Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Matthew Saad Muhammad: The Hard Road of a Warrior

By Peter Silkov
Matthew Saad Muhammad: The Hard Road of a Warrior

When Matthew Saad Muhammad passed away on May 25, 2014, at the young age of 59 years old, it brought an end to a life that would seem to have been written by an over imaginative Hollywood scriptwriter. Saad’s life was one of incredible highs and just as devastating lows, in a world where the tribute of ’warrior’ is bestowed all too often, Matthew Saad Muhammad was one of life’s true warriors, both in and out of the ring. Unfortunately, fate often didn’t give him much of a choice. 

Born Maxwell Antonio Loach on June 16, 1954, in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, life was a battle from the start for Maxwell. When his mother passed away, Maxwell and his older brother were placed in the care of an aunt, who soon decided that she couldn’t support both children, and had the older brother take Maxwell into the city and then abandon him there. In later years, Saad would remember this incident vividly, ‘He took me out in the city, where I wouldn’t know where I was or how to find my way home, and ran away from me. I tried to run after him. I ran as fast as I could. I was five years old, and I was running for my life.  But I couldn’t keep up.’  

Maxwell was discovered by a policeman on the Ben Franklin Parkway and handed over into the care of Catholic Services. Unable to recall his name, Maxwell was renamed Matthew Franklin, and was adopted by a Portuguese family in South Philadelphia, after he had been in numerous foster homes.  Matthew found himself the victim of constant school bullying, at the hands of tormenters who would call him ’the orphan’.  Matthew decided to take up boxing as a teenager in order to defend himself against those who persecuted him because he was an orphan. It was to be another huge turning point in his life. After everything he had already been through in his short life, Matthew discovered that taking pain and punishment inside a boxing ring was almost second nature to him.

Matthew Franklin turned professional on January 14, 1974, scoring a 2nd round stoppage over Billy Early. In the true tradition of the Philadelphia fighter, Matthew was matched tough from the beginning of his career, fighting a mixture of fellow prospects with winning records, and some battle-worn old pros with vastly more experience than him. 

The 1970s and early 1980s saw something of a talent explosion in the often maligned and under appreciated light-heavyweight division. Perhaps at no time since the 1940s had the division been so filled with such a collection of crafty counter-punchers, speedy boxers, iron-chinned sluggers, explosive punchers, and some fighters who could do a good bit of everything. It was a time in which a fighter had to be a little bit special just to make it as a top-ten contender. 

In early 1976, in his thirteenth and fourteenth professional contests, Matthew scored point’s wins over two future world champions, Mate Parlov and Marvin Camel, but was out-pointed by Camel and held to a draw by Parlov, in rematches later that same year. At this point in his career, Matthew was an athletic and strong box-fighter, with a good punch, who concentrated more on his boxing skills, than his big punch; his next fight in early 1977 would change all of that.

On March 11, 1977, Matthew took on another future world champion, Eddie Gregory (who later changed his name to Eddie Mustapha Muhammad.)  After having Gregory on the floor in the first round, Matthew saw his opponent recover, and go on to win a close and disputed point’s decision. After this defeat, Matthew consciously changed his style to that of a far more aggressive fighter, rather than a counter-punching boxer.  This change of style would deepen as his career went on, and would be the source of both his greatest successes, and his eventual decline.

Four months after the defeat to Eddie Gregory,
Matthew faced the unbeaten Marvin Johnson (another future world champion) for the NABF Light-heavyweight championship, and a place near the top of the 175-pound rankings. Against Johnson, Matthew engaged in the kind of sizzling slugfest that would become his trademark over the next few years. After falling behind early, to the fast starting and aggressive Indianapolis man, Matthew came back seemingly from the brink of defeat to wear down and eventually overwhelm Johnson in the 12th round. It was a preview of things to come from Matthew. In his next fight, Matthew defended the NABF title against the dangerous Billy Douglas, and overcame being floored in the 5th round, to knockout Douglas in the 6th.

