The outcome was a shock, and yet, as the referee stepped between the fighters and signaled that the bloody and one-sided battle was finally over, there was also the sense that this had been inevitable, that a violent and painful end to the championship reign of Matthew Saad Muhammad was the only possible outcome. Everyone had to have known that, as tough and powerful as he was, brave Matthew couldn’t keep skirting so close to the edge of disaster and not, at some point, pay the price. So many times victory had appeared out of his reach before, through astonishing resiliency and sheer guts, Saad Muhammad found a way to win. Not this time. The streak of improbable and inspiring triumphs came to a miserable end after ten punishing rounds at the fists of the implacable, underdog challenger they called “The Camden Buzzsaw,” Dwight Braxton.
Saad Muhammad won the WBC version of the light heavyweight world title in April of 1979 after absorbing tremendous punishment from Marvin Johnson for six brutal rounds before he somehow found the energy to come back and stop his man in round eight. Broadcast on live national television, it was easily one of the most exciting fights of the year, an all-time slugfest classic for the light heavyweight division. Four months later, in his very first title defense, “Miracle” Matthew had to again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when, badly cut and well behind on points to John Conteh, he stormed back to score two knockdowns and hang on to his title by the slimmest of margins.
And so it went. In his famous second battle with Yaqui Lopez, it was the challenger who controlled the fight and came so close to stopping Muhammad in an unforgettable eighth round, but Matthew again surged back to vanquish his opponent in the late going. Murray Sutherland and Jerry “The Bull” Martin pulled the same trick: make the champion look bad and land hard punches, only to succumb after the gutsy Muhammad rebounded to land his big right hand. Fight after fight, Matthew overcame a points deficit and tremendous punishment to win and retain his title, relying on power and almost super-human resilience to get the job done. It was a perfect recipe for ring excitement, not to mention big ratings on national television.
Thus, Matthew’s fans were no doubt awaiting another ring resurrection as they watched their hero absorb blow after blow from the rugged Braxton, but this time there was no miracle. The underdog challenger with a less-than-spectacular record of 15-1-1 showed his quarry no mercy as he pursued and punished. Perhaps those fans should have known better. After all, while Braxton may not have been the most experienced of contenders, he did have wins over Mike Rossman and James Scott. And everyone had to know he was tough; the man had survived years of incarceration, specifically a stint at Rahway State Prison, where he had started his ring career.
But in fact, almost no one, including the champion, saw Braxton as a major threat. “I don’t see a problem,” commented Muhammad in the days leading up to the match. “I’m just in there with a tough kid.”
Pundits were in fact looking past this fight, the anticipation building for a Saad Muhammad vs Michael Spinks showdown for the undisputed light heavyweight crown, the match all but set to happen once Matthew had dispatched Braxton. But instead, all those lofty plans were blasted into oblivion by Braxton’s heavy fists.
In fact, a sign of bad things to come for Matthew occurred the morning of the fight when his camp realized their man weighed several pounds over the light heavyweight limit and the champion was forced to quickly shed the extra weight. In retrospect, perhaps Matthew left his customary miracle in the sauna.
The contest, for the most part, followed a single pattern: the stockier, stronger Braxton pressuring Muhammad and beating him to the punch with first a wicked left jab and then a thunderous straight right. The champion had the advantages in height and reach but Braxton negated them by fighting out of a crouch, getting off first, and exerting unrelenting pressure. Matthew tried to establish his jab but he threw it without conviction as he backed away and circled the ring, continually on the defensive. Instead it was Braxton who fought with total confidence, who seized control from the opening bell and never surrendered it.
As early as the second round the shorter man was out-jabbing the champion and the right hand behind it was finding the target. Muhammad was hurt twice in the round, first by a heavy right to the chin and then by an uppercut. The next four rounds saw Braxton stalking the champion and scoring with heavy shots from both fists, raising swellings around the champion’s eyes and drawing blood from the nose.
In the seventh Muhammad gave his fans a single glimmer of hope when he landed a heavy right hand that briefly stunned the challenger but it was a momentary lapse; in the eighth a vicious overhand right staggered the champion and marked the end of a competitive fight. Round nine was all Braxton: thudding body punches followed by hooks to the head, the champion pinned to the ropes and absorbing a fearsome beating as the man from Rahway teed off.
A hard left floored an exhausted and battered Muhammad in round ten. Considering how many violent wars Matthew had been in since becoming champion, it was astonishing to realize this was the first knockdown he had suffered in a title fight. He wearily climbed to his feet and Braxton moved in for the kill, landing another volley of heavy shots before the champion’s corner signaled surrender and the referee ended the fight.
It was official: this time there would be no comeback, no Lazarus-like rise from the brink of defeat. This time a tough and determined battler refused to let the brave champion off the hook. This time, the title changed hands, emphatically. And Matthew Saad Muhammad’s thrilling ride as the WBC light heavyweight champion had finally ended, in a manner most fitting, with “Miracle Matthew” still throwing punches, still trying to win, still fighting his heart out, as it fell to other men to finally save a noble warrior from his own courage. — Michael Carbert