Buster Mat his was weeping, his face buried in a towel, hidden from a world that had never been kind to him. He had just been knocked out for the second time in his sad career, beaten in two dismal rounds by an ex-convict named Ron Lyle, and he was all but finished as a heavyweight contender. He had blown another big one.
Always, Mathis had lost to more fortunate men. Joe Frazier, for example, the champion, and Jerry Quarry, whose family never quit on him, and Ali, who beat him in a patty-cake charade. But Buster had to fight. There was nothing else he knew how to do, so he arranged to meet Lyle. His other losses had been all but preordained: Sad Sack never beats Superman in real life, but now he needed a win, and everyone outside of Denver was sure he would get it.
In Denver, though, Ron Lyle is a living monument to the perfectibility of man, perhaps deservedly so. Among Denverites, he can do no wrong, and it is a foregone conclusion that Frazier's days as champion are numbered. All they saw at the Denver Coliseum was the three-punch combination that put Mathis away. No one wondered aloud where the Mathis who fought Frazier was, that dancing, jabbing elephant of a man. No one remarked on Lyle's flat-footed approach either, or his limited use of the jab, but Yancey Durham, Frazier's manager and an interested observer, did compliment Lyle on his punching power. Mathis was his 15th knockout in 17 professional fights (the other two he won on points).
When asked about Frazier, Lyle said, "When I'm ready. I'm not taking any shortcuts." Before the match with Mathis, some had thought it was a shortcut, and a risky one at that. More than two months had passed since Lyle, fighting every month for almost two years, had fought last. Although he couldn't afford a loss, Lyle did need the work. He had no time to waste. Seven and a half years in jail was more than enough time out from a career for a 28-year-old man whose plans include being heavyweight champion of the world.
A decade ago Ron Lyle was a strong kid whose favorite sport was hanging out on street corners. Trouble was around every one of them, and inevitably it was Lyle's turn; someone chased him with a pipe and he borrowed a pistol, "just to scare the guy," he says, but a fatal shot was fired. The verdict was second-degree murder, the sentence 15 to 25 years in the Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City, and Lyle's life seemed over at the start.
He was a bitter youngster, and, as an outlet for his hostilities, he threw himself into sports with the Canon City Rock busters. They played college and semipro teams, and Lyle, who is 6'3½" tall and weighs 216 pounds, batted .400 as a catcher, averaged 23 points a game in basketball, threw 70-yard touchdown passes and kicked 50-yard field goals. He told the prison recreation director, Clifford Mattax, who tried to befriend him, "Man, you're a screw and I'm a convict. I came here by myself and I'll leave the same way."
Lyle trusted no one and kept to himself, but in prison there was no way to avoid trouble. When an inmate started pestering him, he suggested they meet in private, and Lyle wound up with a knife in his stomach. He lost 35 pints of blood, and he was on the operating table for 7½ hours. Twice he was clinically dead. When he awoke finally, there was Mattax at his bedside asking how he felt. Lyle began to cry.
"It was the turning point of my life," Lyle says now. "Mattax was white, and he wore a badge, but he really cared. He believed in me and my ability. Right then I decided to be a success."
Mattax says: "I don't like to take any credit for what happened, but Ron turned into a real gentleman."
Ron Lyle had never done any boxing, but as he got stronger he began to train. He watched the TV bouts and said, "I can do better than that," and soon the prison was bringing in boxers for him to fight. By 1969 Lyle was eligible for parole, but twice he was turned down. A professional boxing career was not a suitable parole plan, he was told. Fortunately his fame had spread to Denver, where the Denver Rocks had just joined the now defunct International Boxing League. Bill Daniels, sponsor of the Rocks, offered Lyle a job as a welder with a firm he owned, and on Nov. 9, 1969 Lyle was paroled. Next morning he was trying out with the Rocks. He made the team, and in the succeeding 15 months, before turning pro, he won the North American, IBL and National AAU championships. His amateur record was 29-4.
Daniels says today, "We've got a fighter here who doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't swear." They also have a fighter who is something of a community phenomenon. This year Lyle was chairman of the 1972 Colorado March of Dimes Walkathon, which drew the biggest response in its history. He works with a group called Pardners, in which adults take on problem kids, and a friend says, "He's their honorary God."
Last week Lyle said, "I have no plans for defeat. I'm gonna win the championship, and when I do I'll help the kids."
Who will help Buster Mathis?