In a blood sport that is filled with tales of desperate men who rose from humble and often troubled beginnings to become celebrated world champions few can rival the history of Matthew Saad Muhammad.
By Michael Plunkett
Born Maxwell Antonio Loach just outside of Philadelphia, Saad Muhammad was orphaned as a very young child. He and his brother lived with his aunt who, when she no longer could afford to care for both children, told Saad Muhammad’s older brother to lose and otherwise cast him astray. Off of those heartless instructions his brother took him to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and abandoned him. As a fan I long ago realized that much of the allure that boxing held for me was in the human factor, the stories of those that had turned to it, usually as a last ditched effort to regain some semblance of footing in life. Lack of direction and desperation are common themes among those that have taken to pursuing The Sweet Science as a means to an end. Boxing is often a last bastion of hope but nowhere can I recall a story as sad and pathetic as the idea of a child being utterly abandoned and left to the wolves of this life as was the case of Matthew Saad Muhammad. As it went down, the lost child was eventually found and taken to a Catholic children’s shelter where he was cared for and named Matthew after the saint and Franklin after the place where he was found.
In and out of reform school as a youth, Saad Muhammad’s life turned a corner when he happened upon Muhammad Ali sparring at a local Philadelphia gym. The impression the great Ali left on him at that moment altered the pull of misdirection and mischief, thus he made the decision to become a fighter. Saad Muhammad turned professional in January 1974 fighting as Matthew Franklin. Standing 5’11 on a nicely sculpted frame with a 75” reach, and fighting out of the orthodox stance, Saad Muhammad was well suited for the light heavyweight division, which at the time was ruled by aging all-time great Bob Foster. After amassing a 7-1 record in his first year as a professional, Saad Muhammad split two bouts with future IBF cruiserweight champion Marvin Camel before losing to Eddie Gregory, who later would go on to win the WBA light heavyweight title and become known as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Saad Muhammad dropped Gregory in the 1st round but spent the remainder of the bout fighting cautiously. After this defeat, Saad Muhammad vowed that he would no longer be a defensive fighter, but rather look to inflict his will and his considerable skills on future foes.
In July 1977 Saad Muhammad faced Marvin Johnson for the vacant North American Boxing Federation light heavyweight championship at the Philadelphia Spectrum. He emerged from that bout with his first notable title when he stopped ‘Pops”, a determined and dangerous fighter that would go on to win the WBC light heavyweight title a year after that encounter and ultimately win versions of the world title on three separate occasions, in the 12th round .
Saad Muhammad successfully defended his regional title three times before facing ‘Pops’ in a much anticipated rematch, this time for the WBC light heavyweight crown in Johnson’s hometown of Indianapolis on April 22, 1979. A sparse crowd of approximately 7000 witnessed what ESPN boxing commentator Al Bernstein called “one of the most incredible brawls any light heavyweights ever staged.” Both fighters were rocked and hurt as early as the first round and later throughout the contest. In the early going, southpaw Johnson pressed the action with Saad Muhammad content to counterpunch. By the 5th round Johnson had a bloody nose and a cut under his right eye, while Saad Muhammad had cuts under both eyes. In the 7th, Saad Muhammad scored with fifteen unanswered punches to leave Johnson teetering at the bell. In the 8th, Johnson opened a gash over Saad Muhammad’s left eye. Knowing the bout could be stopped at any time and sensing that his opportunity may be slipping away, Saad Muhammad unleashed a vicious barrage of blows to the head and body that finally dropped Johnson. The contest was waved off in Saad Muhammad’s favor after the referee had deemed Johnson defenseless. The once abandoned little child who at one point had nothing beyond a prayer had beaten the odds of both life and the prize ring; he had become a world champion. The Ring later named the eighth round as Round of the Year.
In his very next match, Saad Muhammad, who had adopted his Muslim name after winning the WBC light heavyweight title, won a unanimous decision over former champion John Conteh. After a bloody and damaging brawl, controversy loomed due to the use of a foreign substance by Saad Muhammad’s cut man, Adolph Ritaccio. The substance, as applied to Saad Muhammad’s cuts, somehow found its way onto his gloves and after that into Conteh’s eyes, affecting his vision. The WBC suspended Ritaccio for one year and ordered an immediate rematch. Saad Muhammad won the return with an emphatic fourth-round stoppage in March 1980.
On July 13th, 1980 Saad Muhammad fought Yaqui Lopez whom he had previously beaten in an NABF title defense a few years earlier, in a televised bout. Through seven torrid rounds neither fighter gave an inch. In the eighth, Lopez caught Saad Muhammad with a powerful hook to the chin then unleashed a sustained barrage to the head. Saad Muhammad reached down within himself, somehow managed to stay on his feet, rallied and staggered Lopez as the bell signaled to end the round. In the fourteenth he dropped the spirited challenger four times before the referee signaled an end to the affair, which The Ring later called The Fight of the Year.
Saad Muhammad defended his title four more times, all by knockout, before running into Dwight Braxton, who would later become known as Dwight Muhammad Qawi, in Atlantic City on December 19, 1981. Saad Muhammad was battered mercilessly by Braxton before the referee stopped the contest in the 10th round. In their much anticipated rematch eight months later, in a bout dubbed “The Liberty Brawl” in Philadelphia, Saad Muhammad was again battered and bloodied by the second round, badly hurt and knocked down in the 3rd. By the 6th the referee had seen enough and the contest was called. Saad Muhammad was unsuccessful in his bid to regain the WBC light heavyweight title, the momentum that fueled his unlikely rise was now all but gone.
Saad Muhammad continued to fight ten years after his rematch with Braxton, going 7-11-1 effectively as a shadow of his former self. He retired in 1992 with a career record of 39-16-3, 29 KO’s.
Boxing, as so often is the case with life itself, takes no prisoners. The odds are overwhelmingly against a man finding success in the prize ring, let alone making it to the very summit of such an unforgiving and brutal occupation, but Matthew Saad Muhammad was no ordinary man. His start in life was perhaps the cruelest trick of all, but it galvanized his resolve and focused him in such a way that for a short period of time extraordinary success was his for the taking. In the history of the light heavyweight division, no fighter defended his title with more pride, passion and sheer desperation than the man who as a small child had been backhanded by fate and abandoned by the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.