In his next defence of his NABF light-heavyweight title,
Matthew faced the big- punching Richie Kates, who had only recently given Victor Galindez two tough fights for Galindez’s WBA world light-heavyweight title.  Matthew seemed to be on the point of certain defeat, when Kates dropped him face-first to the canvas near the end of the 4th round. In a show of his amazing recuperative powers, he stormed back in the 5th and dropped Kates flat onto his face at the round’s end.  When the 6th round got underway, Kates was at Matthew’s mercy and staggering around under a hail of fists, until the referee stopped the fight. It was victories like this, where triumph was snatched from the jaws of defeat that gained Matthew the nickname ‘Miracle Matthew.’

Following the Kates fight, Matthew had two non-title fight wins, stopping Dale Grant in the 5th and Freddie Bright in 8 rounds, before taking on the tough Yaqui Lopez, in defence of his NABF title.  Lopez was a teak-tough box-fighter, who had already made three challenges for the World light-heavyweight championship; going the distance with WBA champion Victor Galindez in two very close fights, (the first of which many felt he should have won) and had also losing a close decision to John Conteh for the WBC light-heavyweight title.
 The fight was the kind of fistic war that was
becoming a trademark for Matthew, as the action went back and forth, at a terrific pace and intensity, with Lopez pressuring and Matthew using his jab to counter the Mexican’s scything attacks. In the 8th round, a Lopez punch drove Matthew reeling into the ropes; at that point, Lopez launched a tremendous two-fisted attack of about 30 plus punches. Matthew laid on the ropes and tried to dodge or duck some of the punches coming his way, but took many of them.  When it seemed that Matthew would surely crumble, he fought his way off the ropes, laughing at Lopez, and then launched a two-fisted attack of his own that shook up the Mexican.  Another trademark of Matthew Franklin’s warrior spirit would be his penchant for laughing when under the most severe of attacks. The round ended with Matthew on the attack and Lopez having to give ground. From the 9th round onwards, the momentum of the fight slowly shifted to Franklin. Although it was still tough and tightly competitive, Lopez had shot his bolt in the 8th round and by the 9th, his right eye was closing.  In the 11th round, a furious attack from Franklin worsened a cut over the left eye of Lopez, who by now could see nothing out of his closed right eye, and the referee Frank Cappuccino waved a halt to the carnage. It was just another day in the office for Matthew Franklin, from now on; every fight would be a war. 

Six months later, Matthew would face Marvin Johnson again, and this time it would be for the WBC world light-heavyweight championship. Since their first fight, Johnson had rebounded from his loss to put together a useful string of victories, which had culminated with him travelling to Italy, and winning the WBC world light-heavyweight championship from Mate Parlov, on a 10th round stoppage.
Four months later, on April 22, 1979, Johnson was going to make the first defence of his world title against the man that had beaten him previously in such a spectacular and exciting fashion. When asked in the run-up to this fight why he had chosen to pick such a hard opponent for his first defence, Johnson replied “Because he beat me.” 

This was the era when almost, without exception; world champions felt compelled to put their titles on the line against the very best and most dangerous challengers available. On the night, the crowd at the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana, saw Matthew Franklin and Marvin Johnson, serve up one of the most savage and intensely fought world championship contests seen in modern times. This was a fight in which both men stood toe-to-toe and exchanged fistic bombs, in a fight where the momentum seemed to shift with every explosive exchange. The finish came in the 8th round, when both men stood head-to-head, throwing bombs at each other, something had to give, and two cuts opened up over Franklin’s eyes, sending blood coursing down his face. Instead of retreating, or looking for a breather by holding, Matthew launched a two-fisted attack at Johnson, which verged on the maniacal, as if all the anger and fear of his youth was being released in those punches. Johnson wavered under the assault, like a drunken man trying desperately to keep his feet, then he finally fell to the canvas, and although he regained his feet and beat the count, he could hardly stand, and the referee wisely ended the fight. Matthew Franklin was now world champion. 

One of the first things that Franklin did after winning the WBC title was to announce that he had become a Muslim and was changing his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad. The man, who had been abandoned by his family, and left with nothing at the age of 5 years old, was now on top of the world.  Now, everyone wanted to be Saad’s friend, or part of his new ‘family.’ After he won the world title, Matthew decided to search for his blood relatives. He offered a reward for any information that would lead to their whereabouts. It didn’t take long for the aunt who had abandoned him when he was five years old to come forward and reveal herself; unfortunately, she seemed more interested in claiming the reward, than renewing her relationship with her nephew.  Muhammad soon discovered that, even though he had realized his dream of winning the world championship, there are not always happy endings, especially when human nature is involved.

