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

Bernard Fernandez

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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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Pradabsri Upsets Menayothin, Ends the Longest Unbeaten Streak of Modern Times

Arne K. Lang

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During the wee hours in the Americas, a big upset was brewing in Thailand. In Nakhon Sawan, a city roughly 150 miles north of Bangkok, Panya Pradabsri (aka Petchmanee CP Freshmart) out-pointed Wanheng Menayothin (aka Chayaphon Moonsri) in a domestic clash with international significance. Manayothin entered the bout with a 54-0 (18) record and was making the 13th defense of his WBC world minimumweight title.

Pradabsri had been defeated only once in 35 previous starts, but only 11 of his 34 victories had come against fighters with winning records. According to ringside reports, he kept Menayothin at bay with good fundamentals, a stiff jab, and good lateral movement. All three judges had it 115-113. The fight wasn’t without controversy as Menayothin finished stronger and many folks scoring off the live video thought that he had done just enough to retain his title.

How good was/is Menayothin? That’s a question that serious boxing fans will likely debate for decades.

In the summer of 2019, Menayothin signed a co-promotional deal with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. At time, GBP president Eric Gomez described him as one of the best fighters in the world. “We really want to bring him to the U.S. so people can see how talented he really is,” Gomez told England’s Sky Sports.

Menayothin was expected to make his U.S. debut in April of this year, but the pandemic ruined that plan. Earlier this year, he announced his retirement, but rescinded it after only two days.

Scottish boxing historian Matt McGrain, who has an exclusive arrangement with this web site, had lukewarm opinion of the Thai mighty-mite although he rated him the second-best 105-pound boxer of the decade, trailing only his countryman Thammanoon Niyomtrong (aka Knockout CP Freshmart).

“He is disciplined, strong, brings good pressure and is armed with a very decent range of punches,” said McGrain, “(but his record) is comprised mostly of men any competent fighter would be expected to beat.”

Although only one boxer from Thailand has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (Khaosai Galaxy, class of 1999), the Southeast Asia nation has produced some outstanding boxers over the years – Chartchoi Chionoi, Sot Chitalada, Pongsaklek Wonjongkam, and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai to name just a few. The difference between these fighters and Wanheng Menayothin is that they all left the comfort zone of their homeland to score one or more important wins on foreign soil.

Menayothin may yet display his wares in a U.S. ring. But at age 35, an advanced age for small fighters in particular, we won’t get to see him at his best and now that his bubble has been burst, disinviting further comparisons to Mayweather and Marciano, the curiosity factor has been tempered.

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Yoka vs. Hammer Kicks Off the Thanksgiving Weekend Slate on ESPN+

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PRESS RELEASE— Tony Yoka, the dynamic heavyweight punching Parisian, aims to impress in his ESPN platform debut. Yoka, who won a super heavyweight gold medal for France at the 2016 Rio Olympics, will fight veteran Christian Hammer in a 10-rounder Friday at H Arena in Nantes, France.

Yoka-Hammer will stream live and exclusively this Friday, Nov. 27 in the United States on ESPN+ beginning at 2:55 p.m. ET/11:55 a.m. PT.

The ESPN+ stream will also include the return of unbeaten 2016 French Olympic gold medalist Estelle Yoka-Mossely against Pasa Malagic in an eight-round lightweight bout. Yoka and Yoka-Mossely, who have been married since 2018, welcomed their second child in May.

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Earlier this year, Yoka inked a promotional agreement with Top Rank, which will co-promote him with Ringstar France.

“Tony Yoka’s potential is limitless, and he is a grounded young man who is motivated to be a great professional fighter,” said Top Rank chairman Bob Arum. “France has never had a world heavyweight champion, and I believe Tony is the one to bring the sport’s biggest honor home.”

The 28-year-old Yoka’s stellar amateur run included a berth at the 2012 London Olympics and gold medals at the 2015 World Championships and 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Before his triumph in Rio, he’d already defeated the likes of former heavyweight world champion Joseph Parker and current undefeated prospects Joe Joyce and Ivan Dychko. At the Rio Olympics, he defeated Croatian standout Filip Hrgović in the semifinals and edged Joyce in the gold medal match.

As a professional, Yoka (8-0, 7 KOs) made his debut in June 2017 with a second-round stoppage over the previously undefeated Travis Clark. Apart from a decision win over Jonathan Rice in his second outing, Yoka has stopped every foe, including durable Englishman David “White Rhino” Allen and former European champion Alexander Dimitrenko. He made his 2020 debut Sept. 25 and stopped former world title challenger Johann Duhaupas in one round.

Hammer (25-6, 15 KOs) has fought many of the leading heavyweight names during his 12-year career, falling short against Tyson Fury, Luis Ortiz and Alexander Povetkin. He’s notched myriad upset victories, including a highlight-reel knockout over David Price and a 2016 split decision over Erkan Teper for the WBO European belt. In March 2019, he went the 10-round distance against Ortiz and has not been stopped since Fury forced him to retire on his stool after eight rounds in their February 2015 clash.

