It was legendary sports scribe Jimmy Cannon who famously stated that boxing was “the red light district of sports,” renowned for its corruption and ties to organized crime. We might also call it the Hard Luck Quarter, or the Borough of Broken Spirits, that special place where dreams go to die; all those bad decisions, all those long-suffering warriors who deserved better. Boxing history is littered with heart-breaking stories of injustice, and then there are the fighters who got so close, so agonizingly close, to championship glory, but never did hold up that golden belt.
The roster of pugilists who, by all rights, should have tasted some of that glory but never did is lengthy, but whenever talk of the best never to win a world title starts up, along with the usual suspects — Sam Langford, Charley Burley, Lew Tendler, Harry Wills, etc. — spare a thought for Yaqui Lopez. While some on that long list never got a title shot, Lopez did, but he was denied again and again, at least once unfairly. The Don Quixote of the light heavyweight division, Lopez kept trying for that unreachable star and, for a few thrilling seconds in his ferocious war with Matthew Saad Muhammad, it appeared within his grasp, only for it to slip away forever, thanks to physical fortitude of an almost super-human kind.
Lopez, unlike so many of today’s young fighters, started out in pro boxing the hard way, with a manager who kept him active and wasn’t afraid to put him in with strong competition. Campaigning out of Stockton, California, in his first year as a pro he fought eight times; his second year, ten times. By then he had a couple losses on his record, but he learned from them and kept going. At the end of his third year Lopez possessed a world ranking and a reputation for being an aggressive, crowd-pleasing grinder with a penchant for throwing punches in bunches. And in year four, after wins over Mike Quarry and Jesse Burnett, he found himself in his first world title match, dropping a fifteen round decision to the more experienced John Conteh.
For the next five years Lopez was a fixture at the top of the light heavyweight rankings. In 1977 he got a second crack at a world championship, this time in Italy and against Argentina’s Victor Galindez. The contest was even closer than the Conteh fight, the Italian fans booing and jeering the decision for Galindez. Lopez, undaunted, went right back to winning fights, including a huge TKO victory over fellow top contender Mike Rossman. A rematch with Galindez followed and once again an unpopular decision went the champion’s way.
The following year Lopez faced Philadelphia’s Matthew Franklin in a classic crossroads showdown between two leading contenders, one on his way up, the other, now a veteran of three world title fight defeats, seemingly on his way down. The grueling fight was decided in round eleven when the referee, concerned for Yaqui after he had sustained a deep gash over his left eye, stopped the bout. It was back to the drawing board for Lopez, whereas Franklin won the WBC title in his very next fight, a thrilling brawl against Marvin Johnson, to become a certified attraction. He converted to Islam, changed his name to Matthew Saad Muhammad, and enjoyed the money and renown that came with being a world champion and having his fights broadcast on national television.
Meanwhile, Lopez, now viewed by many as a hard-luck fighter destined to never get the break he needed, struggled to remain in line for yet another chance at the brass ring. A loss to prison inmate James Scott was a huge setback, but Yaqui followed up with a pair of wins and Saad Muhammad made good on a promise he delivered to Lopez after their first meeting. No one had been entirely satisfied with the result of that clash and Matthew had told Yaqui that if he won the title, he would make sure a Saad Muhammad vs Lopez II match took place. And so he did, at a place called the Great Gorge Playboy Club and on live national television.
The battle that transpired there that Sunday afternoon is without question one of the great action fights in the history of the light heavyweight division. It was Muhammad’s fourth defense of his title, the champion now widely known as a classic Philly fighter with a big punch, his dramatic wars against Marvin Johnson and John Conteh attracting large television audiences. The talk was that a win over Lopez would pave the way for a big money unification match with WBA champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.
As for Yaqui, in light of his one-sided loss to Scott this was viewed by many as his last chance to make good and bring home a world title to Stockton. He let it be known he was in the best condition of his life and intent on out-boxing the powerful Muhammad, telling reporters he had learned his lesson, that this time he would use his ring smarts and left jab to keep the champion on the outside. Long time Lopez observers didn’t place much faith in the challenger’s remarks. They knew he had the heart of a warrior and once Muhammad started rumbling, Yaqui would respond in kind.
And as early as round one, those cynics were proved correct. The challenger started by circling and using his jab to keep Muhammad at bay, but the champion put on the pressure, looking to bring his power to bear. Two minutes in, he unleashed a volley of thudding shots that momentarily put the Californian on his heels before Lopez came right back, standing his ground and firing a series of stinging left hooks. It was more of the same in the second, as Lopez again sought to box in a disciplined manner, but when he shook Muhammad with a right he followed up aggressively, nailing the champion with hooks to open a small cut over Matthew’s right eye and win the round.
The terms were now set: a fast-paced action fight with Lopez landing more punches, while Muhammad patiently stalked his man and looked for chances to bring his heavier guns into play. The challenger boxed with increasing confidence, backing Matthew up and creating openings by virtue of some clever hand and foot feints and a sharp jab, his left hook his chief weapon. Muhammad rebounded at the end of round three behind a series of heavy left leads, but it was still the challenger’s round.
And so was the fourth as the pace quickened and the struggle intensified, Lopez working to stay in ring center and keep Saad Muhammad on the end of his punches. Both men got home big shots but it was Yaqui who more often started and finished the exchanges. Mixing up his punches beautifully, he ended the round by hooking off the jab and then landing heavy blows with both fists as the crowd roared. In round five he boxed with authority and discipline until the last minute when he drove the champion to the ropes with four big right hands. Matthew grinned in response and waved Yaqui in, but the challenger wisely refused the invitation, forcing Muhammad to chase him down, the round ending with a vicious toe-to-toe exchange.
