Buster Mathis (tied for 176)
Sledge, Mississippi, USA
June 11, 1943 – September 6, 1995
6’3” / 76″ reach / 220-300 lbs
30-4-0-0(21) from 06/28/1965 to 09/29/1972 (7y3m)
1-4-0-0(1) against the top ten
0-1-0-0(0) against linear champions
0-1-0-0(0) against hall-of-famers
No fights for the linear championship
Top ten opponents: W-UD-12 George Chuvalo, L-TKO-11 Joe Frazier, L-UD-12 Jerry Quarry, L-UD-12 Muhammad Ali, L-KO-2 Ron Lyle
-1 total score (1 + -3+ 0 + 1)
Throughout heavyweight history, there have been plenty of fighters who started off as blue-chip prospects, and eventually disappointed. This is inevitable. For every major success, there are a dozen failures. I’ve already covered a handful of promising young fighters who burned out early, or were put in against tough competition before they were ready. Busted prospects will be a recurring theme of this project. Even very successful fighters can be considered underachievers.
Buster Mathis is a great example of this. He was a decorated amateur, selected to represent the US in the 1964 Olympics. Fate did not smile upon him, however. Mathis was injured before he could travel to Tokyo. Instead, Joe Frazier, the man he beat in the Olympic trials, won the gold at heavyweight in his stead.
Mathis was a large man, standing 6’3″, and early in his career weighing well in excess of 250 pounds. This was in an era where the average heavyweight frequently weighed around 200, and sometimes below. He actually turned pro weighing exactly 300 pounds. This was June of 1965. Despite his bulk, he moved well in the ring, specializing in a smooth, long-range style. He had solid power, but worked behind a long jab. As his career got going, he lost weight, working himself into shape. For his sixth fight, against fellow prospect (and future contender) Chuck Wepner, Mathis was down to 267. Three fights later, he was down to 245, where he would consistently remain for more than a year.
By the end of 1967, Mathis was 23-0(17). He had faced numerous journeymen and club fighters, but no serious contenders. Despite his Olympic pedigree, and two-and-a-half years as a pro, Mathis was untested against tough opposition. Chuck Wepner may have been his best opponent up to that point. And yet, despite his limited professional opposition, the former amateur legend was thrown into the deep waters for the first time in March of 1968.
At 19-0, Joe Frazier was already considered the best heavyweight in the world not named Muhammad Ali. The former amateur victim of Mathis had beaten the likes of Oscar Bonavena, Eddie Machen, Doug Jones, and George Chuvalo. He was battle-tested, and already experienced at the elite level. Mathis had beaten Frazier before, but that was practically a lifetime before, in ring terms. They were both different men now.
The fight itself was competitive early on. For about 6 rounds, Mathis boxed well, and made Frazier work for it. As the fight wore on, Frazier grew stronger, and started working over Mathis, especially to the body. Mathis was eventually overwhelmed by the ferocity and power of the smaller man, and Frazier ended matters with his signature left hook late in the 11th. The massive bomb dropped Mathis for the first time in his career, prompting a referee stoppage.
Mathis was devastated by the loss. gaining weight, and suffering from depression. But he would find it in himself to bounce back, winning five straight through the remainder of 1968. In February 1969, Mathis got his second shot at a contender, this time in the form of the inhumanly durable Canadian pressure fighter George Chuvalo. This time, after a sloppy and foul-filled start, Mathis settled down, and beat Chuvalo up from long range. After 12 rounds, Mathis won a wide and brutal 12 round decision. He was now ranked in the top ten by the Ring, and was a legitimate contender.
Just a month and a half later, Mathis would take on his next contender, the Bellflower Bomber, Jerry Quarry. Based on the strength of his competitive showing against Frazier, and his solid win over Chuvalo, Mathis was installed as the favorite. Quarry was known as being talented, but inconsistent. It was thought that the skills, speed, and size of Mathis would prove too much for the smaller Quarry.
Quarry wasn’t listening to the predictions, though, and showed Mathis no respect in what turned into a one-sided beating. Quarry dropped Mathis with a big right hand in the second, and then had his way in the fight from then on. Quarry hurt Mathis repeatedly, especially to the body, and never let the larger man get settled. After 12 rounds, Quarry won a clear decision, and Mathis ended up taking a break from boxing.
A long break.
In fact, Mathis wouldn’t enter the ring again for more than two-and-a-half years. And when he did, it was for a big payday against a comebacking Muhammad Ali. The Greatest was coming off his loss to Joe Frazier, and a comeback win over Jimmy Ellis. After 30 months away, and only a brief run of serious contention before that, Mathis was not considered to be a credible threat to Ali. Instead, he represented a tune up before bigger fights.
It turned out that “tune-up” was accurate. Mathis was rusty and overweight, and Ali took advantage, out-boxing him thoroughly. By the later rounds, Mathis had been beaten up. Ali dropped him twice in the 11th, and twice more in the 12th, coming close to scoring a stoppage. Mathis hung in there, and managed to last the distance. But the loss to Ali halted any possible career momentum Mathis might have had.
Mathis would be out of action for another ten months, before returning to the ring in something of a stunt fight. Mathis had ballooned back up in weight, and at 280 pounds, would face the 260 pound Claude McBride in a fight concocted by referee and promoter Lew Eskin. The idea was to create a “super heavyweight” division and championship, an idea tried in the 1930s, and also discussed at times in the 21st century.
The super heavyweight dream died swiftly, but Mathis did score an easy 3rd round KO win – his first win in three-and-a-half years. This win led straight into a fight just a few weeks later against rising undefeated prospect Ron Lyle. The powerful Lyle was actually older than Mathis, but turned pro in his late 20s after a stint in prison, where he first learned to box. While no longer a contender, Mathis was definitely a competitive step up for Lyle, and represented a potentially stiff test. Instead, Lyle demolished Mathis in two short rounds. Lyle would go on to title challenges and perennial contention for years. Mathis would never fight again.
Buster Mathis would go on to work in trucking. His son, Buster Mathis Jr., would enjoy a modestly successful career as a heavyweight fringe contender in the 1990s. Mathis would suffer from health issues after boxing, in particular due to his weight, which eventually reached 550 pounds. He died in 1995 at age 52.
Mathis is rightly remembered as one of the all-time great amateur boxers. A lack of discipline and consistency prevented him from turning his unpaid success into a lengthy pro career. However, even what amounted to be a relative disappointment of a pro resume still included a win over a top contender, and memorable battles against all-time greats. His failure was still more impressive than most people’s wild success.