The Quiet Passing of Matthew Saad Muhammad

By Richard C. Mendel, MD on May 28, 2014
The Quiet Passing of Matthew Saad Muhammad
Matt, like so many former great fighters, followed the usual script of making comebacks.

All the money and fame was gone and the people who “cared for him” weren’t around anymore. In some ways he was right back where it all started…

Abandoned as a five-year-old to become the light-heavyweight champion of the world and then abandoned again…

Matthew Saad Muhammad left almost as quietly as he came. Matt was a terrific person that I idolized as a kid, and fortunately came to know well in the mid- 1970s. In Philadelphia in the ‘70s there were so many great middleweight fighters that in some ways the light-heavyweights didn’t attract quite as much attention. Matt Franklin was quietly making a name for himself by beating highly regarded fighters like Mate Parlov and Marvin Camel in 1976 (and then in rematches within a few months time getting a draw with Parlov, and a majority decision loss to Camel. Longtime Philly trainer Nick Belfiore from the Juniper Gym at 9th and Juniper Streets was Matt’s original trainer and had kept Matt pretty active. On November 3, 1977, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Matt Franklin fought at The Arena at 45th & Market Street in Philly. Matt had a tremendous physique and I remember him coming down the aisle with a white robe and the emblem of Philadelphia Local 57. Matt lost a 10-round split decision that was a very competitive fight, but in retrospect I think that is the night where Matt decided that things were going to be different.

The very next night Matt was sitting at the same table as I was in the South Philly restaurant and banquet hall “Palumbo’s” where the Annual Boxing Dinner was held. Matt was quiet but as always very friendly and seemed pretty upbeat about the night before. The Mustafa Muhammad fight was a turning point where Matt decided he wasn’t going to box precisely, but rather to turn to a more forward moving aggressive style…which in the months to come was referred to as “The Big Matt Attack.”

On July 26, 1977 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia Matt Franklin vs. Marvin Johnson took place. There is no way I can describe this fight in a manner that would do it justice (an absolutely must-see fight). The exchanges between them were beyond brutal; and the crowd was doubting Matt was going to pull it off (which became a recurrent theme with Matt). Matt managed to stop Johnson a little over a minute into the 12th round and he won the NABF championship. After the fight Matt changed his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad and became a follower of Islam. “The Big Matt Attack” was now a big draw in Philly, but few people realized it was a work in progress.

On February 2, 1978 Matt faced Richie Kates from nearby Vineland, NJ who had grown from a popular middleweight into a very rugged light-heavyweight. “The Big Matt Attack” went from a forward moving aggressive style to a full-blown “kill or be killed” style. As anyone would guess Matt and Richie Kates didn’t spend much time feeling each other out, and just before the end of the fifth round Richie Kates caught Matt cleanly, and Matt fell face first to the canvas. Nick Belfiore rushed into the ring and carried/dragged Matt back to the corner with the laces of the tops of his shoes dragging on the canvas. Again, it seemed like Matt might not survive, but in the middle of the ITALICnext round Matt stopped Kates, and the Miracle Matthew moniker became popular.

1978 was a big period of change in Philadelphia boxing. The era of the great middleweights was slowing down. Curtis Parker had beaten Willie “The Worm” Monroe in a 10-round decision (although Willie “The Worm” Monroe was still slick enough that I didn’t think Curtis Parker landed a thing for the first five rounds). Eugene “Cyclone” Hart and Bobby “Bugaloo” Watts were slowing down, but Marvin Hagler came to fight 20-year perennial contender “Bad” Bennie Briscoe in the “Battle of the Balds.” Hagler won the fight, but it was the last time I ever saw Marvin Hagler fight backing-up. In the next few years Curtis Parker and Frank “The Animal” Fletcher really acquitted themselves well, and rising talent like James “Black Gold” Shuler held promise. However, there was really a lot of activity that in some ways escaped notice.

Leon and Michael Spinks were well-known from the 1976 Olympics, and associated with their hometown of St. Louis were both being trained by Sam Solomon at the 69th Street Gym in West Philly. Michael “The Jewish Bomber” Rossman was from nearby Turnersville, New Jersey, along with Richie Kates in Vineland. Eddie Mustafa Muhammad from Brooklyn was also to play a big role shortly when he, like Matt, Marvin “Pops” Johnson, and Mike Rossman, all became light-heavyweight champions. At the end of 1978 Matt faced Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez (one of the best light-heavyweights to never win a title) and the scenario was again an all-out war with Matt stopping Lopez in the 11th round.

