OBITUARY: Buster Mathis

So many boxers are nice guys out of the ring. Buster Mathis was one of the nicest, both inside and out. He was also a quality performer in one of the greatest eras the heavyweight division has ever seen. In 34 professional fights between 1965 and 1972 he was beaten only by the best: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry and Ron Lyle.

His decline was tragic - before his death at the age of 51, Mathis had survived two strokes, a heart attack and heart failure. Yet go back three decades and Mathis was a brilliant heavyweight prospect. He stood 6ft 31/2in tall, and, although he was on the bulky side at around 18st, was a clever, crafty boxer with surprising speed for such a big man.

In 1964 he won the US Olympic trials by beating Joe Frazier twice, but a broken hand forced him to withdraw - and Frazier took his place at the Tokyo games, returning with the gold medal and a perfect launching pad for a professional career. While Frazier hogged any publicity given to rising stars, Mathis learnt his trade thoroughly under his manager Cus D'Amato, compiling a record of 23 consecutive wins, including a third- round stoppage of Chuck Wepner.

Muhammad Ali was stripped of the world heavyweight crown in 1967 because of his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War and the boxing world argued over who should be his successor. While the World Boxing Association put together an elimination tournament that was eventually won by Ali's sparring partner Jimmy Ellis, the New York State Athletic Commission matched Frazier and Mathis for their version of the championship.

And in Madison Square Garden, New York, in March 1968, Frazier knocked out Mathis in the 11th round to begin the reign that eventually brought him to the marvellous 15-round points win over Ali in 1971. For the loser, Mathis, there was only more of the treadmill. But he won six fights in a row, including a 12-round decision over the Canadian brawler George Chuvalo. Then Jerry Quarry outpointed him and he retired.

With his wife Joan and baby son Buster Jnr, Mathis lived on what was left of his ring earnings, then came back and fought Ali in November 1971. He went the full 12 rounds in a contest for the North American championship. He finally quit for good in September 1972 when Ron Lyle, one of the biggest- punching fighters of his generation, knocked him out in two rounds.

"It was hard," Mathis said. "I thought it would be easy. I'd be a fighter instead of getting a job." Mathis was not an educated man. He dropped out of school as early as he could, and it was only when he was an adult that he was found to be dyslexic. But nobody had a bad word to say about him, which in the end matters more. An example of his kindness came before the Ali fight. No big hotels for him; he stayed at a local Travel Lodge. One day he saw the owner's daughter selling candy for her Brownie pack. He bought some, then took the rest into the lobby and persuaded rather startled guests to buy up every piece the little girl had.

After Mathis retired his weight ballooned to more than 36st. "Food was my weakness, my downfall," he said. "For some people it's booze or drugs. For me, it's always been food."

Mathis admitted he was stunned to learn that his son, Buster Jnr, wanted to be a fighter. In 1989 the boy boxed in the National Golden Gloves, but Buster Snr was too ill to go to watch. "If he makes it in boxing, I'll be pleased," he said. "I'll be more pleased if he stays in school and gets his degree." Buster Jnr did that, majoring in maths and communications at Aquinas College, in Grand Rapids.

Young Buster's decision to fight gave Mathis an interest in the sport once more and, even though sometimes he needed a walking frame, he taught amateurs at the Pride Boxing Gym in Grand Rapids. In September 1993, someone organised a tribute dinner for him - and 700 attended, including his old rivals Frazier and Chuvalo. Some of the money raised went to Buster Mathis, but more went to the Kidney Foundation of West Michigan. That's the way he wanted it.

In an ironic postscript, Buster Mathis Jnr fights Mike Tyson at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas on 4 November. Buster Jnr's middle name is D'Amato, given him after the legendary manager who guided his father in the 1960s. It was D'Amato who, two decades later, discovered and nurtured Tyson.

Buster Mathis, boxer: born Sledge, Mississippi 5 June 1944; married (one son, one daughter); died Grand Rapids, Michigan 7 September 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
footballDoes Hodgson's England team have an identity yet?
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss