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Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Ultimate Warrior

Atlantic City, NJ - 1981: (L-R) Matthew Saad Muhammad, Dwight Braxton boxing at Playboy Hotel and Casino, December 19, 1981. (Photo by Jacqueline Duvoisin /Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Maxwell Antonio Leach born on June 16th 1954, I know you have probably never heard the name, but he would go on to be maybe the most exciting warrior in boxing history. His mother passed away when he was an infant and he and his older brother were sent to live with their aunt. When he was five, his aunt couldn’t afford to look after them both so she instructed his brother to get rid of him. His brother took him to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia sat him down and ran away. The child was taken in by Catholic Charities social services and the nuns gave him the name Matthew Franklin. Matthew lived in foster care until a couple from Philadelphia took him in, adopted him and raised them as their own.

Franklin’s amateur career was brief, only around 20 fights. He won the Trenton, New Jersey Golden Gloves in 1973 and turned pro shortly thereafter in 1974. After winning his first eight fights, Franklin lost a six round decision to Wayne McGee. Franklin began 1975 with two wins before fighting a rematch with McGee which ended in a draw.

1976 saw Franklin step up the level of competition he was facing by fighting future World Champions Marvin Camel and Mate Parlov twice each. His first fight was in Milan, Italy, and was Matthew’s first fight abroad where he won an eight round decision over Parlov. He then won a ten round decision over future champion Marvin Camel but lost an immediate rematch by decision. Later that year, Franklin returned to Italy for a rematch with Parlov and struggled to a draw.

He started 1977 off by losing a decision to Eddie Gregory but quickly turned his career around by facing and beating future three time champion Marvin Johnson in his first nationally televised fight. Franklin won a 12 round decision in a brutal fight which made him the N.A.B.F champion and shot him up to the top of the rankings in the Light Heavyweight division. After the huge win, he announced his conversion to Islam and that he was changing his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad.

In 1978, Matthew continued the hot streak that which he ended 1977 by winning all four of his bouts. The winning streak included a victory over the always tough Richie Kates as well as the talented veteran, Yaqui Lopez. The Lopez fight was a classic with both fighters standing toe to toe, exchanging violent blows until the 11th round when Saad Muhammad finally imposed his will and stopped Lopez in what is still regarded as a classic fight. This was exactly what Saad was known for, never giving up and when he looked done he always seemed to come back from the dead. If you never saw Saad fight I think the best comparison would be picture Arturo Gatti with more Boxing skills.

In 1979, Matthew Saad Muhammad became the Light Heavyweight Champion of the world by once again defeating Marvin Johnson in yet another war. What made this even more impressive than the first fight was the fact that Muhammad stopped Johnson in the eighth round in Johnson’s hometown of Indianapolis. In Muhammad’s first title defense, he beat John Conteh by decision which was later overturned because Muhammad’s corner men used an illegal substance to stop the bleeding from a cut. An immediate rematch was ordered and the fight was declared a draw. However, in the rematch, Muhammad dominated the fight stopping Conteh in the fourth round.

Muhammad continued his winning streak defeating Louis Pergaud which setup the rematch everyone wanted to see against Yaqui Lopez. Lopez, a very tough and skilled fighter, will go down in history as one of the greatest Light Heavyweights to not win a championship. The Muhammad-Lopez fight, named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year in 1980, was a seesaw affair until the eighth round when Lopez landed 20 unanswered punches and was on the verge of finally winning the world title. But Muhammad dug deep and battled back. He knocked Lopez down five times, finally stopping the great warrior in the fourteenth round. He went on two defend his title three more times defeating Vonzell Johnson, Murray Sutherland and Jerry Martin. His title reign ended at the hands of Dwight Braxton (later known as Dwight Muhammad Qawi). Braxton battered Muhammad for almost the entire fight before finally stopping him in the tenth round. Saad’s career should have ended after that first fight with Braxton, but sadly either pride or needing the money as one of those two always seem to do with boxers. The rematch was fought at the Philadelphia Spectrum and since Saad was my favorite fighter at the time I was thouroghly convinced he would win his title back. By the second round though it became clear that Saad was nothing but a shell of his former shelf and Braxton administered a brutal beating finally stopping Saad in the sixth round.

Saad Muhammad’s career ended as most boxing careers do – with a bunch of losses to fighters that would have had no chance against him in his prime. Sadly, his life ended much the way it started. He was found homeless in 2010 after losing most of his money through bad investments. As always, however, Muhammad made a comeback. He was able to right himself becoming a spokesman for the Knockout the Homeless campaign. Sadly, in 2012, Muhammad was diagnosed with ALS and passed away in 2014. Those of us who remember Muhammad remember him fondly as a valiant warrior who literally came from nothing to have an outstanding career. I feel fortunate to have been able to see him fight in his prime.

In one of his last interviews, Muhammad said that his greatest triumph was surviving what he went through as a child. Tragedy played a huge part in Muhammad’s life but his ability to constantly overcome setbacks in and out of the ring is what makes him a legend and boxing’s ultimate warrior!

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