Over the next two and a half years Saad would defend his world championship successfully eight times. His defences were mostly exercises in Saad’s extraordinary heart, punch, and endurance over coming challengers who often seemed poised to overcome ‘Miracle Matthew.’  Saad was turning his slow starts into an art now, almost as if he needed to feel his own blood, or to be rocked and punished by his opponent’s blows before he could get properly started himself.

Saad’s first challenger was John Conteh on August 18, 1979. The talented Conteh was a former WBC world light heavyweight champion and used his slick boxing and artful jab to take an early point’s lead, and cut up Saad badly over the left eye.  However, Saad roared back in the later rounds, flooring Conteh twice in the 14th round and pulling out a close point’s decision. Conteh was granted an immediate rematch, partly due to his first showing against Saad, and partly due to the fact that during the first fight Saad’s corner men had used an illegal substance on his badly cut eye to stop the bleeding. The rematch, seven months later, was a disaster for Conteh, as a fired up Saad dominated him from the start, then overwhelmed him in the 4th round, flooring him five times, before the referee stopped the action. Two months after the Conteh fight, on May 11, 1980, Sad had one of his easier defences when he dismantled Louis Perjured for a 5th round stoppage. 

On July 13, 1980, Saad engaged in possibly the most savage, thrilling, and sapping fights of his career.  Saad met Yaqui Lopez for the second time, in a fight, which mirrored their first classic. Once more, Muhammad came close to defeat, never more so than in the 8th round, which was an almost eerie carbon copy of the 8th round of their first fight. Saad was hurt, then cornered into the ropes, and almost stopped, as Lopez unloaded a huge blitz of over 30 unanswered punches. Yet, just as in their first fight, Saad weathered the almost disturbing amount of punishment he was receiving, to fight his way off the ropes, and have Lopez in trouble at the end of the round. One of the most amazing sights of the whole fight was Saad literally laughing as he came back at Lopez. Perhaps it is not so surprising that after this round Saad slowly gained the upper hand in the fight. Lopez exhausted himself and perhaps Saad’s inhuman resistance to his punches, had broken something inside of him. Lopez did not win another round after the 8th and was finally stopped in the 14th round after being floored four times. 

Saad’s next defence was a much more straightforward performance against Lotte Mwale, with Saad winning by a 4th round knockout. Three months later, on February 28, 1981, Saad made his eighth defence of his title against the lanky Vonzell Johnson.  Johnson proved to be another troublesome challenger, landing often, and having the temerity to out-box Saad at times. The champion’s big punches eventually took their toll, as Saad walked through everything his challenger had to throw, until he finally caught up with Johnson in the 11th round. 

Despite the punishing nature of his contests, Saad remained a busy fighter and champion.  Just two months after disposing of Vonzell Johnson, the champion found himself defending his title against the canny and rugged Scot, Murray Sutherland.   Early on, Saad looked slow and sluggish and Sutherland started confidently. Things got even worse for Saad when a Sutherland punch split open his lip. Saad’s title seemed to be slipping away from him, until one of his patented right hands dropped Sutherland heavily in the 9th round. Although Sutherland seemed to just beat the count, controversially, the referee counted him out. 

Saad had what constituted as a short rest (presumably to let the cut lip heal) before re-entering the ring again five months later, against the short and dangerous Jerry ’The Bull’ Martin.  Saad again started slowly, he seemed to have made the slow start an art form all his own. Sure enough, by the mid-rounds, Saad was countering Martin’s rushes, and replying to ’The Bulls’ body attacks with wide lefts and rights to the head.    In the 11th round, two right hands from Saad staggered the exhausted Martin, and the referee Larry Hazzard stepped in and stopped the fight. It seemed as if Saad was truly invincible, it didn’t matter how slow he started a fight or how far behind he went in rounds; he always came back to win. The constant wars had become almost predictable. Saad must have felt it too, surrounded by the ever-growing number of admirers and hangers-on. Did Saad feel invincible?  Or did he always know deep down that one day the wave he was riding would come crashing down?