The light-heavyweight division was packed with talent as 1978 came to a close. Many of the contenders were in and around Philadelphia. As noted, Leon and Michael Spinks were training in West Philadelphia at the 69th Street Gym (where I spent most of my time). Michael wasn’t doing much except helping Leon prepare for a very unexpected shot at Muhammad Ali’s title. Despite the fact that Mike Rossman had recently lost to “Yaqui” Lopez in New York, Mike got a shot at Victor Galindez’s WBA title on the undercard of the Ali-Spinks fight. Mike Rossman, at the age of 21, became the WBA light-heavyweight champion when he stopped Galindez in the 13th round.

Mate Parlov, who had lost to Matt and in a rematch obtained a draw, had by this point won the WBC light-heavyweight title. However, Parlov defended the title against Marvin Johnson in December of 1978 in Italy, and Johnson beat Parlov for the title. Marvin Johnson, true to form, chose to fight Matt for his first title defense in April of 1979 in Indianapolis. In yet another war Matt stopped Johnson in the eighth round to become the WBC light-heavyweight champion. Between 1977 until winning the title in 1979 it had seemed as though Matt had gone through one war after another. There were really a lot of changes then, and Matt had switched trainers from Nick Belfiore to Sam Solomon, and coincidentally Matt spent a great deal of time training at Steve Traitz Sr.’s Montgomery County Boys Club (sponsored by Philadelphia Roofer’s Local 30) in Valley Forge where I had the great fortune of ending-up as well.

Matt was always friendly and great to hang around. Steve Traitz Sr.’s youngest son Joe Traitz was a talented amateur light-heavyweight with several state Golden Gloves and AAU titles, and he and Matt were very close (I’ve included a picture of both Matt and Joe from about 1978). Matt’s fourth title defense in July of 1980 is what established his legitimacy as a champion. Matt faced Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez for a second time, and the fight was Ring Magazine’s 1980 Fight of the Year. As was often the case, things weren’t going well at all for Matt in the eighth round (and if it were up to me, which I’m glad it wasn’t, I would have stopped the fight). Lopez was hitting Matt with unanswered combination after combination. Miracle Matthew had yet another surprise, and he took command over the next few rounds to win by knockout in the 14th round.

By the time of Matt’s fifth title defense he had received a lot of television exposure, he was facing Lottie Mwale (who had beaten Marvin Johnson in the past), and Matt was a big enough attraction that Jayne Kennedy and Howard Cosell interviewed him for features. Matt was still great to be around, but there were also a lot of people I never met before just kind of hanging-on to Matt. Matt had mentioned traveling up to Deer Lake (Muhammad Ali’s camp) that was only about an hour and fifteen minutes away to get advice from Ali. Mr. Traitz (the “Old Man”) would say that he didn’t worry about Matt’s Red Rolls Royce Corniche, or his nice home because they were assets he could always sell. What he was concerned about was the growing number of people just kind of hanging out. Matt looked good in the fight with Mwale, catching him with a left uppercut followed by an overhand right that stopped Mwale in the fourth round.

In retrospect the next three fights, Vonzell Johnson, Murray Sutherland, and Jerry “The Bull” Martin seemed to signal a gradual decline. The fight with Martin was more discouraging than I had remembered the others being, but Matt again pulled it out. I’ve mentioned a lot of fighters from the area in and around Philly at that time, but I hadn’t mentioned Dwight “Buzzsaw” Braxton from Camden, NJ. Camden, one of the most violent cities in America, is literally just on the other side of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. There is no east Philadelphia, Center City ends in the Delaware River, and on the other side is Camden.

