Their first meeting, in July of 1977, was a thrilling war, called one of the most sensational fights in the history of the Philadelphia Spectrum. As any knowledgeable boxing fan knows, there is no higher praise than that. After 11 rounds of non-stop carnage, an exhausted Johnson went down in the 12th after taking a prolonged battering and Matthew Franklin took home the North American Boxing Federation light heavyweight championship.
Johnson rebounded to put a win streak together and eventually dethrone WBC world champion Mate Parlov, while Franklin scored victories over Richie Kates and Yaqui Lopez. The stage was set: a Johnson vs Franklin rematch for the world title, held in Johnson’s home city of Indianapolis and broadcast on live national television. But could the second meeting live up to the amazing action of the first?
In short, yes, it could. And it did. In fact, one suspects Marvin Johnson and Matthew Franklin (who would later change his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad) could have been matched up any number of times and the result would have been the same: non-stop action and excitement.
At the opening bell, the southpaw champion chased after Franklin, looking to take control and impose his will as he unloaded big left hands and uppercuts on the inside. For his part, the challenger, known for being a slow starter, took his time and waited for openings to throw his powerful right. In round two Johnson shook Franklin with a big left cross and the hometown crowd roared, but a minute later a powerful uppercut buckled the champion’s legs, before Johnson landed a series of heavy lefts. And so it went: toe-to-toe slugging between two game and powerful warriors.
The battle only intensified in round three, neither man willing to back down, both happy to stand at close quarters and trade. Johnson worked to find the right distance for his uppercut and mid-way through the round he hit pay dirt and stunned Franklin with the best punch of the match thus far. More uppercuts and big left hands followed and despite a last second rally from the challenger, round three clearly belonged to the champion.
Johnson got his right hook going in the fourth, to both body and head, and while there was still a long way to go in this 15 round battle, increasingly it appeared that Johnson simply had Franklin’s number. Quicker, more aggressive and more accurate, the champion was having things his way and punishing Franklin with a steady barrage of heavy blows. Johnson was fighting with confidence while the challenger appeared listless and easy to hit.
But Franklin came alive in the fifth behind his left hook and a concerted body attack. Johnson suddenly couldn’t find the range for his uppercut as the challenger, for the first time, forced him to give ground. Thus Marvin altered his tactics in the sixth, using his southpaw jab to keep Franklin at a distance, but if that neutralized the challenger’s left hook and took away the body attack, it also created openings for Franklin’s most dangerous weapon, his right hand. A minute into the round he hurt Johnson with it and then with two big right uppercuts and suddenly the tables were officially turned: the champion appeared tired and hurting as the challenger took command with left hooks to the body and right hands to the head.
Johnson, perhaps sensing the fight slipping away, picked up the pace in round seven, snapping home his right jab and then the left behind it, seeming to get himself back on track by being the busier of the two. But it was all for naught as with just eight seconds left in the stanza Franklin struck with a vicious right hand to the chin that took all the fight out of the champion and almost put him down. The challenger unloaded with both hands but the bell saved Johnson from certain doom, his cornermen grabbing him and administering smelling salts and dousing him with water as he almost fell off his stool in his corner.
To start round eight Franklin showed more snap in his jab than he had in any of the previous rounds as he looked to set up the big right hand again but amazingly it was Johnson who struck instead with his overhand left — once, twice, three times, knocking the challenger back on his heels as the hometown crowd cheered him on. What followed was an amazingly intense toe-to-toe exchange as Franklin, his face covered in blood, unloaded everything he had while Johnson kept throwing his big left, but the challenger was just too strong, too powerful, too determined. A series of heavy blows drove the champion to the canvas. He beat the count but the referee took a hard look at the wounded warrior in front of him and waved his arms. The battle was over.
Matthew Franklin was the new WBC light heavyweight champion of the world. He would soon change his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad, and in the span of a few short years he would leave an indelible mark on the brutal sport of pugilism. His thrilling clashes with Johnson, Yaqui Lopez, John Conteh, Dwight Braxton, among others, would cement his legacy as one of the bravest and most exciting champions in boxing history, but his inspiring triumphs in his two wars with Marvin Johnson would always be among his greatest ring performances. — Neil Crane