Does Matthew Saad Muhammad qualify as a truly “great” fighter? Maybe not, but strictly in terms of heart, courage, excitement and the ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, few warriors in boxing’s long history surpass him. His prime was relatively short, but what thrills he gave fight fans while it lasted.
In April of 1979, Muhammad wrested the WBC light-heavyweight championship from Marvin Johnson in as gutsy and gory a championship fight as boxing had ever seen. He was known then as Matthew Franklin, and his title-winning performance further established his growing reputation as a courageous slugger with an almost super-human ability to absorb punishment before coming back to overwhelm his opponent.
Four months later, having converted to the Muslim faith and changed his name, Matthew Saad Muhammad set to defend his title against former champion John Conteh of England. If Muhammad had a reputation for durability and excitement, Conteh had one too, both for possessing one of the best left jabs in the division, and for frequent illegal use of his skull. Prior to the match, Muhammad referred with some displeasure to the challenger’s tendency to imitate an angry “billy goat.” Conteh pleaded innocence, claiming he didn’t so much intentionally butt people as utilize what he liked to refer to as “advantageous head placement.”
Saad Muhammad vs Conteh, broadcast live on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, reinforced the public perceptions of both men. The early rounds clearly belonged to the more experienced challenger who started the contest boxing beautifully, snapping in his potent left hand, often doubling and tripling up on it, while deftly avoiding the champion’s power punches. Conteh set the terms: a fast-paced and long-range fight, both men throwing plenty of jabs, Muhammad’s largely ineffective. At times the champion looked nothing short of amateurish as he missed by two or more feet with wide punches which Conteh easily anticipated and countered. In the third round Conteh started to land right hands and the British fans in Atlantic City’s Resorts International cheered and chanted their man on.
But as was often the case with Saad Muhammad, whose ring style involved an unmistakable streak of masochism, clean shots to his handsome visage actually helped him to get going. In round four his advantages in strength and power began to surface and in the fifth he threatened to take control. His left hook had established itself and now the champion began to shoot the right hand in behind it. Conteh had no choice but to give ground, until the very end of the round when he abruptly charged forward. With his head down.
“Oh, come on!” shouted Muhammad as he recoiled from the clash of craniums and brought an open glove to his left eye, an eye whose brow quickly puffed up and in the next round began to leak blood. Conteh wasted no time seizing his opportunity. With renewed zeal he snapped in his stinging jab, targeting his opponent’s wounded eye and battering a stunned champion about the ring. Rounds six and seven were huge for the challenger and it appeared he had not only regained control of the contest but was building up an insurmountable lead on the scorecards.
If appearances were anything to go by as round eight began, Conteh was about to regain the title which had been stripped from him the year before. He appeared fresh and confident and was clearly ahead on points, while Muhammad presented a pitiful sight, the left side of his face misshapen, blood streaming down despite an ugly white glob of petroleum jelly and coagulant on his eyebrow, his once white trunks a butcher’s apron. But the moment when it seemed Muhammad had reached the point of no return proved instead the right time for the champion to finally get his attack in gear. Over the next few rounds Matthew gradually took command as he found the range again for his heavy artillery. Through sheer guts and determination he reasserted himself, while Conteh simply lacked the strength to slug it out with the champion.
With the grueling fight deadly close, the last few rounds came down to Conteh’s experience vs Muhammad’s power. Round eleven was a toss-up and the twelfth belonged to the challenger, but in the thirteenth Muhammad landed some withering body punches and a huge right hand at its end had Conteh holding on.
Then, in round 14, the dramatic plot twist. Since round eight, the champion had been looking to truly score the jackpot with his left hook and in the fourteenth, he finally did. Almost two minutes in he missed with a looping right uppercut which effectively acted as a decoy; Conteh never saw the huge hook coming behind it. The punch stunned Conteh and a follow-up left dropped him to his knees. Up at the count of seven, he was soon sent down a second time. Somehow Conteh beat the count again and, badly dazed, clinched and wrestled his way to the bell.
In the fifteenth and final round of a memorable war, Muhammad maintained his advantage while a desperate Conteh reverted to his “billy goat” self and, perhaps thinking he could somehow force a stoppage if he did more damage with his head, repeatedly attempted to butt the champion; at the final bell, Saad Muhammad embraced his opponent somewhat reluctantly. And while it had been a dramatic, see-saw affair, the knockdowns sealed a narrow unanimous decision for the champion.
However, the end result was undermined by the discovery afterwards that Muhammad’s corner had used an illegal coagulant on that wicked cut above his left eye. At different times during the fight Conteh had been seen blinking his eyes and afterwards he and his corner claimed that the substance in question had impaired his vision and impeded the Briton’s performance. Thus, the WBC ordered a rematch which took place seven months later. And this time, Muhammad, enraged by both the controversy and Conteh’s billy-goat ways, dominated from the opening bell, knocking the challenger down five times in round four to score a convincing stoppage win, during which he suffered no cuts.
— Michael Carbert