It is hard to imagine anyone more at peace with himself than former WBA light heavyweight champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Fighting professionally from 1972 to 1990, he amassed a record of 50-8-1 (39 KOS) against the likes of such champions as Victor Galindez, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Marvin Johnson, Michael Spinks, Ricky Parkey and Slobodan Kacar.
Although he won his title by scoring a devastating 11th round knockout over Johnson, and lost it four fights later by controversial decision to Spinks, the most satisfying victory of his career was his eighth round knockout of unheralded Mario Rosa at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in November 1974.
Rosa, who was 15-4 going into the bout, dropped Mustafa Muhammad, who was still fighting under his birth name of Eddie Gregory, in both the sixth and seventh rounds.
“Rosa was on a three bout winning streak, and I only had 11 fights at the time,” said the now 56-year-old Muhammad over the July 4th weekend at the Top Rank Gym in Las Vegas where he currently trains fighters.
“I was relatively inexperienced and they (Muhammad’s management) were starting to push me,” he continued. “Rosa was beating everyone up. It was a make or break fight for me. He knocked me down twice, but I came back and knocked him out.”
Because Muhammad was such a gifted amateur, he says he was forced to learn on the job. The son of a New York City housing policeman, he began his amateur career at the Howard Houses gym in Brownsville, Brooklyn, under the guidance of the hard-nosed Al Fischetti.
Fischetti, who became like a father figure to Muhammad, churned out top amateurs in much the same fashion that Emanuel Steward did at Detroit’s fabled Kronk Gym in the late 1970s.
Besides Muhammad, whose vaunted right hand made him the star of the stable, there was Forest Ward, who became a Pan American Games champion, Alvin Weeks and Charley Hunter.
“It was a great gym, and Al was a great trainer,” said Muhammad. “I loved the competition and I loved the camaraderie.”
Every Saturday Muhammad and his teammates would meet for a run through their beleaguered neighborhood. Afterwards they would all head over to a local donut shop where they’d gorge themselves while breaking each other’s chops.
Considering that they were living in a neighborhood that decades earlier had spawned Murder Incorporated and was now awash with drugs and crime, Muhammad says that boxing served him well. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for some of his teammates.
One of them, a sensational welterweight named Shoebe Streets developed a severe drug habit that resulted in him robbing numerous banks while wearing a mink coat. Week after week the newspapers and television news stations show blurry photos of the bandit in action.
Muhammad, Fischetti and others at the gym knew who the perpetrator was because Streets would often come to the gym dressed in the same coat that he wore just hours earlier during his latest robbery. On some occasions he would distribute crisp new bills to his friends at the gym.
“He would jump over the teller with his mink coat on,” said Muhammad. “We all knew it was him. I’m surprised it took the cops so long to catch him. Al Fischetti told him he couldn’t come to the gym anymore, but we never thought of turning him in. My father was a policeman, but I came from the hood and in the hood the last thing you do is snitch. Back then, that never even crossed your mind.”
From Muhammad’s first day in the gym, he was told that he could become a world champion. While he enjoyed all of the attention that his tremendous right hand brought him, he realizes now that he never had the chance to fully develop. His right hand was so powerful, he would often toy with sparring partners until Fischetti yelled “NOW,” which was the signal for Muhammad to drop the hammer.
“That was usually the end of sparring for the day,” said Muhammad. “It sounds great, but the fact is I never really had a chance to grow. Everyone was always telling me I was gonna be this and I was gonna be that.”
For a time, Muhammad considered following his father into a law enforcement career. He was a police trainee with Bo Dietl, who later became a decorated detective and the subject of the book and film “One Tough Cop.” Today Dietl runs one of the biggest private investigation agencies in the world, and is a talking head on the MSNBC news channel.
“I realized police work was not for me,” said Muhammad. “Once I started boxing, that was all that turned me on. That’s all I wanted to do with my life.”
Muhammad was always too emotionally grounded to become full of himself, but he was disappointed when he lost to Jesse Valdez in the 1972 Olympic Trials.
“I knocked him down, but he was in the Air Force and I think they wanted a military guy representing the United States instead of a kid from Brownsville,” said Muhammad.
