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

“BOXING IS NO GOOD for anybody,” says Matthew Saad Muhammad, landing a non sequitur flush on my chin. For the past hour, the 57-year-old former light heavyweight champion of the world has been running down his life story to me in a flurry of free-form, loosely stitched-together anecdotes, each more devoid of context and detail than the last.
It goes like this: I ask the champ a question, and in response I get a series of unrelated thoughts, one dissolving into another without resolution, a litany of rambling biographical excerpts that include punching and getting punched in memorable bouts, memories of having wads of cash in his pockets and a nearly 50-member entourage to help empty those pockets, gauzy descriptions of the dream house he once owned and the many sweet rides he cruised around town in, including a $275,000 Rolls-Royce.

It’s taken months to get this interview with Saad, one of the all-time-great Philadelphia fighters, a warrior of the ring who plied his trade in the ’70s and early ’80s, back when the city had great fighters in gyms and the boxing game still had a modicum of respect. Saad was part of the sport’s golden TV age, when purses of $300,000 or more per bout were de rigueur for top fighters. He earned around four million bucks during his 18-year career, maybe more—no one kept close count.

I’m not looking to talk to Matthew because of all the money he earned, though, or all the fame he achieved, but because of what he lost, which is everything—all of it, every last cent.

WHEN WE DO GET TOGETHER, it’s on a late-spring day at Chickie’s & Pete’s in South Philadelphia, where Saad will return in less than a month to host the Knock Out Homelessness fund-raiser. Saad is no random choice as host. In June 2010, broke and with nowhere to turn, the former champion of the world walked into a homeless shelter on Ridge Avenue in North Philadelphia because he needed a place to lay his head. He stayed four months.

A charitable few pounds over his fighting weight, Saad still looks chillingly powerful across the shoulders and chest. At the moment, he seems more interested in the large plate of Crabfries in front of him than in regaling me with stories.

You blame him? For one, he’s hungry. For another, his is a cheerless story to tell, going back to his earliest years, a story with more lowlights than highlights. He’s also just coming off homelessness, the 10-count still echoing in his ears, and he’s supposed to take time to explain all this to a guy with a pen and a pad who’s offering no money, no relief, no nothing?