The outcome was a shock, and yet, as the referee stepped between the fighters to signal the end to the bloody and one-sided battle, there was also a sense of inevitability, the realization that the end to the reign of Matthew Saad Muhammad couldn’t be anything other than violent and painful. Surely everyone knew that, as tough and powerful as he was, brave Matthew couldn’t keep skirting so close to the brink of disaster and not, at some point, go over the edge. So many times victory had appeared out of his reach, but through astonishing resiliency and sheer guts, Saad Muhammad always roared back 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 had won the WBC version of the light heavyweight world title in April of 1979 in a thrilling back-from-the-brink victory over Marvin Johnson. After absorbing tremendous punishment for six brutal rounds, Matthew 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, a slugfest classic for the light heavyweight division. And four months later, in his 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 toughness 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 those lofty plans were blasted into oblivion by the heavy fists of “The Buzzsaw.” Though in fact, a sign of bad things to come for Matthew occurred the morning of the fight when his camp realized their man was several pounds over the weight limit. 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, seizing control from the opening bell and never surrendering 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 that round, first by a heavy right to the chin and then by an uppercut. The next four rounds saw Braxton stalking and pressuring and scoring with heavy shots from both fists, raising swellings around the champion’s eyes and drawing blood from the nose.
“Like I told you,” said Braxton afterwards, “I had his style cased. He was the easiest opponent for me. He looks for one shot and I had my eye on him at all times. I’m well trained and well schooled.”
In the seventh Muhammad gave his fans a single glimmer of hope when he landed a powerful right that momentarily stunned the challenger but it was a fleeting lapse; in the eighth a vicious overhand right from Braxton staggered the champion and marked the end of a competitive fight. Round nine was a one-sided battering: thudding body punches were followed by hooks to the head, the champion pinned to the ropes and absorbing a fearsome pounding as the determined man from Rahway teed off, landing blow after blow.
A hard left floored an exhausted and humbled Muhammad in round ten. Considering how many violent wars this brave Philly warrior had been in since becoming champion, it was astonishing to realize this was his first visit to the canvas in a title fight. He wearily climbed to his feet and Braxton (who would soon change his name to Dwight Muhammad Qawi) showed no mercy, moving in for the kill and landing another volley of heavy shots before Matthew’s corner signaled surrender.
It was official: this time there would be no comeback, no Lazarus-like rise from the brink of defeat. This time, to the surprise of many, Lazarus was a no-show as a tough and determined warrior refused to let the former miracle man 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 one of the most game gladiators in the history of boxing still throwing punches, still trying to win, still fighting his heart out, as it fell to other men to finally save him from his own courage. — Michael Carbert