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A champion on the comeback trail

 One Step Away (USA) 09 July 2019

The story of Matthew Saad Mohammed is like a classic tale of the rags to riches fighter. Abandoned as a child, Saad Mohammed fought his way up to become a legend in the sport he loved before being corrupted by the fickle side of fame. Now he he rebuilds his life. (2133 Words) - By Jose Espinosa

One step away

Saad Muhammad, former light heavyweight champion of the world. Photo: Richard B. Simmons

He still moves like a fighter, massive shoulders rolled forward, almost gliding across the room like he's stalking an opponent. Matthew Saad Muhammad strides through the RHD Ridge Center, where he's just done his laundry, and sits in the lunch room.

Someone sees him and hollers: "Champ!" Saad Muhammad smiles. He's among friends here.

Saad Muhammad, former light heavyweight champion of the world, member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, one of the greatest fighters of all time and a Philadelphia icon, is today a resident of RHD Ridge Center, the city's largest homeless shelter.

The Champ is here.

"It's embarrassing, putting myself here,'' Saad Muhammad said. "I admitted myself here because I thought this was a reputable place where I could get my life together. I went through so much stress, so many problems. When I walked in here, I was in outer space.

"The day I walked through those doors, I thought: Do I really want to do this to myself? But they were willing to work with me. They said: Matthew, we'll do whatever you need. I was shocked! Were they kidding? They didn't ask me for anything, they didn't want anything from me. They said they'd work with me, and it was going to be OK. They allowed me the days I needed."

That Matthew Saad Muhammad, a man who's received the keys to this city from four different mayors, would turn up in a Philadelphia homeless shelter seems a shocking and depressing story. But Saad Muhammad is not depressed. He is a man determined to start his life anew, and to do it right this time.

He is a man searching for the bottom, resigning himself to it, because only from there can he truly rise again.

"When you've got nothing, that's when you can really start over,'' Saad Muhammad said. "I will start from the ground up again. I know I will be successful again. I thank God for this chance, actually. I'm not mad. I'm delighted. Even if it kills me, I'm willing to make a change in my life.

"I'm not going to say I was a drug user. I'm better than that. But I did things that were not productive, that held me back. When I say to people, I'm trying to change, I mean I'll start over again from the bottom. I'm willing to do that. I'm ready for a change."

When Saad Muhammad first walked into the RHD Ridge Center, several homeless men in Philadelphia's largest shelter recognized him. They all had the same question: What are you doing here? He gave them all the same answer: He was homeless. Where else was he supposed to go?

He needed a place to regroup and get his head together and get his life straightened out. Saad Muhammad asked the men and the staff there not to tell his secret; no newspapers, no publicity. He needed quiet time, reflection and solitude. He needed help. He got it - and the homeless men alongside him in the breakfast line told no one they were sleeping next to the Champ.

"He gave the guys there with no hope some hope,'' said Catherine Canady, a support counselor at Ridge. "If they felt that because they took a fall, they can't get back up, he's showed them that you can always get back up and keep going. He's given them some inspiration, a sense of worth, of dignity. His presence there has given them hope."

Saad Muhammad breaks his silence now because he's ready, because he's on the road back. And he believes there is value to this story. He can be an inspiration to people, in a different way than when he held the championship belt, but an inspiration just the same. And that's something.

"I can't use my hands like I used to,'' Saad Muhammad said. "But I can use my mind. I might not be that fast guy I was before. But I'm able to think. I'm blessed by God to still have my wits, to be able to think for myself at last.

"The boxing champion who fell will rise again. It's not too late, you know? People can better themselves. You have to have heart, and be strong with it. I liked being an inspiration to kids, that kids could look at me and say: This guy had a hard time coming up. Maybe I can be like him."

And now? Saad Muhammad thinks for a moment and finds the message he wants:

"Be better."

The story of Matthew Saad Muhammad is one of the most classic and compelling in all of sports history. Born Maxwell Antonio Loach, his mother died when he was infant. An aunt took him in, but soon found that she couldn't handle the addition to her family. So she abandoned him, leaving the five-year-old boy on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"17-th and the Parkway,'' Saad Muhammad said. "The nuns found me, and took me in."

In Catholic Social Services, the nuns who raised him gave him the name Matthew Franklin - Matthew, from the Bible, and Franklin, from the Parkway where they found him.

He bounced around to several schools, experimented with substance abuse and got into trouble. After a few scrapes, he went to the Jupiter Gym in South Philly to learn to fight. There he found his calling.

He rose through the ranks with a crowd-pleasing, fast-action style, a big puncher who liked to fight and feasted on punishment. In 1977, in just his 21-st pro fight, he knocked out Marvin Johnson in the 12-th round in a brutal fight to win the light heavyweight title. He defended that title three times before meeting Johnson again for the WBC title in 1979 in another classic. Bleeding heavily from cuts above both eyes, he knocked out Johnson in the eighth round.

Shortly after winning the title, he converted to Islam and took the name Matthew Saad Muhammad.

After eight successful title defenses, many of them the kind of savage and bloody fights for which he was famous, Saad Muhammad lost the crown to Dwight Braxton (later Dwight Muhammad Qawi) in a 10-th round knockout. In the rematch, Saad Muhammad fell in the sixth.

