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.
At the World's Fair, Gibson was so impressive that a professional fight manager privately called him "the best prospect since Joe Louis." Gibson flatly says he will never turn pro; he plans to be a teacher. In his first fight he knocked out Willie Joiner of the Navy in one round. In his second he knocked out Gary Brown of Provo, Utah in the third. Brown went to the hospital with a broken jaw. In Gibson's final bout he knocked out Ray Owens of the Army in the third. He would have knocked him out in the second, but Owens, apparently dizzied by a right, oddly snapped back into this world when hit with another. But when Owens went down in the third from a savage right-hand chop, he stayed there. Gibson, who is genuinely modest, was surprised that the referee even bothered to count. "Usually they just wave their hands," he says. "This time the guy counted all the way to 10." Reilly, who worked the corner with Pappy Gault, was exuberant. "Spokane has never had an Olympic entry before," he said. "He'll get red headlines in the sports page!"
Another AAU winner was Ron Harris, who won an easy decision over Bobby Valdez of the Navy for the lightweight title. Only 17, Harris is Buster's roommate when they travel to AAU bouts, and they pass the time arguing over which one is uglier. "They both like to cut one another up and call each other names," Gibson says. "They like it. But once one of us starts it, they say, 'Get off my man, man!, "
With their antics Harris and Buster kept Gibson and the rest of their teammates in good spirits for the trials. Whenever an AAU boxer was about to go into the ring, they would exhort him to bring "Fire and brimstone!" into the battle. Harris kept threatening that he was going to put on weight and fight Buster as a heavy weight. "Man," said Buster, "it's best you better get hit by a car!"
All considered, the U.S. should have four or five medal winners in Tokyo. Other trial winners who were impressive are Jimmy Rosette, a Navy middleweight who beat Berzewski, and Maurice Frilot, who has won the Marine welterweight championship four straight years and the Interservice title the last three. Frilot, a left-hander, had a rousing final with Jesse Valdez of Houston, a 16-year-old member of the AAU team who had been ballyhooed as the boy to watch before the trials began. The decision could have gone either way, and Valdez has been chosen for the Olympic team as an alternate. Should Frilot be unable to compete, Valdez will fill in nicely. He is a lean, lithe counterpuncher, the type that impresses Olympic judges, who are often dismayed by the good-hit, no-field style American boxers usually employ.
Perhaps an even tougher defeat for Pappy Gault was Herb Dolloson's loss in the featherweight final. Gault is Dolloson's legal guardian, but through a quirk in the rules Pappy wound up working in the corner of Charley Brown of the AAU, Dolloson's opponent. Pappy had no choice but to tell Brown that Dolloson had difficulty fighting inside, and Brown, in a very close fight, did just enough of that to win. Happily, Dolloson was picked as an alternate.
The Olympic squad will meet at Hamilton Air Force Base near San Francisco this September for a final workout before Tokyo. Buster plans to weigh in at 275. "At 275 I'm so fast I forget myself," he says. He works on his speed by sparring against lightweights. Once, he says, he took on two at the same time. "I moved so fast," he says, "that they knocked one another out." He can hardly wait to fight for the title in Tokyo. "Man," he exclaims, "I'm gonna bring it back alive! And I ain't gonna be no Muslim either."
Following through after a mighty left, Big Buster gets set to wallop Joe Frazier with a roundhouse right in the Olympic trials heavyweight final.
Toby Gibson, most impressive Olympic trials fighter, belabors Gary Brown in semifinals.