It had already been a thrilling and action-packed clash, but the best was yet to come. Round six featured plenty of savage brawling at close quarters, Lopez getting the better of it with his sharper, more precise blows while Matthew, his mouth open, appeared to be tiring. Round seven was more of the same until Muhammad got home with a huge left hook. The champion briefly seized the initiative but it was not enough to derail Lopez or the course of the match. Muhammad was still a threat but it was clearly Yaqui’s fight to lose. Then came round eight.
Up to this point, Yaqui Lopez was the better man, having won at least five rounds. There was still a long way to go, but it was clear by not that if he continued to box with discipline, it was going to be difficult for the champion to turn the tide. But try to turn it Matthew did, coming out hard for the eighth and letting his hands go, backing Lopez up and deepening a cut on the bridge of the challenger’s nose. Yaqui had no choice but to stand his ground and slug it out.
Sensing this was finally his time to seize the momentum, Muhammad charged with fury, launching his best sustained attack of the fight and connecting with several heavy right hands. But just when it appeared he might be taking the play from Lopez, the challenger, under intense pressure, found the openings for his shots and came off the ropes to land a series of precise and perfectly timed punches with both fists, stunning Muhammad with a one-two as the crowd rose to its feet, and then unleashing a breathtaking barrage of leather.
Now it was Saad Muhammad giving ground, his legs buckling, as Lopez connected with some thirty unanswered blows, turning his opponent in the process and pinning him to the ropes. For a few seconds it appeared as if the champion simply had to go down, that no one could withstand such sustained punishment, that an eighth round stoppage was the fitting and inevitable conclusion to such a disciplined performance by the challenger, that a world title would finally belong to the indefatigable Yaqui. At long last, Don Quixote was about to make good. And yet it was not to be.
Muhammad, while clearly stunned, was like a tank, the rain of punches bouncing off him as if he were made of steel. He never came close to visiting the canvas and as a winded and arm-weary Lopez finally backed off, the champion, incredibly, did not seek to clinch or otherwise take a breather, but instead took charge, firing and landing his own volley of heavy artillery, before the bell finally rang and the crowd stood and roared for one of the most memorable and action-packed rounds in pugilistic history.
That was the fight’s turning point; Lopez, having pursued the knockout, had gambled and lost. Both men had been hurt and both men were tired, but it was the champion who somehow emerged from the vicious battle that was round eight with less damage and more fuel in his gas tank. Signalling the sudden shift, for the first time a three minute stanza definitively belonged to the champion as he imposed his edge in sheer physical strength on a tiring challenger and took round nine with authority.
Lopez never gave up, never stopped battling back, but he was fading and Saad Muhammad knew it. Unable to regain his momentum, Yaqui was now a largely stationary target as the champion ruthlessly walked him down and battered him. Lopez briefly gave his fans hope when he won round eleven with some crisp jabs and left hooks but it proved a fleeting victory. Round twelve was a brutal slugfest that sapped what was left of the challenger’s stamina as Saad Muhammad continued to apply tremendous pressure.
The champion doggedly slugged away and in round thirteen he landed his best shot of the fight up to that point, a flush right hand that staggered Lopez but, incredibly, the challenger, in his last hurrah, soon after forced Saad Muhammad to the ropes and unloaded with both fists. But by the end of the round it was clear Yaqui’s energy and will were draining away. His legs were gone and Matthew was moving him with every blow he landed. The more powerful champion was in clear command now, getting his punches off first as an exhausted Lopez struggled to survive.
Just seconds into round fourteen Muhammad landed a heavy right hand to the temple and then Lopez was suddenly on the canvas from a left hook followed by a huge uppercut. Yaqui bravely rose but a right hand and a left hook scored a second knockdown; a right decked Lopez a third time. The referee gave the courageous challenger yet another chance to continue, but a flush right to the chin hurt him badly and Yaqui toppled to his knees. The referee waved his arms and the furious war was finally over.
As one might expect, Lopez was never quite the same after this heart-breaking defeat in one of the most action-packed donnybrooks in boxing history. But as gallant as he had been inside the ring, he was equally magnanimous outside of it, giving full credit and respect to his conqueror.
“As much as I wanted the title,” said Lopez, “he just wanted it more. This fight was less about me losing, and more about him winning.”
“This was my toughest fight,” admitted Saad Muhammad, adding that Lopez indeed had him hurt in the eighth. “He had me in trouble. I won’t sit here and deny it. But at all times I knew I would be victorious.”
Lopez kept fighting, eventually moving up to the cruiserweight division where he received his fifth and final try at a world championship in 1983 and was stopped in four rounds by Carlos De Leon. Muhammad would eventually lose his title to Dwight Braxton but he fought on for years, not retiring until 1992, though he never regained a world championship.
Both Saad Muhammad and Lopez deserve to be remembered for much more than one fight, but when boxing fans revisit this clash, a titanic battle that dashed forever Yaqui Lopez’s championship dreams, they are never recalled more vividly. To a great degree, this unforgettable struggle defines both men for posterity. For Saad Muhammad, as “Miracle Matthew,” an incredibly tough and exciting warrior who could absorb alarming amounts of punishment and come roaring back to win. And for Yaqui Lopez as a brave and determined pugilist who came so close to claiming championship glory, but was destined to never seize it. — Michael Carbert