Matthew Saad Muhammad, a Philly warrior, gets his gravestone

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Matthew Saad Muhammad (right) meeting with actor Sylvester Stallone during filming of a “Rocky” movie in 2006. (File Photo)

MANY BOXERS ARE born with nothing and die with little more than a record and a reputation.

Philadelphia's Matthew Saad Muhammad fought past his prime, as boxers often do, and when the last bell rang, he had tallied up an admirable record of 49-16-3 with 35 knockouts. Muhammad's reputation as a warrior, though, was written in his own blood long before he retired or took most of those losses.

"Miracle Matthew" was a boxer willing to make that painful trade-off, take a punch to land one, and he was a sure bet for an entertaining night, the epitome of everything Philadelphia wants from its athletes.

"He was the most exciting fighter ever, I think, in boxing history," said Philly boxing historian John DiSanto, founder and editor of PhillyBoxingHistory.com.

Muhammad died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - a rare degenerative disease affecting brain and spinal nerve cells commonly called Lou Gehrig's disease - last year at 59, though. And because he didn't have any money, he doesn't have a gravestone - just a soggy, unmarked patch of grass past Joe Frazier's impressive tomb in East Mount Airy's Ivy Hill Cemetery.

His family is hoping they can have "Miracle Matthew," along with a photo of him with his World Boxing Council light heavyweight belt draped over his shoulder, etched into a black tombstone, and DiSanto raised funds to make it happen. It's one of five gravestones that DiSanto, a Gloucester County, N.J., native, has helped obtain for former Philly boxers.

"I think he's over by the fence. Did we come far enough?" DiSanto asked last week, peering into a map drawn up by Ivy Hill's office staff.

Boxing is full of hard-luck stories, and most of them start in bad neighborhoods in big cities. Even for boxing's standards, though, Matthew Saad Muhammad's path to greatness was a fairy tale. He was born Maxwell Antonio Loach, and when his mother died, he was sent to live with extended family. There were too many mouths to feed, though, and he was orphaned on the Ben Franklin Parkway when he was just 5 years old. When police turned him over to the nuns at Catholic Social Services, all they heard was "Matthew," so they named him Matthew Franklin after St. Matthew and the Parkway, a true son of Philly's streets.

After running with gangs as a teen, Matthew decided he didn't like the inside of a jail cell too much, so he learned to fight. Later, he converted to Islam and changed his named to Matthew Saad Muhammad.

The first time Muhammad fought Yaqui Lopez, at the Spectrum in 1978, his name was still Matt Franklin. The announcer said Lopez hit Muhammad with everything but the "Phillies' bat rack," but Muhammad just laughed it off after Lopez tired out and scored a technical knockout in the 11th round.

Most everyone, even those accustomed to Muhammad's brutal style, would have said he was flat-out losing the rematch on July 13, 1980, though, and it didn't seem he'd make it out of the eighth round on his feet.

There was just over a minute left and Lopez had Muhammad against the ropes, making him eat leather, punch after punch going unanswered. Some referees might have stepped in and stopped it.

"He has got to be feeling those punches and he's not throwing any of his own," one announcer yelled over the roar of the crowd.

Lopez didn't drop Muhammad, though, and when he paused for a second, Muhammad reanimated, plodding forward with hooks and crosses for about a minute until the crowd was near delirium and the bell rang. The fight shifted from that moment and Muhammad won again by TKO in the 14th to retain his WBC belt.

"That was vintage Saad Muhammad. The guy was amazing in his ability to take punishment and come back from it," DiSanto said.

Someone dubbed the "Going the Distance" instrumental from "Rocky" onto a YouTube clip of Round 8, and it deserves it. It has been called one of the greatest rounds in the history of boxing, and The Ring magazine named the rematch the fight of the year.

"When you thought he was done, he just came back. He always did that," said Harold Lederman, a longtime boxing judge and analyst for HBO.

Lederman was one of many contributors to DiSanto's GoFundMe Web page, which has already raised the $5,000 needed for Muhammad's gravestone. Another contributor, boxer Chuck Davis, said he fought Muhammad three times as an amateur. He donated $600.

Though reports estimate Muhammad made $4 million as a pro, DiSanto said there's no telling who took their cut and how it was blown. Either way, Muhammad didn't have anything when he died at Chestnut Hill Hospital.

"He had a big entourage," he said. "It's a very common story for boxers to make a lot of money and end up with none."

DiSanto, 52, said he usually tries to raise money through fundraising websites and donations, but he's often dug into his own funds, too. He makes contact with family members every time, and they're mostly just shocked anyone still cares. He's helped get gravestones for Tyrone Everett, Gypsy Joe Harris, Garnet "Sugar" Hart and Eddie Cool. He's still urging people to donate toward Muhammad's gravestone and additional costs at gofundme.com/p5o104.

Muhammad defended his world title eight times from 1979 to 1981, eventually losing his belt to Camden's Dwight Muhammad Qawi. He left behind seven children and six grandchildren, and his daughter, Zakiyyah Mitchell, 36, feels her father's story is worth its own book, or perhaps a movie, as inspiring or more so than Rocky Balboa's.

From Loach to Franklin to Muhammad, his story was real.

"I think what my father taught people is that even though you fall down in life, just know that you can get back up," Mitchell said. "You can get back up from anything that can knock you down."

 


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