Interview Matthew Saad Muhammad: The Philadelphia Warrior and World Champion! Interview by Ken Hissner (Dec 11, 2009) DoghouseBoxing
“I had him down face first. I thought they were going to drag him back to his corner. He was a real warrior. (Kates was stopped in the 5th round) I was ready to quit after that,” said Richie Kates. That was February 10th in 1978 for the NABF light heavyweight title, at Philly’s Spectrum.
Recently at a Philly boxing show at Front Street Gym I watched Saad and Richie greet each other with mutual smiles. Later, both were introduced into the ring to the cheers of the crowd. Like they say, only in boxing! Having already done a story on Kates, it was Saad’s turn. He was gracious enough during the show to answer some questions.
Muhammad’s fight started at the age of 3 when he was abandoned by his brother on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philly. Catholic nuns would help raise him naming him after Saint Matthew and Franklin for the street he was found on. This is where he learned to first fight for survival. At a much later time in life he would discover his baptism name was Maxwell Antonio Loach.
Muhammad would start boxing after being bullied at the Juniper Gym at 15. Nick and Joe Belfiore ran the gym. After winning 25 out of 29 amateur bouts he turned professional in January of 1974 at Philly’s Spectrum stopping Billy Early in the 2nd round. In his next fight he would be in Paris, France, on the undercard of the “Bad” Bennie Briscoe - Tony Mundine main event defeating Mukeba Apolosa of France by decision. He would win his next 5 fights before running into Wayne McGee in December of 1974 at the legendary Blue Horizon. “He was awkward, older and strong,” said Muhammad. He would lose for the first time in 8 fights.
In 1975 he would be limited to only 3 fights, all in Philly. He would stop Vandell Woods, 3-1, and Roosevelt Brown, 13-2, before getting his rematch with McGee that ended in a 6 round draw. His entire 1976 year would be spent away from Philly. In Maryland he won his first 10 rounder, by decision. In May he would fight in Milan, Italy, against the Croatian, southpaw Mate Parlov, 12-0. His opponent had just won back to back fights in Australia and fighting for the sixth time in Italy. He would be two wins away from winning the European title and two years away from winning the WBC #175 title. “He was a real rough guy,” said Muhammad. Parlov was known to put “tough skin” on his face to prevent cuts.
Less than two months later Muhammad would fight another future world champion in southpaw Marvin Camel, 14-0, in Stockton, CA. He would lose a split decision to this soon to be (1980) WBC champion. Both Parlov and Camel would be in rematches later. In September he won by knockout in Scranton, PA.
Muhammad would go to the hometown of Camel for the rematch, in Missoula, Montana. He would lose a majority decision. Two months later in December would be the rematch with Parlov, in another part of Italy, Trieste. Parlov had won and defended the European title by this time. It would be a draw.
It wasn’t going to get any easier for Muhammad who though returning to the Spectrum in Philly, would meet Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, 20-2-1, another future world champion (WBA 1980). Mustafa had won seven straight knockouts since losing to Bennie Briscoe having won his previous four fights in Philly. It would be a tournament fight to decide who would fight the champion Victor Galindez. “I had him down in the 1st round, but he was very strong. Mustafa would pull it out in the last round when he hurt Muhammad, winning by split decision. He earned a shot at Galindez later that year.
Muhammad would be right back in the ring the following month in DE, and at the Arena posting two wins before fighting for his first title, the NABF. It was July against another future world champion (WBC 1978/WBA 1986), southpaw Marvin Johnson, 15-0. It would be considered by many the “Fight of the Year” with Muhammad stopping Johnson in the 12th and final round of a war.
Joey Traitz, a former 1980 Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion, started boxing with Muhammad in 1977 at the Montgomery County Boy’s Club, in Trooper. His father Steve operated the Club and allowed Muhammad to come in like he does all fighters. The club was a spotless place that had sleeping quarters, kitchen, etc. It was like a camp that such people as Pinklon Thomas, Bennie Briscoe, Trevor Berbick, Roy “Tiger” Williams and many others who would train there. “I sparred with him 4 rounds a day when he had a fight coming up. Even though we were close friends he never let up in a sparring session on you. After he had his first big payday he showed up in a red Rolls Royce,” said Traitz. Muhammad trained there probably from 1977 thru 1982 for the second Qawi fight. “When he became a Muslim they brought in Sam Solomon to train him. He had too many hard fights and it caught up with him. Otherwise there is no way Qawi would have beaten him,” said Traitz.
