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25 Years Ago Today, Buster Mathis, the Dancing Bear, Took His Earthly 10-Count

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Sept. 6 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of former heavyweight contender Buster Mathis, who was 51 when he took his earthly 10-count in 1995. Although he never was a world champion, Buster, the dancing bear of a contender who came closer to making it all the way to the top than anyone of his overstuffed dimensions had any reasonable right to expect, may have already been dethroned in the court of public opinion in the one area where he once was thought to forever reign supreme.

By virtue of his shocking, seventh-round stoppage of IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua on June 1, 2019, in Madison Square Garden, Andy Ruiz Jr., another noticeably plump practitioner of the pugilistic arts, likely laid claim to the unofficial designation of “patron saint of fat heavyweights” that long before had been conferred upon Mathis, a legendary chow hound who once had dubbed himself a “world champion eater.”

It was an apt description, too, although the 6’3½” Mathis, whose one shot at a somewhat less legitimate world title (the vacant New York State Athletic Commission version, also recognized in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maine and Massachusetts) had ended in an 11th-round knockout loss to his personal boogeyman, Joe Frazier, on March 24, 1968, weighed as much as 300 pounds only once as a pro, for his debut against Bob Maynard. But even when he tipped the scale in the high 220s and low 230s, Buster always appeared to be much heavier than he should have been. Try as he might to transform himself into a more presentable physical specimen, the Grand Rapids, Mich. product never could completely rid himself of the love handles that lapped over the waistband of his trunks like ocean waves breaking across a reef.

“I remember getting down as low as 229 pounds for one fight (in 1968, against Jim Beattie),” recalled Buster in May 1989, when I first interviewed him. “I looked pretty good, but I didn’t feel good. I felt really, really weak. I was so weak, I couldn’t break an egg.

“Man, did I have to work hard to get down to 230, 235 pounds. It wasn’t natural for me. I’d been over 300 pounds most of my life, so that’s the weight at which I felt most comfortable.”

The same might be said of Ruiz, who also apparently has given up on the notion that the aesthetics of appearance are as important to a fighter as genetics. If nature has decreed that an aspiring boxer is never going to snag a Calvin Klein underwear commercial, so be it. It is still possible to succeed, love handles or not, if one if fortunate enough to have been bestowed with surprisingly nimble footwork, quick hands, and a fundamental mastery of the nuances of a sport in which what you see isn’t always indicative of what you get.

In retrospect, it might be said that Buster Mathis – his son, Buster Mathis Jr., who prefers to be called “Bus,” also went on to become a heavyweight of some note – is at least a hard-luck figure, and possibly a tragic one given the myriad physical ailments his high-caloric lifestyle imposed upon him once he hung up his gloves and his weight continued to rise like a soufflé in the oven. Not that the elder Mathis’ 30-4 record, with 21 victories inside the distance, with more than a few of those bouts against elite-level opponents, is anything to casually dismiss, but had he emerged victorious in any of his three pivotal bouts – against Muhammad Ali (UD12) and Jerry Quarry (UD12), in addition to Frazier – it would have certified Buster as one of the best big men in an exceptionally deep era for heavyweights.

“I used to be really, really good. I think the record shows that,” Mathis told me for a story I did for the Philadelphia Daily News when he was training Buster Jr. for a run at the sort of ring glory that had always seemed to be just beyond the father’s grasp.

“Nobody my size ever moved like I did. In my neighborhood, if you wasn’t fast you’d be last. So I made myself fast. I might have been big, but I learned how to run on my toes. I even thought fast. When people called me names and told me I couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that, it only made me more determined to prove them wrong.”

But it is the loss to Frazier that rankled Mathis more than any other, in part because their clash was for a bejeweled belt but also because of the fact that it was Frazier, not Mathis, who was the United States’ heavyweight representative at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Mathis actually had earned a spot on the USA team, but he broke a hand in training and was replaced by Frazier, the alternate, who went on to win the gold medal and enjoy the kind of Hall of Fame pro career that Buster, at best, only got to sniff.

Maybe it all had been preordained by fate, with the first tumbling domino of disappointment being Mathis’ unwise decision to part company with trainer Cus D’Amato, who had previously taken Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight championship and would later do so with Mike Tyson.

“I regret leaving Cus D’Amato,” Mathis said, whose son’s full name is Buster D’Amato Mathis. “There were people around me who kept saying that Cus would ruin my life, that I should be more independent. All Cus ever did was look out for me. He was one of the best things that ever happened to me in boxing.