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Avila Perspective, Chap. 115: Macho, Freddie and More

David A. Avila

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Camacho me and Mia

“Macho.”

That single word is how Hector Camacho presented himself when introduced. It was the only word needed for the three-division world champion from Puerto Rico who was raised in Harlem, New York.

The first time I met Camacho was in a dark and packed Las Vegas nightclub in the MGM where he was a guest of Oscar De La Hoya back in March 2001. Though it was difficult to see, when Camacho was introduced, I could see the large gold medallion with the word “Macho” in letters six inches high.

Showtime network will be presenting a documentary called “Macho: The Hector Camacho Story” on Friday, December 4 at 9 p.m. on Showtime. It sparks memories of how a fighter in the lower weight classes grabbed the attention of the boxing world.

Camacho was more than flash or words, he was an electrifying boxer who stood out in the 1980s, an era dominated by the “Four Kings” Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. Oh, and also a guy named Mike Tyson.

The fast-talking Camacho was a phenomenal fighter who swept aside opponents with his blinding speed and shocking power. It was against Los Angeles-based fighters like Refugio Rojas and Louie Loy that I first read about his exploits. Both were knocked out.

A third Southern California fighter John “Huero” Montes was thought to be the one to give Camacho a real challenge. The fight was televised to a national audience in February 1983. At the time I was watching it on a tiny black and white television and at 1:13 into the first round Camacho unleashed one of those lethal uppercuts and Montes was out-for-the-count.

Camacho arrived that day.

From that point on few could withstand the speedy southpaw’s blinding charges. Six months later he stopped Mexico’s “Bazooka” Limon to win the vacant super featherweight title.

One fighter who heard the final bell was Freddie Roach who could take a punch and knew a thing or two about fighting southpaws.

“I liked fighting southpaws,” said Roach via telephone. “My dad taught me early to keep my foot on the outside and lead with right hands.”

Roach had never lost to a southpaw. The winner that day between Camacho and Roach in Sacramento, on December 1985, was supposedly going to fight Puerto Rico’s heavy-handed Edwin Rosario.

Using his surefire method of fighting southpaws, Roach managed a knockdown of Camacho with the help of his foot. But it was not enough.

“He was very difficult. Lot of people raved about how fast his speed was. You didn’t really realize until you got into the ring with him,” said Roach. “I wasn’t the slowest, but wasn’t the fastest. I just couldn’t keep up.”

Despite using roughhouse tactics against the lefty speedster, Roach said that Camacho invited him to dinner after the fight.

That pretty much explains Camacho, a talented and big-hearted guy.

Last Stages

The last time I ran into Camacho was at the Pechanga Resort and Casino when he and Mia St. John were about to fight on the same boxing card in 2009. He was much heavier but still able to defeat middleweights.

How good was Camacho?

He defeated two of the Four Kings when he beat Roberto Duran twice and stopped Sugar Ray Leonard by knockout when they fought in 1997. Yes, Leonard was 41 and had not fought in six years, but this was Sugar Ray Leonard.

“I didn’t think he would ever beat Leonard,” said Roach.

Neither did Leonard.

“I just felt that I was a bigger man. I was smarter, stronger, all those things, but the first time he threw a punch, it was like, Pow! And I said, ‘Wow, that hurt,’” said Leonard about their encounter. “I tried the best I could to just go the distance. When he was at his best, he was a thing of beauty.”

What I remember after Camacho beat Leonard was how sincerely apologetic he was after the victory. He could talk the talk and walk the walk but inside he remained the kid from Harlem who was given extraordinary talent. And he was humbled by it.

Roach remembers their dinner together after their fight.

“That night he took me out to dinner with his friends and said you fought a good fight,” said Roach adding that Camacho was a very likeable guy. “I saw him along the way in his career.”

Roach, who would later train another astoundingly fast southpaw named Manny Pacquiao, said he never fought anyone again as talented as Camacho.

“You hear rumors of drug problems and training problems. But when he fought me, he was in for 10 and I tried every trick in the book but it didn’t work. He was in a higher class than I was,” Roach said. “He was one of the best fighters in the world.”

Don’t miss this Showtime documentary next week.

Jacobs and Rosado

Speaking of Roach, the famous trainer will be working the corner of Gabe Rosado (25-12-1, 14 KOs) when he meets Daniel Jacobs (36-3, 30 KOs) on Friday, Nov. 27, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Florida. DAZN will stream the Matchroom Boxing card.

It’s Philly versus Brooklyn.

Rosado has long proven to be a real professional who keeps adding elements to his fight game. Paired with Roach he has further developed under the guidance of the Southern California-based trainer. Plus, Rosado can plain fight.

Jacobs, a former world champion, has proven to be an elite middleweight and looks just as comfortable as a super middleweight.

Expect the kind of prize fight they used to show in the Golden Age of boxing in the 1950s when you had guys like Johnny Saxton fighting Denny Moyer. It should be that kind of battle of wits and skill. I’m looking forward to it.

Photo: Hector Camacho, David Avila, and Mia St. John. Photo credit: Al Applerose

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