From Champion Boxer to Down and Out: Matthew Saad Muhammad’s Story

Once upon a time, he was the light heavyweight champion of the world. Then the bottom fell out

But after a couple early awkward silences, I realize it’s not that Matthew doesn’t want to accommodate my questions; it’s just not easy for him. There are challenges with conversational threads and chronology. This doesn’t mean he can’t tell his story, only that it requires a great deal of patience and time for a listener to connect the many dots.

Which is what I’m doing, being patient and trying to connect dots, when Saad hits me with the “Boxing is no good” comment. It’s the starkest of the scores of non sequiturs he’s been throwing my way since we sat down. It’s also the one thing he’s said that feels indisputably real.

“No good, boxing,” he says again, locking his eyes on mine and ignoring the Crabfries in front of him. “Why would anyone let himself get hit in the head?”

FEW FIGHTERS GOT HIT in the head more than Matthew Saad Muhammad.

Frank Gelb, who managed Matthew until 1980, says it; Neil Gelb, Frank’s son, who hung with Matthew as a kid and has stayed close ever since, says it; and so does J Russell Peltz, a longtime Philly boxing promoter.

Even Matthew himself says it: “I still feel some of those punches.”

He turned pro in 1974 and was immediately reaching for the brass ring. He lost just three bouts in his first 18 fights—two to future champs Marvin Camel and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. In 1977, he knocked out veteran Marvin Johnson in the 12th round to win the North American Boxing Federation light heavyweight crown. In 1979, he fought for the world title, again against Marvin Johnson, and scored a knockout to win. He defended his world title eight times, winning them all, seven by knockout. But when the glory ended, he kept fighting, and he was frequently battered and bruised and overmatched.

“A left-right combination drove Saad Muhammad into the ropes,” reported Sports Illustrated, talking about a 1982 fight against Dwight Braxton. “[T]he unrelenting Braxton unleashed punches in great fearful volleys, hooks and straight right hands.”

In all, Saad fought 58 times for a total of 397 rounds, winning 39 times and losing 16; he won by knockout 29 times and was knocked out himself eight times.

But the numbers, as fight people like to say, don’t tell the real story.

EVERY FIGHTER NEEDS a handle to promote himself.

Matthew Saad Muhammad had a good one.

He had heart.

A really big heart.

What that means, though, once you scrub away the endearing sound of it, is that he could take endless punishment. He could be pummeled round after round, bleed all over the canvas, endure the cruelest of onslaughts, and then somehow, some way, just before the ref was about to jump in and end the slaughter, mount a rally and win.

It’s a funny thing to call heart.

But the fighter with heart showed this ability to endure over and over again in scores of bouts that were frequently described as wars.