“And the ’64 Olympics, that’s another big regret. I guess I’ve thought about that two million times. I had made the team, I was going to Tokyo. But then I broke my hand in training, and they replaced me with Joe Frazier. So what happens? Frazier wins the gold medal and goes on to become world champion. Would it have happened for me if I had gone instead? Man, I don’t know. But I can’t help but wonder.”

So, it was perhaps with a need to get some payback when Mathis, reasonably fit by his relaxed standards, came in at 243½ pounds for his matchup with Smokin’ Joe, four years after a still-raw Frazier had slid into the Olympic vacancy created by Buster’s busted hand. But Frazier, more polished than he’d been in 1964 and always a lights-out puncher, stopped his much larger opponent in 11 rounds.

“In the quiet hours, when I’m in my chair, lights out, everybody in bed, I think about Joe Frazier,” Mathis told me in a subsequent interview in 1994, the year before he died. “I 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.”

Mathis was just 29 when he stepped away in 1972, after his final bout, a second-round knockout loss to Ron Lyle that may have convinced him that being nearly good enough was never really going to be good enough. Also, at 263 pounds for that fight, his ongoing war with weight appeared to be a battle he was destined from birth to lose, and, well, lose big. When he worked on the loading dock of the Interstate Trucking Company after his retirement from boxing, Mathis was known as the “Human Forklift” because of his size and strength. He reluctantly gave up that job when his doctors warned him of the dangers of overexertion.

In 1989, when he was 45, Mathis – who had ballooned to 500-plus pounds a few years earlier – had pared down to 330, primarily because of a diet free of saturated fats and the soft drinks he used to consume by the case. But he suffered from diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, and his already precarious health would continue to worsen; two strokes left him with limited motor control on his left side and forced him to use a walker. He suffered kidney failure in 1992 and had a pacemaker installed after a 1993 heart attack.

Although he continued to work with Buster Jr., who had taken up boxing as a means of avoiding the ongoing physical deterioration that seemed to be killing his father in stages, Buster Sr. no longer could demonstrate what he wanted his son to do in the ring. It was all he could do to sit in a chair at the Pride Boxing Club in Grand Rapids and tell  Bus, by then the United States Boxing Association heavyweight champ, what to do, and even then on those increasingly rare occasions when he could summon enough energy to make it to the gym.

“I can’t show Bus what to do,” Mathis said. “My health isn’t good enough to allow me to do that.”

Medical bills, and maybe grocery bills, by then had so depleted the nest egg he had socked away from boxing that Mathis’ family, which included wife Joan and daughter Antonia, mostly subsisted on disability payments.

“I wasn’t dealt a good hand, but I’m doing OK,” he told me. “I’m not starving.” That last comment quickly elicited an ironic smile.

“I’m not starving, get it?” he said with a chuckle. “But then nobody ever could say that Buster Mathis was starving. Food is my weakness, my downfall. For some people it’s booze or drugs. For me, it’s always been food.”

It had been Buster Sr.’s dream to stick around long enough to help guide his son to a place higher on the heavyweight ladder than he’d been able to attain. It was not to be; Mathis was found unconscious by his wife at the family home in Wyoming, Mich., a Grand Rapids suburb. Family members and emergency workers tried to revive him, but he was pronounced dead upon arrival at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.

Brian Lee, Buster Jr.’s manager, said the father’s passing was not unexpected, but “it’s a blessing he went so peacefully after so many struggles, so many ailments. He was not afraid to die. He was comfortable with it.

“Not many people know this, but he was starting to lose his eyesight, too. He put on a brave front for the kids (in addition to Buster Jr., Mathis was working with 20 or so other young fighters). The gym kind of kept him going.”

Buster Jr., now 50, posted a 21-2 record with just seven wins inside the distance, an indication that, like his father, he was more a technician than a big blaster. Also like his father, he was acutely aware of his genetic predisposition to pack on pounds at an alarming rate. He was 325 pounds at 14, and his taking up of his dad’s profession was less a nod to his legacy than an acknowledgment that there really can be too much of a good thing.

“I just wanted to change my life,” Bus said in the lead-up to his Aug. 13, 1994, bout with Riddick Bowe in Atlantic City, which ended as a no-contest when Bowe, who was winning easily, made the mistake of hitting his opponent when he was down on one knee. “You know how it is in high school. The jocks wear the letter jackets and get all the girls. When you’re my size, though, you don’t have all that stuff. I didn’t have a girlfriend, and it was hard to shop for clothes. People don’t accept you when you are fat.

