By Hans Olson
In June of 1987, the city of Montréal still had its Expos baseball team, but it hadn’t had a world champion prizefighter in 44 years.
Homegrown light middleweight Matthew Hilton changed that when he fought Philadelphia’s Buster Drayton.
“I think in a nutshell, the one thing that stayed with me after all these years was that it was really the fight that paved the way for the modern Québec boxer to obtain world championship status,” reflects Russ Anber, Canada’s authority on all things boxing.
“Matthew Hilton—who had been a terror in the amateurs to begin with—when he won that world title against Buster Drayton, I think it opened the doors and it made people realize it’s possible. We can win on the world stage. I think if you look at what happened, there was a domino effect that took place after that. Otis Grant captured a world title, Éric Lucas captured a world title, Davey Hilton captured a world title and so on and so on. It all started with Matthew Hilton beating Buster Drayton in a 15-round decision.”
“There was so much anticipation with him going up against somebody like Buster Drayton, and again, you have to think of the quality of opposition that Matthew fought to win a world title in a fighter like Buster Drayton. This wasn’t a soft touch, this wasn’t an easy fight. This was Buster Drayton! This was a warrior from Philadelphia! This was a tough fight and people were excited about the fight.”
So infatuated with the young 21-year old was the city, it was thought to be a forgone conclusion that Hilton would come out victorious.
“Many were counting the win before it happened! They thought there was no way Matthew could lose, but the boxing people knew just how dangerous Buster Drayton could be!”
“Matthew was just the quintessential workhorse. The guy who just worked, and punished, and hurt you…and it was just exciting to watch him see if he was going to knock somebody out yet again.”
Airing in the United States on ABC with Jim Lampley calling the action, the packed house at the legendary Forum rocked loudly with chants of “Matthew! Matthew! Matthew!” as the action got underway.
Swinging for the fences early on…heavy right hands weren’t initially connecting for Matthew.
A monster right hand drops Drayton.
“When Drayton got dropped in the early part of the fight, everyone went ‘there it is, it’s over!’ But when he survived the first round, that’s when they got a look. People who didn’t know Buster Drayton, that’s when they got a look at just how tough this guy was, and what it was going to take to beat him.”
It’s still astonishing that Drayton made it out of the round, but also that Matthew hadn’t punched himself out in the process.
“I thought maybe he would get him,” says Anber.
“But what I was more scared about was…had he blown it? He threw so many punches trying to get Drayton out of there, and every one of them was a bomb! And this is round one! This is round one! But Matthew was so dedicated. There were few fighters on a road to a world title who were as dedicated as Matthew was. Even as an amateur, he was the one guy who just trained, and trained, and trained. He fought so hard. He punched so hard. Everything was so intense, whether he shadow boxed, whether he hit the bag…this guy was just a machine.”
Though Hilton was dominant through most of the fight’s first half, Drayton had his moments through the second half of the fight.
It was a grueling war of attrition.
“There is not a soul seated in the Montreal Forum! You’re looking at a 21-year-old who could become his country’s first world champion in 44 years. He’s gotta stand up for two minutes and forty five more seconds,” Jim Lampley said moments into the 15th and final round.
“You will seldom see a more spectacular demonstration of sheer courage and competitiveness on the part of two boxers.”
The crowd is still chanting “Matthew! Matthew! Matthew!”
In the end, it was Matthew Hilton winning a 15 round decision.
“I don’t think it’s something that people can really understand today,” says Anber.
“Fighters today, it’s amazing how many fighters I guess you could say are near exhaustion by the time reach the 12th round, and yet, fighters fought 15 back in those days! And it wasn’t that long ago. We’re talking what, 1987? It wasn’t that long ago and I don’t think people can really fathom just how difficult and how hard it was.”
(Olson and Anber previously selected Hilton/Drayton as The 4th Most Thrilling Quebec Fight Ever)