A Boxing Memory: Matthew Saad Muhammad
Inside the ring, the ability to absorb punches, and many of them, was his biggest strength. When the gloves were cast aside, Matthew Saad Muhammad would pay a heavy price for what made him the fighter he once was.
That rare and special kind of durability at one time in his life became his biggest weakness in another. He went from one fight to a much bigger one. In truth, for much of his life, Saad Muhammad had to fight for many things.
Saad Muhammad was abandoned and cast aside as a child, his life nearly ended the same way.
Born in Philadelphia in 1954, Maxwell Antonio Roach had to learn survival instincts from an early age. His mother died when he was in his formative years, and when his aunt couldn’t cope with the parental responsibilities of the future world light-heavyweight champion and his older brother, she took drastic action. With instructions to lose the younger brother, the older sibling left his younger brother on the streets of Philadelphia.
He was only 5, and was found on the steps of a church and taken in by nuns. There are different versions of the same story, but the meaning is the same.
The lost and frightened little boy didn’t know his own name and was renamed, Matthew Franklyn. Matthew after the apostle, Franklyn because of the street he was found on. After converting to Islam he would later change his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad.
The early years were tough, he was adopted but his life was still only heading one way. Time spent on the unforgiving Philadelphia streets could have ended his life before it had begun. We all know the story that usually only has one ending. Saad Muhammad was one of the lucky ones.
Much of his life was about survival, his route to boxing was no different. The commute to school was one of beatings by the gangs from the Philadelphia street corners. He eventually realised if you can’t beat them, join them. Literally. Saad Muhammad pummelled the leader of a street gang and promptly took his place. He had a spell in prison before realising there was another way.
“I know about hurt, I know about pain and I know about surviving,” Saad Muhammad would say many times. He was right.
The end of his career is a sad indication of what happens to many a former champion. Too many fights in the decline which make many forget the prime. Punches taken without reply accumulate beyond repair. Saad Muhammad was one of many.
But even the prime years came at a brutal cost. Saad Muhammad could absorb as much as he took. An incredibly durable fighter who had the ability to recover from the depths very few others could.
“I was in a lot of wars. People would see me get hit and not know how I could take the kind of shots that I took. Sometimes I don’t even know how I did it myself. It’s like God told me to get off that canvas and keep going.”
He won many a fight from the brink of defeat. There was no finer example of this than in 1980 when made his fourth defence of his WBC world light-heavyweight title against Mexico’s Yaqui Lopez. The 8th round is a forgotten classic. The fight as a whole, equally so.
Saad Muhammad took 20 unanswered punches in that 8th round, before somehow avoiding the inevitable and coming back to stop Lopez in the 14th round. Miracle Matthew indeed.
Saad Muhammad once said: “I still feel some of those punches.” In many ways, we all do.
For a time he was the best light-heavyweight on the planet. And the most exciting. In a 4 year period between 1977 and 1981, Saad Muhammad won 18 straight fights including winning the world light-heavyweight title in 1979 in a patented blood and guts display against Marvin Johnson.
Saad Muhammad and Johnson had a shared a ring previously. In 1977 they raged a war so brutal and violent that Hall of Fame writer Nigel Collins thought that both would die. Another writer said it was just the right side of the blood plasma unit. Another said it was the greatest fight he ever saw. Both were paid $2,500.
With Saad Muhammad, we all knew what we were going to get. And he served it up time and time again. It came at a cost.
A first defence against John Conteh in the same year had more than a hint of controversy. Saad Muhammad was cut badly and Conteh was winning. The corner came prepared, an illegal secret coagulant was applied on the cut, and when the bleeding eventually stopped, Saad Muhammad had another miracle. The Philadelphia warrior rallied in typical fashion, and he won a tight decision over a challenger who deserved better. Two late knockdowns cost Conteh a famous win. A magic bottle did more damage. Make no mistake, without it, Conteh would have won.
The rematch in 1980, we saw a Conteh who was succumbing too much to his demons. Trust me, it wasn’t the same challenger. Saad Muhammad won in 4 rounds. It was a horrible watch.
In 1981, Dwight Muhammad Qawi started the long and painful decline stopping Saad Muhammad in 10 rounds. As you would expect, Saad Muhammad went down fighting. Another forgotten classic. There were many others. Saad Muhammad was that type of fighter. It was that type of era.
The rematch was much quicker and the former champion became another fighter chasing shadows as his career painfully and slowly eroded way past the point of no return.
It ended belatedly in 1992, the money and his health long gone. Saad Muhammad went on the road to nowhere, and much worse, a badly faded fighter, fighting for a pittance in comparison to what came before. One win in his last nine fights, says plenty and hides more. A proud champion who was fighting for survival once more.
Saad Muhammad suffered in his later years, the effects of a far too long 18-year long career obvious to all. Many a couch would have been slept on as the hangers-on quickly dispersed to their next victim.
Tris Dixon once wrote about the time Saad Muhammad sold the shirt off his back to help him put food in his stomach. A sombre story. A familiar story. Saad Muhammad started with nothing and ended with nothing.
He became homeless in his later years but as ever, Saad Muhammad never gave up and became a campaigner for the homeless when his own life rallied ever so slightly.
The fight ended in 2014 at the Chestnut Hill Hospital in his hometown of Philadelphia. He was 59.
Saad Muhammad was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998. A fighter more than worthy of his place at the top table.
The final resume of 49-16-3 could perhaps hide the story of his prime. An ordinary-looking record, but the majority of those defeats came when the wishing well had well and truly run dry. Matthew Saad Muhammad was no ordinary fighter.