Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Miracle Man, by William Dettloff (McFarland, 219 pp., $35)
In boxing, the light heavyweights—fighters competing at 175 pounds—have always labored in the shadow of the heavyweights, who have generally defined American interest in the sport. But the light heavyweight division enjoyed a golden era from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. So many Hall-of-Fame-quality boxers competed at the same time that some were unable to attain a title that might have been easy pickings had they come along earlier or later.
William Dettloff’s fine biography, Matthew Saad Muhammad: Boxing’s Miracle Man, describes the feature-film-like life of one of the more exceptional fighters of this group, whose rise to glory and fall from grace is about as pure as tragedy gets.
Even for the harsh world of boxing, Saad Muhammad’s story—the world he came from, the fame and wealth he achieved, and his subsequent loss of everything—is bracing. Dettloff deftly bookends Saad’s boxing years with his biography and the way in which he arrived in the world on one end, and the long, sad decline of his life on the other. The fighting is why we remember him, but his beginnings affected his fighting, and the fighting affected his end.
A former boxer himself, Dettloff has written a biography of former heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles and served as senior writer for Ring magazine. He is currently editor-in-chief of Ringside Seat. He brings a deep understanding of a boxer’s make-up to this project.
Lack of economic opportunity is often a strong factor in explaining why one becomes a professional boxer, but once a fight has begun in the ring, money plays little role. “There’s not enough [money] in the world to pull a man off the canvas when he has fallen face first or to make him keep punching through a waterfall of blood and bone-dead exhaustion,” Dettloff writes. “That comes from somewhere else, some place deep and feral, where money has no meaning.”
The boy never knew his father, his mother died young of alcoholism, and his family members abandoned him on the side of the road like an unwanted dog or cat. He was able only to mutter something resembling “Matthew” to the nuns who found him on Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway, so they christened him Matthew Franklin. He converted to Islam later, and after winning the light heavyweight championship, changed his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad. But even during those short years when he sat on top of the world, Saad was haunted by not knowing who he was or where he had come from.
He grew up fighting in the streets and participating in gang life and got his first formal training as a boxer in prison. Once released, he walked into the Juniper Gym, run by Nick Belfiore. One of the exceptional qualities of Miracle Man is Dettloff’s providing mini-biographies of those prominent in Saad’s story. In Belfiore, Dettloff shows us not just an individual, but an archetype in the world of boxing—a man who has put in countless hours of work and commitment, pursued dreams, and, of course, endured betrayals. A writer would need to have spent a good amount of time in gyms himself to draw the character of Belfiore as fully as Dettloff has done here.
Many who follow boxing, even those aware of Saad Muhammad’s championship run, might not have known that he was more of a careful boxer early in his career. He evolved into an aggressive slugger only when frustrated by not receiving decisions in close fights. Looking to take matters out of the judge’s hands, Saad became the most exciting fighter in the world for a few years.
A match with Richie Kates and two fights each with Marvin Johnson and Yaqui López cemented Saad’s reputation for having a wicked punch, an unfailing will, and otherworldly durability. Saad won the light heavyweight championship in 1979 in his second epic slugfest with Marvin Johnson. Then, in 1980, he engaged in another classic with López, a battle in which he seemed to stand on the edge of defeat more than once, thus securing his legacy as one of the ring’s great never-say-die performers. Neither Saad nor López would ever fully recover.
After the López fight, Dettloff points out, Saad Muhammad was operating with diminished reaction time and reduced ability to punch as sharply as he once did. He was now using his durability to wear opponents out until he could take advantage.
Saad loved being champion and wouldn’t consider the possibility that he was slipping. He had married a beauty queen and was flush enough with cash to buy a $75,000 piano that he would never play. His entourage grew to 22 people; he fathered several children out of wedlock. Only fighting would allow him to continue to pay for such a lifestyle. Dettloff describes how fighters rationalize their diminished abilities, a necessary exercise because “a fighter with damaged self-belief is a dead man walking.” A boxer must believe that he is invincible, even as this delusion puts him in harm’s way.
Worn down by so many hard fights, Saad lost his championship to Dwight Braxton in 1981. Braxton, a short, squat, and indefatigable slugger, presented a style that would always have been hard for Saad to contend with, even in the best of circumstances, but by 1981, Saad’s circumstances were far from the best, as Dettloff vividly details. Given his unmotivated training and struggle to make the weight limit, Saad seemed, in retrospect, destined for defeat. Dettloff captures in one scene why the contest ended as it did. Saad had taken a break from training to buy a $180,000 Rolls Royce, something the hungry Braxton could not have even contemplated.
“A rich guy blows a small fortune on a top-of-the-line luxury car. The other can still smell the prison soap in his nose,” Dettloff succinctly puts it. Guess who wins?
Losing the rematch with Braxton in even harsher fashion began the downturn of Saad’s life. Gone were the beautiful women, the mansion, the money, and the cars. He lost minor fights as often as he won, but in need of cash, he kept fighting. It’s a familiar boxing story.
Dettloff devotes a good portion of the closing section of the book to explaining how Saad’s pride kept him from seeing his children once the celebrity lifestyle was gone. He didn’t want them to know how far he had fallen. In any case, he likely could never have been an adequate father to all these far-flung children.
In 2004, Dettloff interviewed Saad for HBO. At the time, Saad was looking for someone to help him write an autobiography, and he asked Dettloff, who declined, unsure of the marketability of such a project. Nearly two decades after being asked and six years after Saad’s death, Dettloff has gotten around to telling Saad’s story. Saad, in fact, had been trying to land a book or movie deal about his life as far back as the 1980s.
Saad “knew a good story when he saw one,” Dettloff writes, and now the author has rendered it.
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