
Together they fled out the door. "I was hysterical," she says. Two miles from the bar Hilton pulled off to a roadside stand and said calmly, "Let's stop here and get a hot dog." Sasquatch awakened sometime later, but the episode was all Jeannie ever needed to see of her husband's life away from home. For such improprieties Hilton suffered inconsolable remorse: "I'd drink so much and all of a sudden something happened to me I can't explain. I was another person altogether. I didn't know what I was doing at all. It wasn't me."
Of course the boys were aware of the problem. "We knew," Matthew says. "None of us liked it, to see him coming home and hear he got in some fight here or there. I didn't know what to say. But it didn't really bother me that much. I was too young."
By the time Davey retired, in 1976, at age 36, he had a pro record of 138-15 (70 KOs) and scrapbooks filled with his exploits. "I was proud of him," Matthew says. "I thought he was the toughest guy in the world."
For a time it looked as if the Hilton boys would collectively pick up the pieces of their father's pro career and achieve the fame that had just barely eluded him. One by one, as they turned pro, they started making money in the game. In January 1985, Davey Sr. sold the rights to promote the fights of the oldest three boys to Don King for $50,000, thereby giving them access to world titles that he never had. Surely it would just be a matter of time—and not long—until one of them claimed a belt of his own. Just as quickly, it all went sour, sadly and even tragically.
Alex, the second-oldest son (a daughter, Jo-Ann, 24, is the Hiltons' oldest child), who has a history of alcohol-related offenses, was arrested in February 1985 in a Montreal suburb on charges of negligent use of a firearm—having allegedly shot out the window of a hotel from a nearby parking lot'—and impaired driving. At one time ranked among the top 10 middleweights (23-2, 16 KOs), he has not fought since September 1985 and today is serving a six-month jail sentence for various offenses related to the use of alcohol, including an assault charge stemming from a barroom brawl last May 14.
Six months after Alex's arrest, Davey Jr. broke a leg and finger when the brakes on a dirt bike he was driving failed, causing him to crash into a tree in the backyard of his parents' home in Rigaud, 35 miles west of Montreal. The most naturally gifted of the Hilton sons—a quick, clever, charismatic boxer who seemed at the time a better bet than Matthew to win a world title—he left the game with a 24-0-1 record. He drifted for two years, his career on hold. In October 1985 he pleaded guilty to a charge of impaired driving and refusing to take a breath test, and was fined and had his license suspended. He has only recently begun to train again.
Davey Sr. blames himself for his sons' troubles. All their lives, total strangers have regaled the boys with the exploits of their father: the bar fights and the night lights and the left hook. "I was a hero to all of them," he says. "It wasn't good. They all wanted to be like me. They thought it was quite a life."
None of this accounted for the most devastating loss of all, the death of Stewart on the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1986. Stewart, 17, died instantly when the borrowed car he was driving swerved into an abutment of a small bridge at high speed and burst into flames. A companion, Lucie Diotte, died with him. There was no evidence of drinking. Stewart had not yet received his driver's license.
His death plunged the Hiltons into deep grief. "It's the worst thing that can happen to anybody," Davey Sr. says. "It took the heart out of us. We'll never get over it. A link in the chain was broken."
"I'd never seen my parents cry before," says Matthew. "I was just kind of in a daze. I think I still am. I miss him every day. There hasn't been a day when I haven't thought of him."
Davey Sr. had quit drinking nearly two years before Stewart's death, and the tragedy tested his resolve. "I heard there were bets all over town that I'd be drinking," Hilton says. "To say that I never thought of it, I'd be lying. I thought of it. Then I'd think to myself, Tomorrow will be the same thing, the rest of my life will be the same thing. It's not going to make the world any better." Hilton had quit drinking, finally. Today even the smell of liquor makes him ill.
More than once, and not just for their drinking, the Hiltons have been a focus of controversy in Montreal. Last year portions of a government report on organized crime and boxing were leaked to a member of the press. Subsequent articles alleged that Frank Cotroni, a reputed underworld boss in Montreal, had given the Hilton family money it needed to pay rent and other household bills.
"He never came to me just offering money," says Hilton, who has known Cotroni for 30 years. "I was out of work and I borrowed from him the way I would from any friend—and I consider him a friend. He's always liked boxing. We'd meet in a bar. I'd stop and say hi." The only thing Cotroni ever asked of him, Hilton says, was to quit drinking, because it was ruining his family. "At the time, I didn't listen," Hilton says.
The justice minister of Quebec, whose office had received the leaked report, concluded that there were no grounds for criminal charges against either the Hiltons or Cotroni.
In fact, whether because of Stewart's death or Matthew's success in the ring, the tempests in the Hiltons' lives seem to have stilled. Certainly Matthew's victories have inspired his brothers. They have given Alex, 22, cause to consider the wreck he had made of his own life. "When I sit in my cell at night, I think about my brothers, especially Stewart, and I think of my poor mom and poor dad, with me in here," Alex says. "I feel depressed at night. The stupidity of me! I have Matthew's pictures on the wall. I look at them every morning before I go to train. I say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' It's about time I stop being a boy and become a man, to start to show the world I can fight."
After watching Matthew whip Callahan, Davey Jr., 23, announced he wanted to go to New York to train, away from the distractions of Canada. "Too many buddies in Montreal," he says. "I'm dying to come back. It's been long enough, partying and doing nothing."
As for Matthew, he is aiming to fight the junior middleweight champions—whoever they are—and unify that title next year. Then he plans to move up to middleweight, to go after that title.
For now, for his parents, Matthew simply being a world champion is quite enough. With all the problems they have had, they feel blessed for what Matthew has become. "It's what Davey always wanted to be," Jeannie says. "For himself. To have one of his sons as champ, it's a dream come true."