Imagine if there was a boxer around today who could box if he chose to, could take his opponents’ consciousness away with either hand, possessed the most remarkable recuperative powers you ever saw, owned a cast-iron chin and fought every top contender in the division one after another when it was stacked with hall of fame fighters – how huge of a star would that fighter be today in 2014?
Well boxing fans, I present Matthew Saad Muhammad aka Matt Franklin.
For the last five or six years fans, have flocked to see Floyd Mayweather’s publicized sparring sessions that would be better suited airing on TMZ against opponents chosen for business reasons above all else. After Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao is the next biggest draw in boxing. Other than his 12th round stoppage of Miguel Cotto five years ago, the most exciting fight he’s been a participant of ended with him being counted out face first on the canvas versus his career rival.
When it comes to giving fans action-packed fights with sustained action, there hasn’t been a more fan-friendly fighter in the ring than Matthew Saad Muhammad in over half a century.
And if you took Saad circa 1976-1981 and dropped him into the light heavyweight division of today, it’s very plausible that he would be the biggest and brightest star in boxing. His back story of abandonment to world boxing champion would repeated on HBO and Showtime every time he fought. On top of that there isn’t one light heavyweight in the world today who would’ve gone the distance with him, let alone beat him. Yes, that includes Bernard Hopkins, Sergey Kovalov and Adonis Stevenson. Saad was a real Adonis physically and he was Evander Holyfield before Evander was even thinking about becoming a world champion while he was winning swimming meets in Atlanta. I mean no disrespect to Evander, but the comeback he made during the 10th round of his first fight with Riddick Bowe was routine for Saad two or three weekends a year during his title tenure 1979 through 1981.
Saad passed away this week at age 59 from Lou Gehring’s disease. If you were around and following boxing during the middle 1970’s through the early 1980’s you are very saddened by the news. The words “champion” and “warrior” are thrown around and passed on to fighters and athletes too often today. However, in the case of Matthew Saad Muhammad the words are fitting and probably under-used.
Saad participated in five of the most exciting fights anyone has ever seen, against Marvin Johnson (twice), Richie Kates and Yaqui Lopez (twice). He went 5-0 in those bouts and won them by stoppage.
Everyone talks about his title winning effort against Marvin Johnson in their second bout and what a great fight it was, but their first fight for the NABF title at the Spectrum in South Philly was even better and I was lucky to have attended it.
I remember as an amateur training at Joe Frazier’s gym in North Philly watching Marvin Johnson, who was undefeated at the time, train for his upcoming fight with Saad, who was Matt Franklin then, a week prior to the bout. Johnson looked really sharp and aggressive during his rounds of sparring, almost too aggressive for hall of fame trainer George Benton, who was observing Marvin while he sparred. On his last day of training Benton cornered Johnson as he came out of the ring and said in almost these exact words — “Johnson, don’t trade with this MF’er, he’s too F’n strong. He’s a sitting duck for your southpaw uppercut, just don’t try and knock him out or wake him up if you get him in trouble because that’s when he’s so dangerous. Box him and you’ll be okay, go to war with him and you’re asking for trouble.”
Johnson respectfully took in what Georgie said, but he was a fighter who only knew how to attack and as fate would have it, everything Benton spoke of played out three days later when they fought. Johnson repeatedly nailed Saad with uppercuts that should’ve sent his head up into the rafters of the Spectrum. He dazed Saad and hurt him but stood right there in front of him and was hurt in return with Saad’s counters. Saad also owned a terrific uppercut and left hook that was followed by a big right hand as a finishing shot. And Johnson was slowly worn down by those bombs as the bout progressed. Johnson’s heart and determination kept him pressing the fight but in the end it was Saad’s abundance of toughness and strength that were too much for Johnson. After 11 rounds the bout was up for grabs. Saad came out in the 12th round and unloaded on Johnson, hurting him beyond the point of return. Marvin tried to hold on to survive the round but he was too weak and tired to hold the charging Saad off. Finally, he collapsed against the ropes and was flat on his back and the fight was stopped with a little more than a minute remaining in the last round.
When Saad fought Richie Kates seven months later, Richie was a year and a half removed from losing two close controversial title fights versus a beast of a champion named Victor Galindez. I was also lucky to be at the Spectrum that night. With seconds left in the fourth round, Kates hit Saad with a right hand that dropped him and he went down face first. Saad looked so out of it and gone that Kates and his cornermen started celebrating thinking that the fight was over. Somehow Saad beat the count but was on the shakiest legs you ever saw and barely made it back to his corner. Had there been thirty seconds left in the round and Kates could hit him once more clean, the fight would’ve been over.
