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

 Longtime boxing fans often cite two fights:

In 1979, in the world-title match against Marvin Johnson for the light heavyweight championship, Matthew begins to bleed profusely from the nose and from cuts above both eyes. You watch the film, and all you want is for the ref to stop the fight. Somehow, though, Matthew comes to life and scores a miraculous knockout in the eighth round to win the title. When asked by the TV announcer immediately afterward if he wants to watch some of the action replayed along with the television audience, he quickly says no.

A year later, Saad is defending his title against Yaqui Lopez, a tough Mexican fighter. Throughout the first half, Lopez dominates him. In round eight, Lopez pins him in a corner and lands 20 consecutive blows. If you can bear to watch (it’s on YouTube), you can hear the announcer say, “[Yaqui’s] unloaded everything but the Phillies’ bat rack.” Saad comes back and knocks Lopez down four times in the 14th round before the ref finally calls it over.

“You have to understand,” says Peltz, the fight promoter, “a fight wouldn’t start for Matthew until he got hurt. And he was hurt a lot.”

MATTHEW SAAD MUHAMMAD knows hurt. He’s been throttled by life’s cruel turns and by troubles of his own making, a devastating one-two combo.

As I write this—a critical qualifier, since every day is precarious when the bottom falls out—Saad has a place to live, thanks to the patience and persistence of Kevin Roberts-, the editor of One Step Away, a newspaper that covers homelessness issues. Roberts befriended Matthew shortly after he landed in the shelter, and has lobbied and pulled every string he could to help him since. Saad now has his own place at Diamond and 17th.

Things are looking up, but then most anything does after homelessness. Recently, though, Matthew’s cell phone was shut off because he didn’t pay the bill.

“Rent, food, electricity—the choice of what to pay and when becomes very tricky when you’re down like this,” says Roberts, who personally had Matthew’s phone turned back on.

You may have noticed (certainly the magazine’s copy editors have by now) that I’ve been referring to the ex-champ by different names—Matthew, Saad, Saad Muhammad—largely because everybody I talk to calls him by a different name, depending on whether they met him before or after his conversion to Islam.

The name I haven’t used is the one he was born with: Maxwell Antonio Loach, the name he had until he was five. That’s when an aunt, who took custody of him and his brother following his mother’s death not long after he was born, decided she could no longer afford both kids. She solved the problem by doing the unthinkable: She told Matthew’s brother to take him by the hand and just lose him in the streets somewhere.