LAS VEGAS -- Since Mike Tyson turned his first comeback fight with Peter McNeeley into an 89-second workout, promoter Don King's publicists have been trying to legitimize Buster Mathis Jr. as a more worthy opponent for the former heavyweight champion.
They have relied heavily on the "Buster" angle for Saturday's fight at the MGM Grand. After all, five years ago, another Buster -- Buster Douglas, a 40-to-1 underdog -- left Tyson groping for his mouthpiece in a Tokyo ring in one of boxing's greatest upsets.
And if you want to stretch this improbable story line a bit farther, Buster Douglas had dedicated his fight against Tyson to the memory of his mother, who had died shortly before he left for Japan.
Buster Sr. died Sept. 6 after a long battle with diabetes. He was his son's trainer and best friend.
"I hear my father's words in my head all the time," said Mathis, 25, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. "He'd tell me, 'Don't let Tyson intimidate you. That's half the battle. Do what you do best. Keep your hands up high and keep throwing punches. Just don't quit on me. And whatever happens, go down smoking.' "
At 25-to-1, Mathis is less of a long shot than Douglas was against Tyson, but he seems less prepared for the challenge. Douglas faced better competition and had come close to winning the heavyweight title three years earlier before being stopped by Tony Tucker in the 10th round.
In his only major fight, Mathis was floored by Riddick Bowe in the fourth round in Atlantic City 15 months ago. In fact, he had dropped to one knee to seek a respite after catching a series of hard shots.
But when Bowe landed a vicious right cross while Mathis was taking the count, the fight was ruled no contest by New Jersey athletic commissioner Larry Hazzard, saving Bowe from a costly disqualification.
"I fought the wrong fight that night," Mathis said. "I thought Bowe was indestructible, and I was backing up instead of pressuring him on the inside. I got away from what I could do to win."
Joey Fariello, who has taken over as trainer, says the same won't happen against Tyson.
Fariello, who prepared Buster Sr. for his pro fights with Frazier and Ron Lyle, said it would be a mistake for Buster Jr. to try to emulate his father's boxing style.
"The old man weighed close to 265, but he was surprisingly quick on his feet, a fine, all-around ring tactician," Fariello recalled.
"But except for the fact that they both used a peek-a-boo stance, Junior is the complete opposite of his father. He comes right at you, and he's a better defensive fighter. You can't change styles suddenly. That's disastrous. You stick with what's got you this far."
Asked if he was frightened by the prospect of swapping #F punches with Tyson, Mathis, a bulky 5 feet 10, 220 pounds, said: "If I wasn't a bit afraid, I'd be crazy. But you learn to challenge your fear. It only lasts until the bell rings.
"I'm not scared. I'm confident in my ability. I can make him miss, and I'm an effective counterpuncher. I'm not Joe Louis or Muhammad Ali, but I know how to fight, and I'll be throwing a lot of punches. If I can carry Tyson into the late rounds, I can win."
Mathis said he was not impressed by Tyson's lightning defeat of McNeeley.
"McNeeley tried to steamroller Tyson by roughhousing him. And I saw Tyson throwing wild punches like an ordinary fighter, trying to take McNeeley out. But I've got a specific fight plan. I refuse to lose."
Mathis almost can hear Team Tyson snickering behind his back.
"Let them all laugh," he said. "They say, 'Buster can't box. Buster can't punch. Buster's got a weak chin.' I turn all the negatives into positives. Let them believe it's going to be easy."