Muhammad declined the offer to go to Munich as an Olympic alternative and turned pro in September 1972. Although such esteemed boxing people as Gil Clancy, Freddie Brown and Ray Arcel all said he was a surefire champion, Muhammad insists that their praise never went to his head.
“I’m not being braggadocious, but that just made me train harder,” said Muhammad. “I was determined to make their words come true. Once I knew that I could make money with these hands, I didn’t take anything for granted.”
Fighting throughout the New York metropolitan area, as well as once in France where he drew with local favorite Nessim Max Cohen, he had amassed a 10-0-1 (6 KOS) when he squared off against Rosa.
Afterwards he took an arduous road to prominence, fighting four straight times in Philadelphia against tough opponents. In the last of those encounters, he lost a split decision to local icon Bennie Briscoe.
“Me and Marvin Hagler came up the hard way,” said Muhammad. “We both went through Philadelphia to prove ourselves. Not a lot of fighters were willing to do that.”
In March 1977, Muhammad returned to the City of Brotherly Love to battle Matthew Saad Muhammad. This time he left with a split decision victory. To this day, he says Saad Muhammad, who is now in the Hall of Fame, is the hardest puncher he has ever faced.
Two fights later, in November 1977, Muhammad traveled to Italy where lost a decision to WBA light heavyweight champion Victor Galindez. He rebounded with 13 victories, as well as a loss to James Scott inside the walls of Rahway State Prison in New Jersey, where Scott was serving a long sentence for murder.
When he signed to fight Marvin Johnson, who then held the WBA title, in March 1980, Muhammad’s co-trainer, Slim Robinson, devised the perfect game plan.
“I had a great team,” said Muhammad. “Al Fischetti was an in-your-face guy, which I needed when I was young. Chickie Ferrara was always the quiet, reassuring voice in the corner and Slim could choreograph a fight perfectly.”
Against the southpaw Johnson, Robinson told Muhammad to step to the side every time the champion threw a right jab and use his left hand to go to the body and head.
“The plan was to draw him into my right hand,” said Muhammad, who dropped Johnson in a heap after landing a devastating right hand to the body to take Johnson’s title.
Muhammad did not see Johnson again for 25 years, but when they were reunited in 2005 Johnson told him that he was “really hurt, physically,” from that debilitating punch.
After defending his title against Rudy Koopmans and losing a split decision to Renaldo Snipes in an ill-advised non-title heavyweight bout, Muhammad was matched with Michael Spinks in July 1981. Although he was dropped by Spinks and lost a unanimous decision, Muhammad still believes that he did enough to win.
By this time Muhammad had become good friends with football legend Jim Brown. Muhammad said that Brown, as well as his parents, Fischetti and Muhammad Ali, all had a profound effect on his development as a human being. He cites Brown’s “strength of character” as his greatest asset.
When Muhammad was fighting Lotte Mwale in Las Vegas in October 1981, Brown told him he wanted to attend. Muhammad was in prime shape, so he told Brown to get there early. When he finally saw Brown at the arena, Muhammad was munching on a hot dog. Brown was aghast because he did not know that Muhammad had already knocked Mwale out in the fourth round.
“I told him to get there early,” laughed Muhammad. “I was feeling great that night. I think I would have knocked out anyone.”
Muhammad would have one more shot at a title in December 1985, but he lost a split decision to Kacar in Italy. Three years and three fights later, he retired for good after being stopped in three rounds by journeyman Arthel Lawhorne at a hotel in Newark, New Jersey.
“When I started boxing, I always said the day I get stopped is the day I would quit,” said Muhammad. “I stuck to my word.”
The reality is that the loss to Lawthorne could be most attributed to the fact that Muhammad had recently lost his brother, who had worked his corner on numerous occasions, to AIDS. Although the brother had been a drug user, he and Muhammad were tight.
“I looked in my corner and my brother wasn’t there,” said Muhammad. “I got hit, went down, got up, said I was alright, and (referee) Larry Hazzard stopped the fight. He did the right thing. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore. It was a relief.”