“But it’s not only that. I’ve seen what being too big for too long has done to my father. His health isn’t what it should be. For a long time I didn’t think about being big, because there are a lot of big people on my dad’s side of the family. I figured I was going to be big, too, because that’s just the way it is.

“Now I know it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Everybody has a choice.”

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In a Massive Upset, Dakota Linger TKOs Kurt Scoby on a Friday Night in Atlanta

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Although it was an 8-rounder on a show with two “tens,” Kurt Scoby’s match with Dakota Linger was accorded main event status on tonight’s card at the Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta. This had everything to do with Scoby (pronounced Scooby), a former record-setting college running back who was considered one of the brightest prospects in the 140-pound weight class. “[Scoby] works harder than almost anyone I’ve ever seen,” said veteran New York promoter Lou DIBella in a conversation with Keith Idec. “But he’s literally getting better after every fight and he’s got the hammer of Thor, man. He can punch through walls.”

The Duarte, California product who has relocated to Brooklyn and trains at Gleason’s Gym, was undefeated (13-0) heading in and was expected to make Linger his ninth straight knockout victim. But Linger, a 29-year-old Buckhannon, West Virginia policemen whose first ring engagements were in Toughman competitions, wasn’t intimidated by Scoby’s press clippings or by Scoby’s bodybuilder physique.

Linger, who improved to 14-6-3 with his tenth win inside the distance, took the fight right to Scoby and repeatedly found a home for his overhand right. In the sixth round, after Linger strafed the ever-retreating Scoby with a barrage of punches, referee Malik Walid determined that he had seen enough and waived it off. The decision seemed a tad premature, but neither Scoby nor his cornermen offered anything in the way of a protest.

Tournament results

In the first installment of an 8-man super welterweight tournament, Brandon Adams returned to boxing after his second three-year layoff and showed no ring rust whatsoever. Adams, a 34-year-old family-man who grew up in the Watts district of LA, dismissed Ismael Villareal with a wicked punch to the liver in the waning seconds of round three. The official time was 2:59.

A former wold title challenger, Adams who improved to 23-3 (16 KOs), has become the king of boxing tournaments. He first attracted notice in 2018 when he won the fifth edition of “The Contender” series, scoring a wide 10-round decision over Shane Mosley Jr in the championship round.

Villareal, a second-generation prizefighter from the Bronx whose dad fought the likes of Hector Camacho, declined to 13-3.

Adams next opponent will be Francisco Veron who will bring a record of 14-0-1 (10).

In an energetic 10-rounder, Veron, a Florida-based Argentine with a strong amateur pedigree, scored a unanimous decision over Mexico-born, LA southpaw Angel Ruiz (18-3-1). The judges had it 100-90, 99-91, and 96-94.

Ruiz certainly had his moments, but Veron launched and landed many more punches despite fighting the last six rounds with a damaged eye.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 281: The Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia Show

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Over the years bouts between old foes such as Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia tend to be surprising.

Yes, both are only 25 but have known each other for many years.

When undisputed super lightweight champion Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) steps into the prize ring at Barclays Center to meet challenger Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs) on Saturday, April 20, fans will be witnessing the continuation of a feud that began more than a decade ago.

And though the champion is a heavy favorite, familiarity is Garcia’s best weapon heading into their fight on the Golden Boy Promotions card that will be shown on PPV.COM with Jim Lampley and friends. DAZN pay-per-view is also streaming the card.

In many ways Haney and Garcia have ventured down the same path. From amateur sensations to fighting in Mexico while teens to asking for the biggest challenges available.

“Whichever version of Ryan shows up on April 20, I will be ready for him. Ryan Garcia is just another opponent to me,” said Haney who holds the WBC super lightweight title after his win over Regis Prograis.

The first time I saw Haney as a pro he battled the dangerous Mexican contender Juan Carlos Burgos at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula. It was an impressive performance against a fighter who fought three times for a world title.

Haney was 19 at the time.

My first look at Garcia as a pro was in his first bout in the U.S. when he met Puerto Rico’s Jonathan Cruz at the Exchange in downtown Los Angeles. The Boricua looked at Garcia and tried intimidating him with stares, taunts and the usual patter. During the fight both swung and missed until the second round when Garcia zeroed in and took him out.

Garcia had just turned 18, the legal age to fight in California.

Both fighters did not have the Olympics credentials that lead to fame. But their talent has allowed them to fight through the dense smoke that is professional boxing.

