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

Maxwell Antonio Loach was found sleeping on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica- of Saints Peter and Paul—“It hits me like a punch every time I pass that way,” he says—and taken in by Catholic Social Services. The nuns there named him Matthew, after the apostle, and Franklin, after the Parkway where they found him.

He was later adopted by a Portuguese family in South Philly. He bounced from one reform school to another, finding trouble and bad grades wherever he landed. He remembers having to cross through a neighborhood every day that was ruled by a gang who beat him up and called him “the orphan,” which is what got him to the Jupiter Gym. He had to stop the beatings somehow.

WHEN YOU CAN’T CLEARLY ARTICULATE the events of your life, it’s hard for another person to unearth precisely how and where things went wrong; to find the villains; to put in chronological order events that took you from the top of the world to living alone, trying to keep the phone on.

When you ask Saad himself what went so wrong, he says three things: People robbed him, he wanted people to like him, and he gave all his money away. When you ask him whom he gave his money to, he says just about everybody. And most everybody who knows him says that’s probably true.

Boxing old-timers blame some of Matthew’s financial problems on a group from North Jersey that took over his management shortly after he won the title in 1979. The Muslim-led group got into the champ’s head, they say, wooing him with the story of Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam, and then began living high on his winnings. They tell of a party at Saad’s house in Jenkintown where grape juice flowed from a giant fountain and every room had been expensively done over by a different big-name designer just for the occasion.

Thirty years later, there remains uncertainty as to the group’s motives and effectiveness. When you ask Saad about the North Jersey group, he makes a face and says nothing. When you ask about his Muslim conversion, he says he’s “neutral” now when it comes to religion, and that all of that came at a time when Ali was the greatest.

No one who knows Saad now, or who knew Matthew back in the day, believes a hard drug habit has ever been his core problem. But then, no one’s counting alcohol as a hard drug, and weed is never considered a hard drug by anybody. Saad says he would never call himself a drug addict—literally accurate, maybe, but you can hear the wiggle room in his words.

Most distressing is how Saad simply disappears for stretches of time. While I was reporting this story, for example, promised meetings and tours of the old neighborhoods never quite materialized. Roberts, the One Step Away editor and the person closest to Matthew, has lost track of him for days at a time. Though Roberts says it happens less frequently now, there was a time when he wouldn’t find anyone home when he stopped by Matthew’s place. People who’ve known Saad a lot longer than Roberts say he’s been disappearing like this since his boxing days ended, and yet no one seems to have the slightest idea where he goes.