Within two months Muhammad was defending his newly won title against Billy “Dynamite” Douglas, 35-12-1, again at the Spectrum. Like Mustafa, Johnson was a visiting Philly favorite having won 5 out of 7 in the City of Brotherly Shove. I mean Love. This was a NABF title defense. Muhammad would come off the canvas in the 5th round to come back and stop Douglas in the 6th.
Three months later to start off 1978 Muhammad met Kates, in another NABF defense. After coming off the canvas having landed face first, he would come back to stop Kates in the 6th round. “He was out. I was there. He was drug back to his corner and finally snapped out of it with about 10 seconds to go between rounds. The bell rang and he went out and knocked Kates out,” said Traitz.
Next up he stopped Dale Grant, 18-3-1, the step brother of “Sugar” Ray Seales. Several fights later would be the first of two “wars” with contender Yaqui Lopez, 43-7, in a NABF title defense. That year Lopez had stopped Mike Rossman, lost to Victor Galindez and beat Jesse Burnett. “Lopez gave me my toughest fights,” said Muhammad. A left hook had Lopez out on his feet in the 3rd round. The fight was stopped in the 11th of a 12 round bout at 2:59 in favor of Muhammad. It would be almost two years before the rematch. “I had to throw consistent punches and move on him,” said Muhammad.
Muhammad was off for almost six months which tells you the kind of fight he had with Lopez. His rematch finally came with Marvin Johnson, 22-2, the WBC champion, this time for the title. J. Russell Peltz was promoter of Johnson while his brother-in-law, Arnold Weiss, was the manager. “Johnson was the best fighter I ever fought,” said Muhammad. Bilal Muhammad was the manager of Muhammad. His trainers were still the Belfiore brothers. This time instead of Philadelphia the fight was held at Market Square Arena, in Indianapolis April 22nd of 1979. This was another war with Muhammad’s nose bleeding in the 7th and taking several hard straight lefts from the southpaw champion. With about ten seconds to go Muhammad rocked Johnson with a right hand and had him out on his feet at the bell covering up. In the 8th round Johnson came out rocking Muhammad while they were exchanging punches. Muhammad’s face was covered with blood as he rocked Johnson with several uppercuts. Out of desperation while trying to bob and weave from getting hit Johnson would throw straight left hands. Muhammad finally caught Johnson with a right hand that caused Johnson to slump to the canvas in his own corner. Though he beat the count the referee stopped the fight. A new champion was crowned. At the time Muhammad was still Matt Franklin. It would be after this fight he would change his name.
Muhammad’s first defense would be against John Conteh, 33-2-1, the former WBC champion. The bout was held in Atlantic City in August of 1979. In the 5th round an accidental head butt caused a cut over the left eye of Muhammad. By the end of the 9th round George Francis, the trainer of Conteh was complaining about the use of an illegal drug by Muhammad’s corner to stop the bleeding. It seemed something was bothering Conteh’s eyes causing him to blink like crazy. Conteh was staggered in the 10th round. In the 14th round of a close fight a right hand followed by a left hook and jab dropped Conteh. An accidental head butt caused a cut on the right corner of the right eye brow of Conteh during the round. Near the end of the round Muhammad rocked Conteh with a right hand. Muhammad’s left eye was nearly shut by the end of the fight. The scoring of the referee from the Philippines was 146-142, the judge from the UK where Conteh is from had it 144-143 and the US judge had it 146-141 all for Muhammad. Conteh’s people were not happy with the decision and would get a rematch seven months later in Muhammad’s next defense.