On December 19, 1981, Saad made the 9th defence of his world title against a sawed- off shotgun of a man (at five foot 6 and a half) named Dwight Braxton. Saad’s defence started even worse than usual when he was two pounds over the weight limit and had to go to the sauna to get off the excess poundage. Things didn’t improve once the fight started. Saad tried to jab and out-box Braxton, but the diminutive challenger was impossible to hold off. Within a few rounds, Saad’s face was bloodied from his challenger’s own brutal jabs, which were constantly tearing through his guard. Saad’s usual slow start had become a one-sided beating, only made competitive by Saad’s enormous courage, and refusal to quit.  Again and again he tried to mount attacks of his own and force the challenger back, but Braxton just grinned at him through his mouth guard and kept up his almost demonic assault. Saad’s brave, foolhardy resistance came to an end in the 10th round when a hook sent him down to the canvas. It wasn’t any harder than countless hooks he had already take in the rounds before, but it was that one punch too many that finally reduces even the toughest men to submission.  Saad beat the count, there was never anything wrong with his heart, but the well of miracle comebacks was over.  After Braxton landed just four more punches upon Saad, the referee stopped the fight.  Saad’s world title reign of thrills and brutality was over. Perhaps it was inevitable that the glorious victories would descend into a gory defeat. It seems there is a price that warriors like Saad have to pay. Sadly, it would get worse for Saad, much worse.

Blaming his weight problems for his defeat to Braxton, Saad tried to pull off another miracle eight months later, when he attempted to regain the title from Braxton. This time Saad could not be competitive. Pressed up against the ropes for most of the time, Saad took an unrelenting beating that was painful to watch. It was as if all of those miracle comebacks, in all those extraordinary fights, had finally taken their price from Saad. The referee mercifully ended the ‘fight’ in the 6th round. 

It should have been the end, but all too often is the case with many of boxing’s greatest warriors; it was just the beginning of the long slide down from fame and riches, and back to somewhere sadly reminiscent of where it had all started. 

The hangers-on and friends drifted away as Saad’s boxing career came off the rails.  The money soon went too, much of it with the departing entourage. Saad responded in the only way he really knew, by continuing to fight.  Saad was only 28 years old when he had his second fight with Braxton, an age where most fighters are at their peak, but Saad’s body had been through hell and back just too many times, and there was nothing left inside. Whatever made Saad the amazing fighter he had been at his thrilling peak was gone, burnt out. The next decade was a series of futile comebacks for Saad, fighting in obscure places against obscure opponents.  Always Saad said that his aim was to regain his world championship and that he just needed to put together some good wins in order to get himself back on track.  The good wins never came and Saad’s record for the final 10 years of his career was 16-11-2. Finally, when Saad retired, his troubles adjusting to life away from the ring continued mostly away from the public gaze.

In 2010, Saad walked into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia; it seemed to be the final fall for the proud champion. Once again, Saad displayed a kind of extraordinary courage that so few people are blessed with. Saad spoke out about his predicament, in the hope that it would bring attention to the plight of so many who have lived ordinary anonymous lives, only to find themselves cut adrift from society for a variety of reasons. In his last years of his all too short life, Saad emerged as a brave and articulate spokesperson on the plight of homeless, and joined forces with the Philadelphia ‘One Step Away’ street newspaper, to try and make a difference for the city’s homeless population.  Muhammad joined the “Knockout Homelessness” campaign, which brought publicity, awareness, and to benefit ‘One Step Away’ on their mission to end homelessness in the Philadelphia area.

It is hard to sum up the life of a man such as Matthew Saad Muhammad. He knew both great glory and terrible lows. He was a fantastic fighter with seemingly inhuman resources at one time, ultimately, he was simply a normal man who had the courage to go face to face with adversity all through his life and never quit. Perhaps the best epitaph for Saad is that he was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things during his life and will never be forgotten by the countless people whom he inspired both in and out of the ring.

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Copyright © 2014 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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1 comment:

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