His troubles had begun.

"I had so many people whispering in my ear: Yo, Champ, do this. Yo, Champ, do that. They'd give me that 'Champ' bull,'' Saad Muhammad said. "That's why I fell on my behind. I didn't train right. I had the wrong people around me, who abused me and used me. I had made so much money, I wasn't worried about anything.

"I tried to win every fight. But I was overmatched. I didn't train right. I just didn't do well, I didn't do it right. That's what happened.

"Braxton didn't fight the real Matthew Saad Muhammad. He beat a shell of me. When I fought Braxton, I had sex that night. I knew better than that! But I had problems, I had so many things on my mind. I was confused. I wasn't right. I didn't have enough common sense, so I let it go. I let things ride. And I knew it - when I got in the ring that night, all I could think was: Please, God, make sure I'm safe."

Still he kept fighting. Saad Muhammad fought all over the globe, and fought until he was nearly 40. He was, indeed, a shell of himself at the end - in his final nine fights, Saad Muhammad was 1-7-1. But he fought.

"Oh, I loved boxing,'' Saad Muhammad said. "I just loved it. I loved the competition. I loved getting into the ring. It was an event. I loved traveling; I fought in England, in Germany, in Tokyo, in Spain, in Barbados. I'd get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to go overseas, to travel to someplace great, and fight. To get paid to go to Hawaii and fight? How great was that?"

And there was the money. He battled money problems at the end, falling prey to the fast money and the fast life that so often goes with this territory. At one point, he said, he was supporting an entourage of 39 people.

"Money was flying everywhere,'' Saad Muhammad said. "Friends, friends of friends, their mothers, their fathers, their brothers. They were all happy to be around me, eating me alive, taking money from me, rob me, steal from me, and I'd always say: That's all right, buddy! I was always so happy. Matthew Saad Muhammad was always up for it, with everybody.

"I gave a lot of money away. I had millions of dollars. I had savings. I had a bank account. But people I trusted run away with my money.

"I didn't care about that stuff. All I cared about was winning the title. I let other people take care of the money; I just wanted to fight. That's all I thought about - just let me get my shot at the title, and I don't care what else happens."

Saad Muhammad relies on friends for support here and there - "Most of them still owe me a lot of money,'' he said, with a laugh - and his youngest son Michael keeps his boxing memorabilia safe. Michael has his championship belt, waiting until Saad Muhammad is ready for it once more.

"He's a beautiful kid,'' Saad Muhammad said. "He's a loving person who never hurt nobody. I'm not ready to make a decision like that. I don't want to put that on them, to make them care for their father. I've got to be able to do that on my own.

"He's not going to see me like this."

Matthew Saad Muhammad turned 56 years old June 16, and celebrated his birthday with the homeless residents at Ridge who now count him among their number. When he shakes a well-wisher's hand, it's with a meaty paw and a bone-crushing grip. He is still in good shape. His face is smooth, his eyes are bright and he smiles easily. In many ways, he looks the same. But everything is different now.

"He's a man trying to regroup his life,'' said John Cain, who works directly with Saad Muhammad at Ridge as the shelter's Alpha Day program coordinator. "He's run into some problems with people and with his finances. This is a man who was on top of the world at one time, and now he's living in a shelter.

"It's sad, where he is at the moment. But he's making a comeback. He is not broken, he is not in despair. He hasn't given up."

Cain, like many who grew up in Philadelphia, has a Matthew Saad Muhammad story. In 1979 Cain was a 10-year-old kid living in the Martin Luther King projects and he saw Saad Muhammad on the street, drawing a crowd, chatting with fans, among the people. His people.

"He had his belt on him; I'll never forget it,'' Cain said. "I was a poor kid, and I asked him to buy me an ice cream cone. He said: I think I can afford one ice cream cone. I told him that story. He didn't remember it, but I'll never forget it.

"I grew up watching the champ. It's a little sad to me, to see him in this situation. He has a lot of pride. The way he carries himself demands respect. He doesn't demand anything special, he doesn't expect anything special. He expects to be treated like a man, and that's what we do with everybody here.

"Things happen. He was the champion of the world. He's going to get out of this, get this resolved, and get back to where he needs to be."

So many Saad Muhammad fights are classics; his old bouts regularly turn up on TV. But he doesn't care to watch himself very much, because, he said, "all I can think is: Oh, look at that man get hit."

That was always the legend of Saad Muhammad, the reason he earned the nickname "Miracle Matthew" - he would take so much punishment, take the hits, find himself in trouble. And then, with a granite chin and an iron will, Saad Muhammad would come off the ropes and win. His life is, in many ways, a story about what a man can overcome.

He knows it still can be. His second chance begins here, in a homeless shelter. Where it ends is up to him, now. That's all he asks.

"I went through enough. I had enough,'' Saad Muhammad said. "I'm on a straight pattern now. It's a second chance - another second chance.

"What I did was my own fault. I made my own decisions. This is my own problem. Let me work it out.

"I've still got a story to tell."


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Originally published by One Step Away. ©