Searching for a fighter who is going to become heavyweight champion of the world is one of the more fruitless endeavors optimistic man can engage in. There have been 82 champions since James Figg in 1720, an average of one every three years but, curiously, the depressing odds seem to spur rather than discourage would-be owners of heavyweight titleholders. Now there are five men who believe that they have the heavyweight in hand to defeat Muhammad Ali. Four of the five are wealthy young sportsmen; the fifth is Cus D'Amato, the savant and former manager of Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, who at least has had some experience with champions. The object of their hopes is a giant, chocolate-brown Negro named Buster Mathis, who was until a couple of years ago 300 pounds of punch-less blubber. Now 22, Mathis has slimmed down to 235, and he and his backers have found muscles and a punch no one had ever suspected. So far Mathis has had 16 fights, and won all, 12 by knockouts. The fights have been six-rounders, mainly because D'Amato has no wish to rush his charge. Within a couple of months D'Amato calculates that Buster will step up to 10-rounders and take on the likes of Joe Frazier, esteemed by many as at least as promising a contender as Mathis. By next fall, if all goes according to plan, Mathis will then knock Muhammad Ali flat and assume the championship of the world.
Promoters already have been after Buster to fight Frazier, but D'Amato has rejected the offers, explaining, "Only a fool puts on a match between two young fellows starting to move up. If we fight now we get $10,000. If we wait until spring we'll both go home with a minimum of $100,000." Mathis met and beat Frazier twice as an amateur, and D'Amato has no doubts Mathis will win the next time they meet. " Frazier is the same fighter that he was before," D'Amato says, "and he makes the same mistakes."
Buster Mathis first gained public notice two and a half years ago when he won the U.S. Olympic heavyweight trials. He won by beating Frazier, who went on to take the gold medal at Tokyo after Mathis injured his hand. In the time that has passed, Mathis has greatly improved. And, as of now, he has people, a fad diet, medicine and science going for him. Besides D'Amato, he has his backers—Jimmy Iselin, Mike Martin, Tom Packard and Leff Lefferts—all in their 20s, who have formed a company which they call Peers Management. Peers Management so far has laid out more than $50,000 to help advance Buster toward the championship. Nothing is being left to chance. Jimmy Jacobs, the fight-film tycoon and handball champ, has been retained to shoot Mathis' fights in color, and a dietitian looks after his calorie intake. Mathis consumes 10 pounds of steak a week and gulps down gallon after gallon of unsprayed unorganic apple juice and Tiger's Milk. He eats sprouted wheat bread, helps his circulation with Viobin wheat-germ oil and wards off colds with spoonfuls of rose hips, one of the most natural forms of vitamin C in the world. Peers Management, which not only aims to make Mathis champ but the most popular one of all time as well, has given away thousands of bumper stickers, photographs, ballpoint pens and balloons imprinted " Buster Mathis, Next Heavyweight Champ." Mathis' colors are red, white and blue, and his publicity pictures always show him posing with clenched fists in front of the American flag. "Buster has definite feelings of patriotism toward his country," says Jimmy Iselin, the Peers spokesman.
Mathis himself is a showman. Before each fight he dances a jig on his way to the corner, and in the ring he blows kisses to the crowd. During a fight he tries to frighten his opponent by growling. This is a trick D'Amato taught him, and he likes to growl because he feels it gives his punches added oomph. D'Amato has Mathis practice growling when throwing punches in the gym, and Mathis has now refined it to an intimidating "arrggh!" When not growling, Mathis is a likable person. "I got a heart as big as all outdoors," he says.
Mathis is fond of skipping rope and roller skating, offbeat sports that he has polished into fine arts. One of his proudest possessions is a $125 pair of precision skates. He also likes to fish and sing. Often he croons into a tape recorder so he can play it back and hear himself, and he thinks his voice is marvelous. It is not bad. Sometimes he uses the recorder to broadcast his version of his fight for the championship with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali gets the stuffing knocked out of him. Mathis, in fact, has Muhammad Ali on the brain. "I dream about him more than anybody in the world," he says. "Man, I just dream about that boy three or four times a week. He has never beaten me in my dreams. I guess that's the way I've planned it."
As an amateur, Mathis won the Golden Gloves and Amateur Athletic Union heavyweight titles. When he was the subnovice Gloves champ, he beat the more experienced open-class champ, Jim Beatty. "Man, I beat everybody," Mathis says. After breaking his right hand before the 1964 Olympics, he ballooned up to his record weight of all time, 360 pounds.
It is just as well for Mathis that that happened after he had attracted the eye of Jimmy Iselin. About three years ago Iselin and his friend, Mike Martin, decided that they wanted to back a fighter who could win the heavyweight championship. "We wanted to find someone who would be deserving of the heavyweight championship," Iselin says with emphasis. "The heavyweight champion of the world, we remembered, was always someone we idolized as kids. Liston was the champion at the time, and we didn't like him, because we thought he was a selfish guy and not the type a heavyweight champion should be. Even though he had won the title, he felt no obligation toward the public. He irked us, to say the least."
Iselin and Martin grew up near each other on the Jersey shore. Iselin's father, Philip, is president of Monmouth Park Race Track and a part owner of the New York Jets with Sonny Werblin. Martin's father, Townsend, also has interests in the track and the Jets. While Iselin was at Lawrenceville and Martin at Choate, two fashionable eastern prep schools, they read everything they could about boxing. They pursued the sport with undiminished fanaticism after they graduated and went on together to Rutgers.
When Martin enlisted in the Navy for four years, he and Iselin kept up their interest and agreed to try to find a fighter they could back for the heavyweight title. Iselin spent months visiting fight clubs all over the East. He attended amateur tournaments as well and saw Mathis win the Olympic trials. In scouting boxers, Iselin rated them the way pro football scouts do college players, modeling his reports on the scouting form the Jets use. He judged each prospect on desire, coordination, background, character and intelligence. He interviewed Jim Beatty. He talked to athletes in other sports, such as Cookie Gilchrist and Ernie Ladd. "They talked a lot," Iselin says, "but I could see they weren't interested." He considered Wilt Chamberlain, who was making noises about fighting for D'Amato, but he rejected this as too gimmicky.
Of all the prospects whom Iselin saw, interviewed or dreamed about, none impressed him as much as Buster Mathis is. " Buster Mathis rated out the highest in every category," says Iselin. He checked into Mathis' background and found that Buster had been born in Sledge, Miss., the youngest of eight children. When he was a couple of months old, the family moved north to Grand Rapids, Mich., where the father skipped home. Mathis' mother worked as a cook in a restaurant, and she always told him to "go the right way." Mathis grew up dreaming of making something of himself as a boxer or a football player. His mother died when he was 15, and he went to live with a married brother. The brother turned Mathis out of the house, and he then went to live with friends, Paul Collins and his wife. Collins, who is only seven years older than Mathis, looked after him as he would a son and took him into his sign-painting business.