Meanwhile Mathis, who had dropped out of school, was playing defensive tackle on the Grand Rapids Blazers, a semipro team, "for fun" and boxing at a police youth center. In spite of his weight—when 16 he weighed 275—he was extremely fast. He began to do very well in amateur tournaments, and a New York fight manager, Al Bachman, got in touch with him. Once, when Mathis was still an amateur, Bachman sent him off to Montreal as a sparring partner for Zora Folley. Mathis knocked Folley to his knees with a left hook and was politely excused from his labors.
Iselin informed Martin that Buster Mathis was far and away the most likely prospect. The two then persuaded a friend, Leffert Lefferts, who comes from an old New York Dutch family, to join in backing Mathis. Leffert Lefferts, in turn, got a stockbroker friend, Tom Packard, to come in on the venture. Lefferts and Packard had been members of St. Anthony Hall, a fraternity at Columbia. Of the four, Packard knows the least about boxing, but he is tremendously enthusiastic about Mathis, because, he says, "The only thing that Buster eats, sleeps and drinks is to be a heavyweight champion of the world. I think that's fantastic!"
Iselin, Martin, Lefferts and Packard, after forming Peers Management, signed Mathis to a four-year contract in August of 1965. Bachman came along on the deal. To give Mathis a proper launching as a professional, they introduced him to the press with a coming-out party at "21."
Difficulties soon arose with Bachman. For one thing, the boys in Peers did not think Mathis showed progress. He won, but he did not seem to be gaining any mastery of his trade. After eight months and nine fights, Bachman was bought out, and Iselin went to see Cus D'Amato, for whom he had great regard. "There is nothing this man doesn't know about the sport," Iselin says, "and he never has used any of his fighters as moneymaking machines."
D'Amato himself had been interested in signing Mathis as a pro. He agreed to manage him on two conditions: that he was to have complete charge of Mathis' boxing, and that he would accept no money for his services until after Iselin and his associates in Peers had recouped the $50,000 they had already expended. When they break even, they will then split their share of Mathis' earnings annually with D'Amato. In essence, D'Amato now has Mathis on consignment.
Last April Cus took Bus, as Mathis is sometimes called, to a farm in Dutchess County, 100 miles north of New York City. Torres was training there at the time. "When I first met Cus, I didn't get along," Mathis says. "I didn't know-how to hang up my clothes and clean my room. I'm not A-1 yet. He's hard to get along with, and sometimes he's miserable, but he wants to make me champion. This is the only man I met who didn't lie, and he doesn't bite his tongue for anything. There are times I get so mad at Cus I cry. But he's a heck of a man. I have learned more from him than I have from anyone."
D'Amato worked with Mathis as Professor Higgins did with Eliza Doolittle. Every detail was studied. "I wanted to plumb this guy emotionally and mentally," D'Amato says. "I wanted to know what situation I was being confronted with. If I say so myself, there has been a tremendous improvement, emotionally and psychologically."
It was D'Amato who put Mathis on the diet that has shrunk him from 290 to 235. D'Amato himself went on a diet, losing 25 pounds. "If the body is soft and flabby, perhaps the mind is getting that way," says D'Amato. "Dieting is an act of discipline. I gave him a program to build up his discipline and thereby make him a better boxer, which, after all, is fundamental to the problem. I feel that the differences between individual boxers are not so great but that character makes the difference. I try to get a fighter to learn discipline, to learn how to accept pressure, to perform under pressure, in fact to be able to make pressure work for him. The training process builds up the strength of character which the professional fighter needs to achieve success. I say a professional is that person who, through self-discipline, can set out and accomplish an objective no matter how he feels within."
Before losing weight, Mathis had been a retreating counterpuncher. As he trimmed down, he became more aggressive. D'Amato found Mathis had a savage left hook and, with schooling, a right hand that could do damage. He started teaching Mathis how to throw combination punches, which D'Amato defines as "a series of blows to predetermined areas," and had him throwing punches at a contraption called "Willie," so named because D'Amato devised it to help train Torres before he took the light-heavyweight title away from Willie Pastrano.
Willie is five mattresses strapped onto a frame. The front mattress has an outline sketch of a man on it, and various parts of the outline are numbered as targets. No. 1 is a left hook to the jaw, 2 a right hook to the jaw, 3 a left uppercut, 4 a right uppercut, 5 a left hook to the body and 6 a right hook to the left kidney. Mathis punches each target as D'Amato's voice, on a tape recorder, calls out numbers. D'Amato himself stands to the side, arms folded, carefully watching and occasionally admonishing Mathis to get down lower, move back faster or growl more fiercely.