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Joshua-Miller Stirs Memories of Frazier-Mathis and Another Era’s Garden Party

Bernard Fernandez

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Joshua - Miller & Frazier - Matthis

What goes around eventually comes back around? Well, not always. But there are certain long-separated, seemingly unconnected events that draw such distinct parallels that it can appear as if history, or at least certain elements of it, is being repeated, with different players in previously assigned roles.

On June 1, IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) defends those titles against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller (23-0-1, 20 KOs) in the DAZN-streamed main event in Madison Square Garden.

On March 4, 1968, Joe Frazier (who went in 19-0, with 17 KOs) won the vacant heavyweight championship – the version recognized by the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois and Maine, in any case – with an emphatic, 11th-round stoppage of Buster Mathis (then 23-0, with 17 KOs), in the first boxing card held in the current (and the fourth overall) incarnation of the Garden. Although Mathis, who was behind on two of the official scorecards (referee Arthur Mercante Sr. had it even), beat Mercante’s count, he was clearly discombobulated after getting nailed by “Smokin’” Joe’s signature shot, a short left hook to the temple. Mercante did the prudent thing by waving off the scheduled 15-rounder after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 33 seconds.

So, if the same plot from nearly 51 years ago is followed to a more or less identical conclusion, does it mean that Joshua – the more likely stand-in for Frazier – gets Miller,  suitable in so many ways to assume the role of Mathis – out of there in the later stages of a scheduled 12-rounder? Not necessarily. If there’s one thing we have learned from remade movies of familiar originals, it’s that endings can undergo radical revisions. Perhaps this eerily reminiscent do-over of Joe ’n’ Buster has the updated Mathis – uh, Miller – flipping the script and being carried out of the ring on his jubilant handlers’ shoulders, provided they are strong enough to handle the weight.

But the closing scene, whatever it is, doesn’t alter the fact that up to now much of what led to Frazier-Mathis is again playing out for a two-generations-later audience. It’s like one of the best-remembered sayings uttered by that master of malaprops, the late, great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who once observed that a particular set of circumstances was “like déjà vu all over again.”

Consider the following:

*Joel Fisher, executive vice president of Madison Square Garden Marquee Events, described Joshua-Miller, in which England’s Joshua will be making his much-anticipated American debut, as an “epic event” and an almost-certain sellout after it shattered MSG’s pre-sale record. Frazier-Mathis also was a box-office smash, with a paid attendance of 18,906 and a live gate of $658,563, which set a record (long since broken) of $511,000 for the third installment of the Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson trilogy in Miami Beach. For those not fortunate enough to hold tickets for Frazier-Mathis, it was available for viewing elsewhere via closed-circuit, although the fight was blacked out within a 150-mile radius of New York City, making for many angry would-be customers. The nearest cities offering the CC action to those in the restricted area were Philadelphia in one direction, Boston in the other.

*Regardless of the outcome of Joshua-Miller, the winner can’t claim to be the undisputed and absolute king of the heavyweights, since Deontay Wilder still holds the WBC belt as well as a loyal if more limited percentage of global devotees. Frazier-Mathis also was for a few small slices of a very large pie, much of the world and most of the United States still recognizing Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the Army, as the legitimate heavyweight champion.

*Joshua is a former Olympic gold medalist, having won the super heavyweight portion for the United Kingdom at the 2012 London Games. Frazier took heavyweight gold for the U.S. — as an alternate to the injured Mathis! – at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

*As previously noted, Joshua, the 8½-1 wagering choice, and Miller both come into their showdown undefeated, as was the case when Frazier, a 2-1 favorite, squared off against Mathis. Barring a draw, which would allow Joshua to retain his titles, somebody’s “oh” will have to go.

*Perhaps most significantly, the underdog in each instance was widely perceived, fairly or unfairly, as, well, fat. The 6-foot-4 Miller isn’t called “Big Baby” for nothing; although he has weighed as little as 242 pounds for a bout, that was 6½ years ago. He has tipped the scales at 300-plus for his last three ring appearances and, if he does so again (he was 315¼ pounds for his most recent fight, a fourth-round knockout of Bogdan Dinu on Nov. 17 of last year), he figures to outweigh the 6-6 Joshua anywhere from 45 to 70 pounds. His frame might be a bit more defined than the vintage Mathis, and if you want to describe Miller as large-boned or just sort of chunky, fine. The 6-3 Mathis came in at an almost-svelte 243½ against Frazier, but even so he outweighed his 5-11½ and harder-punching opponent by 39 pounds.

