It was the end of May in 2014 that Matthew Saad Muhammad passed away at the age of 59. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease on May 25th. A group of us were outside the funeral at the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
Four of us representing the VBA Ring One organization including President Charlie Sgrillo, former middleweight contender Curtis Parker, Joe Mathis and I. Suddenly former world title challenger from California “Yaqui” Lopez arrived to the amazement to all of us. Saad and Lopez had fought each other twice. The first time was in 1978 for Saad’s NABF light heavyweight title. Neither fighter were known for their boxing ability. You knew when you went to see them they both loved to “go to war” in the ring. The war lasted into the eleventh round with one second to go when Saad was declared the winner.
Also, outside the church along with the four of us were former boxer’s Kelvin “Special K” Kelly, Greg “Bam Bam” Jones, former world title challenger Earl “The Pearl” Hargrove and former IBF world junior middleweight champion Buster Drayton. When I saw former world champion Mike “The Jewish Bomber” approaching the church I yelled “hey Mike, guess who’s over there? Yaqui Lopez (from California)”. He quickly looked in the direction I pointed and ran over as each boxer embraced one another. Lopez had stopped then former world champion Rossman in March of 1978. There was nothing but respect for one another on that day brought together by Saad’s funeral.
Inside at the funeral Lopez with tears in his eyes couldn’t help to shake Saad’s hand one more time while he laid in his casket. “We made history, he and I. We talked, ya how? Every time we see each other, we would talk and joke, and the last time I saw him was in California at the World Boxing Hall of Fame. We were just talking about boxing things like that. I respected him and he respected je. We fought a total of twenty-six rounds and knew each other pretty well. Inside the ring we were enemies, outside we were friends,” said Lopez.
It wasn’t known at the time Saad defeated Lopez in their first meeting to be an elimination match if memory serves me right but six months later Saad would get a title shot against WBC champion Marvin Johnson, of Indianapolis in the champion’s home city. Johnson was a southpaw and liked to come to fight so you knew it would be a war. Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz was handling Johnson’s career. He brought Johnson to Philadelphia in 1976 and he won three straight when he matched him with Saad in July of 1977 for Johnson’s NABF title. Going into the twelfth and final round it was even on the score cards when Saad stopped Johnson. Saad was 15-3-2 at the time and Johnson was 15-0.
Now in April of 1979 Johnson was 22-2 and the world champion and Saad was 22-3-2. Once again they went to war with Saad winning the title stopping the champion in the eighth round of a scheduled fifteen. Less than a year later Johnson got a shot at the WBA title that Eddie Mustapha Muhammad held and was stopped in the eleventh round which kind of eliminated a Saad-Johnson rematch.
In Saad’s first title defense in Atlantic City he took on the former WBC champion John Conteh 33-2-1, of the UK, winning a fifteen round decision. It was such a good fight they would be re-matched I Saad’s next defense in March of 1980 a month before Johnson’s fight with Muhammad. This time Saad stopped Conteh in the fourth round.
In Saad’s next defense he traveled to Halifax, Canada and stopped Louis Pergaud, 17-1, of the Cameroon in Africa in four rounds. Just two months later he gave Lopez his return match stopping him in the fourteenth round of a very close fight. It was called “The Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year”. Saad would have four more successful title defenses knocking out Lottie Muwala, 21-0, of Zambia, the rematch with Johnson ending in the eleventh round, knocking out Murray Sutherland, 27-5, of Scotland and stopping Philly’s Jerry “The Bull” Martin, 22-2.
In Saad’s next defense he lost his title to Dwight Muhammad Qawi, 17-1-1, being stopped in the tenth round in December of 1982. Two fights later in their re-match Saad was stopped in the sixth round. He would fight another ten years but never regain the form he had as champion. He went 7-11 after the bout with Qawi fighting past his prime.
I gather an article on Saad wouldn’t be complete without mentioned he was abandoned by his brother on the Philadelphia Ben Franklin Parkway as they were running to their grandmother’s house and he couldn’t catch up to his brother and was lost as a young child. “They named me Matthew because it means ‘chosen one’ and Franklin because I was found on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. They just didn’t have enough money to take care of me, so they got rid of me.” said Saad. At age seven he was adopted by John and Bertha Santos. In 1981 he discovered through relatives he was born Maxwell Antonio Loach.
Living in a bad neighborhood Saad became a gang member and later a gang leader. Being in and out of reform school he eventually was asked to join a boxing gym. As an amateur he was 25-4. I remember his trainer and manager as a professional Joe and Nick Belfiore.
Having known Saad from my visits to the Montgomery County Boys Club in Eagleville, PA, where one of his former trainers Steve Traitz had a gym I saw Saad at an amateur show at the Front Street Gym in North Philly and asked if he was still a Muslim. In 1979 after winning the title from Marvin Johnson he converted to Islam. He said he no longer was. I asked when he was going to change his name back and he said when he had the money to legally do it. Within six months he was in a Philadelphia shelter broke. I contacted one of his former trainers Steve Traitz head of the Roofers 30 Union and he told me they were already on it. They got him out of the shelter and gave him employment. Anyone like I who know Traitz knows he takes good care of those he likes and in Saad’s case he did just that.
At funeral at the Baptist church Saad’s funeral the pastor didn’t make it clear he was no longer a Muslim since they also had a funeral for him. They should have asked him or me.
IBHOF promoter J Russell Peltz said “I would say from the summer of 1977 until the fall of 1981 he was probably the greatest action fighter in the history of his division and probably one of the top ten action fighters ever.”
Sylvester Stallone had seeked out Saad to play the role of Clubber Lang in Rocky III, but he passed on the project. Saad said “man, if I could go back in time, I would shave my head if that’s what it took to take that part. But if you know things then that you know now, life would be a lot easier, wouldn’t it? I guess I was young and crazy,” said Saad.
Saad ended up with a 39-16-3 (29), record. He was inducted into both the World Boxing Hall of Fame and the IBHOF in 1998.