Monday, 26 May 2014

The miracle of Matthew: part 1

Matthew Saad Muhammad: 5 August 1954 - 25 May 2014 
When someone who always seemed so alive and so full of fighting spirit passes away, the realisation of mortality hits you like a Bob Fitzsimmons punch to the solar plexus. 

Matthew Saad Muhammad was one of those fighters who, when he was in the ring, looked like he would never stop throwing leather - no matter how many punches he took or how much punishment he shipped. In his career and his life, Matthew never lay down for anyone and never accepted his fate when he was dealt a bum hand. Despite experiencing abandonment as a child and homelessness as an adult, he never stopped throwing punches, literally or metaphorically; you might say he was fighting from the day he was born until the day he died. Chances are, he'll be throwing punches right now up in heaven.

Born Maxwell Antonio Loach in 1954, Saad Muhammad entered the world in the most desperate of circumstances. Indeed, given the start in life he was confronted with, it was no wonder that he later earned the nickname 'Miracle'. His mother died when he was an infant and after an aunt tried but failed to care for him and his brother he was abandoned by his sibling, on his aunt's orders. Alone and disorientated, Matthew lingered by the intersection between 17th and Benjamin Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia; reports vary as to whether he was three or five years old at the time, whichever it was, it's an image that breaks the heart.

It was only thanks to the kindness of a group of Catholic nuns that Matthew was rescued. A police officer dropped him at an orphanage and the institution took him in. He picked up the name of Matthew, perhaps in tribute to the apostle from The Bible or perhaps because the nuns misheard him when he pronounced his name. His new surname of Franklin was in deference to the road where he was found, named after the man still known by many as 'the first American'.

Yet from such bleak surroundings, amid such extreme desperation, miracles can happen. Benjamin Franklin himself, one of the founding fathers of the United States, once claimed that "energy and persistence conquer all things", and Saad Muhammad would later prove the wisdom of that credo. Sadly, he'd also bear witness to the inherent truth of another Franklin saying: "life's tragedy is that we get old too soon, and wise too late." 

Saad Muhammad's second source of salvation was the Jupiter Gym in south Philadelphia. He wandered in there one day when he was about 15. Fed up with being bested in fights on the way to school, he dedicated himself to the art of boxing, and soon discovered he had a talent for it. By 1974, after serving an amateur apprenticeship of 29 fights (25 wins) he was a professional boxer. Frequenting legendary Philly fight venues such as the Spectrum and the Blue Horizon, both now no longer with us, Matthew's all-action style was perfect for the classic fight decade of the '70s, when men were men, trousers were flared and an unbeaten fight record was a rarity; rather than fret about TV allegiances or the possibility of losing, most fighters went out of their way to face their most dangerous foes, and to do so as often as possible. Unbeaten records were for the pampered or the mentally weak, and therefore more an object of derision than a source of pride.

The unheralded Wayne McGhee got the better of Saad Muhammad on points in only his eighth paid contest, and held him to a draw in his 11th, but Matthew's career continued its upwards trajectory with barely a pause. In a hectic six-fight schedule in 1976, a punishing roster which no modern fighter would ever countenance, he faced off against future light-heavy and cruiserweight champions Mate Parlov and Marvin Camel twice apiece, picking up two wins, a draw and one loss.

A loss to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (then Eddie Gregory) got 1977 off to a poor start, but nine straight wins thereafter, the last a punishing 11th round TKO triumph against teak-tough Mexican Yaqui López, earned Saad Muhammad a WBC World Light-Heavyweight title shot against Marvin Johnson. Matthew had actually already beaten Johnson back in '77 by a 12th round TKO at the Spectrum in an NABF title contest of almost inconceivable intensity and brutality. Despite being faced with the prospect of travelling to fistic hell again, neither man blinked and the fight was duly scheduled for April 1979 in Indianapolis.

On that note, dear reader, I'll leave you to peruse this astonishing video of the first Johnson v Saad Muhammad (then Franklin) fight. Part 2 of the Miracle of Matthew will follow later this week.

Luke G. Williams
Follow @boxianajournal

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