Haney has defeated numerous world champions such as Prograis, Vasyl Lomachenko and George Kambosos Jr., while Garcia has stopped champions Javier Fortuna and Luke Campbell.

As amateurs, Garcia and Haney battled six times with each winning three.

“They know each other very well,” said Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy Promotions. “Ryan is going to beat Devin Haney.”

Haney has a buttery-smooth style with one of the best jabs in boxing. He’s very adept at keeping distance and not allowing anyone to fight him inside. His reflexes are outstanding, yet he seldom fights inside. That’s his weakness.

Garcia fights tall and has superb hand speed and a lightning quick left hook. Though his defense lacks tightness his ability to rip off three-punch combinations in a blink of an eye pauses opponents from bullying their way inside.

“These guys always just look at me and look at me like I don’t know how to box,” said Garcia on social media. “Why was I one of the best fighters in the amateurs. Why was I a 15-time National champion…why did I beat everyone I came across.”

Haney is a strong favorite by oddsmakers to defeat Garcia. But you can never tell when it comes to fighters that know each other well and are athletically gifted.

When Sergio Mora challenged Vernon Forrest he was a big underdog. When Tim Bradley fought Manny Pacquiao the first time, he was also the underdog. And when Andy Ruiz met Anthony Joshua few gave him a chance.

Haney and Garcia have history in the ring. It should be an interesting battle.

PPV.COM

Jim Lampley will be leading the broadcast on PPV.COM for the Haney-Garcia card at Barclays and texting with fans on the card live. He will be accompanied by journalists Lance Pugmire, Dan Conobbio and former champion Chris Algieri.

The PPV.COM broadcast begins at 5 p.m. PT. and is available in Canada and the USA.

Other News

MMA stars Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal will be holding a media day event on Friday, April 19, at NOVO at L.A. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

Diaz and Masvidal will be boxing against each other in a grudge match on June 1 at the KIA Forum in Inglewood, Calif. The two MMA stars met five years at UFC 244 with Masvidal winning by TKO over Diaz due to cuts.

This is a grudge match, but under boxing rules.

Fight card in Commerce, Calif.

360 Promotions returns to Commerce Casino on Saturday April 20 with undefeated super lightweight Cain Sandoval leading the charge.

Sandoval (12-0) faces Angel Rebollar (8-3) in the main event that will be shown live on UFC Fight Pass. Also on the card are two female events including hot prospect Lupe Medina (5-0) versus Sabrina Persona (3-1) in a minimumweight clash.

Doors open at 4 p.m.

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Heavyweight Merry-Go-Round

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Boxing Odds and Ends: The Heavyweight Merry-Go-Round

There were few surprises when co-promoters Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren and their benefactor HE Turki Alalshikh held a press conference in London this past Monday to unveil the undercard for the Beterbiev-Bivol show at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on June 1. Most of the match-ups had already been leaked.

For die-hard boxing fans, Beterbiev-Bivol is such an enticing fight that it really doesn’t need an attractive undercard. Two undefeated light heavyweights will meet with all four relevant belts on the line in a contest where the oddsmakers straddled the fence. It’s a genuine “pick-‘em” fight based on the only barometer that matters, the prevailing odds.

But Beterbiev-Bivol has been noosed to a splendid undercard, a striking contrast to Saturday’s Haney-Garcia $69.99 (U.S.) pay-per-view in Brooklyn, an event where the undercard, in the words of pseudonymous boxing writer Chris Williams, is an absolute dumpster fire.

The two heavyweight fights that will bleed into Beterbiev-Bivol, Hrgovic vs. Dubois and Wilder vs. Zhang, would have been stand-alone main events before the incursion of Saudi money.

Hrgovic-Dubois

Filip Hrgovic (17-0, 13 KOs) and Daniel Dubois (20-2, 19 KOs) fought on the same card in Riyadh this past December. Hrgovic, the Croatian, was fed a softie in the form of Australia’s Mark De Mori who he dismissed in the opening round. Dubois, a Londoner, rebounded from his loss to Oleksandr Usyk with a 10th-round stoppage of corpulent Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller.

There’s an outside chance that Hrgovic vs. Dubois may be sanctioned by the IBF for the world heavyweight title.

The May 18 showdown between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury has a rematch clause. The IBF is next in line in the rotation system for a unified heavyweight champion and the organization has made it plain that the winner of Usyk-Fury must fulfill his IBF mandatory before an intervening bout.

