Mathis chases father's legend


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- The first real clue Buster Mathis Jr. had that his father was once a heavyweight contender was finding a faded photograph in their home in Grand Rapids, Mich., of a plump baby sitting on Buster Sr.'s ample belly in a dressing room at the Houston Astrodome, Nov. 7, 1971.

"Yes, I was the baby in the picture," said Buster Jr., "and that night my father lost a 10-round decision to Muhammad Ali."

Buster Jr., who battled former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe at the Atlantic City Convention Center last night, followed in his father's footsteps, but it was hardly by design.

"My father never pushed me into fighting," said Buster Jr., now who was 14-0 against dubious opposition before last night.

"It really wasn't until I was 15 that I began to fully realize that my father had whipped Joe Frazier in the 1964 Olympic trials, and fought Frazier, Ali and Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo as a professional," said Mathis.

"He never talked about his past life, I found out by going through old newspaper clippings, hearing from some of his old friends and neighbors.

"When I started fighting myself and traveling around the country, it was strange meeting all these 'ghosts' who remembered my father's boxing career."

Buster Sr., an amazingly nimble 300-pounder with exceptional boxing skills, missed his chance at an Olympic gold medal when he broke the knuckle on his right hand in a sparring session with Frazier, his principal rival.

As the story goes, Frazier replaced him on the Olympic team, won the gold in Tokyo, and went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

"That could have been me with a few lucky breaks," said Buster Sr.

Now it is Junior's chance to chase the rainbow. Like his father, he began fighting out of embarrassment over his bloated body that made him an inviting target for neighborhood bullies and taunting teen-age girls.

"Boxing was really the farthest thing from my mind," said Junior, who will receive his biggest purse -- $250,000 -- in what many regard as simply a warm-up bout for Bowe, who has already signed to fight WBC champion Lennox Lewis.

"When I was 15, I weighed as much as 325. I tried playing basketball, baseball and football, but I was plain awful. Some 112-pound kid even beat me in wrestling. Guys my age didn't want me hanging around, and girls laughed at me. Everything in my life was negative."

But that changed when he summoned enough courage to ask his father to teach him to box.

"He ignored me for about three weeks, but I kept pestering him. One day, he gave in, but only after warning me, 'You can play baseball and football, but you can't 'play' at fighting.'

"Boxing taught me discipline and sticking to something until you're good at it," Mathis said. "In five months, I got my weight down to 180, and it gave me a sense of pride."

Rather than impose his own dancing style, Buster Sr. allowed his son to develop his own style, which more closely resembles the bobbing, weaving attack method of a Joe Frazier.

"I'm pretty small for a heavyweight -- 6 feet, 220 pounds," Buster Jr. said. "For me to beat a big guy like Bowe, I have to be real busy on the inside, throwing close to 100 punches a round. Stamina is my strong suit."

His father still serves as his principal trainer and motivator. But a series of illnesses, including several heart attacks, diabetes and recent kidney problems, kept Buster Sr. from attending his son's biggest challenge.

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