At whichever weight, Mathis understood that no one was going to confuse him with an Adonis. Twice he defeated Frazier in the amateurs, and he was a very jiggly 310 when he outpointed him in the Olympic Trials finals in Flushing, N.Y. He doused Joe’s smoke by winning another four-round decision later on at the Olympic Box-offs in Los Angeles, fighting from midway in the first round with a fractured knuckle on his right hand. The injury kept Mathis, born in Sledge, Miss., as the youngest of eight children but who moved with his family to Grand Rapids, Mich., when he was a child, from representing his country in Tokyo. It pained him considerably when Frazier, in his stead, took the gold medal.

Mathis’ past brushes with Frazier of course added intrigue to their fight for those portions of Ali’s heavyweight realm lifted by organizational decree. Four years had passed since Mathis had twice bested Frazier in the amateurs, and while the oddsmakers figured that the Philadelphian was the wiser play because of the higher quality of his opposition to that point and the fact he packed more power, Mathis trainer Joe Fariello was convinced his guy was destined to disappoint that other Joe again.

“We don’t even think about losing. We haven’t made any plans for that,” Fariello said at Mathis’ training camp in Rhinebeck, N.Y., a village in Duchess County located 100 miles or so from midtown Manhattan. “Somewhere along the line, I have the feeling that Buster will knock him out. If by chance I’m wrong, Buster’s capable of going the distance, more so than the other guy.

“He’s never been on the floor in the amateurs, as a pro or in sparring. That means he’s got to be able to take a punch. I’ve seen him take good punches, too. Leotis Martin hit him on the chin. So did Jose Torres. Frazier got him squarely when they fought in the Olympic Trials.”

Publicly, Mathis expressed the same supreme confidence as Fariello. But privately, a seed of doubt had been planted in his mind and it was gnawing away at him. Out-boxing a still-raw Joe Frazier over four rounds a couple of times in the amateurs was one thing; trying to keep the more-experienced, wiser and just as hard-hitting left-hooking machine from Philly at bay for 15 rounds was quite another.

I spoke to Buster Sr. in August 1994 when he was training his son, Buster Mathis Jr., then 14-0 with three KOs, to take on former champ Riddick Bowe later in the month in Atlantic City, a fight in which Buster Jr. was knocked cold in the fourth round, although the outcome was changed to a no-decision because Bowe’s takeout shot landed with Mathis down on one knee. Buster the elder, even then suffering from a number of physical maladies, admitted he had gone into the Frazier fight with an unshakable sense of foreboding.

“Joe had that big left hook, his .357 Magnum,” Buster, then 51 and back up in the 300-pound-plus range, recalled. “Every second of that fight I was scared. I always knew he could land that Magnum.

“Two people have been living with me for the last 30 years – my wife (Joan) and Joe Frazier. In the quiet hours, when I’m sitting in my chair, lights out, everybody in bed, I think about Joe Frazier. I’ll bet I’ve fought Joe Frazier a million times in my mind. And you know what? I always beat him.

“But you can’t change the facts. You can cry over them when they don’t turn out your way, but you can’t change them. The fact is that when I did fight Joe Frazier, I lost. Got knocked out. I’m not complaining. I’ve had a pretty good life. I was never champion, but I guess everybody can’t get to be champion. I was fortunate enough to get close. That’s more than a lot of people in this business can say.”

Some might say that the “good life” to which Mathis referred could have been much better. His manager, Jim Iselin, one of the three young owners of Peers Management, turned on his fighter as if he had committed an unpardonable sin by losing to Frazier, which in retrospect hardly qualifies as a dishonor.

“It would be only anticlimactic to pursue such a course now,” a miffed Iselin said of his decision to stop distributing the keychains, lighters and buttons that had proclaimed Mathis as the “Next Heavyweight Champ.” “We’re taking Buster’s name off the gym (in Rhinebeck), and we’re taking down all the pictures on the wall. He’s not a prima donna any more.

“He’s going to have to wash dishes if he wants to be fed, and help clean the gym and his room. He either will respond, as did Joe Louis after being knocked out by Max Schmeling, and become a great fighter, or go the other way.”

Nobody can say that Buster didn’t try to shape up. He sweated himself down to a career-low 220½ pounds for his third fight after losing to Frazier, a 10-round split decision over Amos Lincoln on Sept. 5, 1968. But he would never get another shot at a world title, and the mental toughness required for him to overcome his genetic disposition for gaining weight to unhealthy levels soon began to ebb. The son of a 300-pound father and 180-pound mother, the three-pound preemie who had entered the world six weeks earlier than nature intended got picked on a lot as a child until, he said, “one day I woke up and I was a big boy,” one who soon gravitated toward boxing and a slew of might-have-beens.