Kates came out in the fifth round and took it to an exhausted Saad to the head and body. Towards the end of the round Saad began to shrug his shoulders and waved Kates to come and get him. With 10 seconds left in the round Saad dropped Kates face first with a beautiful right hand, and like Saad in the round before, Richie was saved by the bell.
In the sixth round Saad came out and unloaded on Kates with right hands and left hooks and the bout was stopped with Kates out on his feet.
After beating Kates, Saad defended his NABF title against perennial contender Yaqui Lopez, who lost three previous title shots to John Conteh and Victor Galindez twice, all three by decision.
Saad and Lopez put on a spectacular fight at the Spectrum and in the early going Lopez had the slightly better of it. And like Secretariat at the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Saad stormed back and stopped Lopez with one second remaining in the 11th round.
As fate would have it, Marvin Johnson got a title shot before Saad and won it when he stopped WBC light heavyweight champ Mate Parlov in the 10th round. To show you the kind of a man and fighter that Marvin Johnson was, instead of making a few easy defenses of the title, he defended it against Saad in his first defense four months later. Saad and Johnson staged another instant classic in Johnson’s hometown of Indianapolis and Saad emerged with the title after a great give and take war that ended in the eighth round.
Saad made eight successful defenses of the title. winning all but one by knockout. During his tenure as champ he turned back the challenges of John Conteh, twice, Yaqui Lopez, Vonzell Johnson, Murray Sutherland and Jerry “The Bull” Martin. By the time he defended the title against another future hall of famer and monster Dwight Muhammad Qawi (aka Dwight Braxton) the tough fights and wars had taken their toll on Saad physically. Even before he won the title Saad fought tough guys and future champs like Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Mate Parlov and Marvin Camel (2xs).
I also trained with Dwight, who is a hall of famer, but in fairness, by the time he fought Saad, MSM’s better days were behind him and he was on the decline. Dwight stopped him in 10 rounds to win the title and then beat him again in six rounds when they met in a rematch eight months later.
After that it was pretty much over for Saad. Like many other past greats he hung on too long as the money evaporated and the loses to fighters he would’ve destroyed in his prime mounted. He finally retired with a career record of 49-16-3 (35).
However, if you want a true indication of who Matthew Saad Muhammad was as a fighter, just look at his first 38 fights.
Look at the names of the guys who he fought during that time who went on to become champs and enter the hall of fame. Saad was light heavyweight champ when the likes of Michael Spinks, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Marvin Johnson, Victor Galindez, Yaqui Lopez, Mike Rossman, John Conteh, Richie Kates, James Scott and Jerry “The Bull” Martin were out there.
Matthew Saad Muhammad was a true warrior in the ring. When he wanted to use it, he had a great jab and was an underrated boxer. However, after losing a disputed decision to Eddie Mustafa Muhammad early in his career, a fight in which he had Eddie down and everyone who was there and saw it thought he won, he decided to become more of a slugger and fighter. He had the two handed power to thrive in that style and the concrete chin and immense physical strength to be successful. With media access via cable TV, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, Saad would be a huge star today because he never disappointed and always delivered against the best of the best the light heavyweight division had to offer.
In closing here’s two quick Saad stories:
It was July of 1978 at the Passyunk gym in South Philly. I was there training as an amateur and both Saad and Mike Rossman were also there training. Rossman, who was stopped by Yaqui Lopez in his last fight was starting to get ready for his upcoming title shot against WBA champ Victor Galindez, a fight Mike would go onto win. Saad was preparing to defend his NABF title against Lopez and hoping to meet the Galindez-Rossman winner. I’ll never forget after sparring two rounds with Saad, he pointed to Rossman shadow boxing on the floor and said to me, “He just got knocked out by Lopez who I’m going to knock out – and he’s getting a title shot before me…” then he shook his head and got ready to spar the next guy up. Years later, I ran into him in Atlantic City during a cable TV sports show that I was a guest on. He just found out that he was going to be inducted into the IBHOF and was saying how he hadn’t seen any of his fights in years. Being a fight collector I offered to make him a VHS tape of his bouts vs. Kates, Johnson and Lopez. A week later we met and I gave him the tape. He was happy to get it and when I ran into him after that he continued to thank me for the tape.You couldn’t meet a nicer or tougher man than Matthew Saad Muhammad. Everyone who came in contact with him liked him and his demeanor never changed. I’m glad I got to know Saad and train with him a little bit when he was the main man in the light heavyweight division. It’s a shame that because of all the great boxers around at that time like Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Alexis Arguello, Salvador Sanchez and others, Saad got a little lost in the crowd. But that doesn’t diminish what a thrilling and great fighter he was.
And to those of us who were around for his prime, we’ll never forget the great fights and memories that he gave us and we all respect him for the way he handled himself outside of the ring as well.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GloevedFist@Gmail.com