I had so much faith in Matt that I didn’t consider the possibility that Matt just couldn’t keep doing the highly improbable forever. He had set the bar for the “kill or be killed style.” Matt’s career had come to the point where two out of every three fights were George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle-type affairs. I had watched the Jerry “The Bull” Martin fight, but still thought Matt could reach deep down and beat anybody. The week after the Martin fight I was fighting as a welterweight against a fighter named Marvin “Third Round” Edwards, and between the first and second round I noticed Matt in a bright red shirt and a bandage above his right eye was sitting right at ringside. That was a big motivation for me and I stopped Edwards the next round in large part because I didn’t want to look bad with Matt watching so closely. As ignorant as it seems, I was shocked when Matt lost to Dwight “Buzzsaw” Braxton from just “over the bridge.” Matt looked like he always looked getting into the ring with his customary black velvet trunks with white trim and the Sassoon logo, but Matt just didn’t have it that day.

In some way I think that Matt sensed that he needed to make changes. The entourage before the fight had dwindled to a trickle after the fight. Matt did make a lot of changes afterwards. He returned to the gym in Montgomery County and had his long-time sparring partner and friend Tony Green in tow. He wanted the “Old Man” to train him now. The period from the first Braxton fight (12/81) until the rematch in July of 1982 was really a great time. Matt took one tune-up fight in that interval, and the rest of the time we were all in the gym sparring day-in and day-out. Running in the mornings in Valley Forge Park and roofing during the day were the norm, but at just around 3:00 pm we all would meet in the gym.

After camp broke in late June we moved to center city Philadelphia to the elegant Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square. This was an old world, very classy hotel, and it was a big departure for the final training for both Matt and Braxton’s camps. Matt, Tony Green, and Joe Traitz were all in good spirits and I had confidence in Matt. The fight took place at The Spectrum in South Philly on July 8, 1982 and Braxton, who like Matt, also always threw caution to the wind; just overcame Matt and stopped him in the sixth round. After the fight, the people in the locker room were the exact same people that were present before the fight. As I recall they were: the “Old Man” Steve Traitz Sr., Steve Traitz Jr., the great cutman Eddie “The Clot” Aliano, Tony Green, Joe Traitz, LeRoy Owens, Luis Rivera, Buddy Osborn, Markie Goodwin, “Big” Joe Thomas, Harold “Whip” Young, John and Kenny Deviney, Jimmy Carlini, and Ron Polly. Matt, as expected, congratulated Braxton and made absolutely no excuses—after all that was Matt.

After the second Braxton fight things went the way things seem to go for former champions. Matt no longer drove the convertible red Rolls Royce Corniche, and his marriage to his wife (who was a former Ms. Black America from Alaska) dissolved. Matt always had a smile when I would see him in the late 1980s and I remember running into Matt and “Cyclone” Hart at a Temple Owls basketball game in North Philly in 1989. Matt, like so many former great fighters, followed the usual script of making comebacks time and time again in an effort to “start getting it together.”

I wasn’t in Philadelphia very much after the early 1990s so I would hear about Tony Green and Joe or Steve Traitz visiting Matt, and how he was doing. All the money, and fame was gone and the people who “cared for him” weren’t around anymore. In some ways he was right back where it all started; abandoned on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In lousy situations that we all encounter I often think of Matt, and as I mentioned just the other day, not only will I remember Matt, but I don’t need to struggle to do so since I probably think of him everyday anyway. When I see young fighters like Tim Bradley get hit and then respond the only way they know how, by “always escalating,” I think of Matt. My oldest son showed me a photo of Ruslan Provodnikov and Mauricio Herrera after their fight and I just laughed again thinking of Matt. Well, I suppose that’s all; except I’m sure it comes as no surprise that my oldest son’s name is Matt.

Rest In Peace Champ

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Matthew Saad Muhammad vs Richie Kates

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  1. brian 02:33pm, 08/17/2014

    any information on matthew franklins fight against my cousin George mason as an amateur?

  2. Don from Prov 09:56am, 06/06/2014

    He gave as many great nights of action as anyone I can recall—

    The man was all heart,  God rest.

  3. nicolas 08:24pm, 06/04/2014

    It would be nice in the future when announcers interview fighters that they remind the winner and loser that nothing lasts forever, and they they prepare for the future when they do not box.

  4. bikermike 12:42pm, 05/31/2014

    Rest in Peace Champ….Gave his all in the ring….classy guy outside the ring.  Gone but not forgotten…..Miracle Mathew had a thundrous career..What a competitor.  You gotta see that Johnson vs Saad match up…OMG….Really !