Throughout his too-large and too-short life, Mathis retained a pleasant demeanor that seemingly was at odds with his brutal profession. In the winter of 1993, Frazier consented to appear at “Buster Mathis Day” in Grand Rapids, an invitation that some fighters would be loath to extend to the man who had extinguished their dreams of greatness. But then Buster Mathis was never one to hold a grudge.

“Joe is the nicest guy in the world,” said Buster, who in a 30-4 (21) career did get another high-visibility, potentially life-changing bout, losing a 12-round, unanimous decision to Ali for the minor NABA heavyweight belt on Nov. 17, 1971, in the Astrodome. “They were going to show a tape of our fight and Joe said, `Don’t let them show the 11th round. This is your day, Buster. Nobody wants to see you get knocked out, including me.’ That touched me to my heart.”

In a perfect world populated by those old enough to remember the way it was and in a position of authority to meld past and present, Buster Mathis and Joe Frazier would be at ringside and maybe to take a bow on June 1, before Joshua and Miller, no doubt unaware of events that had taken place more than a half-century before, did their thing in the ring. But Garden movers and shakers John F.X. Condon and Teddy Brenner have taken their celestial 10-counts, as have Smokin’ Joe, who was 67 when he died of liver cancer on Nov. 7, 2011, and Buster, just 52 when, on Sept. 6, 1995, he succumbed to a witch’s brew of ills that included two strokes, a heart attack that resulted in the installation of a pacemaker, diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney failure.

Maybe Miller, 30, gets to live the dream that never quite came true for Mathis. His attitude appears to be positive enough, with the life-long Brooklyn resident insisting that he’s fighting not only for himself, but for “all the underdogs” in life that have been told they’re “not good enough.”

“Just keep pushing,” said Miller, a harder-edged, harder-hitting replica of Mathis seemingly not possessed of the more gentle nature that might have doomed his forebear, in a professional sense, as much as his legendarily insatiable appetite. “I’ve proven that with hard work and dedication that you can go far.”

Whether it will carry him far enough might depend on just how much of an approximation Anthony Joshua is to Joe Frazier where it counts, inside the ropes.

Photo (AP): Frazier and Mathis flank Emile Griffith who fought Nino Benvenuti in the co-feature.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Jim Gray, To His Discredit, is Too Often ‘The Story’

Ted Sares

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Showtime’s widely-connected Jim Gray is the ultimate networker, insider, and friend to the stars (from Jack Nicholson to Kobe Bryant to LeBron James to Tom Brady and everyone in between—or almost everyone). He has won more awards than Carter has pills, a list that includes 12 National Emmy Awards, and he even has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was named as one of the 50 Greatest Sports Broadcasters of All-Time by David Halberstam and last year he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

For an interesting read about Jim and his complex but important interconnections, see “The Zelig of Sports,” by Bryan Curtiss, dated June 24, 2016. https://www.theringer.com/2016/6/24/16043100/jim-gray-is-looking-for-his-next-exclusive-fc23ceb544e

However, as noted by “Sports Media Watch” writer and editor Paulsen (no first name) and others, Gray has become The Story on too many occasions and that’s a no-no in his line of work.

In boxing, Gray’s condescending and confrontational style was on display as far back as 2001 when he interviewed Kostya Tszyu in the ring following Tszyu’s defeat of Oktay Urkal at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. As Gray was beginning his routine, the “Thunder From Down Under” grabbed the mic and quickly told Gray “Do not be rude to me.”

Many years later, after Juan Manuel Lopez had just been knocked silly by Orlando “Siri” Salido, a bizarre post-fight interview ensued during which Lopez accused referee Roberto Ramirez and his son Roberto Ramirez Jr (who was the third man for the first Salido-Lopez fight) of having gambling problems.

Lopez was arguably still on Queer Street, but that didn’t stop Gray. Eager to catch someone off guard, as is his wont, Gray managed to get “Juanma” to say more than enough to get himself suspended while Gray went on to induction into the IBHOF

There have been many other incidents including James Toney dominating Gray in an interview after the Holyfield-Toney fight. Jim never had a chance. “Don’t come up here and try to give me no badass questions,” James warned Gray.before knocking the mic out of Gray’s hands..

The fact is Gray had built up a litany of edgy if not downright embarrassing moments. His most infamous came in 1999 during game two of the World Series.