It was back to Atlantic City for Muhammad and Conteh. At ringside from the UK were former champions John Stracey and Terry Downes for moral support for the challenger. This time there would be a Mexican referee scoring, and the same US and UK judges. All judges had Muhammad ahead after three rounds. In the 4th round with less than a minute gone a short left hook to the ear followed by another left hook grazing the top of Conteh’s head and down he went onto his back. He was up and on the defensive. After missing with a lead right Muhammad came back with another dropping Conteh for a second time. Conteh was up on shaky legs. Muhammad stalked Conteh landing a left hook grazing the top of Conteh’s head and he went down again. None of the knockdown punches seemed hard enough to drop the Conteh from the first fight. Conteh had never been stopped in any of his previous losses. Upon rising a right hand on top of the head of a crouching Conteh dropped him once again. When he got up Mohammad pushed him into a corner and landed a right hand on the side of the neck and Conteh went down again. A left hook dropped Conteh for the last time. He got to his feet but the referee finally stopped the fight at 2:27 of the 4th round. Conteh would have one more fight and retire from boxing. Sam Solomon would be the new trainer for Muhammad after this fight. “Conteh was a good fighter,” said Muhammad.
With such an easy defense over Conteh Muhammad found himself back in the ring 43 days later with Louis Pergaud, 17-1, of the Cameroon who was fighting out of Germany. The fight was to be held in Nova Scotia. How this opponent got a title bout one has to wonder and by the 5th round it was all over. Muhammad deserved an easy fight and he got it. Up next would be the rematch with Lopez.
At the Great Gorge Playboy Club, in McAfee, New Jersey, the fan’s got what they expected and then some. This would be Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year in 1980. Lopez seemed to hold an edge after five rounds. In the 8th round Muhammad was working Lopez over when all of a sudden Lopez countered with over a half dozen punches having Muhammad out on his feet. It seemed to wake him up as he came back and had Lopez in trouble at the end of the round. Lopez had a cut between his eyes. In the 10th round Lopez started to come back. In the 13th round Muhammad rocked Lopez into the ropes. In the 14th a right uppercut dropped Lopez after about a minute of the round. Shortly after getting up, Lopez was dropped for a second time by a right hand followed by a left hook on the way down. A lead right hand dropped a game Lopez for the 3rd knockdown. It looked like the nose of Lopez was broken with blood pouring out. Stalking Lopez a lead right hand dropped him for the 4th knockdown before the referee waved it off at 2:03 of the 14th round.
Four months later Muhammad was back in action with Lottie Mwale, 21-0, from Zambia, fighting out of the UK. He was the Commonwealth champ and had beaten Jesse Burnett over 12 rounds having come off the canvas to do that. The fight was even on two score cards going into the 4th round when a lead right followed by a vicious left uppercut knocked Mwale out cold. The fight ended at the 2:25 of the round at the Sports Arena, in San Diego.
Three months later amateur sensation Vonzell Johnson, 22-1, was brought in. He was an Angelo Dundee boxer. The fight was fairly close through the halfway mark as Johnson countered well. “He was throwing combinations and had a good jab,” said Muhammad. In the 10th round Johnson was cut over the left eye and in good exchanges with Muhammad. He even rocked the champion with a lead right uppercut. Between rounds Dundee really got on Johnson to back up Muhammad. In the 11th fighting on even terms until Muhammad landed an overhand right to the taller Johnson that staggered the challenger. Muhammad followed up with a flurry of punches driving Johnson into a corner sideways until he fell to the canvas under the bottom rope. Upon getting up from the canvas Johnson kept backing up into the corners looking completely exhausted. The referee finally put a stop to it with Muhammad landing unanswered punches to the head of Johnson. Though well ahead on two scorecards, one judge had it even going into the 11th round wur Muhammad stopping Johnson at the 2:23 mark of the round.
Less than 2 months later Muhammad was back in the ring again. This would be unheard of today and it certainly would take its toll on the champion. It was April of 1981 and the challenger was tough Murray Sutherland, the USBA champion, at 29-4. He was on an eleven fight win streak, ten by knockout. Originally from Scotland the challenger was managed by Art Dore who ran the national tough man contests. “This was a tough fight. I had my lip badly cut,” said Muhammad. Sutherland got the better of the two through the first six rounds. In the 7th he was dropped. The tide was turning going into the 9th round when an overhand right followed by a left hook dropped him again. Referee Paul Venti declared Sutherland did not beat the count, but if he did he would have stopped the fight anyway due to the challenger’s condition. Two of the judges had Sutherland ahead by one point going into the 9th round while the other had Muhammad ahead by one point. Three years later Sutherland would drop down to 168 and become IBF super middleweight champion.