Muhammad is the first to admit that he didn’t stick around long enough to have an unhappy ending to his career. The game has been very good to him. Besides winning a world title and earning good money, he was cast as Billy Fox in the classic film “Raging Bull,” which starred Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta.
“Making the movie was a lot of hard work,” said Muhammad. “We would do take after take and the rehearsal was just as hard as the action.”
Muhammad has the utmost respect for DeNiro, who he says, “made you feel like you knew him your whole life.”
Muhammad and former welterweight Johnny Turner, who also had a role in the film as boxer Laurent Dauthille, had a lot of fun one evening at the expense of Frank and Eva Shain, two New York fight fixtures who also had roles in the movie.
With Muhammad in tow, Turner donned a frightening mask and crept up to the Shains’ hotel room door in the middle of the night. When Frank Shain answered the door, Turner, who had been bent down, jumped up and let out a blood-curdling scream.
“Frank almost had a heart attack,” laughed Muhammad. “Thank God he didn’t, but it was a close call.”
These days Muhammad is busy training fighters, including undefeated WBC light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson, former heavyweight title challenger Michael Grant, cruiserweight Aaron Williams, and welterweight sensation Said El-Harrak, 1-0, a Moroccan who Muhammad said has all the makings of a champion.
He hopes to leave as indelible impression on them as his trainers, as well as others who drifted in and out of his life like Archie Moore and Charley Burley, did for him.
After just a week with Dawson, Muhammad was told by the current champion that he had boosted his confidence to levels that he could never have imagined. Hearing that was music to Muhammad’s ears.
“This is what I do, what I love more than anything,” said Muhammad. “If I can help people reach their goals, I’m very happy. That is what I live for. If you come to me and want to work, I’ll be happy to work ten times harder to help you attain your goals.”
He also lives for his beloved wife and nine children, all of whom are self-sufficient with rewarding careers of his own. He has a good relationship with each and every one of them.
Being a devout Muslim has caused Muhammad to closely monitor the direction in which he believes the United States is heading. A devout watcher of MSNBC, he refuses to malign President Bush but politely says that, “the president is not always right.”
He says the American invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake, and is uncomfortable with the criticism leveled at presidential candidate Barack Obama because of his Muslim lineage.
“If Obama is Muslim, so what?” said Muhammad. “Is it bad to be a Muslim? I’m a Muslim and I hate what the terrorists did on 9/11. Every time I’m in New York, I go to Ground Zero and say a prayer. I’m not a political person, but I know right from wrong. Religious extremists of all kinds give their religion a bad name.”
Although Muhammad watches Ultimate Fighting, he is very concerned that a participant is going to be seriously maimed or killed in the near future.
“As a fan of contact sports, I like it,” said Muhammad. “But sometimes these guys are on the ground, out cold, and they’re still getting hit. Society likes blood, but maybe they should have some more safeguards like headgear.”
Another safeguard Muhammad is committed to is the unionization of boxing. Too many boxers leave too much of themselves in the ring. In the end, they often have little or nothing to show for it.
He is currently the president of the Joint Association of Boxers (JAB), a boxing union under the auspices of the Teamsters union that is trying to establish pension plans for fighters that are similar to those available to ballplayers. He has the full support of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa Jr., whom he considers a dear friend.
“This is a long time coming, but something that boxers deserve,” said Muhammad, “There’s been some resistance, but I’m determined to see this through. With the backing of the Teamsters, we’ll send you to school, get you a job, allow you to keep your dignity.”
Whether or not Muhammad is ever elected into the Hall of Fame is subject to conjecture. As far as he’s concerned though, he has already got more out of boxing than he ever put in.
“Brooklyn and boxing made me who I am,” he said. “I could have went this way, and I could have went that way. Boxing made me go the right way. One of the things that attracted me was there is no racism in boxing. It doesn’t matter what country you are from or what color your skin is. In the gym and in the ring, everyone is equal.
“What I am most proud of is that I made my family proud,” he continued. “My success in the ring was for them, not for me. Where I came from, Brownsville, the odds were stacked against you. If I had just fought one round as a pro, and it made my parents proud, that would have been enough.”