During the game, Pete Rose, barred from baseball but still a fan favorite, was introduced as a member of the Major League All-Century Team as the crowd went wild. Then the ever-opportunistic Gray launched a series of questions regarding allegations that Rose’s had gambled on major league baseball games.

Gray was unrelenting. Finally, Pete cut it off, saying, “This is a prosecutor’s brief, not an interview, and I’m very surprised at you. I am, really.” Later on, New York Yankee outfielder Chad Curtis, who won Game 3 with a walk off homer, refused Gray’s request for an interview as a show of unity with Rose. (Jim Gray’s complete interview with Pete Rose can be found in Gray’s Wikipedia entry. Gray was somewhat vindicated in 2004 when Rose came clean and admitted that he had bet on baseball.)

Fast Forward

After the scintillating Wilder-Breazeale fight this past week in Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, Luis Ortiz bounded into the ring during the post-fight interviews and Gray shoved the mic in his face without so much as a hello and shouted “when do you want to fight Wilder?” Ortiz wanted to focus on what had just occurred in the ring, but he never had a chance. Gary continued to badger him about future fights and thus the fans did not get to hear what Ortiz had to say about the fight.

But what was far worse was when Dominic Breazeale waved Gray away as the commentator walked towards the badly beaten fighter. Gray was stopped by a member of Breazeale’s camp and he quickly got the message that he was persona non grata in the Breazeale corner. Previously, and within Dominic’s earshot, Gray had said to Wilder “the public does not want to see you fight people like Breazeale, the public does not want to see Joshua fight Ruiz, the public does not want to see whoever this guy is fighting Tyson Fury.”

There may be truth in what Jim said, but there was a better way to say it and a better place to say it. The man just got knocked senseless in front of his family and friends, Jim, show him some respect!

Photo credit: Tom Casino / SHOWTIME

Ted Sares is a member of Ring 8, a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Grand Master class and is competing in 2019.

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More Heavyweight Boxing On Tap This Weekend (Odds Review)

Miguel Iturrate

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heavyweights

The heavyweights are out there bucking for position as the weight class has more possibilities than we have seen in years. Three heavyweight fights have gotten attention at the sports books for this coming Saturday, May 26.

Manchester hosts the return of Tyson Fury’s cousin Hughie Fury (21-2). Fury (shown displaying his Lonsdale belt) is smaller, less technical and less interesting than his bombastic cousin, but at 24 years old there is still plenty of time for him to become a player.

September of 2017 saw Hughie Fury lure WBO world champion Joseph Parker to Manchester. Fury was coming off a 17 month layoff and lost a majority decision where one judge called the fight a draw. Fury went 1-1 in 2018, losing an October outing to Bulgarian contender Kubrat Pulev in Sofia. Having gone 1-2 in his last three outings puts Fury in the “dire need of a win” category and from the look of the odds for this fight, the matchmakers have not made a mistake in choosing an opponent.

Providing the opposition is Canada’s Chris Norrad who is 17-0 but is stepping up onto a much bigger stage than he is used to. Norrad has never fought outside of regional shows in central Canada, and with just 8 KO’s, he doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat. There are levels to this game and Fury and his training level and partners are enough reason to count Norrad out. The odds are below.

Victoria Warehouse – Manchester, England – Saturday, May 25, 2019

Heavyweight 12 rounds –
Chris Norrad  +2000
Hughie Fury  -5000

DAZN is at the MGM in Oxon Hill, Maryland and two heavyweight 10-rounders on that card are also worth keeping an eye on despite the odds indicating complete crush matches.

Former cruiserweight contender Michael Hunter (16-1) gets his fifth bout in as a heavyweight when he faces 26-2 Brazilian Fabio Maldonado.

Hunter’s name emerged as one of the front runners to replace Jarrell Miller against Anthony Joshua on June 1st, but Joshua and company opted to face Andy Ruiz Jr instead.

Maldonado built his record up to 26-0 before dropping his last two. The Brazilian workhorse also has a 26-13 record in MMA and UFC fans may remember the gritty Maldonado as a guy who always gave his all and wound up bloody. He last fought MMA in December of 2018, so he still qualifies as a two sport athlete, but as he approaches 40 with a lot of wear and tear on his body, he appears to just be grabbing paydays at this point in both sports.

