A potter’s field, pauper’s grave or common grave is a term for a place for the burial of unknown or indigent people.
There was an outpouring of emotion from boxing fans the world over, and deservedly so, when Matthew Saad Muhammad, arguably the greatest action fighter of all time, succumbed to the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, on May 25, 2014.
Saad Muhammad, 59 at the time of his passing, was hardly unknown; he was a former WBC light heavyweight champion who defended that title eight times, and a first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998. But Saad Muhammad was not someone whose legacy could be defined solely by numbers in the record book; he was “Miracle Matthew,” a warrior imbued with such a remarkable heart and resilience that he came back from the brink of defeat time and again, winning bouts that were so exhilarating that the tapes should be preserved in a time capsule for future generations to unearth and marvel at.
“To me, Saad Muhammad is the most exciting fighter who ever lived,” says John DiSanto, who in 2004 founded PhillyBoxingHistory.com, a web site dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the local fighters who became his heroes. “His fights were unbelievable. I would say they were like `Rocky’ movies, but they can’t even make boxing movies that are that exciting.”
Saad Muhammad, however, died broke, the $4 million he earned during his 18-year professional career having long since vanished to imprudent spending and a leeching entourage. At one point he was unemployed and owed $250,000 in back taxes. When a proposed story of his life failed to find a buyer in Hollywood, Saad was reduced to working as an itinerant roofer, a sometimes trainer of fighters, and ultimately to life on the streets as a homeless person. It is a common tale, one repeated too often in a cutthroat sport that tends to chew up even its finest practitioners and spit them out once they’ve given their last full measure of devotion.
But the death of Saad Muhammad, sad though it might be, is only the beginning of another story, a more hopeful one that was repeated several times beforehand and is likely to be repeated again in the future. DiSanto, and others like him, are determined that fighters who made such an indelible mark on boxing, and on the memories of those who watched them bleed for our entertainment, should not fade away when the last spadeful of dirt is shoveled onto an unmarked grave.
Which is why DiSanto, 52, who a decade ago quit good-paying jobs in finance and marketing to devote all his attention to his avocation, again is asking the public to come forward with enough modest contributions so that Saad Muhammad’s final resting place be commemorated with a $5,000 gravestone where none now stands.
“Years from now, maybe someone will be doing research on Saad Muhammad, go to the cemetery and instead of seeing a bare patch of grass, he’ll see a big, beautiful gravestone,” DiSanto said.
A bare patch of grass in another cemetery is what prompted DiSanto to inaugurate the Philly Boxing History Gravestone Program, the first placement of which, in December 2005, commemorated the too-short life of super featherweight contender Tyrone Everett, who was only 24 when he was shot and killed by a jealous girlfriend on May 26, 1977. Everett is most remembered in Philadelphia and elsewhere as having been on the wrong end of one of the most egregious decisions ever, a 15-round split nod that enabled WBC 130-pound champion Alfredo Escalera of Puerto Rico to retain his title – in a bout staged in Philly, of all places.
“When I did it for Tyrone Everett, it sort of happened by accident,” DiSanto recalled. “I went out to Tyrone’s grave just to pay my respects. I had read about his viewing and how so many of his fans had shown up, the line going around the block. But when I got to the cemetery, I learned he didn’t have a gravestone. My first thought was, `This is something I can do. Tyrone Everett can’t be the only one.’”
DiSanto more or less paid the full price for Everett’s granite marker, but his next such project, a gravestone for welterweight contender “Gypsy” Joe Harris in 2006, saw him reach out to like-minded individuals who chafed at the notion of another great Philadelphia fighter bereft of proper identification. Harris was just 22 when his boxing license was revoked in October 1968 when an examination revealed that he was blind in his right eye. It was not a recent development; Harris was blinded in that eye as a child and had been fighting and winning with the equivalent of a pirate’s patch blocking half his field of vision.
“It was with the Gypsy Joe gravestone that it occurred to me that this might be something that could be ongoing,” DiSanto said.
And so it has been, with similar gravestones placed in 2008 for Garnet “Sugar” Hart and in 2011 for Eddie Cool, with Saad Muhammad up next. But while Saad may be the latest, he likely won’t be the last.
“When I do something like this, I announce it,” DiSanto said. “People can go online and donate $20 or whatever they can to make it happen. The thing is, some people complain that while this is a good thing to do, somebody else should be doing it. I keep hearing how there’s going to be this $300 million fight in May (Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao), and why doesn’t somebody involved with that just step up and pay for Saad Muhammad’s gravestone? But that hardly ever happens, so it’s up to us to do it.
“The way I look at it, fans of the fighters we remember and respect need to continue being fans. If I can get 100 of them to contribute 50 bucks, or 200 to contribute 25 bucks, we’re there. It’s simple math.”
But the gravestone program isn’t all that DiSanto does to keep alive the memory of the best fighters in one of America’s boxing hotbeds. Since 2008 he has annually presented the Briscoe Awards, in honor of the late, great middleweight contender “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, to contemporary Philadelphia fighters, and on May 17, 2011, he was present for the dedication of his most ambitious undertaking, a nearly seven-foot statue of former middleweight champion Joey Giardello in South Philly.
“The fighters who are fighting now, they’re history in the making,” DiSanto said. “Sometimes we don’t fully grasp that; time has to pass. The Briscoe Awards is a way to acknowledge what’s going on in the present, but it also is a way to fuse that with the memory of Bennie Briscoe, who deserves to be remembered forever. Those of us who saw him fight will never forget him.”
The Giardello statue, designed and crafted by noted sculptor Carl LeVotch, cost $100,000-plus and was the inspiration for numerous beef-and-beer dinners and other fundraisers over an extended period.
“That statue belongs to the people,” DiSanto said. “The people paid for it. Now, there were a couple of big donors, which made it a lot easier than it otherwise could have been. But there were also a lot of $10 donations that went into making the finished product a reality.
“To me, the Giardello statue is attributed to the artist that did it, and he did a beautiful job. It’s attributed to Joey’s family and to his legacy. But when I drive by Passyunk Avenue and I see it, I can say, `That’s mine, too.’”
So how long does DiSanto see himself throwing body, mind and spirit, into these myriad labors of love?
“At first I thought, `Boy, wouldn’t it be great to do this for a living?’” he said. “But in the 10 years since I’ve had the web site there is no living to be made. It’s a black hole as far as money is concerned. I’m just fortunate to have people who sponsor the Briscoe Awards and donate for the gravestones.
“Look, I know I’m going to have to go back to the kind of work I used to do, eventually. I miss my regular paycheck. But for now, this is what I do, and I believe in what I’m doing.
“When I get into something, I take it to ridiculous extremes and that’s what I’ve done with boxing. The sickness goes pretty far, and I tend to push it. But I’m happier doing this. I could go back to something in finance or marketing, working 12 hours a day, and be miserable. I’m not ready to do that yet.”
TSS readers interested in the Matthew Saad Muhammad gravestone a reality can make a donation by check or money order to “Philly Boxing History Gravestone Fund,” P.O. Box 428, Sewell, New Jersey 08080. Online payments via credit card can also be made by going to the PhillyBoxingHistory.com web site.