The best guess is that the Usyk-Fury winner will relinquish the IBF belt. If so, Hrgovic and Dubois may fight for the vacant title although a more likely scenario is that the organization will keep the title vacant so that the winner can fight Anthony Joshua.

Wilder-Zhang

The match between Deontay Wilder (43-3-1, 42 KOs) and Zhilei Zhang (26-2-1, 21 KOs) is a true crossroads fight as both Wilder, 38, and Zhang, who turns 41 in May, are nearing the end of the road and the loser (unless it’s a close and entertaining fight) will be relegated to the rank of a has-been. In fact, Wilder has hinted that this may be his final rodeo.

Both are coming off a loss to Joseph Parker.

Wilder last fought on the card that included Hrgovic and Dubois and was roundly out-pointed by a man he was expected to beat. It’s a quick turnaround for Zhang who opposed Parker on March 8 and lost a majority decision.

Other Fights

Either of two other fights may steal the show on the June 1 event.

Raymond Ford (15-0-1, 8 KOs) meets Nick Ball (19-0-1, 11 KOs) in a 12-round featherweight contest. New Jersey’s Ford will be defending the WBA world title he won with a come-from-behind, 12th-round stoppage of Otabek Kholmatov in an early contender for Fight of the Year. Liverpool’s “Wrecking” Ball, a relentless five-foot-two sparkplug, had to settle for a draw in his title fight with Rey Vargas despite winning the late rounds and scoring two knockdowns.

Hamzah Sheeraz (19-0, 15 KOs) meets fellow unbeaten Austin “Ammo” Williams (16-0, 11 KOs) in a 12-round middleweight match. East London’s Sheeraz, the son of a former professional cricket player, is unknown in the U.S. although he trained for his recent fights at the Ten Goose Boxing Gym in California. Riding a skein of 13 straight knockouts, he has a date with WBO title-holder Janibek Alimkhanuly if he can get over this hurdle.

The Forgotten Heavyweight

“Unbeaten for seven years, the man nobody wants to fight,” intoned ring announcer Michael Buffer by way of introduction. Buffer was referencing Michael Hunter who stood across the ring from his opponent Artem Suslenkov.

This scene played out this past Saturday in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It was Hunter’s second fight in three weeks. On March 23, he scored a fifth-round stoppage of a 46-year-old meatball at a show in Zapopan, Mexico.

The second-generation “Bounty Hunter,” whose only defeat prior to last weekend came in a 12-rounder with Oleksandr Usyk, has been spinning his wheels since TKOing the otherwise undefeated Martin Bakole on the road in London in 2018. Two fights against hapless opponents on low-budget cards in Mexico and a couple of one-round bouts for the Las Vegas Hustle, an entry in the fledgling and largely invisible Professional Combat League, are the sum total of his activity, aside from sparring, in the last two-and-a-half years.

Hunter’s chances of getting another big-money fight took a tumble in Tashkent where he lost a unanimous decision in a dull affair to the unexceptional Suslenkov who was appearing in his first 10-round fight. The scores of the judges were not announced.

You won’t find this fight listed on boxrec. As Jake Donovan notes, the popular website will not recognize a fight conducted under the auspices of a rogue commission. (Another fight you won’t find on boxrec for the same reason is Nico Ali Walsh’s 6-round split decision over the 9-2-1 Frenchman, Noel Lafargue, in the African nation of Guinea on Dec. 16, 2023. You can find it on YouTube, but according to boxrec, boxing’s official record-keeper, it never happened.)

Anderson-Merhy Redux

The only thing missing from this past Saturday’s match in Corpus Christi, Texas, between Jared Anderson and Ryad Merhy was the ghost of Robert Valsberg.

Valsberg, aka Roger Vaisburg, was the French referee who disqualified Ingemar Johansson for not trying in his match with LA’s Ed Sanders in the finals of the heavyweight competition at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Valsberg tossed Johansson out of the ring after two rounds and Johansson was denied the silver medal. The Swede redeemed himself after turning pro, needless to say, when he demolished Floyd Patterson in the first of their three meetings.

Merhy was credited with throwing only 144 punches, landing 34, over the course of the 10 rounds. Those dismal figures yet struck many onlookers as too high. (This reporter has always insisted that the widely-quoted CompuBox numbers should be considered approximations.)

Whatever the true number, it was a disgraceful performance by Merhy who actually showed himself to have very fast hands on the few occasions when he did throw a punch. With apologies to Delfine Persoon, a spunky lightweight, U.S. boxing promoters should think twice before inviting another Belgian boxer to our shores.

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