MGM National Harbor – Oxon Hill, Maryland – Saturday, May 25, 2019

Heavyweight 10 rounds –
Fabio Maldonado  +1600
Michael Hunter  -4000

Also scheduled for a 10-round bout is Croatia’s 26-year-old prospect Filip Hrgovic (7-0), who faces 15-1 Gregory Corbin of the USA. Hrgovic won an Olympic Bronze Medal at the 2016 games in Rio and he boasts an amateur background of nearly 100 fights. A good sign that he is trying to fast track his career is the fact that he has never faced a fighter with a losing record as his opponents are a combined 147-34-3.

Corbin’s lone loss came this past March when he was DQ’d for hitting Charles Martin with too many low blows. Prior to that, the Texan had faced largely regional competition and the books have made him a huge underdog against Hrgovic.

Heavyweight 10 rounds. –
Gregory Corbin  +2000
Filip Hrgovic  -5000

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Looking at the Heavyweight Calendar (Odds Review)

Miguel Iturrate

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Joshua vs Ruiz

This past Saturday night saw Deontay Wilder’s WBC world heavyweight title defense against Dominic Breazeale go down on Showtime. The fight lasted just 137 seconds as Wilder floored Breazeale with a cannonball of a right hand to end the night early.

With Wilder out of the way, Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr is up next. They meet June 1st at Madison Square Garden. Two weeks later, on the 15th of June, ESPN+ will deliver Tyson Fury vs Tom Schwarz, so fight fans will get a look at all three members of the “Big Three” all in a month’s time.

Wilder’s erasure of Breazeale this past weekend sent a message to the rest of the division as well as giving him a highlight reel to show during upcoming negotiations. Wilder entered a strong -1000 favorite at the sportsbooks for this fight.

Check out our pre-fight review of the Wilder vs Breazeale odds right here at TSS –

http://tss.ib.tv/boxing/featured-articles/57588-wilder-vs-breazeale-odds-review

Looking forward, the odds posted for Joshua and Fury’s upcoming tussles are even less competitive. Let’s take a look at what the books are giving us as we await the two big Brits fighting in the USA.

Madison Square Garden – New York City – Saturday, June 1, 2019

Heavyweight 12 rounds –

Andy Ruiz Jr +1500 Over 6½ +100

Anthony Joshua -3000 Under 6½ -130

Ruiz Jr is 32-1 overall with his lone loss coming at the hands of Joseph Parker in a failed WBO world title bid. That same WBO belt is now in the hands of Joshua as are the WBA and IBF belts.

Joshua was a big favorite over Jarrell Miller, his original opponent, who was denied a license in New York after testing positive for a buffet of steroids. Ruiz Jr took the fight with less than a full training camp, but you have to believe that he is going to come in highly motivated. Ruiz Jr has been caught at a different type of buffet, the all-you-can-eat kind, but even when in the best of shape his body type isn’t “poster boy material.” Miller was big and bulky as well, but he was a near 300 pounder whereas Ruiz Jr will come in between 250 and 260 pounds, which is right around Joshua’s size. Rather than slaying a 300-pound giant, he is facing a guy who is shorter and fatter than him, making it very hard for Joshua to look great on paper.

At +1500 will people bite on Ruiz Jr? He is more experienced than Miller and he is probably a better fighter overall and though he is facing a formidable champion, Joshua is not a finished product. Perhaps Joshua will be chasing an early finish, feeling the pressure of Wilder’s performance, and if so will he make a mistake that Ruiz can exploit? We are roughly 10 days from finding out.

MGM Grand Garden – Las Vegas, Nevada – Saturday, June 15, 2019

Heavyweight 12 rounds –

Tom Schwarz +1800 Over 9½ -105

Tyson Fury -3600 Under 9½ -125

Tyson Fury closes out the run of top heavyweights with a very deliberately chosen showcase fight against Tom Schwarz. Schwarz is 24 years old and 24-0 but he is a fighter who has come up on the regional German scene and as the old boxing cliche goes, there are levels to this game.

Former contender David Haye mounted a 2016 comeback, booking fights against Mark De Mori (30-1-2) and Arnold Gjergjaj (29-0). It took Haye precisely 6:42 to dispose of both of them, and though Fury is a completely different beast than Haye, the level difference between he and Schwarz may be even as striking.

Wilder has gotten through his “challenge” and if Fury and Joshua also emerge as winners as expected, it will leave several open questions –

– Will Fury vs Wilder 2 happen first, or will Wilder vs Joshua go down first? Could Joshua and Fury meet and freeze Wilder out?

And….

– Will we see any of these fights take place in 2019?

If Joshua or Fury stumble, it will only add to the chaos in the heavyweight division. But if the professional oddsmakers know anything, it isn’t likely to happen.

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