  5. Eric 07:41am, 05/30/2014

    I’ve said that a prime Qawi would’ve been in the top 15-20 all time great light heavys, and Saad would definitely be in the top 20. However, if you were to examine just a fighte’rs peak years, Qawi would be an all-time top 10. Look at the films of Qawi’s peak years as a light heavy which were probably only 80-82. But in that couple of years, Qawi could’ve held his own against all most any 175 pounder. From his second fight with Johnny Davis till his unification match with Spinks, Qawi was an animal at 175. Not a long career at 175, IMO, although a good cruiserweight, Qawi should’ve stayed at 175.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:05pm, 05/29/2014

    Steve-Me neither!.......I guess I was trying to say the same thing as you….it just came to my mind that if there was a round robin with Saad Muhammad, Richie Kates and Adonis…..Stevenson would be the odd man out because both Saad Muhammad and Kates would hang KOs on him.

  7. Steve 06:32pm, 05/29/2014

    @ Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel

    I guess I don’t get what you are saying. All I can say is any of the LHs that fought Saad, Saad or any of the top ten back then would beat the holy sh** out of Stevenson. He is a nobody historically speaking and B ho will beat him easily. Kovalev would kill him.

  8. Eric 07:32am, 05/29/2014

    Totally forgot that Jerry Martin had a shot at Saad’s version of the title along with a shot at the other two Muhammad’s titles too. Martin had almost as many shots at the 175lb title as Yaqui Lopez. Unlike Lopez who came agonizingly close in his four attempts, Martin was stopped in all 3 of his title challenges. But as you mentioned, Saad did struggle with Martin and once again relied on his awesome punching power and amazing ability to absorb punishment to retain his title. Too many wars against some real top notch light heavyweights. Saad fought 6 fighters who would win world titles. Camel, Parlov, Conteh, Mustafa, Johnson, Qawi, all would win world titles at either 175lbs or at 190lbs. He fought Camel, Parlov, Conteh, Johnson, and Qawi twice as well as perennial contender Lopez twice. I would stack up Saad’s opponents against any light heavyweight in history with the possible exception of Archie Moore. His opposition was certainly stronger than Bob Fosters.

  9. ch. 04:48am, 05/29/2014

    Sorry. I saw Rich Mendel defeat KEVIN GRIFFIN (not Kevin Coleman) in a real war at the 69th Street Forum.

  10. Pete The Sneak 04:48am, 05/29/2014

    Hey Doc, great write up on Saad Muhammed. Thoroughly enjoyed it and while reading this I closed my eyes, saw and remembered all those great Light-Heavyweight fights you mentioned…But as fine as an article and tribute this is to Saad, man, how many times do we continue to read about this same tragic ending when it comes to most fighters… I mean, you can take out Sadd’s name on the tiltle caption above and just put ‘Enter Ex- Boxers name here’ and for the most part you would have hit it on the head regardless of the name you entered…‘Hangers on’ in boxing are the equivalent of maggots/leeches on a dead body. Suck up everything you can and then move on to the next carcass…Peace.

  11. chuck h. 04:40am, 05/29/2014

    A real heart-felt story on a great fighter known as a teen in S. Philly as “ICEMAN” because of all the guys he flattened in the streets. Thanks Rich.
    I remember Rich Mendel as a fine amateur boxer out of the Upper Darby PYA and made some noise in the1978 and 1979 Phila. Golden Gloves beating Kevin Coleman, Freddie McMunn and others when just a 16 and 17 year old student at Radnor High. Unfortunately James Shuler was in the same division.
    Rich later had a brief (but undefeated) pro career.

  12. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:04pm, 05/28/2014

    Now we have Adonis Stevenson!.....this guy was life and death with Ichabod Crane the other night!.....what’s wrong with this picture?….seriously….what’s wrong with this picture?....has there been an accident out in deep space that we don’t know about?....because something is definitely off kilter here…..out of whack….out of line…..out of bounds….have we crossed over into the Twilight Zone while we weren’t paying attention….now I can’t stop thinking about Rod Serling and Shelley Berman!

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:20pm, 05/28/2014

    Richard C. Mendel, MD-Simply great tribute to your friend….may God rest his eternal soul.

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