He wobbles. He quivers. He rolls. He shakes. He is a dripping mass of flesh, a monument of fat. He is 6 feet 3 and weighs 295 pounds. His waist is 44, his chest is 52, but sometimes in the heat of action the measurements seem the other way around. Sitting in the corner, he looks like a melting chocolate sundae. He is Buster Mathis, and when he boxes for the heavyweight title at the Tokyo Olympics this fall he is almost sure to be as renowned a champion as Cassius Clay became at Rome in 1960. For all his size, he has speed and grace, a good left and endurance. To the awed spectators who have cheered him to victory so far, Buster Mathis already is a creature of legend. A natural wit and charmingly flamboyant, he may someday even out-Clay Muhammad Ali.
Buster was one of 80 amateur boxers who competed in the U.S. Olympic trials at the New York World's Fair last week. The fights were staggered over three days. Each fight was a three-rounder, each round three minutes. All the contestants wore protective headgear and 10-ounce gloves (gloves will be eight ounces at Tokyo and headgear not permitted). Most of the fighters represented the armed forces, but when the tournament finally was over, team honors went to Buster and his buddies on the 10-man Amateur Athletic Union squad. Besides Buster, three other AAU fighters, Light Middleweight Toby Gibson, Lightweight Ron Harris and Featherweight Charley Brown, won titles, and three others placed as alternates. "It was the easiest team I've handled in 20 years," said Pappy Gault, the AAU coach and the man who sweated Buster into shape, if that is the word to use.
The fights were held in the Singer Bowl, an outdoor stadium seating 18,000. Although admission to the trials was free and the bowl ideally located near the main gate to the fair, attendance was slim. The best crowd was 1,000 on the final night. ABC, confident that somebody out there likes amateur boxing, will show the finals on television July 12.
Buster was the star of the show. Only 19, he is an immensely appealing kid. "I want everybody to like me," he says. An orphan, he comes from Grand Rapids, Mich. His father weighed 300, his mother 180 and three of his four brothers range between 280 and 200. The other brother weighs only 160 but, as Buster says, "He used to beat me up." Buster was the baby of the family, and until his mid-teens he was a scrawny kid of 120. "I was chicken," he says. "Somebody'd say, 'Fight!' and I'd cut it. Man, the boys used to run me home from school. They was on my tail!" When Buster was 15 he began to put on weight with what he calls "the soul food," fried chicken and pinto beans. "I started getting bigger, and I started getting rougher," he says. When his parents died, Paul Collins and Randy Brown, who have a commercial art and sign-painting business, more or less adopted Buster. He baby-sits for their families, runs errands, puts up signs and occasionally is allowed to fill in lettering. His most recent effort was coloring the piano keys on a sign that Collins drew for a music shop. "People automatically take to Buster," says Collins. "He attracts them. He's a wonderful kid. Buster's not a violent person at all. When he gets mad at me, he cries."
Sports take up most of Buster's time. He played defensive tackle in football, and although he has never been clocked he swears he can do the 100 yards in 10.9. "I'm the best roller skater in Grand Rapids," he adds. "I've got a $125 pair of skates that can do it!" A friend nods his head and says it is true: "He's really graceful on skates." Buster started boxing three years ago, and this spring he won the National AAU heavyweight title in Las Vegas. "When I first saw him," says Gault, "I thought, look at this fat, sloppy slob. Then I was amazed. Everybody was. When you first see him in the ring, you say the slob's going to get knocked out. Then you see him fight, and he wins you right there. He's tremendous." Says Buster, "People say, 'Buster, don't you feel bad with all that weight?' But I've never seen a small person beat me at nothin'."
To get the AAU boxers ready for the Olympic trials, Gault took them to Boiling AFB outside Washington, where he is a staff sergeant in a training unit. On the first day of training Buster lost 13 pounds. Earlier this year he had weighed as much as 340. Gault thinks he is fine at about 295. His opponents at the Olympic trials last week would agree. The first two tried headhunting, but Buster was simply too agile and took the decisions. "Buster's got a hell of a defense," says Gault. "They don't hit him on that noggin." For all his fights Buster wore a huge brace on his right leg to prevent his knee from collapsing under his tonnage. The brace is about the size of the circus fat lady's girdle and, had it snapped under stress, half the cheering fans would have been shredded by shrapnel.
The Billy Graham pavilion overlooks the Singer Bowl, and Buster's own hour of decision came in the last fight of the finals Wednesday night. His opponent was Joe Frazier, who had laid out the two men he had faced, and the feeling in some quarters was that Buster was about to get chopped into chunks, if not little pieces.
Frazier was a solid 195, but Buster still had a 100-pound pull in the weights. And he had his speed. Instead of hunting for the head, Frazier moved in to pound Buster's belly, which shook and glinted under the lights. Buster managed to keep Frazier at bay with a whistling left hook (each one thrown with a loud grunt, "uuunnnnhhh!"), and even when Frazier did manage to get inside, his punches were smothered by flab. As Pappy says, "Buster's got an extra layer of fat on that stomach that stops the punches."
Buster took the first round easily, and he got the second round, a tossup, when the referee penalized Frazier two points for hitting low. When the bell rang for the third, Frazier, desperate, took after Buster, who galloped around the ring. "Buster's on a bicycle!" shouted a ringsider. "Built for two!" added a wit. In the melee that followed, Buster staggered Frazier with a wild right that decided the fight for good. Buster's right is not the most effective punch in the world—it will remind wrestling fans of Johnny Valentine's Atomic Skull Crusher—but it serves in a pinch. Of course the decision went to Buster, but then many of the fans who had been cheering him inexplicably started booing. Buster just smiled. This apparently happens to him all the time. "If someone don't boo for me," he says, "I don't feel I did a good job."
While Buster literally overshadowed everyone else in the trials, the most impressive winner was his teammate, Toby Gibson, 22, who won the light middleweight (156 pounds) championship. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Spokane, he is a junior majoring in sociology at Eastern Washington State College. Likable and articulate, he has been boxing on and off for the last seven years. His amateur record now shows 74 wins and four defeats, and how he ever lost is a mystery. He is a fine boxer and superb puncher, and 54 of his victories have been either by knockouts or TKOs. He is so talented that a rough, tough Polish kid named Marty Berzewski, who made the Olympic team as an alternate, entered the middleweight (165.5 pounds) division to avoid him. The first and last time they met, Gibson flattened him in one round. According to Jim Reilly, Gibson's coach and former captain of the Gonzaga boxing team when it was national champion, Toby is so devastating that he cannot get fights at home. He has to box prison amateurs, and if he had only managed to knock out an Indian heavyweight doing a stretch in the Montana state pen, he now would have 15 straight KOs.