In September Muhammad made his 8th title defense against fellow Philly fighter Jerry “The Bull” Martin, 22-2, in Atlantic City. It was the fifth time the champion defended in the city. Martin had wins over James Scott, Jerry Celestine and Jesse Burnette. His last loss was to then WBA champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He had since won three straight by knockout. This would be the last successful title defense for Muhammad. Through ten tough rounds he had the lead on two scorecards by 96-94 and 97-93 while the third had it even. In the 11th round referee Larry Hazzard put a stop to it just 0:28 into the round declaring Muhammad the winner over a battered Martin. In talking to Martin recently I asked him about the fight. “It was a good fight. One thing about Muhammad is that he was a good puncher,” said Martin.
Next the challenger would be Dwight Muhammad Qawi, 15-1-1, in December of 1981, in Atlantic City. Known as the “Camden Buzzsaw” Qawi was shorter than most of his opponents but had a way of overcoming that. He had reversed both his loss and draw while defeating James Scott and former champion Mike Rossman in his last fight. The 5:06 Qawi had two of Philly’s best corner men in Wesley Mouzon and Quinzell McCall. It was close for five rounds with Qawi having an edge. In the 6th round the aggressive challenger rocked the champion several times. At the bell he smiled at the champion with a look of confidence. The title was slowly slipping away from Muhammad. In the 7th even with Qawi’s back in the corner he who punched his way out. It looked like Muhammad was having a problem pulling the trigger. His nose had been bleeding for rounds. By the end of the 9th the handwriting was on the wall. Qawi would get Muhammad on the ropes and get the advantage. When the champion was on the move he had an effective jab, but just couldn’t land the overhand right with any affect. In the 10th Muhammad fought back like the warrior he is but a right hand dropped him. Upon rising with his nose bleeding badly he had nothing left to hold off Qawi. The referee Arthur Mercante stepped in to stop the fight at 2:54 of the 10th round. Though there would be a rematch Muhammad would never be the same fighter. He fired Sam Solomon as his trainer and hired Steve Traitz, Sr.
While Qawi was defending against Martin, Muhammad would fight Pete McIntyre, 17-11-1, to keep busy. In the 2nd round an overhand right spun McIntyre into a corner with his back toward his opponent. When the referee finally got in and turned him around his legs were rubbery. Another right hand dropped him. He beat the count, but the referee wisely stopped it in the 2nd. The rematch with Qawi was set for August of 1982 at the Spectrum in Philly.
Qawi took command from the opening round. In the 2nd round he had Muhammad’s nose bleeding. In the 3rd round he dropped Muhammad. It seemed like it was just a matter of time by the 6th round. Qawi had Muhammad on the ropes with combinations ripping into him until the referee Carlos Padilla put a stop to it at 1:23 of the round. “The man beat me this time,” said Muhammad. This is where his career should have ended. This was probably the worst beating he ever took.
The next nine years were not kind to Muhammad. He went 7-11-1 fighting in such places as the Diplomat Hotel, in Hollywood FL, to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. He’d win one and lose one. The only title he fought for after the second Qawi fight was losing to Willie Edwards, 17-1, for the NABF title in Detroit, losing by stoppage in the 11th round. He put three wins together in Nassau, Bahamas, West Virginia and Virginia.
In 1991 Muhammad returned to Philly for the first time since 1982 against young Ed Mack, 10-1-1, losing an 8 round decision at the National Guard Armory. He would then go to Serbia losing to Anton Josipovic, 6-0, of Croatia over 8 rounds. In August of 1991 he would win his last fight stopping Govoner Chavers, in Andalucia, Spain, in the 1st round. It was enough to keep him going for three more fights losing all three. His final record was 39-16-3 (29) with 8 successful title defenses. He was 32-5-2 after the second Qawi fight.
In 1988 Muhammad was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in New York. In 2006 he entered the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2006 in Los Angeles. The historical fights he had cannot be seen on paper. The brutal beatings given out and taken as in the Lopez and Johnson fights will go down as some of the best in history.
On a personal level I usually always end up my interviews asking if the person believes in God and if they do in what way. I had known Muhammad since the days when he called himself Matt Franklin while training at the Montgomery County Boy’s Club in Eagleville, PA. I asked him if he was still a Muslim. “When I was younger I got caught up in Islam during the Muhammad Ali era. Now I have accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” said Muhammad. Another soldier for Jesus! Amen.